Homeless in Vancouver: Trees, photos, and fossils

When I first thought of taking a photo of the above tree in Mount Pleasant today, it was because I liked the upside-down “paint drips” of the thin vertical branches. Then a completely different idea came to me.

I considered how similar the photo would be to a prehistoric fossil.

The photo is created in a moment using a “cheese slice” of light and the fossil requires millions of years in a geological sandwich press to come to us as it does. The photo, depending on technology, is either particles of silver nitrate on a medium like paper or it’s… complicated to explain. The fossil is made of minerals.

Neither are any more than a delimited representation of the original thing. Both the photo and the fossil are dead, flat representations of things that only live in three dimensions. They are each stripped of significant amounts of important information. Through completely different means, they have both been crushed flat.

The trouble with being flat broke

Snapshot of an early bird from the late Jurassic: Archaeopteryx.

Unlike photographs, fossils can be very difficult to interpret and reimagine in three dimensions.

Archaeopteryx, pictured above, is a good example of a clearly important fossil find which has faced frequent reinterpretation since its first examples were found in 1861.

A lot of the difficulty is because fossils rarely include information about the soft stuff that fills out shapes and provides superficial features, like skin, hair, or feathers. Mostly everything has to be inferred from the skeletal remains, and those can be badly broken and incomplete.

It should be just as difficult to infer the entire tree, leaves and all, just from our black-on-grey snapshot of part of a barren tree.

But it’s not.

While there really are interesting parallels between photos and fossils, one inescapable difference between the two is the human brain.

Unlike fossils, which can give our brains fits, our grey matter is specially wired to solve the visual puzzles a photo presents.

The brain uses “baked-in” routines like edge detectionpattern recognition, and comparative analysis to effortlessly “see” that those black squiggles are branches of a tree. It infers the general existence of the rest of the tree to a degree of certainty based on how may trees you’ve seen, and it’s willing to make an educated guess which way is up. And it knows about tree leaves if you do.

It interprets the image as real and three-dimensional because it “knows” natural rules like perspective, but more than that, it wants to see everything as real and three dimensional.

The brain’s hard-wired bias to read into what it sees—basically to see what’s not really there, such as a tree in a mess of black lines—has made the entire history of art possible.

But it would also complicate fossil interpretation.

The brain has no trouble seeing missing links when almost everything is missing, or plausible connections where there may be none.

Like, for instance, the way it can see a link between photographs and fossils.

Conifer plant fossil from Cache Creek, B.C.
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