Paleontology is a wide field of study that is filled with a long and fascinating past and “an even more intriguing and hopeful future” (UCMP, n.d, p.1). A large number of people think that this field involves just the study of fossils but it is much more than this. According to UCMP (n.d), paleontology is defined as “the study of what fossils tell us about the ecologies of the past, about evolution, and about our place in the world” (UCMP, n.d, p.1).
This field of study takes in knowledge from other fields such as anthropology, biology, and computer science as well among others, in order to have the understanding of the processes which have contributed to the coming about and ultimate destruction of the various kinds of living organisms, beginning from the time life started.
The field of paleontology is traditionally broken down into a number of sub-disciplines and these include; palynology, vertebrate paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, micropaleontology, paleobotany, human paleontology, paleocology, taphonomy, and ichnology (UCMP, n.d, p.1).
In this paper, the discipline of paleontology is going to be explored and the main concern will be on looking at paleontology and how it relates to the Darwin’s evolutionary theory. In the discussion, the background information on the fossil record is going to be given and this will be followed by the main discussion on paleontology and the evolutionary theory. The conclusion section will give a summary of the discussion.
Before embarking on the main discussion, we need to consider what the fossil record is because the discussion is going to be based on this to some extent. The fossil record is defined as “the collective accumulation of artefacts which have been fossilized all over the world” (Fossil record, 2003, p.1).
When looked at as a whole, there can be offering of very interesting information by the fossil record concerning how life evolved on earth. The scientists can make a decision to engage in studying the fossil record in its entirety or may chose to go to a specific period, in an effort to get information about the earth’s history and the living organisms that dwelt on it (Fossil record, 2003).
A large number of fossils, amounting to millions, which are found in rocks, exhibit forms of evolution through time and also exhibit a large number of transitions that take place in species. In the year 1831, Charles Darwin commenced on assembling a huge bulk of evidence and in turn engaged in assessing and analysing it for over one and a half decades before keenly deducing a fresh rule of “descent of organisms with no modification” (Calabro, 2000, p.1).
The fossil record is clear on the evolution of life beginning from simple forms of life to complex forms ones. The fossil record has been seen as having been very important in the development of the evolutionary theory by Darwin. However, it was pointed out that the fossil record was incomplete and Darwin criticized it for the weaknesses associated with it (Calabro, 2000).
Paleontology and the Evolutionary Theory
According to Sepkoski (2008), there exists a direct relationship between the health of a scientific discipline and the quality of its data sources. The discipline of paleontology “has a rich source of data in the fossil record”(Sepkoski, 2008, p.27).
However, there has been contradictions in opinions in the course of time in regard to the completeness of the fossil record and the sufficiency it has for making conclusions on the evolutionary trends and patterns (Sepkoski, 2008). In the more recent times, experts in the field of paleontology have had enthusiasm about the fossil record quality and there has been optimism about its approximations and the completeness it has (Benton, 2003; Jablonski et al., 2003, Foote & Sepkoski, 1999).
However, In the course of the last one century or even more, after Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ publication, there was strict hindering of the capability of paleontologists to take part fully in the discussions concerning the evolutionary theory by perceptions that, “the fossil record was not a complete or reliable source of data” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.27).
While paleontology developed its professional distinctiveness in the course of the 1900s, the critical task for the experts in this field was to set up the sufficiency of the data they had to give answers to questions raised about the authenticity of the contributions made by paleontology to the evolutionary theory.
This program involved carrying out determination of the appropriate connection between paleontology and the biology and geology fields, which are its very intimately related sister disciplines. It is pointed out that, in the absence of this backing on behalf of its data, “paleontology might never have claimed a place at the ‘high table’ of evolutionary biology, and the modern discipline of paleobiology might never have existed” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.27).
During the start of the 1800s, at a time paleontology methodology and discipline orientation were coming up, the current fields of science as we now know them were not there. In the year 1859, such a term as ‘biology’ was at that time still a relatively new innovation and even Charles Darwin himself did not utilize it in any of his editions of “Origin of Species” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.27). At that time, the term ‘paleontology’ was in general use.
One of the scientists, Charles Lyell, during that period gave a definition of this term as “’the science which treats fossil remains; both animal and vegetable’ ….but it would have been quite unusual for a scientist to identify solely as ‘paleontologist’ or even ‘a geologist” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.28). Hence, the paleontology professional position, especially when compared with the biology field, is a debatable issue in the course of the time those fields had turned out to be generally recognized as independent fields.
However, it is pointed out that the geological as well as paleontological evidence were of great significance to Charles Darwin in setting up the evolutionary theory (Sepkoski, 2008).
This was mainly for the reason that the fossil record historical evidence made it possible for him to present arguments for chronological evolutionary succession. In the initial edition of the Origin and those that followed, Darwin engaged in the extensive discussions about the importance of fossil succession, and it is not to overstate by pointing out that paleontology was a backbone of the argument he presented for evolution.
