Roy Plotnick, Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life (2022)

Author: Roy Plotnick

Title: Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life

Format: e-book

Pages: 312

Series: –

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.

Score: 5/10

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.

20 thoughts on “Roy Plotnick, Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life (2022)

  1. Interesting, thanks. I’m interested in paleontololgy, but I’ll pass nonetheless. It seems the content of this book aligns neatly with 2018’s What is Real? by Adam Becker, which I’ve read last year, and has a similar description of the sociological workings of the physics field, in a non-Putnam way, so I don’t feel the need to read another one.

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    1. Yeah, there are better books on paleontology. Man, the situation in academia has become so pathological it’s really painful 😣 no wonder there are virtually no new trends and ideas in humanities for the last 20+ years and sciences became so specialized and narrow…

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      1. About 20 years ago, I decided not to persue a PhD as I saw how some of my professors were treated: not enough money, too much hours, hardly recognition. On top of that, and more crucial, in literary sciences, almost everybody was working on “two inches of ivory”, as they say: subject matter so specific there hardly was a societal relevance to their research. Not that I’m against fundamental research, but the balance was lost.

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        1. Oh yeah, literary sciences are even worse in that respect than social sciences – here at least there’s always some societal relevance. And while I like deep literary analyses, it does often result in complete separation from life – a good if tired example is the treatment of genre lit which till recently, and even now sometimes, was treated as something beneath notice by many in the field 😉

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        1. Oh, I have a few. I think the diarrhoea of writing irrelevant and often simply bad articles for points instead of spending time on actual research is almost as corrosive as cronyism. This ties with the existence of predatory journals and citation indices etc. Mediocrity rules because it’s safe. It gets points, it gets grants, it gets money.

          Also, the academia’s social environment can be a very unhealthy place – many of the regulations existing in private sector against sexism or mobbing, for example, basically don’t exist in academia or have a hard time being introduced. I have some stories that seem unbelievable in our age, truly. I could probably sue some of those people and win 😉

          Also, there’s a lot of jealousy and playing against one another, pushing one’s favourites against someone else, etc. Here in NZ there’s even a name for it: the tall poppy syndrome. Don’t be too good or you’ll be cut down.

          So, there’s a lot of smelly rotting mess in this environment, and nobody wants to touch it, because most of those already in stand to lose big time, and those outside either don’t care or are too busy trying to get in 😉

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          1. I didn’t realize rules about sexism are different in academia and the private sector. Are you talking about NZ or Poland or? I don’t think that’s the case in Belgium.

            Tying publications to funding has had some grave consequences indeed.

            On the other hand, much of what you describe also exists in other social environments.

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            1. Hmm maybe rules aren’t different but their application is. I worked at two higher education institutions in Poland: one of the two best universities and a military academy; in both I had experiences of casual sexism, but in the military one there was also a full-on sexual harassment.

              In NZ it’s openly acknowledged cronyism: when I was looking for work in my field one of the professors told me frankly that while my research is very interesting and valuable, he has graduates to find positions for so I can forget about getting a place at his university.

              Oh, I’m not saying these are only academia problems; I know very well they are everywhere; I worked for 6 years in a corpo and that’s not an experience I’d like to repeat. I guess it’s just that in my misguided naivety I thought academia would be more merit-based 😂

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  2. Hah I have experienced the same cronyism in science too and I believe it is everywhere. These hyper specialised fields are all about who you know and who was your promoting professor, and so on. From my biology studies at Leiden University, only a few students ever enter palaeontology because the field is not so exciting in the Netherlands since we are mostly a river delta and mud flat, and so these areas of research all depend on certain persons and their personal quirks. Sigh, one of the reasons why I am not unhappy to have left science.

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    1. I’m with you there, Jeroen. I’d love to continue my research but I’ve come to the realization that if I want to do it I must do it on my own, outside academia, with no expectations of making a paid job out of it – just a very time- and effort-consuming hobby. It’s crazy.

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  3. Why is it so difficult to find good science books? It’s apparently tricky to get the balance right. Like you, I have limited interests in the history of paleontologists, whom I will forget about as soon as finishing the book. And despite my fascination of the topic, I have no ambitions becoming a paleontologist.

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    1. I agree, good science books are scarce because it’s difficult to write in a scientific yet accessible way and not get bogged down in minutiae interesting only to pros ;). I can recommend Lomax’s book, it was really great. I’ll be reading another, on trilobites this time, soon, hopefully will be good!

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  4. One thing’s for sure, I can see why you’re so interested in this with your deep interest in the past! As for me, you caught my attention when you switched goggles to sociology and mentioned social capital, one of the key ingredients of interest in my own thesis! And that sure didn’t sound like a traditional conceptualization of social capital… Great thoughts, Ola! 😀

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    1. Heh, no science is objective, right? Bourdieu and Foucault were correct in that, that’s for sure, and Weber more idealistic than I thought. I stand by my definition of social capital, though, I think Putnam was too entrenched in this community already to see how difficult this web of acquaintances and favors makes everything for outsiders. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, Lashaan!

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      1. I agree! I mostly utilize the concept to explore social ties amidst criminals and analyze it according to different ways individuals invest and draw upon social resources to affect them on an individual level. It was definitely interesting to see you analyze that particular aspect of his perception throughout your read though.

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