The room where it happens

Taking paleontology classes (in an official capacity) is exciting. Joining a paleontology lab is a thirty-year-old dream come true.

The room where it happens has fossil skulls haphazardly strewn about, much in the same way that one finds my copies of Hume's works just wherever the hell I set them down after I last needed to cite them. I took my seat in the posthumous gaze of what was once a bear. It looked surprised to see me. If the lab discovers this is a new species then I'm going to suggest the name "Ursus judgmentalis."

Each of this term's lab meetings is scheduled to include a presentation about some important figure in the history of paleontological study. We started with Leigh Van Valen. A message went around to lab members last week, asking us to download his paper "Ecological Species, Multispecies, and Oaks." I might have giggled: that paper has featured in every PhilBio course I've ever taken or taught. It's gotten to the point that I hadn't heard any new takes on the paper from a philosopher in nearly half a decade. As far as the paleontological take goes: it's new to me, at least. And the paleontological take is: my philosophy dissertation was wrong. (Don't follow that link.)

One way to summarize my dissertation might be to say, "species must be real because paleontologists use species to explain natural history." (I kind of wish I had figured out that way of summarizing it when I wrote it.) I was fairly surprised, then, to hear my labmates* comfortably denying the reality of species in nature. Ursus judgmentalis dared me with a toothy grin.

I haven't yet been privy to any data collection or analysis, so maybe there's a reason for this disconnect. Hopefully I'll figure it out--after all, this sort of issue is the reason I'm doing this in the first place.

*Is "labmate" the right word here? This isn't the sort of thing we philosophers normally do. My former adviser tried to start a "thought lab" once, but it proved to be a passing thought.