Understanding ancient life: how Martin Brasier changed the way we think about the fossil record
Jonathan B. Antcliffe, Alexander G. Liu, Latha R. Menon, Duncan McIlroy, Nicola McLoughlin, David Wacey, 2017. "Understanding ancient life: how Martin Brasier changed the way we think about the fossil record", Earth System Evolution and Early Life: A Celebration of the Work of Martin Brasier, A. T. Brasier, D. McIlroy, N. McLoughlin
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Crucial to our understanding of life on Earth is the ability to judge the validity of claims of very ancient ‘fossils’. Martin Brasier’s most important contribution to this debate was to establish a framework within which to discuss claims of the ‘oldest’ life. In particular, he made it clear that the burden of proof must fall on those making the claim of ancient life, not those refuting it. This led to his formulation of the concept of the continuum of morphologies produced by life and non-life and the considerable challenges of differentiating biogenesis from abiogenesis. Martin Brasier developed a set of criteria for distinguishing life from non-life and extended the use of many new high-resolution analytical techniques to palaeontological research. He was also renowned for his work on the Cambrian explosion and the origin of animals. Although he had spent much of his early career working on the geological context of these events, it was not until he returned to studying the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods in his later years that he began to apply this null hypothesis way of thinking to these other major transitions in the history of life. This led to him becoming involved in the development of a series of nested null hypotheses, his ‘cone of contention’, to analyse enigmatic fossils more generally. In short, Martin Brasier taught us how to formulate biological hypotheses in deep time, established the rules for how those hypotheses should be tested and championed a host of novel analytical techniques to gather the data required. As a consequence, future discussions of enigmatic specimens and very old fossils will be greatly enriched by his contributions.
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This volume in memory of Professor Martin Brasier, which has many of his unfinished works, summarizes recent progress in some of the hottest topics in palaeobiology including cellular preservation of early microbial life and early evolution of macroscopic animal life, encompassing the Ediacara biota. The papers focus on how to decipher evidence for early life, which requires exceptional preservation, employment of state-of-the-art techniques and also an understanding gleaned from Phanerozoic lagerstätte and modern analogues. The papers also apply Martin’s MOFAOTYOF principle (my oldest fossils are older than your oldest fossils), requiring an integrated approach to understanding fossils. The adoption of the null-hypothesis that all putative traces of life are abiotic until proven otherwise, and the consideration of putative fossils within their spatial context, characterized the work of Martin Brasier, as is well demonstrated by the papers in this volume.