Paleontology: Outrunning Time

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In this paper, I discuss several temporal aspects of paleontology from a philosophical perspective. I begin by presenting the general problem of “taming” deep time to make it comprehensible at a human scale, starting with the traditional geologic time scale: an event-based, relative time scale consisting of a hierarchy of chronological units. Not only does the relative timescale provide a basis for reconstructing many of the general features of the history of life, but it is also consonant with the cognitive processes humans use to think about time. Absolute dating of rocks, fossils, and evolutionary events (such as branching events on the tree of life) can be accomplished through the use of radiometric dating, chronological signals extractable from fossil growth patterns, and the “molecular clock.” Sometimes these different methods of absolute dating, which start from largely independent assumptions and evidentiary bases, converge in their temporal estimates, resulting in a consilience of inductions. At other times they fail to agree, either because fossils and molecules are giving temporal information about different aspects of nature and should not be expected to agree, or because of flawed assumptions that give rise to an inaccurate estimate. I argue that in general, despite the fact that it can be difficult to integrate disparate kinds of evidence, the principle of total evidence should be applied to the dating of evolutionary events. As a historical science, paleontology studies past events we cannot observe directly. This raises questions of epistemic access, meaning that due to the fragmentary nature of the fossil record we may find ourselves without access to the relevant traces to adjudicate between rival hypotheses about the past. The problems and prospects of epistemic access are explored through a case study of the reconstruction of the colors of dinosaurs. The paper closes with a reflection on the Darwin- Lyell metaphor of the fossil record as a highly fragmentary history book, and a call for a reconsideration of the book metaphor in favor of a systems view of the geologic and fossil records.
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Archival date: 2018-10-13
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