This week I’ve been reading Lydia and Stephen Pyne’s The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene, and I came across this quote that explains, in a much more eloquent way than I could, why fossils make for such interesting scientific objects:
“The irrefutable nature of fossils is that they are tangible. What their shapes mean, and what their setting say, may be ambiguous, but the specimens themselves exist as material evidence. in the economy of knowledge they are land and bullion rather than services and promissory notes. They may be copied, in which form their can circulate as drawings and casts, but they cannot be manufactured or extracted by experiment. They are original, palpable, sui generis. They are not like data from a laboratory trial: A researcher can’t re-create them; they don’t exist autonomously, as do numbers or concepts” (p. 80).
I couldn’t agree with this passage more, which is why I place fossils as the center of my historical narratives. No matter what sorts of meanings we ascribe to these hunks of fossilized bone, no matter who argues for or against human ancestry, these objects exist. This is especially interesting in paleoanthropology, a science that attempts to reconstruct the human past using a number of methods, many of which are not tangible and palpable, for example genome reconstruction.
More on this to come as I prepare for my History of Science Society 2014 talk on objects in science! I will be discussing early Neanderthal skull discoveries, focusing on how fossils (and knowledge of fossils) travels.