Towards a Sociology of Paleontology

I’m at the North American Paleontological Convention right now – perhaps you’ve gotten an email from me and wonder who I am! As you can see from my website and web presence, and hopefully if you look into my publications, I am a sociologist of science. My previous research has mainly focused on health and reproductive biology, but I am turning my attention to paleontology because I am interested in broader analysis of the role science plays in conversations about the anthropocene. I am also a huge paleontology fan, especially a fan of arthropods, and especially especially trilobites. Likewise I am utterly enchanted by the Burgess Shale and its weird animals (Opabinia – most of my students have seen my replica figure from ROM). I am interested in the science-society questions about the anthropocene noted above, and also in asking all kinds of wacky philosophical questions about ancient extinct animals. So I am here conducting interviews with scientists to learn more about their perspectives.

When I applied for a grant for my study, here is what I wrote:

Where transitions between prior epochs were marked by non-anthropogenic causes such as volcanic activity and asteroid strikes, the anthropocene marks time in which human activity has become the dominant cause of geological and climate changes (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). Yet the concept is highly controversial, and thus relevant to sociological study concerning how individuals and communities deploy scientific or other kinds of knowledge to take positions on social conflicts and debates. Paleontology is the study of life before the current epoch, known through tell-tale rocks called fossils. Paleontology produces knowledge about the prior status of the earth in relation to the present, and as such, paleontologists contribute much to social, political, and economic debates about environmental and climate changes and extinction. This study asks, How do paleontologists reflect upon and understand their work as it relates to debates concerning the anthropocene? Stratigraphy, the study of rock layers, highlights the relationship between the fossil record and geologic time. In stratigraphy, layers of rock represent different geological time periods, and different fossils are found in different rock layers. There are special fossils that play unique roles in describing ancient environments called index fossils. They are typically abundant in the record, diversified through time, and highly adapted to specific environments, giving paleontologists who find them instant knowledge of the age of rock layers. The study will specifically concern paleontologists who are experts on a particular class of index fossils: those of ancient arthropods called trilobites, which lived from the Cambrian (521mya) to the Permian (252mya). The “trilobite biostratigraphic scale” (Geyer & Shergold, 2000) is a way to tell time with fossils. But these fossils do not just tell ancient time; it has been shown that trilobite specimens collected today are contaminated with anthropogenic compounds such as plastics and flame retardants (John, M., Babcock- Adams, & Walker, 2017), while mining, urbanization, and climate change have exposed new fossil beds. As such, trilobites materially connect the present to the past. I anticipate that trilobites are important in facilitating our knowledgeable understanding of geologic time and thus the anthropocene. I want to know what paleontologists think about this.

This is why I am at NAPC! If you are interested in my study, I would be delighted to hear from you.