on the whole machinery of life … How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. (1859, p. 83)

Second, on time's promotion of the infinitesimal to great magnitude:

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages. (1859, p. 84)

The pure extrapolationism of Darwin's uniformitarian perspective creates an enormous, if not fatal, problem for paleontology. We would like to be a source of meaningful evolutionary theory, for this discipline explains the patterning of the objects we study. But if every event at our scale may be built by extrapolation from a present that contains all causes, then we have no theoretical contribution to make. We are still needed in a lesser role, of course, for history is massively contingent, as Darwin well knew, and theory must therefore underdetermine actual events. But paleontology, in this status, only provides phenomenology—a descriptive accounting, dedicated to documenting that life followed this particular pathway, rather than another route equally plausible in theory. Moreover, paleontology, in Darwin's view, cannot even provide particularly good phenomenology (however honored faute de mieux) because an imperfect fossil record so blots, confuses, and distorts the pathway. Remember that Darwin's first geological chapter bears no triumphant title, but rather the apologetic: "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record."

The demotion imposed by pure extrapolationism—to description devoid of theory—must be the chief source of paleontology's curiously low and almost ironic reputation: to be beloved and glamorized by the public (with a series of images from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park ), and almost invisible within professional halls of status and funding. Consider two assessments of our absent contribution to evolutionary theory. Sadly, as Julian Huxley notes in beginning the first quote, paleontologists have often defended their own debasement—an all too common phenomenon noted among slaves, hostages, and other oppressed people who adopt the assessments of their captors (psychologists even have a label for it, as the Patty Hearst syndrome). Huxley wrote in the book that gave our theory its name (1942, p. 38):

As admitted by various paleontologists, a study of the course of evolution cannot be decisive in regard to the method of evolution. All that paleontology

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement