Advertisement

Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 401–444 | Cite as

Towards “A Natural History of Data”: Evolving Practices and Epistemologies of Data in Paleontology, 1800–2000

  • David SepkoskiEmail author
Article

Abstract

The fossil record is paleontology’s great resource, telling us virtually everything we know about the past history of life. This record, which has been accumulating since the beginning of paleontology as a professional discipline in the early nineteenth century, is a collection of objects. The fossil record exists literally, in the specimen drawers where fossils are kept, and figuratively, in the illustrations and records of fossils compiled in paleontological atlases and compendia. However, as has become increasingly clear since the later twentieth century, the fossil record is also a record of data. Paleontologists now routinely abstract information from the physical fossil record to construct databases that serve as the basis for quantitative analysis of patterns in the history of life. What is the significance of this distinction? While it is often assumed that the orientation towards treating the fossil record as a record of data is an innovation of the computer age, it turns out that nineteenth century paleontology was substantially “data driven.” This paper traces the evolution of data practices and analyses in paleontology, primarily through examination of the compendia in which the fossil record has been recorded over the past 200 years. I argue that the transition towards conceptualizing the fossil record as a record of data began long before the emergence of the technologies associated with modern databases (such as digital computers and modern statistical methods). I will also argue that this history reveals how new forms of visual representation were associated with the transition from seeing the fossil record as a record of objects to one of data or information, which allowed paleontologists to make new visual arguments about their data. While these practices and techniques have become increasingly sophisticated in recent decades, I will show that their basic methodology was in place over a century ago, and that, in a sense, paleontology has always been a “data driven” science.

Keywords

Fossil record Databases Paleontology H.G. Bronn 

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

Acknowledgments

The first draft of this paper was written during a visit to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin during Fall, 2011. I would like to thank the members of the Department II colloquium there, and especially Lorraine Daston, for their helpful feedback and generous support. I would also like to thank Bruno J. Strasser for immensely insightful commentary on subsequent drafts of the paper, and Martin Rudwick, Paul Brinkman and Scott Lidgard for helpful suggestions about sources and problems along the way.

