The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology

The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology

by Martin J. S. Rudwick

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"It is not often that a work can literally rewrite a person's view of a subject. And this is exactly what Rudwick's book should do for many paleontologists' view of the history of their own field."—Stephen J. Gould, Paleobotany and Palynology

"Rudwick has not merely written the first book-length history of palaeontology in the English language; he

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"It is not often that a work can literally rewrite a person's view of a subject. And this is exactly what Rudwick's book should do for many paleontologists' view of the history of their own field."—Stephen J. Gould, Paleobotany and Palynology

"Rudwick has not merely written the first book-length history of palaeontology in the English language; he has written a very intelligent one. . . . His accounts of sources are rounded and organic: he treats the structure of arguments as Cuvier handled fossil bones."—Roy S. Porter, History of Science

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University of Chicago Press
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The Meaning of Fossils

Episodes in the History of Palaeontology

By Martin J. S. Rudwick

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1976 Martin J. S. Rudwick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-73103-2


Fossil Objects


ON 28 July 1565 Conrad Gesner (1516–1565), the greatest naturalist of his century, completed his book On fossil Objects, It is an appropriate date to choose as a starting point for this history of palaeontology. Gesner's took marked a crucial moment in the emergence of the science, for it incorporated three innovations of outstanding importance for the future; but at the same time its form and contents epitomise perfectly the scientific and social matrix within which that emergence took place.

The short title of Gesner's book is deceptive: more fully it is A Book on fossil Objects, chiefly Stones and Gems, their Shapes and Appearances. This shows at once that the word 'fossil' has changed its meaning radically since Gesner's day. By origin the word meant simply 'dug up', and Gesner, like all his contemporaries and his predecessors back to Aristotle, used it to describe any distinctive objects or materials dug up from the earth or found lying on the surface. This of course included fossils in the modern sense, but it also embraced much more. Gesner's book dealt with a number of objects that we would now recognise as the fossil remains of organisms, but they were described in the context of a wide variety of mineral ores, natural crystals, and useful rocks.

This change in the meaning of the word 'fossil' is far more than a trivial point of etymology: it is a clue to the first major problem in the history of palaeontology. This was not simply to decide whether or not fossils were organic in origin. Nor was it merely a matter of recognising their 'obvious' resemblances to living animals and plants, and of combatting 'absurd' ideas that they could be anything other than the remains of those organisms. On the contrary, their resemblances to living organisms were generally far from obvious or easy to perceive; and even when perceived, it was far from absurd to suggest that those resemblances might not be causal in character.

Early naturalists such as Gesner were faced with a very wide variety of distinctive 'objects dug up'. With respect to organic resemblances, these objects can be arranged in a broad spectrum. At one end of the spectrum lie objects that had little or no similarity to organisms. Crystals such as gem-stones and useful rocks such as marble are of this character. At the opposite end of the spectrum are objects that resemble organisms so clearly that the analogy is impossible to overlook. Many fossil shells and bones are of this character. But between these extremes lies a very wide variety of objects having some degree of resemblance to organisms, but in which that resemblance is ambiguous and difficult to interpret. In modern terms this category includes many fossils with confusing modes of preservation, and others belonging to extinct groups of organisms; but it also includes many concretions and other inorganic structures with some fortuitous resemblance to organisms.

In retrospect, we can see that the essential problem was that of determining which of this broad range of objects were organic and which were not. It is therefore misleading to say that some early writers believed that fossils were organic whereas others did not. It is essential to discover what kinds of 'fossil' they had in mind. Somewhere along the spectrum, objects with significant resemblances to organisms had to be distinguished from those in which such resemblances were either absent or purely fortuitous. However, the criteria from making this distinction were not self-evident. When in the course of time they became clearer, objects with a causally significant resemblance to organisms came to be termed 'organized fossils' or 'extraneous fossils', to distinguish them from the rest of the broad range of 'objects dug up'. But it was not until the early nineteenth century that the word 'fossil', without qualification, finally became restricted to this end of the spectrum—though even today a relic of its former breadth of meaning is still preserved in the use of the term 'fossil fuels' for coal and oil. Meanwhile the inorganic origin of many other 'fossil objects' was also becoming clearer. This left in the middle of the spectrum a gradually shrinking group of objects of uncertain origin; and in modern palaeontology this group persists under the name of Problematica, as a collection of objects that are doubtfully organic or at least of uncertain affinities. The question of the nature of fossils was not, therefore, resolved in a simple struggle between 'correct' and 'erroneous' opinions: it was a much more subtle debate about the meaning and classification of the whole spectrum of 'fossil objects'.