However, it is pointed out that Charles Darwin’s conservative evaluation of the fossil record completeness hindered the capacity of the paleontologists that came thereafter to totally engage in joining in the development of the evolutionary biology community (Sepkoski, 2008,). Among the greatest fears was the idea that “the ‘incompleteness’ of the fossil record would be used to criticize his theory” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.28).
The dilemma that Darwin faced, then, was that he was concurrently needed and faced embarrassment caused by the paleontological evidence found in the fossil record. As on one hand Darwin almost surely had no intentions of diminishing the status of paleontology, on the other hand, the diagnosis he undertook of the limitations which the fossil record had, had precisely that effect for almost a century after the Origin publication.
Darwin wrote about the weaknesses in the fossil record. Whilst he presented the case that the fossil data were essential for a clear understanding of the organic history, he pointed out that “the absence of transitional forms between species is an inherent and insoluble problem for paleontologists and geologists” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.28).
However, it is pointed out that the theory presented by Darwin of evolution brought in a revolution in paleontology for the reason that the fossil record turned out to be the only possible source of evidence that evolution had actually taken place. In the absence of evolution, paleontology just “made interesting, descriptive observations about the form and distribution of once living creatures; without paleontology, there is no concrete evidence that evolution happened” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.29).
But paleontology, on its own, could not independently contribute towards the theory of evolution because this theory relied on evidence which came from such fields as geology, biology and heredity among other fields in order to bring meaning to the paleontological data (Sepkoski, 2008).
This means that, in the absence of the theory of evolution to paleontology, this field of study (paleontology) could not find a solution to issues concerning the organic nature history; it called for the Darwin’s theory of evolution to carry out the contextualization of the contributions it had made while excusing its shortcomings.
Darwin had relatively pointed out that paleontology had already offered all it was possibly to give to having understanding of evolution. Therefore, for those who supported Darwin, there existed no immense necessity to examine the fossil record. In actual fact, those who supported Darwin were much more likely to have a wish to engage in pushing “paleontology into the background” (Sepkoski, 2008, p.29).
For instance, Colman (1971) presents an argument that “to the biologist that fossil record posed more problems than it resolved…the incompleteness of the recovered fossil record, in which a relatively full historical record for any major group was still lacking, was the very curse of transmutationist” (p.66).
Hunt (2010), also citing the weakness in the fossil record as diagnosed by Darwin, points out that; in responding to the lack of “absence of species-levels transformation” within the fossil records, Darwin presented an argument that that “the fossil record was too incomplete, too biased, and too poorly known to provide strong evidence against his theory” (Hunt, 2010, p.61). Hunt (2010), in his research, carried out the evaluation of this view of the fossil record in light of a period of one and a half century of the paleontological research that followed.
He points out that even if the assessment carried out by Darwin of the “completeness and resolution of fossiliferous rocks was in several ways astute” Hunt (2010, p.61), in the current day, there is much better exploration of the fossil record and there is also better documentation and understanding of this record than the way it was way back in the year 1859 (Hunt, 2010).
More specifically, a logical big set of studies which seek to trace “evolutionary trajectories within species can now be brought to bear on Darwin’s expectation of gradual change driven by natural selection”(Hunt, 2010, p.61).
As it has been looked at in the discussion above, it can be concluded that, paleontology is a very wide discipline and has been there for a long time. This discipline has played a very important role in the evolutionary theory, which was set up by Charles Darwin. The fossil record enabled Charles Darwin to develop this theory.
But over time, different views have come up concerning the completeness of the fossil record and its satisfactoriness for drawing conclusions on the evolutionary trends and patterns. For instance, Darwin’s conservative assessment of the completeness of the fossil record hindered the capability of the successive paleontologists to entirely engage in joining in the development of the evolutionary biology community.
However, it is important to note that Darwin’s evolutionary theory caused a revolution in the field of paleontology and this was because the fossil record turned out to be the only available source of evidence that indicated that evolution had actually occurred.
Yet paleontology, standing alone as an independent field, could not contribute to the theory of evolution and this is for the reason that this theory relied on evidence that was obtained from other fields which include the biology, geology and heredity fields or disciplines among others in order to make the paleontological data to turn out to be of significance.
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Coleman, W. (1971). Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function, and Transformation. New York, NY: Wiley.
Foote, M. & J. Sepkoski, J. (1999). Absolute measures of the completeness of the fossil record. Nature, 398(6726), 415-417
Fossil record (2003) Retrieved from http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-fossil-record.htm
Hunt, G. (2010). Evolution in fossil lineages: Paleontology and the origin of species. The American Naturalist, 176 (1), 61 – 76.
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UCMP. (n.d). What is paleontology?. Retrieved from, http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/paleo/paleowhat.html