References

  1. Archibald, J. David. 2009. “Edward Hitchcock’s Pre-Darwinian (1840) ‘Tree of Life’.” Journal of the History of Biology 42: 561–592.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Benton, M. J., and Emerson, B. C. 2007. “How Did Life Become So Diverse? The Dynamics of Diversification According to the Fossil Record and Molecular Phylogenetics.” Palaeontology 50: 23–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blair, Ann. 2010. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bowker, Geoffrey C. 2005. Memory Practices in the Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brongniart, Adolphe. 1828a. Histoire des végétaux fossiles, ou Recherches botaniques et géologiques sur les végétaux renfermés dans les diverses couches du globe, par M. Adolphe Brongniart. Paris: G. Dufour et E. d’Ocagne.Google Scholar
  6. ——1828b. Prodrome d’une histoire des végétaux fossilles. Paris: F.G. Levrault.Google Scholar
  7. Bronn, H. G. 1831. Italiens Tertiär-Gebilde und deren organische Einschlüsse: vier Abhandlungen, mit einer Steindrucktafel. Heidelberg: K. Groos.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 1835. Lethæa Geognostica, oder Abbildungen und Beschreibungen der für die Gebirgs-Formationen bezeichnendsten Versteinerungen, 1st ed. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart.Google Scholar
  9. ——1841. Handbuch einer Geschichte der Natur. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart’sche Verlagshandlung.Google Scholar
  10. ——1848. Index palaeontologicus, oder, Übersicht der bis jetzt bekannten fossilen Organismen. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart.Google Scholar
  11. ——1858. Untersuchungen über die entwicklungsgesetze der organischen welt während der bildungs-zeit unserer erdoberfläche. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart.Google Scholar
  12. Browne, Janet. 1983. The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Cutbill, J. L., and Funnell, B. M. 1967. “Numerical Analysis of the Fossil Record.” W. B. Harland, C. H. Holland, and M. R. House (eds.), The Fossil Record. London: Geological Society, pp. 791–820.Google Scholar
  14. Cuvier, Georges, and Jameson, Robert. 1813. Essay on the Theory of the Earth. Translated… by Robert Kerr… With Mineralogical Notes, and an Account of Cuvier’s Geological Discoveries, by Professor Jameson. Edinburgh: Blackwood.Google Scholar
  15. d’Orbigny, Alcide. 1840. Paléontologie francaise description zoologique et géologique de tous les animaux mollusques et rayonnés fossiles de France Terrains cretaces. Paris: l’Auteur.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. London: J. Murray.Google Scholar
  17. Daston, Lorraine, and Galison, Peter. 2007. Objectivity, 2 printed edn. New York, NY: Zone Books.Google Scholar
  18. Davidson, Jane P. 2008. A History of Paleontology Illustration. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Deshayes, Gérard P. 1824. Description des Coquilles Fossiles des environs de Paris. 1, Conchifères. Paris: Auteur u.a.Google Scholar
  20. Deshayes, Gérard Paul. 1860. Description des animaux sans vertèbres découverts dans le bassin de Paris 1, Atlas. Paris: Baillière.Google Scholar
  21. Foote, Michael. 1999. “J. John Sepkoski, Jr. (1948–1999).” Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 44(2): 235–236.Google Scholar
  22. Galison, Peter. 1997. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  23. Giebel, Christian Gottfried Andreas. 1847. Fauna der Vorwelt mit steter Berücksichtigung der lebenden Thiere Bd. 1. Wirbelthiere. Abth. 1, Die Säugethiere der Vorwelt mit steter Berücksichtigung der lebenden Säugethiere. Leipzig: Brockhaus.Google Scholar
  24. Gliboff, Sander. 2007. “H.G. Bronn and the History of Nature.” Journal of the History of Biology 40(2): 259–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. ——2008. H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  26. Harland, W. B., Holland, C. H., and House, M. R., Geological Society of London, and Palaeontological Association (eds.). 1967. The Fossil Record. London: Geological Society.Google Scholar
  27. Herbert, Sandra. 2005. Charles Darwin, Geologist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Koerner, Lisbet. 1999. Linnaeus: Nature and Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Latour, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Leonelli, Sabina. 2012. “Making Sense of Data-Driven Research in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43(1): 1–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lyell, Charles. 1830–1833. Principles of Geology; Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation. London: J. Murray.Google Scholar
  32. Mantell, Gideon Algernon. 1822. The Fossils of the South Downs; or Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex. London: Lupton Relfe.Google Scholar
  33. Morris, John. 1843. A Catalogue of British Fossils. Comprising all the Genera and Species Hitherto Described; with References to Their Geological Distribution and to the Localities in Which they have been Found. London: J. Van Voorst.Google Scholar
  34. —— 1854. A Catalogue of British Fossils: Comprising the Genera and Species Hitherto Described: With Reference to Their Geological Distribution and to the Locatities in Which they have been Found, 2nd edn. Considerably Enlarged Edition. London.Google Scholar
