The Paleobiological Revolution Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology
edited by David Sepkoski and Michael Ruse
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Cloth: 978-0-226-74861-0 | Paper: 978-0-226-27571-0 | Electronic: 978-0-226-74859-7


The Paleobiological Revolution chronicles the incredible ascendance of the once-maligned science of paleontology to the vanguard of a field. With the establishment of the modern synthesis in the 1940s and the pioneering work of George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, as well as the subsequent efforts of Stephen Jay Gould, David Raup, and James Valentine, paleontology became embedded in biology and emerged as paleobiology, a first-rate discipline central to evolutionary studies. Pairing contributions from some of the leading actors of the transformation with overviews from historians and philosophers of science, the essays here capture the excitement of the seismic changes in the discipline. In so doing, David Sepkoski and Michael Ruse harness the energy of the past to call for further study of the conceptual development of modern paleobiology.


David Sepkoski is a senior research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. He is the author of Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He is the author or editor of nearly thirty books, including The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


“The utter transformation of paleontology over the past forty years is too often viewed as either obvious and inevitable (by its enthusiasts), or misguided and unimportant (by its critics). Both of these extreme views could be avoided by a greater familiarity with the history of this revolution, which is unfortunately viewed by most professionals as of merely antiquarian interest, and this sense has been passed on to our students. The varied chapters in this fine volume provide an excellent antidote to this situation. Every paleontologist, and especially every graduate student, should read this book!"

— Warren Allmon, Cornell University

“Sepkoski and Ruse have assembled a wonderfully rich collection of essays that looks at diverse aspects of current science and provides sophisticated reflection on leading actors, probing historical and philosophical analyses, and important interpretations by the contributors. This is an important contribution to our understanding of scientific change generally as well as paleobiology and evolution specifically.”

— Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University

“Paleontologists are indeed back at the high table of evolutionary theorists, as this splendid book vividly demonstrates. With its mix of retrospective reviews and analyses of recent developments, the book gives us rich materials for evaluating what surely deserves to be called a scientific revolution. As a paleontologist, back in the 1960s I was excited by the first stirrings of the new paleobiology; now, as a historian, I'm delighted to see such a fine volume on what it has since become, and how it got there.”

— Martin Rudwick, Research Associate, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, San Diego

“Tom Schopf elevated the term paleobiology to new heights when he assembled his 1972 book Models in Paleobiology and spearheaded the founding of the journal Paleobiology—a journal, I am happy to say, that is read by many who do not work directly with fossils. If there is still some distance to go before paleobiology is fully integrated with evolutionary theory, the importance of the fossil record in understanding—not only the course of evolution, but also its pulse and pace, and even some of its mechanics—is nonetheless undeniable. The twenty-six papers in this volume probe the early days of this resurgence, and capture some of the excitement rippling through the field as paleontologists rediscovered the powerful evolutionary implications of their data.”

— Niles Eldredge, Division of Paleontology, The American Museum of Natural History

“Sepkoski and Ruse’s volume opens up the door to a long-neglected area in the history of evolutionary biology, one that began with Darwin and after a long period of eclipse has come back to illuminate a wide variety of macro- and microevolutionary processes.”

— Garland E. Allen, Washington University

“The twenty-six scholarly essays in The Paleobiological Revolution document and celebrate the rise of paleobiology—paleontology as a biological science—which established the study of the fossil record as a unique contributor to evolutionary biology. Fossils became considered as once-living organisms with real physiologies and ecologies, populating ancient environments and forming ecosystems that may have no close modern analogs. . . . In this volume we find the scientific bones of the paleobiology revolution carefully examined both by historians of science and as personal accounts from many of those who played a part in shaping the transformation. Together they tell the tale, heralded by John Maynard Smith, of the return of paleontologists to the ‘high table’ of evolutionary biology.”


