Fossils and Profit. Side note. Libertarianism

I’ve gotten into debates with a few people. One argument that is frequently raised is the profit motive. Without money there is no incentive for people to do anything. tey’ll just sit on their asses and starve.

Well, although I disagreed with the argument, I haven’t debated it much before. Then I read an article this morning.

Anyway, it got me thinking. Do people only dig up bones for money? Would there be much more research and development if there was big money to be made in palentology? Or wouldthat only cause mistakes and errors to be made, as people rushed to make a profit. Namely, why is it that people claim that without a profit motive, we would not have our wonderfull lives. Has man’s sense of curiousity sunk so low? Is the only thing that gets us out of bed money?
And art? Do painters that get paid a lot of money do better work? (cough Kinkaide cough). Do artists create work so they can get rich? On and on.

I don’t think anyone says no one does anything constructive without a profit motive. But there’s enough that’s only done for this reason to make it worthwhile to have around.

You’d be surprised at people who do. Also, there is the argument, (that I was trying to get at, although I suffered a temporary brain pixilation) that everything is better under the profit motive. Do you think that if the government passed a law barring people from making money off fossils, that our quality of research would drop?

Perhaps someone familiar with the economics of that field could fill us in.

I have no idea what any of this has to do with the notion of voluntary human relations in a context of peace and honesty.

  1. There’s more than money involved: there’s the glory and the fun. In fact, only very rarely do people (amateurs and geologists alike) fossil hunt for the money. Fossils like “Sue” come around only once or twice a century; it’s more like winning the lottery than making a living.

  2. Making fossil hunting on public lands illegal would only serve to turn otherwise honest, law-abiding Americans into criminals. Additionally, it would be couter-productive to research. Paleontology and Archaeology both are two fields where amateur finds are still heavily relied upon, since its damn near impossible for the scant few employed Paleo and Archaeo guys to cover the entire world!

I personally think that in a sense everything we do is for the profit motive, in that it makes us “feel good”.

For example, I do (unpaid) work for a human rights organization because it makes me feel better about myself. I am proud of it and mention it in conversation to people, not only because I hope they might decide to join the organization, but also because I think it’s one of the things that makes me an interesting and better person.

I do disagree with the idea that the financial profit is the main motivator for human activity. I enjoyed reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel “The Dispossessed” in which she describes an anarchist, communist society that has no “money”. In Ursula K. LeGuin’s utopia, people chose a career that interested them and/or for which they had special skills. The gathering of material goods was considered unethical. I believe that most people would still do things that interest them, even without renumeration.

I would imagine that there might be less people hunting for fossils if they had no monetary value, but people who do it out of a passion for anthropology or paleontology would not be deterred. In fact it might improve research because there could be less occurrences of remains being removed and sold to collectors before a thorough study of the site could be done. I am not very familiar with the economics of paleontological research however so this is just my guess.

Once again Libertarian manages to post in a thread, while at the same time completely avoiding saying anything relating to the discussion.

Are you claiming that you do not support privatization? Or that the libertarian party does not? That one of the platforms is "… applied research and even “pure science” do better when they are not hampered by government regulation or “helped” by politicized government funding from organizations like the National Science Foundation and NASA. "

Are you claiming that libertarians haven’t argued against socialism on the claim that if you get rid of profit there will be no incentive to do anything?
And please, this time just answer the questions. thanks :rolleyes:


Without “profit” there is no incentive to work. Profit does not always take the form of money it can take the form of emotional satisfaction.


Most people probably don’t go into palentology for the money. But if they couldn’t make a living at it then they’d have to go do something else.


Because without a profit motive most of what we have wouldn’t exist. Why create a better way to manufacture automobiles if you’re not going to get anything out of it? Curiosity is great but it doesn’t do much good unless we can put it to good use.

I would argue that artist who make more money are more valued by society then others. Of course taste changes over time.


Okay, OldScratch, here ya go, step-by-step.

  1. The title of your thread is “Fossils and Profit. Side note. Libertarianism”.

  2. Libertarianism is voluntary human relations in a context of peace and honesty.

  3. I have no idea what Fossils and Profit have to do with Libertarianism.

Did you mean capitalism by any chance?

