Four-legged snakes and the myth of pure science

This Fall term I am teaching my dinosaurs course, but with a twist – it is a freshman-only seminar, and while we will cover dinosaur paleontology, the course is also designed to expose students to how science as a tool and culture intersect. For our first-year students, we assign a common reading, and this year’s reading is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele. This excellent little book shows how pervasive stereotypes are and how they affect our identities. There are certainly many stereotypes surrounding scientists: when I have asked students to draw a scientist in previous courses, I almost always get a balding, white male with a lab coat and a test tube.

As I was looking for a recent example in vertebrate paleontology of the intersection of science and culture, news broke about the discovery of a remarkable fossil that may be an early snake with four legs! Many websites have now covered the discovery in detail, but controversy has surrounded the fossil because of remarks by the lead author, Dr. David Martill, concerning the fossil’s provenance. Provenance refers to the locality of the fossil and its preservational environment, key data that provide context and a timeline. And the provenance of Tetrapodophis amplectus (the species name of the fossil snake) is questionable because the fossil came from a private collection that was later donated to Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum, in Solnhofen, Germany. According to Martill, who responded to questions on the blog of Herton Escobar, “There is no label on the specimen that says when or how it was collected. It was only recognized as certainly being from Brazil because I am an expert on the Crato Formation and I recognized the rock it is preserved in, and its preservation style is exactly like that of the Crato Formation. It is undoubtedly from Brazil.”

This is problematic, because missing the provenance information makes the fossil far less informative. Although it may provide insights into snake evolution, without tighter controls on where and when in time the fossil was deposited, we have lost a lot of environmental context and its temporal relationship to other snake fossils. This is one of the reasons why, public or private, fossils collected without appropriate provenance information lose much of their scientific value.

What is more problematic than the scientific issue of provenance is the legality of the fossil in question. Brazil has laws which prohibit Brazilian fossils from leaving the country, and this suggests Tetrapodophis amplectus ended up in the private collection (from which Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum obtained it) illegally. The reasoning behind such laws stem from concern by Brazilians that their natural heritage is being expatriated, which adversely affects Brazilian paleontologists studying and reporting on their own fossils.

Martill is no stranger to Brazilian laws on fossil collection, and he has made it clear that he doesn’t respect Brazilian laws because they interfere with his ability to publish on new discoveries. According to Martill in a 2014 Nature news article, “Scientists who just want to go about doing science are frustrated.”

Beyond the pale, though, is Martill’s response to a reasonable question from Herton Escobar. Given that Martill recognized the fossil snake was of Brazilian origin, and given that it was likely collected under less-than-desirable circumstances, couldn’t Martill have reached out to a Brazilian paleontologist to collaborate on the study? Martill’s reponse: “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? … If you invite people because they are Brazilian then people will think that every Brazilian author on a scientific paper is there because he is Brazilian and not because he is a clever scientist.”

For a sociological perspective on this last, abhorrent statement, see Jess Bonnan-White’s post on this issue.

It is time we move past such blatantly colonial and derogatory attitudes about fossil provenance in vertebrate paleontology, and that we call out those who believe it is okay to continue to express such attitudes. Martill’s language exudes overtones of colonial Europe and America, that mostly white, male scientists are in the best position not only to understand nature but to take what they please from others they deem less human. And whereas Martill’s voice may be among the loudest, it certainly is not the only voice extolling these “virtues.” I have myself been told that it is best for those of us in first-world countries to get and prepare fossils from other places so that the science is done right.

And that is perhaps the most galling thing of all: that in the end, we pretend that this is all just about making the science right. That we perpetuate this myth of “pure science.” That, in the end, this is just about a remarkable fossil and nothing more. That because we are scientists we have the luxury of not giving a damn about anything other than the science. That we don’t have to consider other peoples, their customs, their laws, their cultures, or their right to their own natural history. When you say, “Personally I don’t care a damn how the fossil came from Brazil or when it came from Brazil. These are irrelevant to the scientific significance of the fossil,” what you are really saying is that science matters more than people. Science is a tool, but its application is far from neutral. Science is done a huge disservice when its usefulness as a tool for understanding nature supersedes that of understanding and respecting our fellow human beings, let alone our fellow paleontologists.

You don’t get to ignore laws and promote the expatriation of fossils from other people just because you are doing science. If we truly care about global natural history, and we truly care about the story the fossils tell, then we must come to terms with the fact that whereas fossils know no political boundaries, humans do. Thus, it is in our best interest as scientists to be more global in our appreciation of other countries and other peoples. If you are interested in Brazilian fossils, you should also be interested in Brazilian people, their politics, and their laws. If we truly believe science is an egalitarian enterprise where someone’s merit as a scientist comes from their ability, not their nationality, then we can no longer tolerate the excuse that science trumps all.