Hello Dear Readers,
It has been awhile since my last post. I have been mentally ruminating over the interesting recent events in the World of Vertebrate Paleontology. For those that have read my previous pieces, you probably know that when I say "interesting" I mean soul-suckingly frustrating. Many people have written about their take on recent events. I've been reading and processing, processing and reading. And thinking. And more thinking. All I can come up with is summarized by the statement "Things fall apart." This is not meant to be a negative statement: things have to fall apart before they are repaired and proofed against future degradations.
First, there was the impending auction of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs by Bonhams, which failed to sell at auction despite a high bid of $5.5 million because the reserve price was not met. Paleontologists were interviewed (read here, here, here, with excellent quotes from Jack Horner and Hans Dieter-Sues in the last link) and social media buzzed (here, here, and here, for example) about why the sale of such specimens is quite detrimental to the science of paleontology.
Sadly, this is becoming rather old cheese in paleontology as more and more specimens seem to be arriving on the public auction block. What took the paleontology community by surprise was the announcement that the Board of Directors of the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM, and let’s be clear: this decision had no consultation from the paleontology staff) had deaccessioned a part of their fossil collection collected, prepared, and donated by Charles H. Sternberg (yes, THE Sternberg) and put said fossils up for public auction. Letters were written, official statements were made by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, blog posts were written (the Comments section of Brian Switek's post contains many copies of letters that were sent to the SDNHM Board of Directors), and after much public pressure the announcement was made the day before the November 19 auction that the SDNHM removed the specimens.
The gut reaction when a person hears or reads a paleontologist saying that a private person buying a museum specimen or a scientifically valuable fossil is a problem is to angrily critique the science community for being so damned unreasonable. I’m sure I haven’t heard the last of being called “ivory tower”, “academic snob”, or “elitist.” To save time, here’s a sample list of the ad hominem comments made about paleontologists on social media sites and the dreaded “Comments” section. All these paleontologists have done is critique the system of the commercialization of fossil heritage and state their concerns with private fossil collections.
"Scientists have a creationist-like view with regard to private fossil ownership and the sale of fossils."
"Scientists don’t live in the 'real world' or are 'blind' to how the 'world works.'"
"Scientists are academic snobs/elitist."
"Scientists want all the fossils for themselves (greedy)."
"Scientists keep other scientists from studying museum fossils, so they should just be ignored." (that logical fallacy is the No True Scotsman, condemning a person's stance because the person or their establishment isn't "perfect.")
"Scientists would rather let fossils rot in the ground than let a private person collect them."
(I have to interject on this comment. Sample size matters in paleontology. It's not enough to qualify: we have to quantify, and to quantify we need multiples of the same type of fossil. The sad fact is that we don't often have the resources to go after multiples. Trust me, anytime you hear someone say "We don't need another hadrosaur," you're hearing a severely underfunded scientist lying to themselves. N=3000 kicks the ass of N=30.)
"Scientists have a “holier-than-thou” attitude."
"Scientists are arrogant," and, the one that has become the battle-cry as of late,
"Scientists are 'demonizing' commercial and private fossil dealers."
These reactionary statements hurt paleontology because they are made, as are most reactionary statements, without considering all the information. They are also statements that gain traction within public opinion because they are dramatic and are repeated ad nauseam (again, as are most reactionary statements.) In fact, if you feel the need to defend one position or the other with any sort of ad hominem attack, I'm treating your rebuttal as one from an angry child who cannot get its own way and calls everyone a doody-head. All the above ad hominem attacks are the “grown-up” version of doody-head. Go constructive or go home.
I have made it no secret my opinions on the commercial fossil trade and I have no problem answering questions about the scientific ethics. Here are some of the questions that have been asked that are actually constructive. [Note: these are questions within the US and Canada framework. Other countries have their own laws and issues regarding fossil trade.]
"Why is selling fossils considered so destructive?"
If a potentially scientifically important fossil is discovered on private land, there is no consistently applicable framework in place for the evaluation of said fossil by a specialist to determine its scientific value. All fossils found on private land, regardless of their scientific value, have an equal opportunity of appearing in the auction house. The only statements made to the public regarding the scientific worth of the fossils are made by people directly connected with the sale: auction house employees, the private sellers, and commercial sellers. There is no third party evaluator involved to either confirm or deny the claims. Hype drives up the interest, and the level of interest drives up the price. This leads in to the questions below.
