Palaeontology and Social Justice: How Do We Move Beyond the Colonial Past?
(This article follows a previous article on Palaeontology and Colonialism, which provides further context)
Despite some progress, palaeontology remains a prisoner of its colonial past, and global inequalities are still present in the discipline today. Within the ranks of research institutions, inequalities also persist. To move forward, complex solutions are required.
The history of palaeontology as a science is also a history of colonialism (see previous article). Today still, broad inequalities remain between the scientific resources and the research output of countries at different stages of economic development. Though these tend to simply reflect broader socio-economic trends, they can be further exacerbated by research being performed in poorer countries by scientists from richer countries, especially if involvement with local communities is minimal. This may result in both a country's palaeontological knowledge and palaeontological heritage being "centralised" elsewhere, palaeontologists from these countries thus needing to study and work abroad. Not only that, but a lack of local palaeontology means a country will be disconnected from its own palaeontological heritage, both economically (losing out on potential tourism for example), as well as physically and spiritually, a state of affairs less likely to generate public interest or inspire future careers, and that may enter a self-perpetuating cycle. Even as newly rich countries develop their own palaeontological communities, new extractive relationships may be formed. The most extreme example of this is what some call palaeontology's answer to blood diamonds, a situation few outside the discipline would imagine happening: the origin of Burmese amber.
Proportion of palaeontological research undertaken in home country and abroad (with out without local collaboration), for a selection of richer countries, measured in the Nature Ecology & Evolution "Colonial history and global economics distort our understanding of deep-time biodiversity."
Amber and Blood
Accumulating animals trapped in subsequently fossilised tree sap, amber deposits can offer exceptional levels of preservation. Cretaceous amber from Myanmar is particularly prized, yielding colossal amounts of exquisitely preserved specimens, with potentially thousands of insect species to describe, and many tantalising small vertebrate remains also being found (from frogs, squamates, birds and even non-avian dinosaurs). Sold on markets in China near the border with Myanmar, these are illegally smuggled out, considered "gems" despite Myanmar's laws protecting its fossil heritage. They originate from mines in Kachin state, an area of violent conflict between separatist groups and Myanmar's army. Not only do the mines serve to finance these warring factions through taxation by whichever is currently in charge, funding groups committing human rights abuses, but with their narrow shafts, the mines employ young teenagers, and place them in deadly work conditions with no worker protection or compensation in place. Though some argue they are more a by-product of the much larger gem market emanating from the same source, it's evident that local mine owners understand the value of fossil inclusions in particular. The Chinese research community appears to be the main beneficiary in terms of research output, but they collaborate with scientists from around the world, directly or indirectly contribute to and benefit from research and publication. As a result, some within the palaeontology community have called for a moratorium on acquiring amber specimens from Myanmar, though there is also pushback from scientists who suggest it's better that they end up in the hands of scientists than be lost to science. Priceless research subjects, but involving horrific human cost. Whatever the reservations of some scientists, others are willing to make the compromise, and their data enters palaeontology's shared pool.
Oculudentavis khaungrae fossil, a vertebrate cranium trapped in amber from Myanmar that caused controversy on its publication, due to its ethically questionable origin. Originally identified as a dinosaur, it was later reclassified as a lizard.
A Change in Outlook
This is the most extreme modern example, but it shows that global palaeontology's problematic practices are far from behind it. Nonetheless, the era of colonies is long gone, and palaeontology is many ways a very different discipline today. What progress has been made, and what further progress can we make? One can underline two distinct problems: questions of access and diversity within a country's research community (a problem most often posed in countries with long traditions of palaeontological research, but which really can be equally salient in countries with nascent research communities); and questions of disparities between countries on an international or global scale. The potential solutions for these broad issues can differ, but what unites them is the necessity for a change in mindset. We have already explored the latter issue, the broader global picture in palaeontology research, in some depth. Some new major players have emerged in the last century (China, Brazil, etc), and more and more countries are protecting their palaeontological heritage through legislation. Some, such as Mongolia, are beginning to capitalise on it to foster research and tourism. But progress is not linear, colonial and neo-colonial dynamics and inequalities remain at large.
