Author: Roy Plotnick
Title: Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life
I’ll be very frank: Roy Plotnick’s book is a strange beast indeed; I have expected something along the lines of Dean R. Lomax’s Locked In Time, a pure palaeontology delight filled with descriptions of unique discoveries and fact-based interpretation of the traces of life long gone. What I got instead was an unusual mixture of a tiny bit of paleontological knowledge, a huge load of pages seemingly lifted from Who’s Who in US palaeontology, overflowing with personal information about various US palaeontologists in the last 50 years, complete with short biography boxes completely disrupting the flow of the book, and a fair amount of what looks like a memoir of Plotnick himself, with personal photographs. In short, if you want to become a palaeontologist in the modern United States, this book is for you. It’s filled with useful information about positions, institutions, big and small names in the field, the development of various palaeontology areas and subdivisions, and so on. But if you want to know a bit more about the contents of palaeontology itself – look somewhere else. I strongly suggest Lomax’s book, because it’s as illuminating as it is engaging.
As for Plotnick, I must confess I had somewhat of a hard time going through pages and pages of alternately gossipy and nostalgic snippets of information about people I never met nor expect to ever meet. The moments of the book when Plotnick finally gets to the bones of palaeontology were the most interesting and enjoyable – it’s obvious that he has an enormous knowledge in the field, and a gift for explaining it succinctly and clearly. I was many times surprised and delighted to see how the scope of paleontological knowledge is changing and evolving, how various fields of biological and geological sciences combine to illuminate the times long gone, and how such an old, not to say prehistoric, area of interest can give us insights into our future. Plotnick is an advocate of an interdisciplinary approach to palaeontology, and his book makes for a compelling argument in its favour. The description of the various ways we can apply knowledge about past climates to our current situation and search for solutions to the global warming problems in the past is very interesting. And Plotnick is a scientist through and through – the bibliography annex is very useful and for those interested in palaeontology it offers a wealth of information and options for future reading – I’ll be coming back to it as my reference list. Fascinating! I really wish Plotnick devoted the whole book to the topic of palaeontology instead of going down the rabbit hole of personal information on palaeontologists.
That said, however, I must admit I couldn’t help but look at the contents of this book from a sociologist’s perspective. In this respect, the personal links were very illuminating indeed, although probably not in the way Plotnick intended. Robert Putnam describes the concept of social capital as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” – something entirely benign, positive, nay – quintessential to democracy. However, the insider description of the workings of those closed, almost elitist circles of colleagues, proteges, tutors, and acquaintances Plotnick’s book offers shows clearly the deficiencies of Putnam’s idealistic vision. This is not social capital, it’s cronyism. Sure, it seems so deeply ingrained in American culture by now that nobody’s paying it any attention, considering it, I believe, a norm. But in this regard Plotnick’s book is priceless, as it paints a very clear, and very worrying picture of the state of US higher education, where who you know is more important than what you know. And the road towards it starts very early: Plotnick even gives some well-meant advice to prospective palaeontologists on how to choose the proper school with the right people in it so that they can help you in your future career. Even the prospects of maternity leave or hiring of partners in different institutions are discussed. My idealistic vision of academia as a place of learning and knowledge lies in shatters (not that my own experiences are different, but I somehow hoped my situation was the exception, not the norm ;)).
I believe that American current and future palaeontologists will be delighted to read this book. For them, it’s a veritable well of useful information and gossip. For a person who wanted to learn more about palaeontology itself, however, it was a disappointment. I really wish I could’ve liked it more, Plotnick seems like a nice and very knowledgeable person.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My special thanks to Robyn Massey at Columbia University for providing the book for review.