Ethical Decisions and Their Impact on the Science of Paleontology

Two paleontologists, who began as friends, soon became bitter enemies after they started to compete for the same fossils in the same field area. This incident was exacerbated when one of the paleontologists publicly exposed a major scientific mistake made by the other. The paleontologist in error was so deeply embarrassed that he attempted to buy, with his own personal funds, all of the journals that contained his mistake. The two rivals soon began employing spies to report on the dinosaur localities and finds made by the other's field crews. Some of their employees even destroyed dinosaur bones in the field to prevent them from being found or used by the other's employees. Each of the paleontologists took out ads in major newspapers defaming the other, compounding their enmity for one another. And, because both were such famous paleontologists, many people were eager to join their quests for dinosaur discoveries and were willing to work for small wages under difficult field conditions for years at a time. One of the paleontologists barely acknowledged the discoveries of his workers; he rarely visited them in the field, and he openly stole their results for his publications to further his fame.

Is this a recent exposé by an intrepid news crew for a tabloid television special about two famous paleontologists at renowned US universities who are exploiting their graduate students? No, it actually happened between two American dinosaur paleontologists, Otheniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, in the late nineteenth century (Chapter 3). Their tale of greed and considerable egos, fueled by dinosaur discoveries, is one of the most unsavory yet fascinating stories in the history of paleontology, and it provides an excellent example of how ethical problems in science are not limited to today's media. However, it also serves as a starting point for discussing the importance of ethics to science in general, and dinosaur studies in particular. Ethics in dinosaur studies are often directly related to the money that can be made from dinosaurs, an issue that is well publicized in the stories of the popular press today.

Ethics comprises a set of principles of conduct or behavior in human society and how that behavior affects people's relationships with one another. The principles in ethics, of what is "acceptable" or "unacceptable", are variable, depending on the norms and needs of a given society. (Think of norm and variation in principles as analogous to mean and standard deviation, respectively.) Standards are agreed upon sufficiently by a majority of people (as consensus) that certain behaviors are either considered wrong or right within a given society, and those standards may change throughout time. For example, many world societies normally consider killing other people as wrong, but the same societies allow for the variance that killing under the conditions of war or self-defense is right. In terms of how standards change with time, many cultures considered slavery to be acceptable during much of the nineteenth century, but it is illegal in most countries today.

Ethics is a necessary subject for dinosaur studies, if for no other reason than because the interest in dinosaur fossils has led to the attachment of monetary value to them, which makes them economic commodities to be exchanged or sold. History has shown that economic interests can lead to ethically problematic decisions. In fact, the sale of fossils began nearly as soon as they were first scientifically described. For example, early nineteenth-century English paleontologist Mary Anning sold her fossil finds that came from Jurassic seacliffs near Lyme Regis, England. Interestingly, the tongue-twister "she sells seashells by the seashore" was written about the commercial practices of Anning.

Even though the economic value placed on dinosaur fossils has been at the center of ethical dilemmas for paleontologists and fossil collectors since the late nineteenth century, ethics also enters into decisions that are often unique to paleontology in comparison to most other sciences, as illustrated by the following hypothetical examples:

■ Does the amateur fossil collector who originally found a fossil get co-authorship on a scientific report of the fossil? Does the professional paleontologist acknowledge the collector or does the paleontologist deserve sole authorship because of his or her advanced educational background?

■ What if a fossil is found on private land? Should a paleontologist be expected to pay the landowner the market value for that fossil before it can be studied?

■ What recourse do graduate students have if their advisors publish their field discoveries without their consent and the advisor is listed as the first (or sometimes only) author in the resulting publication? Do the graduate students report this transgression or do they accept that the use of their works by an advisor goes with the territory of being a graduate student?

■ What happens when one paleontologist performs research on certain fossils knowing full well that another researcher is already studying them? What if the first paleontologist scoops the second by submitting the results to a journal first, leading to the second researcher's work being rejected? Is this just an example of how science, like other aspects of a capitalistic and goal-oriented society, is a competitive venture?

But these are merely possible situations. As scientists, we need real, factually-based examples of ethical dilemmas. Thus, here are some actual documented instances from recent years of the ethical conflicts caused by the popularity and economic aspects of dinosaurs:

■ Private fossil collectors in South Dakota uncovered a nearly complete Tyran-nosaurus rex skeleton, only to have it seized by FBI agents acting on behalf of US government claims of ownership. The specimen, nicknamed "Sue" for its discoverer, languished in federal storage for several years until it was finally placed on the auction block at Sotheby's and sold for $8.36 million. The purchaser, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, was backed by corporate sponsors Disney and McDonald's. The grand unveiling of the mounted skeleton in the Field Museum in May 2000 coincided with the opening of the Disney movie Dinosaur (Chapter 1), and it was broadcast live on ABC, a TV network owned by Disney. McDonald's also had a promotional tie-in of their products with the movie.

■ Academic paleontologists working in western Australia in cooperation with indigenous tribes found probable stegosaur footprints. These prints are rarely reported from the geologic record (Chapter 12) and were the only ones of their kind found in Australia. Very soon after they were discovered, thieves came into the area and cut the footprints from the rock, using power tools. Because the site is considered sacred ground by the tribes, tribal spirituality was permanently damaged by this act; furthermore, the desecration and mistrust caused by the theft meant that paleontologists might not be given permission to work in the region again. The stolen footprints were never recovered and are presumably in a private collection, so they are still unknown to science.

■ A large theropod was discovered on federal land in Montana and was being excavated by an academic paleontologist and his research team. While he and colleagues were temporarily away from the site, a nearby rancher and his family tried to excavate the fossil for themselves by using a backhoe.

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