Reading (and Writing) about Rereading

Joyce Havstad writes...

My last book review (of Derek Turner’s Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction) was a tad long; this review is going to be a bit shorter.  That’s not because the book I’m reviewing this month (David Sepkoski’s Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline) is less interesting, or not as good, or anything like that at all.  Rather, it’s for the following two reasons: (1) the book is primarily historical rather than philosophical; and (2) it’s very good.  Together these two things mean that I have little to say in the way of critique.

But critique isn’t the only thing one can do in a book review.  For instance, one can say: I really love this book!  And I do.  Reading it was like running into a bunch of people I had met only briefly in graduate school, deciding to go for a coffee (outside rather than inside the conference hotel), and learning for the first time where they’re from.  What their families are like.  How they spend their time off.  Where they’re traveling to next.  And most importantly, how they treat the wait staff.

Basically, this book reintroduced me to some fundamental concepts from paleontology—concepts that I’ve considered before, but really only as ideas.  Now, because of this wonderful book, I’ve gotten the chance to reconsider those concepts also as constructions—as the product of particular people and places and times and interactions.  My appreciation for and understanding of such concepts, and paleontology itself, is much the better for it.

In chapter 1 of Rereading, there is a lovely discussion of George Gaylord Simpson’s work that starts with Quantitative Zoology (1939), goes thru Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944), and includes the revisionary Major Features of Evolution (1953).  This discussion helped me to better understand early uses of statistical methods in paleontology, as well as the origin of concepts like mega-evolution, taxonomic survivorship, and even something that is often called “population thinking” (most famously by Mayr, purportedly starting around 1959).

The discussion of Norman D. Newell’s work in chapter 2 was similarly enlightening—especially with respect to the concepts of normal variability, paleonotological species, and preservation bias.  It was also very helpful for understanding how the legacy of catastrophism influenced the study of mass extinction, and how the taint of that influence was finally dispelled.

In chapter 3, I enjoyed reading about D’Arcy W. Thompson’s prescient (1917) work on functionalism, and the way in which technological limitations of the time prevented some of his ideas from really being taken up or applied until much later.  I also appreciated the discussion of theoretical morphology—a term initially found in E. S. Russell’s Form and Function: A Contribution to the History of Animal Morphology (also published in 1917)—and explored here (in Rereading) in relation to the concepts of morphometrics, functional morphology, and theoretical morphospace.

Chapter 4’s examination of the budding relationship (in the 1960s and 1970s) between paleobiology and ecology adds context to the development of ideas like the canalization of ecospace, the carrying capacity of an environment, and the taxon cycle—as well as to the broken stick, equilibrium, evolutionary-ecological, and exponential models.  The discussion in this chapter also documents the ascendance of island biogeography and the origin of hierarchical thinking in evolutionary theory.

Chapters 5 and 6 contain some incredibly personal studies of key moments and figures in the emergence of paleobiology.  The “ontogeny” of the theory of punctuated equilibria (discussed in chapter 5) is both fascinating and somewhat troubling.  The story of the founding of the journal Paleobiology (discussed in chapter 6) is also interesting, often due to the unusual role played by the unique character of Thomas J. M. Schopf.  Both these chapters showcase what I think of as classic science studies scholarship—built, in this case at least, on methodical investigation and meticulous analysis.

Chapter 7 is the biggest of the bunch.  It contains an extremely thorough examination of both the MBL model (first discussed in Raup, Gould, Schopf, & Simberloff 1973) and the related, stochastic view of evolutionary processes that Schopf especially would come to espouse.  But on top of all that, it also contains delightful vignettes detailing paleontological application of and context for ideas like Leigh Van Valen’s Red Queen’s Hypothesis, Monte Carlo simulation, Markov chains, random walks, visual hermeneutics, and (a philosophical favorite) underdetermination.  The chapter ends with a brief but interesting discussion of the formative early days for Stephen Jay Gould’s metaphor about “replaying life’s tape” as a way of understanding natural history.

