EGENIS seminar: "A Spinosaurus Tail Tale: Underdetermination, Capacities & Historical Knowledge", Dr Adrian Currie (University of Exeter)

Egenis seminar series

An Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences seminar
Date29 November 2021
Time15:30 to 17:00
PlaceOnline event.

Most discussion of paleontology’s credentials focus on ‘epistemic scarcity’: paleontological data is rare, degraded, incomplete and hard to manage. In virtue of this, paleontological hypotheses are often underdetermined, that is, we lack sufficient evidence to discriminate between competing hypotheses. However, this discussion assumes that paleontological knowledge is focused on understanding life’s actual history: token events and processes. I’ll push against this interpretation via an examination of secondarily aquatic vertebrates, that is, once-terrestrial critters who have returned to the sea, in particular the enigmatic, enormous theropod Spinosaurus.

I’ll argue that (1) Hypotheses tested in paleobiological reconstruction often concern the capacities of particular morphological traits; (2) hypotheses about capacities are then knit together into consistent accounts of past organisms. Further, I’ll suggest that underdetermination is good actually. Epistemic scarcity solves a choice problem (what investigations should we do?) in a way that ensures biological relevance at a useful level of description. And indeed, hypotheses about capacities are not underdetermined, suggesting the claim that historical research is characteristically concerned with underdetermination is too quick.

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