Before analysing the earlier stages of the debate about 'fossils' it is worth considering the context in which they were studied by sixteenth-century naturalists. Gesner intended his small book on 'fossils' to be no more than a preliminary essay, to be followed at a later date by a full-scale work on the subject. The larger work was never written: only a few months after completing the preliminary book he died at his home in Zurich in an outbreak of plague, leaving behind him a vast mass of unpublished materials. Because his work on 'fossils' was only a small part of a much wider programme to cover the entire range of natural history, his published History of Animals (1551–8) gives us an indication of the character that his larger work on 'fossils' would have had. In its structure and contents we can see reflected the distinctive attitudes and methods of a Renaissance naturalist, and the same features can be detected in miniature even in the small book On fossil Objects.

The characteristic attitude to history of the men of the Renaissance, by which they regarded their own period as a time of re-birth and attempted recovery of the values and achievements of classical Antiquity, led naturalists such as Gesner to adopt an encyclopaedic approach to their subject. To some extent this was a deliberate imitation of the classical model set by Pliny in his Natural History, which was reprinted many times during the sixteenth century. But it also reflected their recognition of the value of both the writers of Antiquity and their own contemporaries. Gesner's History of Animals, for example, was intended to be a worthy successor of Aristotle's great work of the same name; but it set Aristotle's observations alongside those of Gesner's own contemporaries. It was designed to gather together all that had been written on animals from Aristotle's time to Gesner's own, to compare and collate these opinions, and so to provide a firm foundation for future study. It seemed essential to record in full the opinions of writers ancient and modern, even though their views often conflicted with each other, and even though the compiler himself was sometimes sceptical of their more sensational assertions. However, in an age when geographical exploration was expanding the bounds of natural history almost yearly, often with the discovery of remarkable and unexpected creatures, few reports could safely be dismissed a priori as absurd; and Gesner thought it prudent to include many curious monsters in his compilation, while expressing doubts about their authenticity.

With this all-embracing compilative aim, it is not surprising that extremely massive encyclopaedic works were produced by sixteenth-century naturalists. Gesner's works are a good example: he published four huge folio volumes on animals; two more remained unpublished at his death, and at that time he was also working on a botanical compilation of similar scope. There can be little doubt that his fuller work on 'fossils', had he lived to write it, would have had the same character. This is suggested also by the comparable work of his near-contemporary the Bolognese naturalist Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), who in his much longer life wrote similar encyclopaedic works on all branches of natural history. His Museum of Metals (1684)—the word has narrowed in meaning like 'fossil', and at this period meant broadly all mineral materials—remained unpublished until nearly eighty years after Gesner's small book had appeared; but in its massive bulk and encyclopaedic contents it probably resembles what Gesner's larger work might have been.

The Renaissance background of Gesner's work is shown not only in its encyclopaedic character but also in the philological emphasis of its contents. This reflects his training as a humanist scholar. His literary education, based on the classical languages, had given him a respect for the standards of exact textual scholarship that underlay the critical new-editions by such scholars as Erasmus. Transferred to his work on natural history, this led him to place great importance on determining exactly what the classical authors had written about animals and plants, and to give their opinions great weight. The achievements of the naturalists of Antiquity, and especially Aristotle, had indeed been so remarkable that the respect was fully deserved. But in order to make full use of that achievement, precise identification was imperative. In his treatment of each organism Gesner therefore gave first place to questions of nomenclature and synonymy. Likewise his small book on 'fossils' mentioned the Latin, Greek and German names for the objects he was describing, and he promised that his larger work would deal at length with their "philology" (Fig. 1.1).

Gesner's concern for precise identification provides the context for the most important innovation incorporated in his book On fossil Objects. It was the first in which illustrations were used systematically to supplement a text on 'fossils'. The importance of this can hardly be exaggerated. Several books describing a similar range of objects had been printed earlier in the century, and some of the names used in them can be traced back through the mediaeval 'lapidaries' to the works of classical authors. However, without illustrations no writer could be certain that he was applying a name in the same sense as his predecessors. The effect of Gesner's innovation can be seen with striking effect if his book is compared with the earlier and more famous work On the Nature of Fossils (1546)5 by the German naturalist Georg Bauer (1494–1555)—better known by his literary name Agricola. Both books dealt with much the same range of objects; but in the complete absence of illustrations it is often very difficult to know just what objects Agricola was describing, whereas in Gesner's book it is generally clear at once from the woodcut illustrations. Since the nature of most 'fossil objects' was poorly understood, it was difficult for any sixteenth-century naturalist to decide which features were essential for description and which merely accidental, or indeed to know how best to describe in words any features whatever. Illustrations provided a means of by-passing this problem, by allowing non-verbal communication between author and readers, and thereby mitigating the hazards of inadequate verbal means of expression. Gesner himself recognised the importance of what he was doing, for he said he was including as many illustrations as possible "so that students may more easily recognise objects that cannot be very clearly described in words".