Features of chapter 8 include taxic paleontology, David M. Raup’s “the pull of the Recent,” J. John (Jack) Sepkoski’s “kinetic” model of taxonomic diversification, and the origin of the first large paleontological databases that made possible the methodological approach informally known as “crunching the fossils.”

Chapter 9 is all about mass extinction: the Alvarez impact hypothesis, periodicity, the hypothetical companion star named “Nemesis,” and most importantly, the relevance of all this work on mass extinction for macroevolutionary theory and the development of a hierarchical view.

The final chapter of the book, chapter 10, brings together many of the preceding themes in order to document the development of a paleobiological alternative to the Modern Synthesis—one which purportedly downplays the reductionist approach in favor of a hierarchical view; accommodates Darwinian natural selection along with other forms of selection plus nonselective sorting; and stresses the constraints on and contingency of evolutionary history.

I’ve read many discussions of the Modern Synthesis and the supposed need (or not) for an alternative to it, yet I still enjoyed this concluding discussion very much.  I even laughed out loud at the mention of so-called “synthetic originalism” (page 359)—understood to refer to those attempts to recast any adjustments to evolutionary theory as moving closer to, rather than farther from, Darwin’s original intent.  In my more cynical moods, this has felt like a rather ubiquitous phenomenon to which evolutionary theorists are irresistibly attracted, so I appreciate having a (witty) term for it.

In sum, this is a great book with a lot in it.  I think it’s likely to be useful to practitioners and students of paleontology as well as to historians, philosophers, and other science studies scholars alike.  I also think it’s the sort of book from which most chapters could be pulled out and read in isolation and in no particular order, depending on which paleontological concepts or theories are of special interest at any given time.  But it’s worth a careful read from cover to cover, for sure.

I’ll close with two general queries.  The first is one that I’ve had when reading many a historical text.  The book contains plenty of evaluative claims with certain normative or ordinal connotations: Simpson’s efforts were “undeniably heroic” (chapter 1, page 36); statistical analysis would be “perhaps the single most important future direction in paleobiology” (chapter 2, page 67); Raup was a “key figure” and a “key innovator” (chapter 3, page 96); G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s (1959) paper “Homage to Santa Rosalia” was a “classic” (chapter 4, page 116) and his “most important book” (chapter 4, page 134) was The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play (1965); it is “fair to argue” that the modern paleobiology movement “itself was Schopf’s invention” (chapter 5, page 142); Raup and Gould’s co-authored paper on morphology (1974) “might be considered the high point” (chapter 7, page 244) of the MBL collaboration; when it came time to overhaul the fossil databases, Jack Sepkoski was “the ideal candidate” (chapter 8, page 293); and the legacy of the meeting on macroevolution at the Field Museum in 1980 is “somewhat cloudy” (chapter 10, page 363).

I’ve listed these examples only to give a sense of the nature and scope of such claims.  My main point is simply that I understand what underwrites some of these claims better than others—because after making them, reasons in support of the evaluative judgments are given.  But sometimes they aren’t—no reasons are forthcoming.  Why is that?  I wonder what’s behind these claims, and what makes for the difference between the ones which are explicitly supported, and those which go without.  I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with this practice, though it seems a bit uneven to my untrained (not a historian!) eye.  It’s just something that I’ve noticed crops up often enough in this kind of scholarship, and I’m curious about it.

Second and closing question: what makes a metaphor the right one, or a good one?  I’ve wondered about this before, specifically when thinking about Gould’s metaphor of “replaying life’s tape,” which of course appears in Rereading.  But I also thought about it, a lot, when considering a metaphor that the author, David Sepkoski, develops and employs throughout his book.  He claims to have identified three main approaches—characteristic of the paleobiological revolution—to (metaphorically) “rereading” the fossil record. The three approaches are: (a) literal (re)reading, which takes the admittedly gappy fossil record at face value; (b) idealized rereading, which simulates macroevolutionary patterns via stochastic models; and (c) generalized rereading, which tabulates and statistically analyzes large collections of fossil data. 

