MUSEUM COLLECTIONS AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF PALEONTOLOGY
The methods of paleontology have, however, expanded greatly over the past half-century or more. Beginning with increased use of quantitative and techniques in the 1940s and 1950s, the toolkit of modern paleontology has grown to include techniques as varied as geometric morphometrics, isotope sclerochronology, and, especially, compilation of taxonomic data. As a result of these changes, the “legacy” infrastructure of specimen collections is no longer the only tool in the box, which has led to their frequent neglect, and in response periodic expressions of concern for their continued maintenance.
Less frequently argued in these discussions of the “importance of collections” in paleontology is their philosophical significance. Most notably, there has been a shift of emphasis from viewing fossils as a record of objects to fossils as a record of data; i.e., some of the core epistemic values of our field have changed. This may be problematic for our future because, as a historical science, paleontology depends completely on observations of the results of past processes, rather than of the processes themselves. Those results are fossil objects, which are thus the only real data in paleontology. Epistemologically, no paleontological ideas, hypotheses, or conclusions mean anything without reference to fossil specimens. The information that paleontologists produce from fossils – e.g., shape, taxonomy, distribution in time and space – is in reality metadata. Although we constantly strive to improve it, this information is frequently found to be insufficiently precise, accurate, or well-conceived for all purposes. Therefore, unless specimens are maintained in collections, not only will paleontology lose future opportunities to gather additional information; we will in a very real sense lose both the data and the philosophical underpinning of our field.