Genealogy, Paleontology, and Cosmological Narratives


Paleontology Genealogy is the science of moving from this————->

to this:


without ever having seen one.

During the course of my intensive Gines research, it occurred to me that putting the flesh on newly discovered bones without having ever seen the actual creature or even an exemplar thereof, is fraught with risks of uncertainty, ambiguity, and plain old mistake.  No paleontologist has ever seen a dinosaur.  But paleontologists will tell you that they are certain to a particular degree of confidence  about what dinosaurs looked like, how they acted, how they bred, fed, and sheltered themselves.  They [the paleontologists] could be completely wrong.  It appears, however, that in the absence of some great scientific contradictory discoveries or the invention of time travel, we will never know.   Yet we are prepared to accept that this is what dinosaurs were.   Why is that?

It is because it’s the best we can do right now given our limited capacities.  But there’s another reason more fundamental.   And that is because we have to have some mode of understanding the world.  Aristotle, for example, is today regarded as completely wrong about the  earth being surrounded by concentric celestial spheres.  Nonetheless, at the time, such was accepted wisdom.  In fact, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the last vestiges of Aristotelian notions about “aether” were really rooted out of physics.  The reason is the same: we need to have some way to explain this world.  That is the role of these cosmological narratives.

Genealogy has a lot in common with paleontology.  Beyond a certain point, nobody really knows their ancestors.  Even with extensive and intensive research, we can never really know them.  But if we meet certain standards of proof, then we will accept the product of that  research, even though it could be completely wrong.  Why is that?  The answer is still (a) because it’s the best we can do with our limited human capacities and (b) in any event, we need a way to organize and understand our world. So we create genealogical cosmologies to help us do that.

Some cosmologies are blatant fable and do not purport to be anything else.  Some are sophisticated attempts to apply the best of limited capacity to come as close to the “truth” as possible.  This is true of genealogical cosmologies, as it is of all others.  One day, however, every Aristotle will meet his or her Copernicus, who in turn will be superseded by Tyco, Newton, and Einstein.  Ironically, they can’t do without each other.

The “takeaway” for genealogists is the same.  Some day, toy work may turn out to have been wrong.  But if you’ve done the best work you can, not only will it be “fact” for the time being, but it will be essential to support the genealogical Copernicus waiting in the wings of history.


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August 2009
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