  35. Müller-Wille, Staffan, and Charmantier, Isabelle. 2012. “Natural History and Information Overload: The Case of Linnaeus.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43: 4–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ogilvie, Brian. 2003. “The Many Books of Nature: Renaissance Naturalists and Information Overload.” Journal of the History of Ideas 64: 29–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Parkinson, James. 1822. Outlines of Oryctology: An Introduction to the Study of Fossil Organic Remains. London: Sherwood.Google Scholar
  38. Patrik, Linda E. 2000. “Is There an Archaeological Record?” J. Thomas (ed.), Interpretive Archaeology: A Reader. London: Leicester University Press, pp. 118–144.Google Scholar
  39. Phillips, John. 1835. Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire; or, A Description of the Strata and Organic Remains of the Yorkshire Coast: Accompanied by a Geological Map, Sections, and Plates of the Fossil Plants and Animals, 2nd ed. York: T. Wilson.Google Scholar
  40. —— 1841. Figures and Descriptions of the Palaeozoic Fossils of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset; Observed in the Course of the Ordnance Geological Survey of that District. London: Longman.Google Scholar
  41. ——1860. Life on the Earth; Its Origin and Succession. London: Macmillan and Co.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Pickstone, John V. 2001. Ways of Knowing: A New History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  43. Porter, Theodore M. 1986. The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Rappaport, Rhoda. 1997. When Geologists were Historians, 1665–1750. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Raup, David M. 1986. The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar
  46. Raup, David M., and Sepkoski, J. John Jr. 1984. “Periodicity of Extinctions in the Geologic Past.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 81(3): 801–805.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Rudwick, Martin J. S. 1975. “The Visual Languages of Geology in the Early 19th Century.” D. A. Bassett (ed.), Charles Lyell Centenary Symposium; Programme and Abstracts. International Union of Geological Sciences, International Committee on the History of Geological Sciences, 34.Google Scholar
  48. ——1976. The Meaning of Fossils; Episodes in the History of Palaeontology, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Neale Watson Academic Publishers, Science History Publishers.Google Scholar
  49. —— 1978. “Charles Lyell’s Dream of a Statistical Palaeontology.” Palaeontology 21(Part 2): 225–244.Google Scholar
  50. —— 2000. “Georges Cuvier’s Paper Museum of Fossil Bones.” Archives of Natural History 27(1): 51–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. —— 2005. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sepkoski, J. John Jr. 1981. “A Factor Analytic Description of the Phanerozoic Marine Fossil Record.” Paleobiology 7: 36–53.Google Scholar
  53. —— 1982. A Compendium of Fossil Marine Families. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum.Google Scholar
  54. —— 1984. “A Kinetic Model of Phanerozoic Taxonomic Diversity. III. Post-Paleozoic Families and Mass Extinctions.” Paleobiology 10(2): 246–267.Google Scholar
  55. —— 1992. A Compendium of Fossil Marine Animal Families. Vol. 83, Contributions in Biology and Geology. Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Public Museum.Google Scholar
  56. —— 1994. “What I Did with My Research Career; or How Research on Biodiversity Yielded Data on Extinction.” W. Glen (ed.), The Mass-Extinction Debates; How Science Works in a Crisis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 132–144.Google Scholar
  57. Sepkoski, David. 2012. Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sepkoski, David, and Raup, David M. 2009. “An Interview with David M. Raup.” D. Sepkoski and M. Ruse (eds.), The Paleobiological Revolution: Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 459–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sepkoski, David, and Ruse, Michael. (eds.). 2009. The Paleobiological Revolution: Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  60. Sepkoski, J. John Jr., Jablonski, David, and Foote, Michael. 2002. A Compendium of Fossil Marine Animal Genera, Bulletins of American Paleontology. 363; 2002. Ithaca, NY: Paleontological Research Institution, p. 560.Google Scholar
  61. Smith, William. 1816. Strata Identified by Organized Fossils. London: W. Arding.Google Scholar
  62. Strasser, Bruno J. 2011. “The Experimenter’s Museum: GenBank, Natural History, and the Moral Economies of Biomedicine.” Isis 102(1): 60–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Strasser, Bruno J.—— 2012. “Data-Driven Sciences: From Wonder Cabinets to Electronic Databases.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43: 85–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Whewell, William. 1837. History of the Inductive Sciences: From the Earliest Times to the Present. London: John W. Parker.Google Scholar
  65. Woodward, John. 1729. An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England: In a Catalogue of the English Fossils in the Collection of J. Woodward, M.D. London: Fayram.Google Scholar
  66. Woodward, Samuel. 1830. A Synoptical Table of British Organic Remains; in Which, all the Edited British Fossils are Systematically and Stratagraphically Arranged, in Accordance with the Views of the Geologists of the Present Day…. London: Longman.Google Scholar
  67. Zittel, Karl A von. 1901. History of Geology and Palaeontology to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Translated by M. M. Ogilvie-Gordon. London: Walter Scott.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations