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Superstition and the fossil record

Superstition is not without value. Generally held beliefs give apparent order and coherence to human communities, qualities that are valued by some persons, especially those with a vested interest in the order and coherence that might prevail during a certain era of human history. Without apparent order and coherence, there would be no conventional wisdom, and no place for professors of it and the academic institutions that hire them to profess it. Whatever else they do, paradigms in Kuhn’s sense function as superstitions within the scientific community These superstitions, in their guise as conventional scientific wisdom, Singer (1959:125) recognizes, in more colorful terms, as “Idols of the Academy“: “Their worship involves the fallacy of supposing that a blind though learned rule can take the place of judgement.” Within the scientific community concerned with phylogenetic investigation the fossil record has often been, and still is, worshipped as an Idol of the Academy. But, like all Idols, it is vulnerable to criticism, falsification, and eventual demise. Before it can undergo that process, however, it must be framed in a rational form, as an “argument”; hence the “paleontological argument.”

In its most general form, the paleontological argument holds that the fossil record shows the course of evolution because it shows actual ancestor–descendant sequences (actual phylogenies). This, most general, form of the argument has been widely discussed of late, and it is generally conceded to be fallacious, that is, generally falsified.

Nelson, Gareth J. 1978. “Ontogeny, Phylogeny, Paleontology, and the Biogenetic Law.” Systematic Zoology 27: 324–345.


  1. Hans Ø. Tjelle Hans Ø. Tjelle

    Is this quote to be understood in the context of the cladistic shift that was taking place at the time?

    • Well, yes it is, but I like it for the broader notion of epistemology in science that Gary is implying. It is very empiricist, and at the same time very much accepting of ignorance. In another context he cites Claude Bernard:

      “I support ignorance. There is my philosophy. I have the tranquility of ignorance and faith in science….”

      The quote is from a note (“un autre papier ine?dit”), said to be written in a juvenile hand [Chevalier, 1937, 50; Mauriac, 1940, 149 and Cotard, 1944, 53 who use ‘the?ologie’ in place of ‘the?orie’]. The note begins:

      “I live in a state of ignorance; therein is my philosophy. I have tranquillity of ignorance and faith in science. Others cannot live without faith, without belief, without theories
      that explain everything. These, I do without. I sleep on the pillow of ignorance.”

      Elsewhere he wrote …:

      “Science has precisely this responsibility to teach us, through reason and experiment, what we do not know, and clearly to show us the limit of our present knowledge.”

      Nelson, Gareth J., and Pauline Y. Ladiges. 2009. “Biogeography and the Molecular Dating Game: A Futile Revival of Phenetics?” Bull. Soc. Géol. Fr 180 (1): 39–43.

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