“Towards a Nomothetic Paleontology”: The MBL Model and Stochastic Paleontology

David Sepkoski

in Rereading the Fossil Record

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print April 2012 | ISBN: 9780226748559
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226748580 | DOI:
“Towards a Nomothetic Paleontology”: The MBL Model and Stochastic Paleontology

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The study and modeling of the history of diversity over time motivated a methodological question: how reliable is the fossil record, and how can that reliability be tested? These problems became the core of analytical paleobiology, and represented a continuation and a consolidation of the themes examined thus far in the history of paleobiology. Ultimately, this focus led paleobiologists to ground-breaking quantitative studies of the interplay of rates of origination and extinction of taxa through time, the role of background and mass extinctions in the history of life, the survivorship of individual taxa, and the modeling of historical patterns of diversity. These questions became the central components of an emerging paleobiological theory of macroevolution. This chapter explores the early stages of this development in paleobiology by examining the emergence of a new, clearly-articulated agenda: the often-expressed desire to construct a “nomothetic paleontology.” This phrase originated first in an important sequence of papers that sought to develop a stochastic, equilibrial simulation of evolutionary dynamics over time—what came to be known as the MBL model—and quickly became a rallying cry for the new approach to paleobiology. The term “nomothetic” essentially means “law-producing”. The chapter also outlined some of the essential features of this approach.

Keywords: MBL model; nomothetic paleontology; fossil record; paleobiology; mass extinctions; paleobiological theory; history of life; survivorship; evolutionary dynamics; origination of taxa

Chapter.  21866 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Palaeontology

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