"Why don't museums just purchase the fossils if they are so concerned about losing them?"
Natural history museums, as Hans Dieter-Sues so succinctly stated in one of the interviews, don't have high-end benefactor backing as do art museums. Museums aren't just struggling to be able to purchase high-end fossils: they are struggling to keep the staff and research programs they currently have. Museum research and archive programs are often an easy target for purse-tightening schemes because most of the museum-visiting public (and oftentimes the Boards of Directors of museums) forget that without a robust research and archives program, there is no base for making a kick-ass public-wowing display. Even if museums wanted to purchase a several million dollar fossil from auction, they couldn't afford to without laying off the staff they would need to research it. The only groups able to afford these fossils are wealthy individuals and businesses. In other words, the private collectors.
Ethically, many museums do not want to contribute to the high prices and hype that surround a legal fossil auction because it helps to sustain said hype and prices, and also encourages the illegal fossil trade. The Case of the Smuggled Tarbosaurus is one example of this "dinos for dollars" mentality. Regardless of the motives behind the legal sale of fossils, "dinos for dollars" encourages poaching, plain and simple. Also, I don't see how anyone can ethically claim they own a fossil. I can't think of a better way to voice my opinion on the subject than what I recently wrote on a Facebook post (edited for clarity):
stakeholder in this discussion has a loud voice: landowners, commercial
people, fossil purchasers, industries, and they have their laws and
rights on which to rely. The groups that have no voices are the fossils
themselves and the people who are not even born yet for whom we hold
these fossils in trust. I take my position as a collections manager very
seriously. These are not MY fossils. I don't sleep on a horde of them
like Smaug. I don't view them as decorative or art pieces. They are not
mere curiosities to be traded like so many Pokemon cards. They are not
rare trophies to flaunt. They are The Dead, and deserve as much
reverence and respect as any other Dead. I merely guard and stand watch
until it is my time to pass on the torch, and hope that I can tell the
story of The Dead to the best of my abilities before I join them. Sounds
hokey? That's how I feel, and I feel it unapologetically."
“What are the issues with scientifically important specimens being in a private collection?”
When you are a museum with a public-trust fossil archive, you are in essence making a pledge that you will do everything in your power to ensure that the fossils under your care will remain in the public trust. Public trust means that anyone who wants to do serious research on these fossils will be able to find those fossils 10, 100, even 1000 years from now. A private person isn’t likely to be around 100 years from now. There is no guarantee their descendants will be as interested in fossils as were Gramps or Gramma. There is no guarantee these fossils will be donated to a museum after the passing (or passing interest) of the initial purchaser. This is one way in which fossils are “lost to science” when they are privately purchased. It’s too easy to lose track of privately purchased fossils because there is no accountability for their whereabouts. There is no tracking system for scientifically important fossils outside of a museum setting.
“Once a fossil has been researched and all the information is collected, is it OK to sell it then?”
It is even more important that researched fossils remain in the public trust. For example, I might take all the data I can on a fossil footprint, but I know I am limited by the technology and scientific advances of our time. There are going to be tests, measurements, and scans not yet developed that I can’t even imagine that paleontologists will be able to do 10, 100, 1000 years from now. If those future scientists read my research and want to take a fresh look at that footprint, the only guarantee they will have of seeing the footprint is if it is in a museum. A museum’s job is to give scientists access to specimens. However, if that footprint is part of a private collection, that person has no obligation whatsoever to give scientists access to the footprint. This is another way in which fossils are lost to science: paleontologists know where these fossils are, but can never be guaranteed that they will see them. This is why most scientific journals that publish paleontology papers demand that any specimens that are part of the paper have to be archived in a museum. This is how we maintain the scientific paper trail.
"How can we improve the situation?"
I wish I knew. Unfortunately, stating the above to educate the general public and the fossil enthusiast alike and try to work towards a new system gets paleontologists called names by people who support commercialization of natural heritage. This happened when Dr. Thomas Carr proposed a suggestion. While I don't know the answer, or can even hazard a guess as to what form the eventual solution will take, I have suggestions. The suggestions I offer below will likely get me called names, but since I already stated The Rule that I am hereon dismissing arguments that contain name-calling of any kind, I offer the following suggestions.
