“because it looks like it, goddamit it!” On Identifying Bones and Fossils

One more quote from paleontologist Clayton E. Ray, this time on the epistemology of identifying animal bones:

“… the techniques [of comparative methodology, i.e., comparing unknowns to knowns] were not codified and universally applied until the nineteenth century under the influence of Cuvier, Owen, and Agassiz. This could not have occurred prior to the Age of Enlightenment/Reason, with the spread of the notion that all problems could be successfully solved through intensive inspection and that ordinary humans could rely on their own careful observations irrespective of authority.[emphasis added] … Until recently, this reliance was taken for granted, so much so that the sublime notion could be expressed profanely, if I may be permitted one homely example: Remington Kellogg, once asked by a colleague what criteria allowed him to conclude that a certain fragmentary whale vertebra was in fact identifiable to a particular species, immediately replied resoundingly, “because it looks like it, goddamit it!” He did not live to experience the postmodern entry of doubt introduced by phylogenetic systematics and social constructivism, in which we question the meaning of all our observations.” (p.7)

Clayton E. Ray on Forgotten Knowledge and Objective Mistakes

More from Clayton E. Ray:

discoveries do not stay discovered; they must be tended like a garden. (p. 15)


approach to truth is a fragile dynamic that requires continual vigilance. There may be some validity to Gould’s (1996:110) claim that “persistent minor errors of pure ignorance are galling to perfectionistic professionals,” but this has no bearing on the overriding requirement that each professional strive assiduously to get things right and never knowingly let even “minor errors” persist.(p. 16)


Clayton E. Ray 2001.  Prodromus. In Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, III.  Edited by C.E. Ray and D.J. Bohaska. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, number 90:1-20.