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.