1. Develop a culture of heritage consciousness with fossils (time and energy involved.)
There are public awareness campaigns to discourage the trade of products that encourage poaching. There are public awareness campaigns to discourage unsustainable practices, such as shark-finning. I see no reason why a similar campaign cannot be developed for natural heritage consciousness. There are so many positive ways in which a person can both support sustained natural heritage conservation and be directly involved with fossils. For example, if you enjoy the aesthetic beauty of fossils (let's admit it, fossils are beautiful), there are people who create museum-quality paleontology art and detailed replicas.
We can change the way that people think about fossils. Rather than thinking fossils are a financial asset (dinos for dollars), we (as a culture) should be thinking that that fossils need our help (dollars for dinos). Instead of spending several million dollars on one purchase, wealthy individuals could be convinced that they would see more bang for their buck by becoming benefactors of fossil-related research programs at museums. An "Advocacy for Benefactor Science" group would put those who enjoy certain fossil groups in touch with museums and academic programs that focus on telling the stories of those particular fossils. Like tyrannosaurs? There's a Research Interest Group for that. The investments from these benefactors would train future scientists, help paleontologists do more outreach work to the public about the fossil group of choice, and would fund the basic research needed to create show-stopping displays. Scholarships can be created for scientists. All of this (and more) would be with "Thanks to BENEFACTOR NAME HERE." This is about legacy building. Fossils have left their mark in time and space. Supporting science is one way in which a single person can make a positive difference and leave their mark.
2. Establish rules for private fossil collections (additional museum resources involved.)
The greatest issue I have with scientifically valuable fossils being held in a private collection is one of archival continuity (explained above.) This is not meant to be a personal insult to private fossil collectors, but properly caring for both the fossils themselves and their associated data takes training. A lot of training. Who better to provide this training than the museums themselves?
I have mentioned this many times to many colleagues, but one system I want to implement at my current institution (once I have the mythical "sustained resources") is the Citizen Archives Program. Fossil enthusiasts would apply to the institution for an archival permit as Citizen Archivers. The Citizen Archiver would manage, for all intents and purposes, an off-site collections facility for the home institution. They would be instructed on how to collect and store both the fossils and the associated data. Copies of this archival data would be stored at the home institution, and yearly fossil audits would take place to ensure compliance with agreed upon standards, and these standards would be the same ones under which a natural history museum operates (access to researchers, no engaging in commercial activities with fossils, etc.) Once the Citizen Archiver retires or passes away, the care of the fossils would be transferred to the home institution or to a relative who agrees to all the conditions as did their predecessor. Under this system a paper trail is established as the fossils are technically archived at a public trust institution, and serious fossil enthusiasts can be directly involved with fossils. The potential would then exist for specimens cared for by a Citizen Archiver to be published. The Citizen Archiver can collect specimens that scientists do not have the resources to collect. Citizen Archivers could be individuals, elementary and high schools, companies...as long as the permit system was followed and the fossils were accounted for, anyone could be a Citizen Archiver.
3. All fossils going for sale must be evaluated by a third-party specialist (laws involved.)
If the commercial fossil trade is going to continue in it's current form, there needs to be a way to ensure that scientifically valuable fossils, even those from private lands, are evaluated by a third-party specialist of that particular fossil prior to sale. If the fossil is deemed novel or unique to science, local natural history museums would be given right of first refusal. The fossils would not necessarily have to be given away, but there would be a set price at which the fossil would be acquired. Off the top of my head I would suggest cost recovery plus a percentage of the total cost recovery as payment for the private landowners. No, it is not the several million dollar swimming pool full of money that people would likely want and receive from a public auction, but it both compensates the land owner and keeps the price of the fossil within an acceptable range for natural history museums, as well as decreases the trend of fossils selling at ever-increasing prices.
Are these suggestions perfect? Likely not, but if I'm going to err I want to err on the side of the long-term care and conservation of our fossil heritage. We only get one shot at preserving our fossil heritage for future generations. We owe The Dead that level of respect.
Strange Woman out.