- The Paleontological Society
A stupid argument brings shame to any scholarly effort; but no dishonor attends an erroneous claim—especially in science, lest we all become psychological basket cases, because the vast majority of novel hypotheses turn out to be dead wrong. I would even grant substantial kudos to a class of claims that one of my colleagues, speaking of Emmanuel Velikovsky's neocatastrophic theories, called “gloriously wrong”—for this complex and radical argument enjoyed at least a glimmer of empirical plausibility, and would have annihilated most of our complacent beliefs about the nature of geologic change, had the evidence proved sound and the mechanism workable. But Venus turned out to be an old planet with a stable orbit, not a young comet, and the hypothesis of “worlds in collision” collapsed.
For my opening essay in this series on “conceptual index fossils,” I presented the first published drawing of an invertebrate fossil, a crude image of a clam that appeared in one of the three foundational documents of modern paleontology—the 1557 treatise, De re metallica (On metallic objects), by the German natural historian Christopher Encelius. I argued that Encelius introduced the novel practice of drawing specimens in order to bolster his claim for linking this item of his own discovery with one of Pliny's classical names for fossils—an antiquarian indulgence of no particular interest by modern scientific standards, but an activity of consummate importance for a Renaissance intellectual like Encelius, who believed that the classical scholars of Greece and Rome had achieved maximal understanding of the natural world, and that paleontologists of his generation could therefore do their best work by recovering this ancient wisdom and linking the old names and insights to modern discoveries.
I also mentioned a wonderfully paradoxical fact in passing, while explicitly reserving the analysis and explanation for this essay: although Encelius's …