The Ossification of Ideas

Joyce Havstad writes...

It’s fun to travel back in time, to moments when ideas that we now take for granted were unthinkable, and people that we currently know only as caricatures were full-blooded and breathing and alive, and proposals that seem utterly bizarre to us today seemed not just possible but probable.

This is the last in my trio of book reviews for Extinct (the series is explained here), and I have the historian of science Martin J. S. Rudwick to thank for my latest chronotour.  I started out the series with some recent philosophy of paleontology (by reviewing Derek Turner’s Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction [2011]), then I followed that up with some relatively recent history of paleontology (by reviewing David Sepkoski’s Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline [2012]), and now here I am doing comparatively deep history of paleontology (by reviewing Martin J. S. Rudwick’s The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology [1976/1972]).  It’s been a fun trip.

Rudwick’s The Meaning of Fossils presents five major episodes from mostly European paleontology—though the Americans show up a bit at the very end—all occurring between the mid seventeenth century and the end of the nineteenth century.  The five episodes especially highlight the work of Conrad Gesner, Niels Stensen (aka Nicolas Steno), Georges Cuvier, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin.  Here’s a gallery of these characters:

Fossil paleontologists, from left to right: Gesner, Stensen, Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin.

Rudwick starts his book, unsurprisingly, with discussion of the earlier work first—and it is an enlightening discussion.  For instance: on the very first page of Rudwick’s The Meaning of Fossils, I learned that my sense of the term ‘fossil’ is actually a rather restricted one—and that this narrowing of the term is a somewhat modern artifact.  I tend to think of fossils as something like “prehistoric remnants or traces of once-living organisms.”  But according to Rudwick, the word originally referred to “any distinctive objects or materials dug up from the earth or found lying on the surface” (page 1; emphasis original).  That’s a much broader sense of the term; so, usage over the past several centuries has both narrowed in meaning and obscured that narrowing.  Word paleontology—aka etymology—is neat.  It’s nice to be reminded that even a very familiar word may mean today only a fragment of what it once did, and to see a historian reconstruct some of what is currently missing from the larger whole.

And this is embarrassing, but I had also kind of forgotten that extinction was once unthinkable.  I hadn’t forgotten that one of Georges Cuvier’s major contributions to pre-Darwinian paleontology was proving that some species had absolutely, certainly, positively gone extinct; but I had either forgotten or never really confronted what that implies: that people generally thought no species had ever gone extinct.  (At least, people within the Western intellectual tradition—Rudwick doesn’t say much about other traditions, except that “it is only within Western civilization, during the period since the Renaissance, that paleontology has emerged from this diffuse awareness of fossils and developed into a coherent scientific discipline.”  That’s from the original preface to the book, first published in 1972.)  Nowadays extinction just seems like such an obvious and a basic fact about biological life—it’s always been happening, and it’s currently happening at a particularly alarming rate.  Just thinking about extinction being unthinkable is astounding!  The very idea that extinction might not be possible has itself gone extinct.

Speaking of Cuvier, as I read through The Meaning of Fossils I was astounded to discover that he was likely much more of an actualist than I had previously thought.  To be an actualist in paleontological terms is to be committed to using the geologic processes of the present to infer about the past.  And Rudwick presents a convincing case for Cuvier’s misclassification as all catastrophist, no actualist—on the basis of rather excessive editorializing (by Robert Jameson) and quite misleading interpretation disguised as presentation (by William Buckland).  Apparently, in preparing the English editions of Cuvier’s original works (from the French), Jameson is the one who related certain geologic events to “the scriptural Flood,” not Cuvier himself (see pg. 133); and though Buckland appealed to Cuvier’s authority when presenting “the diluvial theory,” that theory was Buckland’s highly modified interpretation rather than Cuvier’s own (see pg. 135).

This makes me wonder how many of our other core associations between fundamental scientific figures and “their” (supposed) ideas are actually misidentifications.  Here’s a familiar query along these lines: should ‘Charles Darwin’ the specimen really be tagged with the ‘gradualist’ label?  And here’s another one, which Rudwick himself suggests in The Meaning of Fossils: was Richard Owen really anti-evolution, or was he just pro-integration-and-harmony (as opposed to randomness and stochasticity) in nature?

