Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist's Guide to the Historical Sciences

Published on 01 February 2018


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.

About the Author

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


“The ‘historical’ sciences have been neglected by philosophers. Adrian Currie analyzes both the problems and the opportunities involved in reconstructing and understanding the unobservable deep past. His engaging discussion—ranging from the character of global ice ages through the habits of giant dinosaurs to the meaning of Mayan monuments—explores the surprising commonalities that underlie these superficially diverse sciences.”
—Martin Rudwick, University of Cambridge; author of Earth’s Deep History and Bursting the Limits of Time

“Rock, Bone, and Ruin is an extraordinarily ambitious, provocative, and generative treatment of the epistemic predicament of the historical sciences. Adrian Currie trains his philosophical eye on the research strategies of ‘unlucky’ historical scientists—those who contend with messy, incomplete, and opaque traces of the past—and explains how, against the epistemic odds, they establish a robust understanding of seemingly inaccessible geological events, evolutionary processes, and cultural dynamics. This is a nuanced and richly illustrated account of scientists operating under non-ideal circumstances that demonstrates what can be accomplished by taking seriously the turn to practice. It has implications that will be of interest to practitioners and it is an incisive argument for doing philosophy differently: attentive to the epistemic challenges scientists actually face, resolutely local and contextual, and unabashedly normative.”
—Alison Wylie, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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