Björn Kurtén and palaentology in Helsinki


Björn Kurtén (1924-1988) was an evolutionary biologist and a palaeontologist. He studied geology and zoology in the University of Helsinki. When he started studying palaeontology at the University of Uppsala after the Second World War, there were neither palaeontology education nor extensive fossil collections Finland. He later said that he made this decision in order not to do something useful but rather to work with something beautiful and fascinating, such as fossils. But as an innovative thinker and a meticulous scientist he managed to create a palaeontology tradition for Finland, a country that has almost no fossils.

As a student Kurtén absorbed influences from his teachers Pontus Palmgren, Birger Bohlin and Otto Zdansky. He brought together Palmgren’s quantitative ecology and Bohlin’s and Zdansky’s mammal palaeontology. Kurtén embraced the emerging ”Modern Synthesis” and the quantitative methods that G. G. Simpson had successfully adapted to palaeontology. The Helsinki tradition is still based on improved models of Simpson’s evolutionary dynamics that have been carried on by Mikael Fortelius and Jukka Jernvall.

Kurtén’s Master’s thesis "On the Chinese Hipparion Fauna" in 1952, is still relevant in the field, and his Doctoral thesis "On the variation and population dynamics of fossil and recent mammal populations" from 1953 is a brave work that still feels ahead of its time. In these works Kurtén developed an approach that he kept throughout his career and aimed to pass on to his students: fossils need to be understood as a part of living creatures; as dead objects they may be beautiful and fascinating but they lack scientific interest. The knowledge of life that is conserved in fossils can be recovered with objective, quantitative analytical methods that are brought together without preconceptions from different fields. The lion’s share of his work on fossils were on carnivorans, especially on bears.

A ”Palaentologist’s palaentologist” was what G. G. Simpson’s characterisation in the foreword to Björn Kurtén’s , ”On Evolution and Fossil Mammals” (1988). To the general public Kurtén was mostly known as a novelist and a author of popular paleontological books. He was an exellent writer and his first novel was published when he was only seventeen years old. Kurtén’s books were detailed stories based on his scientific knowledge and illustrations for them were carefully planned together with the artists.

In his novels, Kurtén explored some of his more unconventional theories that he knew would have been difficult to test scientifically. Some of them have been shown afterwards to be correct, while some may still be waiting for that day. Kurtén would probably not be suprised about that, as he was quite used to being right, but he also recommended that readers not take the novels as scientific facts. In 1988 he received the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science and after his death, S.J. Gould wrote that ”he and Simpson were the finest paleontologists of our time”.

Mikael Fortelius and Björn Kurtén (1985).

Lobodon teeth