Article ID: CBB376924894

Functional Morphology in Paleobiology: Origins of the Method of ‘Paradigms’ (2018)


From the early nineteenth century, the successful use of fossils in stratigraphy oriented paleontology (and particularly the study of fossil invertebrates) towards geology. The consequent marginalising of biological objectives was countered in the twentieth century by the rise of ‘Paläobiologie’, first in the German cultural area and only later, as ‘paleobiology’, in the anglophone world. Several kinds of paleobiological research flourished internationally after the Second World War, among them the novel field of ‘paleoecology’. Within this field there were attempts to apply functional morphology to the problematical cases of fossil organisms, for which functions cannot be observed directly. This article describes the origins of the kind of functional inference for fossils that I proposed in 1961 as the method of ‘paradigms’ (a year before Thomas Kuhn made that word more widely familiar with a quite different meaning). Here I summarize some of my ‘worked exemplars’, which were intended to show the paradigm method in action. These case-studies were all taken from the paleontologically important phylum of the Brachiopoda, but the method was claimed to have much wider implications for the interpretation of the fossil record in terms of adaptive evolution. This article takes the history of the paradigm method as far as the late 1960s. I hope to trace, in a sequel, its ambivalent fate during the 1970s and beyond, when for example Gould’s critique of ‘the adaptationist programme’ and the rise of computer-based quantitative methods for the evolutionary interpretation of the fossil record led to the relative eclipse of functional morphology in paleontology.

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Authors & Contributors
Sepkoski, David Christopher
Cohen, Claudine
Sarjeant, Willaim A. S.
Dietz, Linda F.
Mitchell, Trent A.
Gould, Stephen Jay
Earth Sciences History: Journal of the History of the Earth Sciences Society
Journal of the History of Biology
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
University of Chicago Press
Geological Society of America
New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science
St. Martin's Press
Columbia University Press
Earth sciences
Natural history
Wetzel, Konrad Alois Siegmund Karl Walter
Wetzel, Otto Christian August
Granger, Walter
Sepkoski, John
Gould, Stephen Jay
Ballerstedt, Maximilian Magnus
United States
New Mexico (U.S.)
Montana (U.S.)
19th century
20th century
20th century, late
Early modern
21st century
University of California, Berkeley
Rutgers University

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