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


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.


Fossil record Databases Paleontology H.G. Bronn 


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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.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

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

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