Biology & Philosophy

, 34:23 | Cite as

In defense of living fossils

  • Derek D. TurnerEmail author
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Paleobiology and Philosophy


Lately there has been a wave of criticism of the concept of living fossils. First, recent research has challenged the status of paradigmatic living fossil taxa, such as coelacanths, cycads, and tuataras. Critics have also complained that the living fossil concept is vague and/or ambiguous, and that it is responsible for misconceptions about evolution. This paper defends a particular phylogenetic conception of living fossils, or taxa that (a) exhibit deep prehistoric morphological stability; (b) contain few extant species; and (c) make a high contribution to phylogenetic diversity. The paper shows how this conception of living fossils can make sense of recent research on contested cases. The phylogenetic living fossil concept has both theoretical and practical importance: theoretical, because it picks out an important explanatory target for evolutionary theory; and practical, because it picks out taxa that we might wish to prioritize for conservation. The best way to defend the concept of living fossils is to get clearer about the reasons for defending living fossil taxa.


Coelacanth Cycad Horseshoe crab Living fossil Phylogenetic diversity Stasis Tuatara 



Early work on this project was supported by a visiting fellowship at the KLI in Klosterneuburg, Austria, in the fall of 2015. I am also grateful to Fulbright Canada for support during the spring of 2017, which enabled me to spend a semester at the University of Calgary. I shared an early version of this paper with an audience in Calgary in January 2017, and am grateful to the philosophers there for invaluable feedback: Soohyun Ahn, Megan Delahanty, David Dick, Marc Ereshefsky, Alison McConwell, Mark Migotti, Celso Neto, Ken Waters, and others. I am also deeply grateful to the Calgary philosophy department for being such a wonderful and welcoming place to work on this Project. The paper has benefitted immensely from comments from two anonymous referees for this journal, and from Adrian Currie’s philosophical and editorial help and advice.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyConnecticut CollegeNew LondonUSA

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