The employment of illustrations to supplement and explain a scientific text was not in itself an innovation. In more established branches of natural history the use of woodcuts had already been brought to a high standard of artistic and scientific excellence. Leonhart Fuchs's magnificent Commentaries on the History of Plants (1542) and Andreas Vesalius's great work On the Construction of the Human Body (1543), each illustrated with drawings of superb quality, had been published more than twenty years earlier; and Gesner himself had used hundreds of woodcuts in hisHistory of Animals, the volumes of which were a monument to the usefulness of illustrations as an aid to identification (see Fig. 1.9). For depicting 'fossil objects', however, there was virtually no precedent, no iconographical tradition to follow. One minor work published some years earlier had included a few small woodcuts, two of which can be recognised as drawings of fossil shells (Fig. 1.2); but this seems to have been Gesner's only precedent. His own book was similar in size and scope, but he included a far greater number of woodcuts, providing illustrations systematically for every part of his subject matter. But even drawings of 'fossils' suffered to some extent from the same limitations as verbal descriptions, since it was not always clear which features most deserved emphasis. Gesner was aware of this, saying he hoped that if his readers "find some difficult to recognise they will blame, not me, but the difficulty of the task". Nevertheless, crude though some of his woodcuts are, they initiated a technical change which was of major importance to the future science of palaeontology.

The further exploitation of illustrations as an aid in the identification of 'fossils' can be seen in the hundreds of woodcuts in Aldrovandi's book, which in this feature too is probably an indication of what Gesner's larger work would have been like (Fig. 1.3). Woodcuts, however, had their limitations: unless they were very large (as some of Aldrovandi's were) they enforced a relatively coarse style of drawing, which was ill adapted to the increasing emphasis on precise description. By the end of the century, therefore, naturalists were beginning to exploit one of the striking new inventions of Renaissance artists, namely the technique of engraving on copper. Although this was more costly, in the hands of a competent engraver it allowed far more detail to be shown, and far more subtle shading to give a greater illusion of three-dimensional solidity (Fig. 1.4). In this respect Aldrovandi's book on 'fossils' was already old-fashioned by the time it made its belated appearance; copper engravings had by then been used for more than thirty years for illustrating fossils, some of the first (see Fig. 1.11) having been published early in the seventeenth century by the Neapolitan naturalist Fabio Colonna (1567–1650). The change from woodcuts to copper engravings was only the first of many technical advances in illustration, generally taken over from the visual arts, by which palaeontologists have been able to improve the quality and precision of their non-verbal communication with each other. This dependence on illustrations is not a reflection of the 'immature' state of the science, but is an essential element in its structure, stemming from the inherent nature of its subject-matter. Technical advances in illustration might be said to have played a part in the history of palaeontology similar to that of improvements in instrumentation in the physical sciences.


Gesner's use of illustrations in natural history reflects not only his concern to identify precisely the material described by the Ancients, but also his emphasis on the importance of first-hand experience. His respect for the opinions of classical authors was tempered by a method of study in which great weight was placed on the value of personal observation. In all his work on natural history, Gesner compiled his material as far as possible from a basis of first-hand observation, or, where that was not possible to him, at least from a study of preserved specimens. Indeed he followed Fuchs's example of employing a draughtsman and an engraver to make illustrations under his direct supervision, in order to ensure the highest standards of accuracy in representing the specimens he collected or was sent.

This emphasis on the importance of looking at nature for oneself is characteristic of a strand in sixteenth-century thought which was, to some extent, the opposite of the humanist emphasis on recovering accurately the writings of the Ancients. Advances in technology and voyages of exploration were beginning to provide a 'model' of human history that would turn attention away from an exclusive concern with recovering a golden past and would begin to persuade men that their own age might even surpass that of Antiquity. This feeling, especially among those most closely involved in practical pursuits affected by new discoveries, encouraged the view that nature too should be studied without uncritical regard for the opinions of the Ancients. Among those who wrote on 'fossils' the French ceramic craftsman Bernard Palissy (1510?–1590) is a good example of this anti-traditional tendency. Palissy's travels as a 'journey-man' potter brought him firsthand experience of a wide range of 'fossils', and especially of the materials for ceramics. At the same time he was proudly ignorant of the classical languages and the traditional teaching of the universities, and took a delight in exposing the supposed errors of more 'learned' writers.


Excerpted from The Meaning of Fossils by Martin J. S. Rudwick. Copyright © 1976 Martin J. S. Rudwick. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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