Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline
Although fossils have provided some of the most important evidence for evolution, the discipline of paleontology has not always had a central place in evolutionary biology. Beginning in Darwin's day, and for much of the twentieth century, paleontologists were often regarded as mere fossil collectors by many evolutionary biologists, their attempts to contribute to evolutionary theory ignored or regarded with scorn. In the 1950s, however, paleontologists began mounting a counter-movement that insisted on the valid, important, and original contribution of paleontology to evolutionary theory. This movement, called "paleobiology" by its proponents, advocated for an approach to the fossil record that was theoretical, quantitative, and oriented towards explaining the broad patterns of evolution and extinction in the history of life.
"Rereading the Fossil Record" provides, as never before, a historical account of the origin, rise, and importance of paleobiology, from the mid-nineteenth century to the late 1980s. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, David Sepkoski shows how the movement was conceived and promoted by a small but influential group of paleontologists--including Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, among others--and examines the intellectual, disciplinary, and political dynamics involved in the ascendency of paleobiology. By emphasizing the close relationship between paleobiology and other evolutionary disciplines, this book writes a new chapter in the history of evolutionary biology, while also offering insights into the dynamics of disciplinary change in modern science.
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One measure of the greatness of a work is that the characters who play roles in the narrative feel its essential truth. As someone who is proud to have been there during much of the action David Sepkoski describes, I give his description and analysis of the history of paleobiology a five-star rating; to my mind, this actually was the way it was.
- Niles Eldredge, American Museum of Natural History
"David Sepkoski's book is the first to examine the rise of paleobiology and the emergence of macroevolution as a discipline in the 1970s. These advances shook the fields of biology, geology, and paleontology and established a cadre of major questions that have been pursued ever since. The subject is one of the three main advances in evolution in the twentieth century, the others being the rise of the 'modern synthesis' and the advent of 'evo-devo.' It is rare to be able to give such high marks for the treatment of both the science and the history, but this book deserves such praise. An essential for every evolutionist's bookshelf."
- Kevin Padian, University of California, Berkeley
"David Sepkoski's narrative shows us how the science of paleontology was transformed in the later twentieth century by the energetic activities of a quite small group of talented individuals. Their journal, 'Paleobiology', gave their movement a name and an institutional identity, but also an outlet for their radical research program. Foreseeing at an early stage the huge potential of computers, they turned the analysis of the fossil record into a component of evolutionary theorizing that could no longer be ignored or marginalized by the dominant 'modern synthesis.' This is a book from which both evolutionary biologists and historians of twentieth-century science will have much to learn, and it is so readable that they should all enjoy the experience."
- Martin J. S. Rudwick, author of "Worlds Before Adam" and "Bursting the Limits of Time"
David Sepkoski is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He is coeditor, with Michael Ruse, of "The Paleobiological Revolution: Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology", also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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