Darwin-L Message Log 8:26 (April 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<8:26>From mahaffy@dordt.edu  Mon Apr 11 10:59:09 1994

Subject: Re: "Natural history" vs. "botany": a follow-up
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Date: Mon, 11 Apr 1994 11:00:32 -0500 (CDT)
From: James Mahaffy <mahaffy@dordt.edu>

In a recent post (Sun, 10 Apr 1994 13:01:23) Bob O'Hara suggests that:

>                                               for some reason "botany" was
>sometimes excluded from the broader category "natural history".  I just came
>across another example of this: the Library of Congress Subject Headings, used
>by many libraries to assign call numbers and subject classes to their books,
>has a heading "Paleontology" which includes general works on fossils _and also
>works on animal fossils_, and then a separate heading "Paleobotany" for works
>on plant fossils; there is no corresponding heading "Paleozoology" because
>animal fossils are taken to be covered by "Paleontology".

     May I suggest that there may be some other reasons for
plants not being included in paleontology.  I am trained as a
paleobotanist, but much of my work in studying coal involves
geology. I have been fascinated by the different perspective
different disciplines take.  It is my impression that geologists
often look at fossils more as useful or non-useful objects for
biostratigraphy.  Although they know they were creatures they
often don't often look at them from a biotic perspective.  Since
in most marine environments the hard shelled invertebrates
(trilobites, brachiopods etc. are usually more abundant and better
preserved, their is a tendency not to think of the plants (algae)
which usually are not well preserved.  I still remember sitting
in on a geology paleoecolgy class in the geology department.  The
professor was going into all the animal relations, but had not
even thought of the base of the food chain (the algae), until
another paleobotanist and I asked about it. At that University
(U. of Illinois) paleobotany was studied in the Botany not
Geology department and even though it was cross listed with
geology, we did not have many geologists taking the course.

     I am well aware that there is an increasing trend toward
understanding ecology and the biology of the fossils in geology,
but I still think some of the attitude of looking at fossils as
objects for biostratigraphy affects geology. Except for
palynology, and some algae microfossils, the major place I recall
plants getting used for biostratigraphy is European

     In other words plants are generally less useful for biostratigraphy
and geologists are more apt to be focusing on organisms as
biostratigraphic object then their biotic side. Hence it is not really
surprising to find plants neglected.  It does not help that many geology
departments have moved toward hard rock geology (which is not the best
environment for any fossil preservation), but that is another story.

James F. Mahaffy                   e-mail: mahaffy@dordt.edu
Biology Department                 phone: 712 722-6279
Dordt College                      FAX 712 722-1198
Sioux Center, Iowa 51250

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