How a Four-Legged Snake Challenges Paleontology’s Illusions of Social Neutrality

Behind my current professional activities and research interests lies a somewhat unique story: I was trained in my graduate work as a paleontologist. In fact, my dissertation focused on the community ecology of a long-extinct group of primates that inhabited what is now Southern Asia, North Africa, North America, and Europe – Adapiforms. Therefore, I was excited by a paleontological news story I learned of courtesy of my Facebook feed. Earlier this week, a new discovery documenting the existence of four-legged snake (Tetrapodophis amplectus) dating to approximately 120 million years ago was announced in the journal Science. The team describing the fossil from Brazil was headed by a faculty member at a British university. What is overshadowing this incredible animal’s discovery, however, is what happened after its announcement.

The problem first started when the provenance of the fossil was called into question. For readers unfamiliar with the term “provenance” it refers to the location of the fossil’s initial discovery in Brazil and information about how it was excavated. In layperson’s terms, it is akin to a friend asking, “Where did you get that great iPhone cover?” Your response may be one of a few answers. You might say, “I bought it.” Another answer might be, “I got it at the Target in Mays Landing! It was the last one on the end-cap of the electronics aisle and I got it for 70% off!” A third might be, “I saw it in the cart of another Target customer, and when he turned around, I took it from his two-year old’s hands, along with his wallet, and bought it with his credit card.” The last two give your friend much more information about where you found the iPhone case in question and under what conditions it came to be in your possession. Your friend might then use that information to make decisions about their own iPhone cover and what they think of its utility or style and possible options for replacement. The record of provenance also provides a sort of credibility to the rigor of a scientist’s work, similar to a chain of evidence in police investigations. The conundrum with Tetrapodophis amplectus (the newly discovered snake) is that it was discovered by the head of the team in a German museum collection. The museum had previously obtained the specimen from a private collector. As such, we are currently unsure of how and when the bones were removed from its original location in Brazil and eventually transported to its home in Europe.

There has been much recently written expressing differing opinions in regard to how international laws should be applied to fossils, whether fossils should be repatriated to the areas from which they were removed, or where fossils can get the most effective conservation expertise (1, 2). What I’d like to focus on, however, is the lead author’s response to questions regarding the provenance of the fossil and whether he had consulted Brazilian experts who may have particular insight onto its importance in the evolutionary record. When asked if he should have consulted a Brazilian scientist, his response was:

“But what difference would it make? I mean, do you want me also to have a black person on the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple and a woman, and maybe a homosexual too, just for a bit of all round balance?” (3)

There, dear readers, is the heart of this post. Whereas the scientific emphasis is on this creature’s limbs, it’s discovery has also illustrated how even the scientific world can get caught up in its own illusion of neutrality. Too many times than I prefer to count, I hear “cultural” issues discussed by scientists (including paleontologists) as being somehow beyond science. I hear fossils know no gender categories, political boundaries, ethnic groups, or religions. For that reason, paleontologists work in a seemingly neutral world, free of the concerns that plague social sciences.

But that’s the illusion. Whereas the individual four-legged creature met it’s unfortunate demise not knowing the political entities of Great Britain, Germany, or Brazil, its existence as a part of the fossil record is absolutely bounded by the social constructs we employ as cultural beings to understand our past, present, and future. In fact, it’s movement around the world was impacted by human action, regardless of the (il)legality of its transfer. However, putting this aside for a brief moment, it was his response in the email interview that struck me most. That when asked a fair question about the provenance of what might arguably one of the most important fossils in snake evolution, his response was to express his displeasure with Brazilian rules regarding access to scientific material by asking whether blacks, cripples, homosexuals, or women should have been included on the team as politically correct “balance.” In one crass statement, the scientific contributions and perspectives of those who are disabled or differently-abled, who identify as women, who identify as black, or those who choose to share a romantic life with a same-sex partner are tossed aside as evidence of undue complications in scientific research.

Whatever frustrations he may have with regulations regarding access to fossil collection (and having tried to gain access to collections overseas, I understand these frustrations), they do not warrant the off-hand reference to other humans as mere “balance.” He projected his anger about unfair treatment by museum staff and scientific colleagues onto other human beings in a way that demonstrates lack of appreciation of the value all bring to paleontology (and, arguably, our society). His comments reflect an unfortunate pattern of behavior that is not uncommon in science – that the social sciences and knowledge of how cultural processes (like colonization, land appropriation, removal of indigenous populations) and discrimination (sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia) are the stuff of uptight social scientists who cannot appreciate the importance of “real” science. False — they are recognition that our world (even that of the distant past) is, in part, made meaningful through the interpretations and symbolism given to it by modern cultural beings. With this, I request readers to think reflexively about their own work and professional frustrations in a way that forwards our understanding of the world – without throwing others under the belly of a four-legged snake.


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Spreading the Preparedness Word – Not as Painful as a Sharkbite!

I am posting here a blog post from Leah Roman who, like me, is interested in how professionals can bring public health and emergency management messages to the public. On Wednesday night, #Sharknado3 premiered on Syfy Network. The American Red Cross (among other organizations) took this “jawsome” (sorry, had to get a pun in there!) pop culture opportunity to spread emergency preparedness messaging.

