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Rock, Bone, and Ruin

An Optimist's Guide to the Historical Sciences (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)

Adrian Currie


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An argument that we should be optimistic about the capacity of “methodologically omnivorous” geologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists to uncover truths about the deep past.

The “historical sciences”—geology, paleontology, and archaeology—have made extraordinary progress in advancing our understanding of the deep past. How has this been possible, given that the evidence they have to work with offers mere traces of the past? In Rock, Bone, and Ruin, Adrian Currie explains that these scientists are “methodological omnivores,” with a variety of strategies and techniques at their disposal, and that this gives us every reason to be optimistic about their capacity to uncover truths about prehistory. Creative and opportunistic paleontologists, for example, discovered and described a new species of prehistoric duck-billed platypus from a single fossilized tooth. Examining the complex reasoning processes of historical science, Currie also considers philosophical and scientific reflection on the relationship between past and present, the nature of evidence, contingency, and scientific progress.

Currie draws on varied examples from across the historical sciences, from Mayan ritual sacrifice to giant Mesozoic fleas to Mars's mysterious watery past, to develop an account of the nature of, and resources available to, historical science. He presents two major case studies: the emerging explanation of sauropod size, and the “snowball earth” hypothesis that accounts for signs of glaciation in Neoproterozoic tropics. He develops the Ripple Model of Evidence to analyze “unlucky circumstances” in scientific investigation; examines and refutes arguments for pessimism about the capacity of the historical sciences, defending the role of analogy and arguing that simulations have an experiment-like function. Currie argues for a creative, open-ended approach, “empirically grounded” speculation.

Praise For Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist's Guide to the Historical Sciences (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)

Currie has, in this book, pointed us towards a promising way forward.—BRITISH JOURNAL FOR THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE

The book is an intriguing read.

Geoscientist Online

This book is a wonderful example of how to move between the relevant scientific details and the broader conceptual issues that characterize a particular set of scientific practices.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

On the whole, Rock, Bone, and Ruin is a must-read for those interested in the historical sciences.

History & Philosophy of the Life Sciences

The MIT Press, 9780262037266, 376pp.

Publication Date: February 16, 2018

About the Author

Adrian Currie is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University.