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Paleontology's Greatest Hits

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 July 2017

Richard K. Bambach*
Affiliation:
Department of Paleobiology Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History MRC – 121 NMNH Washington, DC 20013-7012
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Abstract

Although this paper mentions many specific discoveries and advances it is not intended as a catalog of the “biggest hits” in the sense of public notice, but rather it is an effort to chart how the diversity of paleontological work in the last century fits into the context of the biggest hit of all, the emergence of a “new paleontology” in which conceptual advances have revolutionized every aspect of our profession. When the Paleontological Society was founded no unambiguous fossils were known from the immense stretch of Precambrian time and no hominine fossils were known from Africa. Rigorous phylogenetic analysis and a seat for paleontology at the “high table” of evolutionary biology were in the future. Where once we learned a series of guide fossils and thought we had studied paleontology, now students explore taphonomy, paleoeocology, geobiology and macroevolution in our general courses on paleontology. This paper attempts to take notice of some of the highlights of our evolution from a field focused on cataloging and describing the contents of the fossil record into a complex, multidisciplinary endeavor focused on analytical study of general questions. Some of those hits have been discoveries that document the course of evolution, some have been new conceptual approaches that give us insights that link pattern to process, some are new ways of compiling, analyzing or communicating our knowledge. But with all that the study of the history of life remains at the heart of our profession. The change has been the shift in goal from description to understanding of that history, from “what” to “how.” The greatest hits have been the steps that have opened the way to understanding, that have made following the path possible.

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Copyright © by the Paleontological Society 

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