David Sepkoski

Senior Research Scholar
Senior Research Scholars are established scholars as evidenced by significant publications and broad academic experience, the equivalent of a tenured university position (e.g. associate professor in North America). These scholars carry major responsibilities (up to 50% of their time) within their research unit, including representing the Director or Research Group Leader in his/her absence.
Department II
September 1, 2012 to December 31, 2018

I am a historian of science specializing in the history of the modern natural sciences. Most of my recent work has centered on the conceptual and institutional history of 'paleobiology,' which is a movement in 20th century paleontology that emphasizes theoretical, quantitative approaches to evolutionary study of the fossil record. 

I have published three books: a major study of the history of paleobiology, titled Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline (University of Chicago Press, 2012), an edited volume collecting original essays on the history and philosophy of paleobiology, The Paleobiological Revolution: Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and a monograph on 17th century mathematics and theories of representation, Nominalism and Constructivism in Seventeenth-Century Mathematical Philosophy (Routledge, 2007). 


One of my current projects is a study of the development of data practices and databases in paleontology, which is an attempt to think through some of the issues surrounding the emergence of the "data-driven" sciences in the 20th century. As part of this project, I am co-editor (with Christine von Oertzen and Elena Aronova) of a forthcoming volume of Osiris on "Histories of Data" (2017) that is part of the Historicizing Big Data working group.  My own contribution is to examine data practices in paleontology and other natural history disciplines over the past two hundred years in an attempt to trace both continuities and ruptures in the practice, material culture, and epistemologies of data in modern natural science.  Beyond the Osiris project, I am involved with collaborations at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago investigating the relationship between collections and databases, in both historical and current contexts.  

I am also writing a book, tentatively titled Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity, which is under contract with the University of Chicago Press.  This book is an intellectual and cultural history of extinction that situates the history of paleontological and biological ideas about extinction within the science and politics of biodiversity and endangerment. This project examines the history and cultural impact of ideas about extinction from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries. While grounded in the history of biology, it helps contextualize the modern fascination with extinction, endangerment, and diversity across disciplines and in public political discourse.

Before coming to the MPIWG I have held faculty positions at Oberlin College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where I was most recently an Associate Professor of History.


Selected publications

Sepkoski, D. (2015). Extinction, diversity, and endangerment. In N. Dias (Ed.), Endangerment, biodiversity and culture (pp. 62-86). New York [u.a.]: Routledge.

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Sepkoski, D. (2014). Paleontology at the 'high table'? Popularization and disciplinary status in recent paleontology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 45(1), 133-138. View

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Sepkoski, D. (2014). Two lives in biology. Review of: Dawkins, Richard: An appetite for wonder: the making of a scientist, a memoir. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 2013. Review of: Wilson, Edward O.: Letters to a young scientist. New York: Liveright Publishing 2013. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 89(2), 151-156. View

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Sepkoski, D. (2013). Paleontology and Evolutionary Interpretations of the Fossil Record. In M. Ruse (Ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Sepkoski, D. (2012). Rereading the fossil record: the growth of paleobiology as an evolutionary discipline. Chicago [u.a.]: University of Chicago Press.

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Sepkoski, D. (2009). The Paleobiological Revolution: Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Sepkoski, D. (2007). Nominalism and Constructivism in Seventeenth-Century Mathematical Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge.

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Max Planck Institute for the History of Science 
Boltzmannstraße 22 
14195 Berlin 

Curriculum Vitae