In addition to my position at Stockton University, I am also a digital volunteer for the American Red Cross – South Jersey Region. On Wednesday, I had the challenge of keeping up with the twisty-turny plot twists of #Sharknado3 AND live-tweeting and Facebook-ing preparedness messaging at the same time. Several others of my colleagues around the country were doing the same, and from all the creativity inspired by #Sharknado3, Leah Roman chose one of our tweets for her blog!

Much appreciation to Leah Roman for her kind words, and I hope that we all can be inspired to use pop culture events to spread  own public safety / public health  messaging to social media!

How the American Heart Association and the Red Cross Won #Sharknado3

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“Hangry” – not just an advertising word, but a concept to consider in our practice?

During my graduate study in conflict resolution, one of the first “rules” I learned as a mediator was to always bring muffins. I thought it odd at the time, but the importance of food in supporting communication opportunities cannot be overemphasized. In so many cultures, communication, learning, and peacebuilding happen over food. Many cultures also use fasting as a way to appreciate and recognize how the basic human needs of food and water have such impact on our lives. I post this here, and on my Facebook page, for students and practitioners to read and contemplate. So many of us work in contexts of deprivation, yet judge others without appreciating the stress we might all be under facing the same deprivation.

The Science of “Hangry” –

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VIDEO: The American Red Cross Teams With Salvation Army to Help Residents Recover From Storm

After last week’s storms that impacted southern New Jersey counties, I had the honor of serving with American Red Cross – South Jersey region as a volunteer. We responded by opening Reception Centers and Bulk Distribution sites, and also as working at the Gloucester County EOC (Emergency Operations Center). See the video below about our work (and, watch for me at the end of the video!)


VIDEO: The American Red Cross Teams With Salvation Army to Help Residents Recover From Storm.

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Welcome and a Brief Introduction to the Site

For anyone out there working in research, you know that much of our time is spent combing the various database search engines for past examples of studies addressing our topic of investigation. Why do we do this? Two reasons. Firstly, we must couch our own work in a historical context and recognize those that have shaped our field of study. Secondly, previous work provides a springboard for future research as well as a reflective space. I’ll admit, I guess I just gave four reasons, rather than two, but who’s counting! One of the primary aims of this blog, and it’s various sections, are to recognize the power of reflection for our own work as practitioners in our fields. Whereas this blog is focused on “helping professions” in terms of humanitarian work, first-responders,  emergency management and disaster risk reduction, many of the lessons can be applied to other fields.

The blog will be loosely arranged with four categories (to start), but I admit there will be significant overlap. Readers can

1. Teaching Notes

Firstly, I aim to use the blog site as a repository for short explanatory writings concerning topics or concepts I use in my classes in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, emergency management, crisis response, and criminal justice. Often, I use concepts that apply to several of my classes and find that I can’t always remember how I explained it that one time that worked just AWESOME. Therefore, I wanted to have a place I could save those short, infrequent spurts of genius so that my students have a reference source that I will continue to update.

2. Academic-Practitioner Bridging Posts

Secondly, I hope to use this bandwidth to serve as a link strengthening ties between practice in emergency management and humanitarian assistance and academic research. Admittedly, the gap between the two is sometimes over-emphasized (as there are many of us who adopt the moniker of “prac-ademic”), there are very real barriers to the flow of information. Not the least of which are the exorbitant costs associated with access to academic articles for those without academic affiliation with a library. Shameful, really. Additionally, we all recognize time is precious, and the stack of journal articles I have on my desk (and saved as PDFs) is testament to the challenges we all face in balancing our day-to-day activities with continuing education and professional development.

This section will present short summaries of academic articles that I, as well as contributors, view as relevant to developing best practices. I will be contributing, along with students at Stockton University. Others are also welcome to contribute and instructions to do so will be forthcoming. Another benefit of this section is that readers will be able to rate their experience with the site and provide an assessment of the blog posts. Raters will be entered for monthly drawings of small thank-you gifts and the results of the assessments will be used to improve our outreach attempts. Yay for feedback loops (can you tell I am a monitoring and evaluation nerd? Proud of it!)!

3. News Postings

The third section will be a repository for news links that I find relevant for students or practitioners. Some will be posted with comment, others not. Posting of news articles from different sources do not necessarily imply support for opinions expressed in the articles, nor of the news sources, themselves. Instead, the news postings are intended to be illustrative examples of concepts facing students, researchers, and practitioners in emergency management, disaster risk reduction, and humanitarian assistance.
Thank you again for visiting the site. It will be evolving with emerging needs and I hope that you find the information helpful/interesting/relevant/exciting…

4. Professional Development and Published Works

The fourth section, admittedly, is a selfish one – the section will be geared more toward highlighting work I have been part of as a primary researcher or investigator. I will also be posting book reviews, published commentaries, and/or linking blog posts from other sites that I have authored. Finally, I will post my own reflections on different events and/or issues.

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