Turning now to Owen, I was startled to discover his concept of the vertebrate ‘Archetype’ deep within the pages of Rudwick’s book.  This is a fascinating concept: Owen’s idea combines that of a blueprint with that of an ideal, positing the existence and influence of a sort of skeletal frame on which all vertebrates are based, and towards which all vertebrates are aiming.  That’s the Archetype:

From Richard Owen’s On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1848).

And it’s just such a strange notion!  Not one that we would give much, if any, credence to today.  It reminds me of Francis Galton’s attempt to construct and discern ideally representative images of various criminal, medical, racial and social types.  (For more on this topic, I recommend reading Allan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive,” written in 1986).  In sum, Galton made composite photographs that were supposed to somehow remove the traces of individuals depicted in single photos, blending together their distinctive features and revealing the unifying (criminal, medical, racial, social) form underneath.  Here is ‘The Criminal’:

From Havelock Ellis' The Criminal (1890).

Of course, Owen’s blended yet characteristic vertebrate form was supposed to be a progressive ideal, whereas Galton’s composite yet diagnostic criminal form was a retrograde one—a form sought out and distributed mainly in order to aid with identification and extermination.  But the underlying form of these ideas about underlying form seem related to me (though I’m not sure whether this relation is due to common ancestry or convergence).  Regardless, both these ideas seem absolutely ludicrous!  But they were perfectly respectable—even eminently scientific—ideas in their own time.

This makes me wonder which of our eminently respectable and perhaps even cherished scientific commitments will in turn be viewed as ludicrous monstrosities by future generations of scholars.  How many of our own bedrock assumptions will seem like mistakes that regretfully constrained our scientific imaginations rather than guided them, and kept any of us from seeing our way to the next great theoretical insight?  I sometimes think that our ongoing commitment to a certain kind of determinism might one day be viewed as this kind of mistake.  But that’s an issue to explore on another day, in its own dedicated thread.

Mention of constraints does prompt me to discuss one last topic in this review, however.  Near the end of The Meaning of Fossils, Rudwick discusses the role that paleontology played in the formation of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, as well as in the early stages of reaction to and uptake of that theory.  I found his account of what Darwin saw as the potential uses and limitations of the fossil record to be highly plausible, and I appreciated Rudwick’s presentation of various non-negligible contributions from paleontology to evolutionary theory made in the second half of the nineteenth century—contributions made by the likes of Thomas Huxley, Albert Gaudry, Vladimir Kovalevsky, O. C. Marsh, and Melchior Neumayr, among others.  The discussion of various institutional and sociological factors which shaped paleontology during and after the turn into the twentieth century was brief, but compelling.

In short, I think that Rudwick has managed to present a combination of factors which together have finally provided me with what I consider to be a satisfactory understanding of and explanation for paleontology’s so-called departure from and eventual return to the evolutionary ‘high table’ (see Smith [1984]).  As this is something that I’ve been hoping to figure out since I started this whole process of familiarizing myself with at least a few key texts and ideas from the history, philosophy, and scientific practice of paleontology, I’m very happy with this outcome.  In sum, Rudwick discusses both the intellectual factors limiting what paleontology could contribute to evolutionary theory (what might be called ‘internal’ constraints on things like theory and evidence) and the sociological factors limiting the contribution of paleontology to evolutionary theory (what might be called ‘external’ constraints on things like funding and personnel).  He also suggests that the way these two sets of factors combine with one another and interact, reinforcing each other, might be what explains paleontology’s seating situation (at or away from the high table).  That makes sense to me.

So, in case it’s not obvious, I thought that this was a really great book.  And now I think that history of science, well-conducted, might be a sort of paleontology of ideas.  That might be why I find it so interesting.  Anyway, thanks for reading!  Here endeth my series of book reviews.



Ellis, H. (1890), The Criminal (London: Walter Scott).

Owen, R. (1848), On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (London: John van Voorst).

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).

Sekula, A. (1986), “The Body and the Archive,” October 39: 3–64.

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

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

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