It seems appropriate, both with the year winding down and with Extinct’s first anniversary (our paper anniversary!) coming up, to have a kind of ‘how did we get here and do we like it here?’ discussion. We haven’t the foggiest whether anyone really cares about the details below, but it’s fun for us anyway (and, to varying levels of ‘fun’, that’s probably been a guiding principle for us so far…).
Back in July 2015, the Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Science of Biology had its biannual meeting, this time in Montreal. These conferences, affectionately known as ‘Ishkabbible’, are a big part of many a philosopher of biology’s calendar. In addition to being a chance to catch up with old friends, do some intellectual tourism (Ishkabbible is broad) and present your own work, they’re also a good chance to dip your finger into the pulse of philosophy of biology: what are people interested in?
One thing that struck us was that, compared to earlier meetings, there was a fair bit of work on issues which we thought both amounted to, and were relevant to, the philosophy of paleontology, broadly construed. Ford Doolittle delivered a plenary thinking about reconstructing the tree of life at a large scale in light of the ubiquity of lateral gene transfer, Carlos Mariscal & Andrew Inkpen organized a session on natural experiments (although the focus was ecological, the issues around testing hypotheses without interventions are dear to the paleontological epistemologist’s heart), Thibault Racovsk ran a session on evolutionary novelty and discontinuities, often dealing both with reconstruction in the historical sciences and the relationship between macro and micro-evolution, Maureen O’Malley’s session explored how evolutionary trends often move from complex forms to simple forms—bucking an almost unquestioned trend in our thinking about macroevolution. Adrian organized a session, with Derek as well as Carol Cleland and Eric Desjardins, exploring the epistemic upshots of historicity and contingency (in another session, Alison McConwell also discussed the relationship between contingency and individuality), and Kelly Smith’s session on complexity and progress in evolution also touched upon issues dear to paleontology’s theoretical heart.
Philosophers often work alone (although, thankfully, this is changing!) but we need communities too. A challenge for exploring new areas is that one often feels isolated, and indeed it is often difficult to be taken seriously. Meeting more people who were engaged and interested in the kinds of issues we were was exciting. And so we agreed to keep in touch.
A month or so after the conference, Leonard emailed some of us to follow up on that ‘keeping in touch’ thing, and with some suggestions about how we might do so. Adrian, inspired by the kind of idea-focused, no-gossip, collective work over at Early Modern Experimental Philosophy, suggested a blog. Leonard and Derek liked the idea, Joyce joined a few weeks later, and Extinct was born.
Our aim, really, was (and is) ultimately three-fold. First, we wanted to be able to share and develop ideas in interesting, collaborative ways; roughly, fight that isolation feeling. Second, we wanted to raise the profile of the kind of work we do—hopefully less philosophers and palaeontologists would respond to us with you do philosophy of what!?. And third, we wanted to encourage people to join in: as the last year has made apparent, there is so much interestingness to mine at the intersection of philosophy and paleontology.
So, how have we done? We think pretty okay. Our aims were never all that ambitious, and we weren’t aiming for mass appeal (although we have tried to make things fun…). We’re averaging over 750 unique visitors per month, and topped 25,500 page views over the year. That’s pretty alright! Anecdotally, people seem to be aware of, and generally positive about, the blog. We’re grateful to our readers, especially those who have reached out with their comments, questions, and, um, corrections (Jessica Theodore setting David Sepkoski right on the difference between looms and spinning wheels is a favourite) .
A particular delight has been the guest contributors – a smorgasbord of artists, scientists, historians, palaeontologists, social scientists and, well, a bunch of philosophers. Lukas Rieppel examined the relation between genuineness and fossil casting (and Michael Skrepnik responded!), Carol Cleland reflected on the nature of historical evidence via Drumlins and other geological formations, Caitlin Wylie discussed fossil preparation and underdetermination and Helen de Cruz looked at how DNA studies fit into paleoanthropology. Both Ben Borkovic and Don Brinkman discussed ceratopsids—the former describing some exciting new species and the latter drawing on decades of experience to describe how thinking in paleontology has changed. Trevor Pearce argued that we should understand the ‘internal/external’ distinction in empirical terms, Matt Haber weaved together issues of personal identity, phylogenetics, and pedagogy, and Patrick Forber argued that understanding extinctions in the past can help us understand the challenges we face today and in the future. Finally, this month we’ve had two guests: Daniel Nolan compared ‘great man’ theories of history to some explanations in paleontology, and David Sepkoski rounded out the year with a fascinating post on the relationship between how we visualize data from the deep past and the associated narratives. The guest posts show just how varied and rich philosophy of palaeontology can be. We’ll be continuing them next year (oh, and we’re still filling in spots: so if you’re interested do get in contact!).
So, anything new for the coming year? Leonard’s going to be going to dinosaur school (okay, doing a Masters in paleontology), and will be regularly taking us through what he’s learning and what it’s like, there are some plans in the work for various conferences which – well – hopefully will come to fruition. Adrian’s book should come out (on MIT press) sometime in 2017. Derek will be visiting the University of Calgary, taking up a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair, for the first half of 2017. Joyce plans to continue her reviews of work in philosophy and history of paleontology—more Rudwick has been called for! She has also started thinking about Anomalocaris, which can only be a good thing. Overall its shaping to be an exciting year, and hopefully you’ll come along with us on more flights of paleontological and philosophical fancy!
Joyce, Derek, Leonard & Adrian