Systems Paleontology: profound or just a buzz word?

Andy Knoll is a genius. He’s been involved in some amazing research, and he’s written one of my favourite books. So, I knew to persevere when I was presented with this abstract, which strikes me as being unnecessarily obtuse. The rest of it, as with all of Knoll’s writing, is a fantastic read, and I’d thoroughly recommend it.

So yes, it covers some of the best research that has been done in paleontology recently. It’s central thesis is intended to imply that a great revolution in paleontology is taken place, and that we are currently at the forefront of this profound new way of looking at the fossil record. This enlightened view is called Systems Paleontology.

Here’s the thing. I don’t see it as new. And I don’t see it as particularly profound, either.

What, pray, is Systems Paleontology? You’re right if you’re thinking its got something to do with systems biology, because that’s directly the sense that Knoll wants to emulate here. At its most basic, it is the integration of Earth’s history with the history of life. It’s the way that these two intertwine throughout history.

Here, though, Knoll is talking about about how it is physiology that is the bridge between biological history and environmental history. As he puts it,

Physiology makes intuitive sense as the conceptual glue between physical and biological history because it provides the proximal interface between life and environment

Now, I have to say, this is an amazingly good essay. In terms of documenting the ways that environmental changes are reflected in physiology and vice versa, it’s incredible. I’d strongly urge everyone to go read it; it is one big paleogasm.

But, in a way, I don’t really see that as particularly profound. Systems paleontology feels a bit like a buzzword. It rather reminds me, for anyone that has seem it, of the two women in the BBC program Twenty Twelve that bicker endlessly about “legacy” and “sustainability”. They’re words that don’t really mean anything, and obsessing over them only detracted from what they wanted to achieve.

So yes, I find the essay profound, but I don’t see the conceptual framework as being particularly profound. I mean, did I miss something? I had always thought that this was the entire point of paleontology. I’ve always seen myself as a historical scientist. Yes, we document the changes that happened, but we also seek to understand the causes of the changes, in terms of their ecological and environmental background. Surely if you weren’t looking into these changes, it would be a little like a historian of planes not looking into why there was a sudden proliferation of bombers during the 1940s.

Anyway, it might be that I’m tired and in a cynical mood. So, does anyone have any thoughts on this?

2 thoughts on “Systems Paleontology: profound or just a buzz word?

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