New to all this? Don't worry—I am too.

Hi, I'm Joyce. I got involved in the philosophy of paleontology only a short time ago, while a postdoc at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois.  The philosophy of paleontology is a relatively small but exciting area of study in the philosophy of science.  And I think it's wide open to novel contributors and topics.  But to get newly involved in a field, it helps to know the extant literature.  So that's what I'm going to focus on here, in my first series of posts for Extinct: getting myself and any interested readers up to speed in the philosophy of paleontology.

I'm going to start by reviewing a trio of major texts: Derek Turner's Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction (2011); David Sepkoski's Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline (2012); and Martin J. S. Rudwick's The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology (1972).  And I'm going to do them in that order, despite the jumbled chronology.  I'm going to start with Turner's book because it might be the only introductory text that we have in the field, and because it's an excellent read.  The connections between philosophy of paleontology and the larger field of philosophy of biology are made particularly evident in Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction... so much so that one might think it's more of a philosophical introduction to paleobiology, narrowly speaking, than to paleontology proper.

Speaking of: what does it mean to distinguish between paleobiology and paleontology?  To answer that question we'll turn to Sepkoski's Rereading the Fossil Record, which does a lovely job of chronicling precisely how the paleobiological revolution swept paleontology thru the 1970s and early 80s, and who orchestrated it.  Then we'll turn to The Meaning of Fossils, which Rudwick based on a series of lectures that he gave at Cambridge to a mixed group of students in history and philosophy of science as well as geology, just before the advent of the paleobiological revolution.  I'm hoping that, by looking at a text that predates the distinction, we might get a broader sense not just of what the philosophy of paleontology currently is, but of what it could be—and most especially, of where newcomers to the field might find fertile new ground to break.

Here's a pair of shots, from before and after the paleobiological revolution:

Rudwick's The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology and Turner's Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction.

If you'd like to read along, my next post is scheduled for February 29, 2016.  That's when I'll put up my discussion of Turner's book, and I'd be happy to hear what other readers think about the book in the comments section of that post.  If you'd like to suggest other books for me to survey in this series, please feel free to do so in the comments section of this post.  And finally, if you'd like to see me doing a bit of public philosophy of paleontology, you can do so here:

With special thanks to Emily Graslie, host of The Brain Scoop, and to Tom McNamara, who filmed this episode.


Rudwick (1985), The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).  [Originally published 1972.]

Sepkoski (2012), Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Turner (2011), Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).