Paleontology as a science

Key points

• The key value of paleontology has been to show us the history of life through deep time - without fossils this would be largely hidden from us.

• Paleontology has strong relevance today in understanding our origins, other distant worlds, climate and biodiversity change, the shape and tempo of evolution, and dating rocks.

• Paleontology is a part of the natural sciences, and a key aim is to reconstruct ancient life.

• Reconstructions of ancient life have been rejected as pure speculation by some, but careful consideration shows that they too are testable hypotheses and can be as scientific as any other attempt to understand the world.

• Science consists of testing hypotheses, not in general by limiting itself to absolute certainties like mathematics.

• Classical and medieval views about fossils were often magical and mystical.

• Observations in the 16th and 17th centuries showed that fossils were the remains of ancient plants and animals.

• By 1800, many scientists accepted the idea of extinction.

• By 1830, most geologists accepted that the Earth was very old.

• By 1840, the major divisions of deep time, the stratigraphic record, had been established by the use of fossils.

• By 1840, it was seen that fossils showed direction in the history of life, and by 1860 this had been explained by evolution.

• Research in paleontology has many facets, including finding new fossils and using quantitative methods to answer questions about paleobiology, paleogeography, macroevolu-tion, the tree of life and deep time.

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

Sir Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), Nobel prize-winner

Scientists argue about what is science and what is not. Ernest Rutherford famously had a very low opinion of anything that was not mathematics or physics, and so he regarded all of biology and geology (including paleontology) as "stamp collecting", the mere recording of details and stories. But is this true?

Most criticism in paleontology is aimed at the reconstruction of ancient plants and animals. Surely no one will ever know what color dinosaurs were, what noises they made? How could a paleontologist work out how many eggs Tyrannosaurus laid, how long it took for the young to grow to adult size, the differences between males and females? How could anyone work out how an ancient animal hunted, how strong its bite force was, or even what kinds of prey it ate? Surely it is all speculation because we can never go back in time and see what was happening?

These are questions about paleobiology and, surprisingly, a great deal can be inferred from fossils. Fossils, the remains of any ancient organism, may look like random pieces of rock in the shape of bones, leaves or shells, but they can yield up their secrets to the properly trained scientist. Paleontology, the study of the life of the past, is like a crime scene investigation -there are clues here and there, and the paleontologist can use these to understand something about an ancient plant or animal, or a whole fauna or flora, the animals or plants that lived together in one place at one time.

In this chapter we will explore the methods of paleontology, starting with the debate about how dinosaurs are portrayed in films, and then look more widely at the other kinds of inferences that may be made from fossils. But first, just what is paleontology for? Why should anyone care about it?

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