Dinosaurs and Dollar Signs

To the amateur paleontologist slash fossil-collector, the publication of New Yorker journalist Paige Williams’ The Dinosaur Artist is a paradox: scientific outreach surely is positive, but how broad is the polemic brush stroke? The exactingly researched — and at times overly descriptive — monograph is centered on the illegal sale of a Tarbosaurus bataar, an impressive Tyrannosaurid dinosaur, by veteran fossil dealer Eric Prokopi. Through the work, however, Williams expansively explores topics from Mongolian legislation and political candidacy to the Tucson Fossil Show and Mary Anning. Words like “Friedmanesque” are peppered in-between “Pleistocene” and “Glossopteris”. When discussing commercial paleontology, a phrase no less severe than “venal and destructive” is applied to Prokopi. Prokopi did break the law; he did, as Williams bluntly offers, steal from Mongolia and science as a whole. He did go to jail for the theft.

So what does The Dinosaur Artist get wrong? Prokopi, in his true-crime-novel glory, becomes a stand-in for the field. The Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, born in a Tucson hotel room, comes to represent the entire discipline of commercial paleontology. Aside from being just plain untrue, this mischaracterization is dangerous for the discipline, its relationship with science, and most of all with the public.  Paleontology, in turn, is one of the more public-facing sciences — the political urgency of preserving trust in science and communication between science and the public is particularly relevant given paleontology’s limelight. Renewed interest in the debate between science and commercialism sparked by The Dinosaur Artist is worth pursuing, but it must be undertaken fairly: the construct of parsimonious prospector versus noble-hearted paleontologist presents a far from adequate representation of the discipline.

I have discussed avocational collection and paleontological policy, along with a nod to Prokopi, previously. Most collectors, certainly, are not flying to Ulaanbaatar to snag their quarry: public fossil sites in Wyoming, Ohio, New York, and Texas are more the style of the weekend paleo-crowd. There are plenty of legal, one-of-a-kind fossils for sale: cashed-up collectors have legal access to Judith River or Morrison Formation dinosaurs already (which merits a separate discussion). Williams takes great care to highlight how “exceptional” the smuggled dinosaur really is. Here is the primary divergence from the field: the quotidian Flexicalymene or Cleoniceras or even isolated Spinosaurus tooth are far from the articulated skeleton that landed Prokopi in jail. Rarely do such pieces pop up, and when they do, many professional commercial paleontologists (“peddlers”, per Williams) condemn the breach of ethics. The most likely offender for illegal fossils at a local rock shop or international show is likely Keichousaurus, a fossil so comparatively common that smuggled mortality plates can be had for under four figures — a far cry from the million-dollar Mongolian monster, albeit nonetheless unethical.

Another more stark problem remains: the sharp divide between professional and commercial paleontology is almost exclusively relegated to vertebrates. The fantastic feathered dinosaurs of Liaoning and the remarkable Mongolian finds don’t represent the many thousands of papers detailing brachiopod taxonomy or hypostome morphology that fall under the umbrella of paleontology. Invertebrate paleontologists themselves often welcome the help from eager amateurs (The Dry Dredgers Paleontological Club is probably one of the more famous examples of interaction and collaboration across professional spheres). It is similarly unfair to characterize even vertebrate collectors as “venal”; the Black Hills Institute exemplifies the flow of information from individuals to the scientific community. And, indeed, avocational collectors have made major contributions to the discipline, occasionally within vertebrate paleontology (consider Mary Anning, who consumes a chapter of The Dinosaur Artist, or Charles Sternberg, the famed Kansan collector), though more often such advancements are found in invertebrate paleontology.

In one section, Williams dovetails between neutral attributes of private collectors and negative ones, before concluding emphatically that “no reputable paleontologist is a dealer.” This nullifies the careful ambivalence in the preceding paragraph and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how fossils are handled and perceived: many fossils are not “the data,” dependent upon innumerable factors (though, isolated Eldredgeops cephalons are rarely “data”). The constructed, strawman argument that follows shows a further misunderstanding of the meaning of paleontology in developing countries, the nationalization of transnational heritage, and the value of scientific outreach imbued by commercial paleontology. And, certainly, many contemporary paleontologists have private collections themselves — and a handful publicly and proudly sell them.

The reception to The Dinosaur Artist shares the problems of the book itself. The conclusion of Barbara King’s review of the book is particularly concerning: “we come to see that no fossil hunter should have the right to control who owns these treasures of our planet's evolutionary history.” The ‘treasures’ of paleontology are legislated, ranging from Moroccan free-market reign to the Albertan ban on selling vertebrate material and the Argentinian interdict disallowing all collection. But what national cultural heritage is provided by a 125-million-year-old ancestor? And what ‘evolutionary history’ is imbued by the one-millionth Elrathia kingii that wasn’t explored by the first few thousand? Williams discusses the ever-increasing toolkit of a paleontologist in The Dinosaur Artist, but to fully enjoy the benefits of improved technology requires, well, paleontologists.

The Dinosaur Artist is meticulously researched and presents valuable arguments and justifications for and against commercial paleontology, particularly for Prokopi himself. The intersection of economics, legislation, and politics for paleontology that are highlighted in The Dinosaur Artist miss the mark on the science, however, by construing million-dollar skeletons as a synecdoche for vertebrate paleontology, and in turn portraying vertebrate paleontology as representative for all paleontology (I can count on one hand the times I’ve collected any vertebrate material). The dedication to scientific education and outreach is laudable, but the heavy-handed, false premises and faulty conclusions for commercial paleontology and the relationship between politics and science taint the research.