Journal of the History of Biology 46 (3):401-444 (2013)

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
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1007/s10739-012-9336-6
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 70,192
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

On the Origin of Species.Charles Darwin - 2008 - Oxford University Press.
Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics.Peter Galison (ed.) - 1997 - University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Pandora’s Hope.Bruno Latour - 1998 - Harvard University Press.
Introduction: Making Sense of Data-Driven Research in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences.S. Leonelli - 2012 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (1):1-3.
Natural History and Information Overload: The Case of Linnaeus.Staffan Müller-Wille & Isabelle Charmantier - 2012 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (1):4-15.

View all 19 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

“Replaying Life's Tape”: Simulations, Metaphors, and Historicity in Stephen Jay Gould's View of Life.David Sepkoski - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 58:73-81.
Die Wurzeln der Idiographischen Paläontologie: Karl Alfred von Zittels Praxis und sein Begriff des Fossils.Marco Tamborini - 2015 - NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 23 (3-4):117-142.
Paleobiology and Philosophy.Adrian Currie - 2019 - Biology and Philosophy 34 (2):31.
Multiple Data.Christoph Hoffmann - 2020 - Perspectives on Science 28 (6):684-699.

View all 7 citations / Add more citations

Similar books and articles

The Search for a Macroevolutionary Theory in German Paleontology.Wolf-Ernst Reif - 1986 - Journal of the History of Biology 19 (1):79-130.
Two Kinds of Sport Records.Mika Hämäläinen - 2013 - Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 7 (4):1-13.


Added to PP index

Total views
33 ( #345,789 of 2,507,427 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
1 ( #416,983 of 2,507,427 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes