Send to

Choose Destination
NTM. 2015 Dec;23(3-4):117-42. doi: 10.1007/s00048-015-0130-3.

[The Roots of Idiographic Paleontology: Karl Alfred von Zittel's Methodology and Conception of the Fossil Record].

[Article in German]

Author information

PAN, Perspektiven auf Natur, Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung, Museum für Naturkunde, Invalidenstraße 43, 10115, Berlin, Germany.


This paper examines Karl Alfred von Zittel’s practice in order to uncover the roots of so-called idiographic paleontology.The great American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002) defined the discipline of idiographic paleontology as illustration and description of the morphological features of extinct species. However, this approach does not investigate macroevolutionary patterns and processes. On the contrary, the paleobiological revolution of the 1970s implemented an epistemic methodology that illustrates macrovelutionary patterns and laws by combining idiographic data with a nomothetic form of explanation. This article elucidates the features of the idiographic data as well as the acquired knowledge coupled with this approach. First of all, Heinrich G. Bronn’s (1800–1862) statistical method is analyzed. Zittel’s practice arose as a reaction against the approximate conclusions reached by Bronn’s quantitative approach. Second, the details of Zittel’s methodology are described in order to bring out its peculiarities.The microscope played a pivotal role in creating and forming Zittel’s morphological data. This analysis sheds new light on the reasons behind the so-called ideographic paleontology, thus revising Gould’s historical reconstruction, as well as on the notion of paleontological data. However, even though Zittel aimed at reaching precise and stable conclusions,his data cannot be used for elucidating evolutionary mechanisms: they are scientific in a purely descriptive sense, but completely useless for biological investigations. Finally, this paper examines how Zittel’s methodology affects the contemporary paleobiological enterprise and thereby reflects upon the notion of natural history.


Paleontology; data; macroevolution; paleobiology; the fossil record

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Springer
Loading ...
Support Center