Marco Tamborini

Knowledge in Deep Time

In 1985, paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould published a paper in the journal Paleobiology arguing
that “Nature's discontinuities occur at different scales of time or tiers”. He distinguished three
distinct temporal tiers and stated that “whatever accumulates at the first tier is sufficiently reversed,
undone, or overridden by processes of the higher tiers.” For instance, mass extinction occurs at
the third tier. It “works by different rules and may undo whatever the lower tiers had accumulated.”
Two decades later, Gould noted that only paleobiologists are able to investigate what happened in
the second and third tier; whereas “neontologists” study “modern organisms in human or ecological

My talk sheds light on the nature of the practices used to narrate, identify, and master
paleontological time. By analyzing the theoretical and technological presuppositions that made
knowledge in deep time possible, I derive some broader conclusions about the features of
paleontological data, patterns, and processes. How can paleontologists work with something that
is always imperfect and incomplete, i.e. the fossil record? Which function does technology have in
detecting phenomena on the second and third temporal tier, such as mass extinctions? Is this
temporal distinction useful? And, which relationship is there between paleobiologists and the socalled


Marco Tamborini holds a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from Heidelberg University.
After a predoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and a
postdoctoral position at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, he is now teaching philosophy and
history of science at the Technical University of Darmstadt. His research focuses on the history
and philosophy of biology in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as in the history and philosophy of
technoscience. He is currently working on the history and philosophy of twentieth-century
evolutionary morphology.

Featured Publications

“Paleontology and Darwinian Theory of Evolution: The Dangerous Role of Statistics at the End of
the 19th Century” Journal of the History of Biology 48, no. 4 (2015): 575-612. Winner of the 2017
Everett Mendelsohn Prize, Journal of the History of Biology.
“Technoscientific Approaches to Deep Time”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science part A.
Online first:
“An Image of Science”: Cameralism, Statistics, and the Visual Language of Natural History in the
Nineteenth Century”. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 48, no. 1 (2018): 56-109 (with
David Sepkoski).