Progress Made, and Progress to be Made
For the former issue, in general palaeontological research communities are undeniably more diverse than they have been in past decades. Palaeontology's image has evolved in kind. The seminal contributions of women to the early history of palaeontological research are now being more and more widely recognised, notably in the UK where Mary Anning has become an icon of the field's history (following successful campaigns to celebrate her legacy). As their stories are being increasingly unearthed and discussed within science historiography circles, early pioneers from ethnic minority backgrounds will likely follow. But beyond idealised visions of fully equal access, the legacies of historical prejudices and inequalities do not in practice seem to have been fully overcome. A lot progress remains to be made in terms of access for marginalised communities, who are still underrepresented compared to their share of the general population, and also in terms of career progression: historically dominant profiles typically retain a majority of senior posts, and overall minority representation in research often falls victim to a "'leaky pipeline" model. Though this reflects broader society trends, palaeontology as a field can also do its part to evolve.
Many other scientific disciplines, including some closely linked to palaeontology (ecology, marine biology), are currently grappling with how to address their colonial past and ongoing issues with inequality (See "Lasting impacts of colonisation on the study of biodiversity" by Mélissa Court, an article on Le Cortex). Prominent Scientific Journal Nature's 20 October 2022 edition carried the title "Racism: overcoming science's toxic legacy", and featured a selection of guest editors and features devoted to addressing these issues in fields such as computer science or genetics.
Studying the past, Into the future
Some in the community are organising to tackle these issues. Palaeontologists Against Systemic Racism is an association that aims to support underrepresented groups in the palaeontology research community, raise awareness of the discipline's colonial history, perform research on systemic racism and discuss topics centred on racial discrimination. To this end, they hold regular meetings and host talks around these topics, highlighting researchers from minority backgrounds or any disadvantaged backgrounds, or researchers from countries in the global south. But as one might imagine, addressing systemic issues such as these is not straightforward. It is a nebulous, long-term process that requires navigating the complexities of institutional systems and the practicalities of interactions between people with varying goals and opinions. People in charge today may not hold responsibility for the historical past, but the legacies of historical events are naturally baked into the status quo, into the material realities of specimen collections and into scientific practices. Beyond the obvious need to combat fossil trafficking, respect local laws and comply with restitution requests, what emerges is the need for a change in approach. Overcoming ingroup preference to encourage more international collaboration, especially when working abroad, is crucial. Spreading awareness of issues, encouraging discussion, and a renewed emphasis on ethics (especially within academic teaching) are also essential. More outreach to marginalised communities to narrow perceived barriers to entry in the field is another area of work. Building on these principles to implement concrete, realisable projects seems like a good way forward.
Staying True to Scientific Principles
As we saw in the initial article on palaeontology's colonial history, palaeontology's western-centric development strongly impacts our very understanding of the history of life on earth, even today. A more diverse scientific community, both within countries and globally, is one that has the potential to add further perspectives, expand research horizons, and limit the biases a more homogenous group would naturally encounter. The fundamental practice of science is that of removing biases to better understand natural phenomena-and thus palaeontology has everything to lose by not addressing its own biases. Who knows what wonderful things are yet to be discovered, and who may discover them! The wonder of peering into the mysteries of nature is a privilege that does not discriminate.
3. Morisson, Cassius, "Talk: The Impact of Discrimination and Colonialism on Palaeontology" (23/06/22), visible sur https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0NE-MiVhDA
4. Nature Volume 610 Issue 7392 (20 October 2022)
5. Palaeontologists Against Systemic Racism, évènement modéré par Cassius Morisson: "Event: Bias, discrimination and decolonising palaeontology" (03/03/22), visible sur: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= fCJDzagE34I et https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-kVDSM8ADI
6. Palaeontologists Against Systemic Racism, Mission Statement, (2022) https://palaeovsracism.wordpress.com/mission-statement/
11. Witton, Mark, "The ugly truth behind Oculudentavis" (2020), http://markwitton-com.blogspot.com/2020/03/the-ugly-truth-behind-oculudentavis.html
Image 3: Cover of Nature Magazine Volume 610 Issue 7392 (20 October 2022)
Cover Image by user Lanzi on Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons License 3.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
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