— Rachel Wood, Science

"This invaluable volume – a must read for anyone interested in evolutionary theory or twentieth century biology and paleontology – may be the first word on the history of the paleobiological revolution, but it is certainly not the last."
— Paul D. Brinkman, Journal of the History of Biology

“A stimulating and eminently readable, historical account of the revolution in paleontology and the emergence of the field that became known as paleobiology.”
— J. Thompson, Evolution

“This insightful volume should serve as a foundation for future work in the largely unexplored realm of history and philosophy of paleontology.”
— Keynyn Brysse, Isis



- David Sepkoski, Michael Ruse
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0001
[paleontology, paleobiology, paleobiological thought, scientists, paleobiological revolution]
This introductory chapter discusses the coverage of this book which is about the major changes in paleontology from 1970 to the present. This volume is divided into three sections. The first section examines the growth and development of some of the central ideas in modern paleobiology, the second focuses on historical and philosophical examination of themes and issues central to the last forty years of paleobiological thought, and the third offers personal reflections on careers in paleobiology by many of the scientists who shaped the paleobiological revolution. (pages 1 - 12)
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Part I Major innovations in paleobiology

- David Sepkoski
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0002
[paleobiology, paleontologists, George Gaylord Simpson, Norman Newell, paleobiological methods]
This chapter provides an historical overview of paleobiology, from the origin of the term itself through the emergence of a distinct set of paleobiological methods and questions in the 1950s and 1960s. It suggests that while paleobiology experienced an accelerated period of activity during the 1970s and 1980s, its roots were firmly established by the work of the previous generation of paleontologists, particularly by George Gaylord Simpson and Norman Newell. This chapter also mentions that it was in the 1980s that paleobiology was established as a mainstay in many university and museum departments. (pages 15 - 42)
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- Michael J. Benton
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0003
[paleontology, fossil record, global diversification, mass extinction, molecular phylogenetics, statistical tests, sampling error]
This chapter examines modern approaches to perhaps the oldest problem in paleontology, specifically the perceived incompleteness of the fossil record. It focuses on the larger-scale patterns that may be gleaned from the fossil record such as global diversification and mass extinction. This chapter evaluates recent approaches in molecular phylogenetics and statistical tests of paleontological sampling error and suggests that while accurately interpreting the fossil record still presents many challenges, the future prospects for paleobiology are quite good. (pages 43 - 59)
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- Richard A. Fortey
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0004
[marine life, early Paleozoic, Alfred Russel Wallace, geographical distribution, taxonomic distribution, Wallace Line, biogeography, biodiversity, paleobiology, evolution]
This chapter examines the distribution and evolution of marine life in the early Paleozoic. It discusses the pioneering work of Alfred Russel Wallace who recognized the differences in geographical and taxonomic distribution of organisms across the so-called Wallace's Line. This chapter also explains the lessons of recent studies of biogeography and biodiversity for paleobiology and stresses the need to continue the study of broad patterns and detailed empirical taxonomic work to solve problems in biogeography and evolution. (pages 60 - 72)
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- Richard J. Aldridge, Derek E. G. Briggs
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0005
[conodonts, vertebrates, soft-tissue structure, mineralized vertebrate skeleton, raptorial device, dentin, Alfred Romer]
This chapter discusses the study and interpretation of the conodonts, a group of extinct animals whose identification and anatomical reconstruction was a mystery and a challenge throughout much of the twentieth century. It highlights the importance of conodonts in understanding the early history of vertebrates and the difficulties of paleontologists in analyzing the soft-tissue structure of the conodonts. The new understandings of conodonts reveal that vertebrates originated in the sea, and that the mineralized vertebrate skeleton in conodonts which served as a raptorial device is comparable to dentine and enamel. These findings are contrary to what Alfred Romer wrote in Man and the Vertebrates in 1933. (pages 73 - 88)
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- J. William Schopf
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0006
[Precambrian paleobiology, fossil record, microfossils, John William Dawson, Charles Doolittle Walcott, Albert Charles Seward]
This chapter discusses the author's own personal experience in witnessing the growth of Precambrian paleobiology. It relates how the assumptions accepted by early workers influenced the development of this science and how and by whom breakthrough advances were brought to the fore in the mid-1960s. This chapter discusses the pioneering works of John William Dawson, Charles Doolittle Walcott, and Albert Charles Seward. It also narrates the story of the gradual expansion of the fossil record over the past several decades, including the discovery of microfossils dating some 3.5 billion years old. (pages 89 - 110)
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- John R. Horner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0007
[dinosaur paleobiology, dinosaur evolution, dinosaur paleontologists, Edwin Colbert, John Ostrom, Robert Bakker]
This chapter examines dinosaur paleobiology and the interpretations of dinosaur evolution. It argues that dinosaur paleontologists were among the first to reach the evolutionary high table and provides a summary of the many exciting discoveries made in recent decades. This chapter also highlights the importance of the works of several paleontologists including Edwin Colbert, John Ostrom, and Robert Bakker in revolutionizing the thinking about dinosaurs. (pages 111 - 121)
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- Tim D. White
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0008
[hominid paleobiology, human evolution, evolutionary biology, cladistics, punctuated equilibrium, paleoanthropology]
This chapter examines hominid paleobiology and the history of the modern interpretations of human evolution. It outlines hominid paleobiology's place in science and situates it within post-Synthetic evolutionary biology. This chapter also analyzes the institutional, intellectual, and popular factors in evolutionary interpretation of hominids, including the influence of larger debates such as cladistics and punctuated equilibrium and the disciplinary identity of paleoanthropology. (pages 122 - 148)
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- Patricia Primehouse
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0009
[punctuated equilibrium, Darwinism, Niles Eldredge, Stephen Jay Gould, natural selection, paleobiology, evolutionary biologists]
This chapter investigates whether Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium challenges the central foundations of Darwinism. It argues that punctuated equilibrium has successfully influenced important work on hierarchy in natural selection that was instrumental in gaining recognition and respect for paleobiology among evolutionary biologists. This chapter also discusses what it means to be a Darwinian. (pages 149 - 171)
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- Francisco J. Ayala
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0010
[evolution, molecular biology, paleontological evidence, fossil record, paleontology, comparative anatomy]
This chapter examines the relationship between evidence for evolution provided by molecular biology and the paleontological evidence in the fossil record. It highlights the continued tension between paleontological and biological approaches to evolutionary theory and evaluates whether molecular data establishes a more reliable evolutionary clock than the fossil record. This chapter suggests that molecular evolutionary studies have three notable advantages over paleontology, comparative anatomy, and other classical disciplines. These include quantifiable information, multiplicity, and comparability of very different types of organisms. (pages 176 - 198)
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Part II The historical and conceptual significance of recent paleontology

- Derek Turner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0011
[paleontology, experiments, empirical tests, virtual experiences, prehistoric organisms, evolutionary processes]
This chapter investigates whether paleontology, as a historical science, can perform experiments, and whether paleobiological experiments are like experiments in other scientific disciplines. It suggests that it is possible to carry out rigorous empirical tests without actually performing any experimental manipulations on the objects of interest. This chapter describes two techniques that paleobiologists have come to rely on over the last few decades: crunching the fossils and virtual experiments. It also shows that reconstruction of prehistoric organisms and past evolutionary processes can link up in surprising and fruitful ways. (pages 201 - 214)
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- Todd A. Grantham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0012
[taxic paleobiology, evolutionary process, neontology, taxic methods, evolutionary studies]
This chapter examines the emergence of taxic paleobiology during the early 1980s, which was advocated by its proponents as a solution to the problem of independent levels of selection within the evolutionary process. It describes how the development of taxic paleobiology affected the paleobiology/neontology interface during the 1980s and explains the principal differences between neontology and paleobiology. The analysis reveals that though taxic methods quickly became influential among paleontologists, they had little impact in evolutionary studies and that the rise of taxic methods did not seem to promote closer collaboration across disciplines. (pages 215 - 238)
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- David E. Fastovsky
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0013
[dinosaur paleontology, popular culture, political meaning, paleobiology, T. rex, dinosaur extinction, social climate]
This chapter examines the social and political meaning of dinosaur paleontology in popular culture. It considers three case studies: the paleobiology of the large theropod T. rex, the discovery of dinosaur maternity, nests, eggs, and embryos, and the dinosaur extinction. The analysis reveals that important discoveries about the biology, behavior, and extinction of dinosaurs were influenced not just by empirical developments, but also by the social climate of the times in which they were produced. (pages 239 - 253)
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- Susan Turner, David Oldroyd
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0014
[Ediacaran fauna, Reginald Sprigg, Precambrian paleobiology, scientific acceptance, Charles Walcott, Burgess shale]
This chapter describes Australian paleontologist Reginald Sprigg's discovery of the famous Ediacaran fauna in 1946. It argues that Sprigg's discovery helped pave the way for Precambrian paleobiology and that his case illustrates the sometimes tortuous path of ideas to scientific acceptance. This chapter explains that the findings of Sprigg were not accepted until their later appropriation by Charles Walcott in his work at Burgess Shale. (pages 254 - 278)
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- Manfred D. Laubichler, Karl J. Niklas
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0015
[German paleontology, morphological tradition, United States, paleobiology, Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, scientific theories, cultural references]
This chapter examines the important morphological tradition in German paleontology. It suggests that the pluralistic and biologically oriented German paleontology both predated and anticipated many of the concerns of the paleobiology movement in the United States. This chapter explains that German paleontology developed its own paleobiology independently of both the Anglo-American tradition and the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. Thus, it can be considered a perfect topic for a cultural history of science that places the development of scientific theories and concepts clearly within the framework of cultural references, values, and transformations. (pages 279 - 300)
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- David Sepkoski
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0016
[punctuated equilibrium, theoretical paleobiology, paleontologists, Stephen Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge, David Raup, Thomas Schopf, Steven Stanley, Darwinian evolution, natural selection]
This chapter investigates the origin and early history of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, from its first articulation in 1971 through subsequent revision and reaction into the early 1980s. It argues that punctuated equilibrium cannot be separated from the broader development of theoretical paleobiology promoted during the mid-1970s by a group of paleontologists dedicated to revising the goals, agenda, and status of paleontology. This chapter also suggests that punctuated equilibrium is part of a larger movement that involved not just Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, but his colleagues David Raup, Thomas Schopf, Steven Stanley, and others who sought to redefine paleontological evolutionary theory largely without the directional causes central to traditional Darwinian evolution via natural selection. (pages 301 - 325)
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- John Huss
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0017
[MBL model, clade shape, Tom Schopf, Stephen Jay Gould, Dave Raup, Dan Simberloff, natural selection, phylogenetic patterns, paleontology]
This chapter discusses how the so-called “MBL Radical” model of simulated clade shape was developed. Paleontologist Tom Schopf organized a meeting in the winter of 1972 at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts which was attended by Stephen Jay Gould, Dave Raup, and Dan Simberloff. There were problems in analyzing raw data for patterns and trends. This led Simberloff to propose a null hypothesis for evaluating the effects of natural selection on phylogenetic patterns, and Raup wrote the simulation program that reflected this picture of evolution. This chapter suggests that the MBL model offers important lessons about theory testing and simulation that resonate beyond paleobiology. (pages 326 - 345)
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- Joe Cain
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0018
[Stephen Jay Gould, George Gaylord Simpson, paleontology, macroevolutionary theory, disciplinary identity, macroevolutionary paleobiology]
This chapter focuses on Stephen Jay Gould's attack on George Gaylord Simpson, who was considered in the 1960s as paleontology's principal innovator in macroevolutionary theory. It highlights Gould's efforts to deny Simpson any relevance to contemporary developments and suggests that this “ritual patricide Radical” was central to Gould's efforts at establishing a new disciplinary identity for his favored brand of macroevolutionary paleobiology. This chapter also examines the rhetorical devices used in that campaign. (pages 346 - 363)
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- Arnold I. Miller
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0019
[Consensus Paper Radical, marine diversity, Jack Sepkoski, Richard Bambach, David Raup, Jim Valentine, biodiversity, paleobiological agenda, Phanerozoic diversification, consensus-building]
This chapter presents an historical analysis of the publication and reception of the famous “Consensus Paper Radical” in 1981, in which five competing interpretations of global marine diversity were reconciled. It discusses the work of the paper's authors Jack Sepkoski, Richard Bambach, David Raup, and Jim Valentine. This chapter examines the disagreements over trends in biodiversity and consensus-building in science and the shaping of the paleobiological agenda in the early 1980s. It highlights the explosion of research emphasizing the macroevolutionary and paleoecological processes responsible for the major features of Phanerozoic diversification and extinction after the publication of “Consensus Paper Radical.” (pages 364 - 382)
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Part III Reflections on recent paleobiology