This tripartite distinction first appears in the introduction to the book, and all three approaches make recurring appearances throughout the text.  For instance: (a) Gould and Niles Eldredge called for “a more literal interpretation of the fossil record” (chapter 7, page 216); (b) in Schopf’s view, “the fossils themselves are a ‘metaphor’ for the model, implying that the statistical idealization itself which [sic] is the true ‘text’” (chapter 7, page 262 [italics original]); and (c) “manipulating the results of the simulation to reflect potential biases in the fossil record exemplified the statistical or ‘generalized’ approach to rereading” (chapter 8, page 308).

But the metaphor never quite resonated with me; it confounded rather than elucidated my understanding.  One issue was that I couldn’t always tell which of the three approaches was being referred to.  For example: at the beginning of chapter 3, David writes that “[r]ereading the fossil record involved, in large part, reading it mathematically” (page 77 [italics original]).  Is that a fourth approach, or one of the previous three?  Perhaps it is an element that appears in multiple approaches.  Similarly, at the close of chapter 4, David says that “paleoecology inspired a new perspective on ‘rereading’ the fossil record as a history of ecological interactions between once-living organisms that could be described using the heuristic theoretical vocabulary of Hutchinsonian and MacArthur-Wilson theoretical ecology and biogeography” (page 136).  Which approach does this perspective on rereading indicate?  I thought perhaps it was meant to refer to the idealized approach, but I’m not sure.

This brings me to another issue: the third approach, “generalized rereading,” is admittedly a combination of the previous two.  But I had real trouble distinguishing between the idealized approach and the generalized one (notice that they are both described as “statistical” in the above quotes from pages 262 and 308).  And whenever I succeeded in distinguishing them, the idealized approach became less of an approach to rereading the fossil record and more like a standard with which the fossil record could be compared.

A final (possibly trivial) issue was that “reading” and “rereading” seemed to be used somewhat interchangeably (as they appear in the above quote from page 77), and I couldn’t figure out if that meant something, or nothing.  But I often have trouble with the use of metaphor in explanation.

Speaking of which: one last metaphor worth mentioning is that of the “high table” of evolutionary theory, brought to prominence by John Maynard Smith (1984).  The theme of this metaphor—the prestige of certain theoretical work—is one that I brought up in my last review, and although the metaphor was mentioned throughout Rereading, it wasn’t examined or defended, just employed.  I still want to know why we think there’s a high table at all.  Maybe we’ll find out next time?

Thanks for reading.  My next post is scheduled for July 4, 2016—when I plan to discuss Martin J. S. Rudwick’s The Meaning of Fossils.



Hutchinson, G. E. (1959), “Homage to Santa Rosalia; or, Why are there so many kinds of animals?,” American Naturalist 93: 145–159.

Hutchinson, G. E. (1965), The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Mayr, E. (1959), “Darwin and the evolutionary theory in biology,” Evolution and Anthropology: A Centennial Appraisal (Washington, D.C.: The Anthropological Society of Washington), 409–412.

Raup, D. M. and Gould, S. J. (1974), “Stochastic simulation and evolution of morphology: Towards a nomothetic paleontology,” Systematic Zoology 23(3): 305–322.

Raup, D. M., Gould, S. J., Schopf, T. J. M., and Simberloff, D. S. (1973), “Stochastic models of phylogeny and the evolution of diversity,” Journal of Geology 81(5): 525–542.

Rudwick, M. J. S. (1976), The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2nd edition (originally published 1972).

Russell, E. S. (1917), Form and Function: A Contribution to the History of Animal Morphology (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co).

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

Simpson, G. G. (1944), Tempo and Mode in Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press).

Simpson, G. G. (1953), The Major Features of Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press).

Simpson, G. G. and Roe, A. (1939), Quantitative Zoology: Numerical Concepts and Methods in the Study of Recent and Fossil Animals (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co).

Smith, J. M. (1984), “Evolution: Paleontology at the high table,” Nature 309: 401–2.

Thompson, D. W. (1917), On Growth and Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

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