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Bill Clemens / UC Museum of Paleontology Oral History Project

Bill Clemens in his office at the Valley Life Sciences Building, 2016

Caution and Care: The Evolution of Paleontology at the University of California Museum of Paleontology: Volume I

Caution and Care: The Evolution of Paleontology at the University of California Museum of Paleontology: Volume II

The Bill Clemens / UCMP oral history project has been several years in the making. Historian Sam Redman first proposed to do a history of members of the University of California Museum of Paleontology in 2011, specifically to interview Dr. William Clemens and a number of his graduate students. The concept behind the project was novel and important: to document with long-form oral history of successive cohorts of students who were advised by a single scholar, while at the same time interviewing the scholar in depth about the evolution of his field, as well as the key transformations in the institutions in which he played significant roles.

UCMP Associate Director Mark Goodwin was the fulcrum in organizing the project, from fundraising to arranging for interviews with Bill’s students from all over the world. My first session with Bill was December 18, 2014, and my last was March 10, 2016. One of the factors contributing to the length of time spanning these sessions was the fact that Bill was caring for his wife Dorothy “Dot” Clemens while she battled cancer. There was some hope that she would live to see the project completed, but she ultimately passed before its completion. After a time, Bill resumed the project, in tribute not only to UCMP, his colleagues, and students, but also to her memory, as Dorothy Clemens was deeply committed to ensuring that Bill’s oral history was documented for the ages.

Several themes are explored in his interview. There is a longstanding concern in the history of science with the ways in which scientists establish and maintain their credibility within and beyond their communities. By the 1950s, the queen of the sciences was physics, and the public was consumed by the promise and peril of high technology, from the splitting of the atom to the electronic consumer items in the shops. In the public mind, paleontology perhaps had more in common with the 19th-century field sciences than with the burgeoning domains of digital computing or molecular biology.

When Bill Clemens started his undergraduate work UC Berkeley Department of Paleontology at the beginning of the 1950s, the modern evolutionary synthesis in biology, which linked laboratory research in genetics to field studies, statistical analysis, paleontology, and a revitalized Darwinian theory of evolution, had only just been worked out before the war. The helical structure of DNA was announced in Bill’s junior year. In other words, Bill began his career at the beginning of a new common cause in science — a better understanding of relationships between genetic variation and distribution in changing environments over geologic time — with cascades of new questions to follow in the decades to come.

This project allows us to look at how the synthesis unfolds in the 20th century in terms of relationships among and across disciplines, the deployment of new techniques and technologies, and in terms of the social and historical context of scientific knowledge production.

Sitting on Bill's Chevy Blazer. Jordon, MT, 1979 Front: Mark Goodwin, Cathy Engdahl, Mike Greenwald, Lowell Dingus Rear: Jane, Bob, and Duane Engdahl (Skinner Award honorees), Bill, Dave Archibald Photograph courtesy of Mark Goodwin

Sitting on Bill’s Chevy Blazer. Jordon, MT, 1979
Front: Mark Goodwin, Cathy Engdahl, Mike Greenwald, Lowell Dingus
Rear: Jane, Bob, and Duane Engdahl (Skinner Award honorees), Bill, Dave Archibald
Photograph courtesy of Mark Goodwin

The drama of paleontology is often heightened by the public and romantic interest in the gigantic specimens. Owing in part to the Evolutionary Synthesis, the paleontologists of Bill’s cohort were interested, not just in the structures of fossil specimens themselves, but in where and how they lived in relation to one another. To get at some of these ecological questions, these students turned for example to the very small microvertebrates which could be found with a new technique of screenwashing, basically sifting for tiny fossils. What they found in the Lance Formation in Wyoming in one season equaled the number of fossils of their kind ever discovered up to that point. The field branched away from the romance of the big dinosaurs and toward a more detailed understanding of evolutionary relationships among specimens and of the developmental characteristics that might tell the scientists something about how the creatures lived.

There is a lot of research in the history of science devoted to what historian of science Rob Kohler called the lab/field border. The basic question is this: given the growing disparity in prestige and resources between the field sciences and the bench sciences in the early 20th century, how did field scientists struggle for recognition, authority, and scarce resources, when the best scientific practice was increasingly defined as the controlled laboratory experiment?

Field scientists brought techniques and instrumentation into the field to increase the precision and quantity of data collected; and they also brought back from the field new questions to lab scientists and theorists about the complexity, messiness, and porosity of the data. This project shows that this process is part of the ongoing fulfillment of the evolutionary synthesis: a harmonization of the basic questions across the life sciences, with the kind of cross-fertilization that we saw in Charles Darwin’s education and work practice. We see new hybrids of paleontology and other life sciences emerging, such that some practitioners could be viewed from a distance as statisticians, or labcoat-wearing experimentalists working with the vast collections of specimens collected by Bill and others. The other piece of the lab/field border concept is that the field is also a complex social and political place. This is one of many of Bill’s soft skills that students talk about over and again in the history. How does one maintain good relationships with the property owners who are stewards of the places in which the paleontologists work?

For all of these reasons and more, place is important in the field sciences. But in few sciences is the precise meaning of place as important as paleontology, where a few feet of geological strata contain millions of years of data. Here is Bill Clemens on the trickiness of pinning down a fossil to a place, and therefore a time.

It’s important not to understate the importance of this scale and extent of fossil collection. The organized work of Clemens’ generation and the one that followed made possible newer types of data-intensive computerized research on paleontology, evolutionary biology, and climate change.

Here is Marisol Montellano on the importance of Bill’s efforts in fossil collection and characterization.

In fact, it is not uncommon for doctoral students today to conduct their research entirely with collected specimens in a laboratory, although Bill might not recommend this exclusive a course of study.

Here is Bill’s last student, Greg Wilson, on what Bill was like as teacher and a mentor.

Bill Clemens’ Students

It is here that we come to a really special aspect of this history, the second volume of this project: the thirteen interviews with Bill’s graduate students and the current Curator and leader of the UC Museum of Paleontology, Charles Marshall. Bill and his students are witnesses to the changes in the field of paleontology, the increasing use of computing to process large quantities of data, and the field’s increasing involvement in the most pressing questions of the last four decades: the resilience of species, the interdependence of organisms, and the consequences of a changing climate on the abilities of organisms to adapt to both sudden and gradual changes. Here is Bill’s former student Jessica Theodor on Reconciling Molecular and Morphological Data.

These questions are also a reflection of my initial theme about credibility in science. Through these interviews, we see how paleontology has adapted itself to a changing scientific climate, contending with the introduction of new species of ideas such as the asteroid-impact hypothesis for the extinction of most dinosaur species at the end of the Cretaceous, or through the adoption of sophisticated mathematical analyses of the surface structure of mammalian teeth to answer questions about the evolution of a particular species’ diet millions of years ago.

Here is Lowell Dingus on how he dealt with the approach of physicists Walter and Luis Alvarez to the question of the extinction of many species at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

Scientists struggle for credibility, and one way of doing so is to hybridize their research techniques and programs with the dominant sciences of the day, such as molecular and structural biology. The Department of Paleontology’s integration with the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley was part of a larger effort to cross-fertilize ideas and techniques from related disciplines that focus on evolutionary processes. “Interdisciplinarity” had an early home here at Berkeley and especially at UCMP, long before Integrative Biology was founded in the 1990s. One result of this integration is that the UC Museum of Paleontology has once again assumed a worldwide leadership role in the conduct of cutting-edge research, though it has long led the field of mammalian paleontology.

On a more human level, you will find in these pages, that the engines of research and innovation are fueled by human virtues as much as intellect. Bill and Dot’s patience and empathy for Bill’s students as they navigated the challenges of graduate school and the dust and heat of the field  is well documented, as is Bill’s curiosity, meticulousness, patience and care with which he draws his scientific conclusions. It is surely a mark of his influence that his students have taken up the charge by using new techniques evidence, carefully tested, to gradually move their respective fields forward increment by increment.

Paul Burnett

Berkeley, CA, 2017

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