- James W. Valentine
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0020
[paleontological research, biological study, molecular techniques, faunal associations, fossil distributions]
This chapter describes the author's personal experiences as a scientist committed to integrating paleontological and biological study. It discusses early attempts to fashion paleobiological hypotheses based on fossil associational and distributional data, the application of molecular techniques in paleobiology, and the advantages of cooperative research on mutual problems. The article argues that attempts to relate faunal associations and fossil distributions in the 1960s and 1970s eventually fueled a subsequent movement of paleobiological findings into biology. (pages 385 - 397)
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- Richard Bambach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0021
[paleobiological revolution, paleoecology, paleobiology, science, paleontology]
This chapter discusses the author's personal journey as a paleoecologist and evolutionary paleobiologist from the 1950s through the 1990s. It provides insights into the central developments of the paleobiological revolution during this period and on the important connections between paleoecology and paleobiology. This recollection illuminates some of the human aspects of doing science and helps reveal how some of the change in paleontology came about. (pages 398 - 415)
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- Rebecca Z. German
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0022
[paleobiology, mentors, David Raup, Tom Schopf, Stephen Jay Gould, pedagogy, paleobiological revolution, informal instruction]
This chapter offers insights into the author's experience as a student of paleobiology during the 1970s. It suggests that the author's relationship with her mentors including David Raup, Tom Schopf, and Stephen Jay Gould highlights the role of pedagogy during the paleobiological revolution. This chapter also discusses how formal and informal instruction shaped the next generation of paleobiologists and provides a glimpse of the field not normally accessible through published research. (pages 416 - 422)
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- Anthony Hallam
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0023
[paleobiologist, United Kingdom, punctuated equilibrium, species selection, fossil record, punctuational speciation, paleobiology]
This chapter offers the perspective of a paleobiologist trained in the United Kingdom. It describes the development of paleobiological interests among British paleontologists from the 1950s to the 1980s, focusing on punctuated equilibrium and the associated theory of species selection, which played an important role in the author's own research. This chapter also discusses the trends in the fossil record and provides an assessment of the significance of the idea of punctuational speciation for paleobiology generally. (pages 423 - 432)
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- Arthur J. Boucot
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0024
[punctuated equilibrium, community evolution, fossil record, sampling test, species-level evolution, allopatric taxa, parent species]
This chapter examines punctuated equilibrium and compares it to the idea of community evolution that emerged from ecological study of the fossil record. It identifies what is believed to be the weakness of the punctuated equilibrium theory and argues that community evolution is based on a more reliable empirical foundation. This chapter explains how punctuated equilibrium fails the sampling test because it assumes that there are only two rate modes characterizing species-level evolution and that newly evolved allopatric taxa have the inherent capability of reinvading the region of the parent species' environment. (pages 433 - 458)
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- David Sepkoski, David M. Raup
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0025
[David M. Raup, theoretical paleontologist, paleobiological revolution, macroevolution, extinction, computer-based simulation, fossil data]
This chapter presents the text of an interview with David M. Raup, one of the most important theoretical paleontologists of his generation and a major architect of the paleobiological revolution. Raup discusses his background, interests, and influences and describes some of the major events in his career. He also describes his involvement in major debates over macroevolution and extinction throughout the 1970s and 1980s and his pioneering work in computer-based simulation and analysis of fossil data. (pages 459 - 469)
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- David Jablonski
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0026
[paleobiology, evolutionary biology, paleontology, paleobiologists]
This chapter presents the author's view of the current state of paleontology as one of the leaders of the current generation of paleobiologists. It identifies six major areas for investigation that will define the future of paleobiology and stresses the need for continued efforts to unite paleobiology with the wider community of evolutionary biology. This chapter also provides an important manifesto for students and practitioners of paleobiology. (pages 471 - 517)
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- Michael Ruse
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748597.003.0027
[paleobiological revolution, paradigm shift, scientific revolution, modern natural sciences, paleobiology]
This chapter evaluates whether the development of paleobiology over the past several decades constitutes a genuine scientific revolution or paradigm shift. It analyzes a number of criteria by which this era of paleobiology might be judged to have been revolutionary and compares the development of paleobiology with other major shifts in modern natural sciences. This chapter argues that the paleobiological revolution was an event of significant importance in the history of recent science and a subject worthy of continued and serious historical and philosophical study. (pages 518 - 528)
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List of Contributors