Speaking of just answering questions, I’m still waiting to hear how socialism will set prices. What, three months now?

OK, I’ll jump in here.

Fossil hunting for profit is a complex subject. First, I would argue that a fossil’s highest value is it’s scientific value. But most fossils do not have scientific value, especially if they are collected the way most fossils are, which is picking them up off the ground and saying, “Look at this”, and taking it home and putting it on the mantlepiece.

Every professional/academic paleontologist I know encourages amatuer collecting. First of all, that’s how sites are discovered. Someone finds a bone, brings it in and asks what it is, paleontologist gets excited. Most pros have work to do, they can’t just wander around the countryside looking for outcrops. The amateur group I belong to has a policy of always donating scientifically interesting finds to the appropriate museum. We’re not looking for money, we just love fossils, and discovering something significant is the coolest thing you can do. So the pros depend on amateurs, and the amateurs depend on pros.

Commerical collecters are a little different. One thing we need to recognize is that most sites will only last a little while. A fossil gets uncovered by erosion on year, and it is often destroyed by the next. So, often if a fossil is not collected it is simply gone forever. So, a blanket prohibition on commerical collection makes no sense, it is counter-productive. Most of the time, if a commercial collecter didn’t get the specimen, it will never be collected, no one would ever know it existed.

But, sometimes we have sites that are very limited in extent, such as the famous Burgess Shale. Allowing commercial or amateur collection there would be insane, there is only a small amount of material and it is irreplacable, one-of-a-kind stuff. Sites like these are national treasures, or international treasures. But there are plenty of places where you can dig up fossil clams by the metric ton. Selling these is fine, it encourages paleontology. After all, the pros can only make a living if the general public voluntarily decides that fossils are interesting enough to fund the museums and universities.

Although I consider myself fairly libertarian, I do not have a problem with public funding of science or art…provided we keep in mind that this is tax money and that the recipients are accountable to the taxpayers. It is not a playground, it is not your right as an artist or scientist to be funded without accountability. So it is not censorship if we decide not to pay for your crucifix in urine, or whatever avant-garde piece of crap you come up with, tax money belongs to the taxpayers and we can do what we like with it.

And of course people don’t only do things for the profit motive. Cecil Adams is the only one who gets paid on these message boards, right? Yet here we all are. But this is for fun. If something is essential for the economy it is best to make sure that it is in someone’s best interest to provide that service.

But back to fossils. The reason Sue was so compicated is that the land ownership was murky. The owner told the commerical collecters they could collect on his land, and if they hadn’t found Sue the specimen would have been destroyed. So, score one for the commerical collectors, without them we have no Sue. But…apparantly the owner didn’t have the right to give permission, since it was tribal land held in trust. And there’s also a big difference between giving the kids permission to keep the bivalve shells they find in the back forty, and a million dollar specimen. There was no contract signed (as far as I know)…the commerical collecters should have known better, or at least offered to split the profits with the guy.

Now, the museum that got Sue had to pay $8 million for it. Is this wrong? Well, without the commercial collector there would have been no Sue to buy. (Nevermind that the collector lost the rights to Sue and didn’t make anything.) Yes, scientifically important finds like Sue belong in museums, but simply banning commercial collecting wouldn’t have gotten Sue for the museum anyway, Sue would have been destroyed. It was feared that Sue would wind up in the hands of a private collector, and no one would be able to study it (I say it because it’s just a guess Sue was female). But I just can’t see a paleontology obsessed millionaire buying Sue without also paying for Sue’s study…if you care enough about fossils to pay $8 million for bragging rights, then you almost certainly care enough about science to fund the science for the bragging rights.

The lesson is, if you are a commercial collector, you’d better make sure that you have legally binding rights to dig. There should be some sort of clause giving the landowner a cut of any major find, otherwise you are courting lawsuits.

Oh, by the way…if I could make a living doing it, I’d be a paleontologist. But it is very very difficult to get a paying position. One PhD paleontologist I know teaches high school science for a living, and can only do his research in the summer. I know lots of “amateur” paleontolgists work full time at it, but are retired and don’t get paid. I’ve spent many many hours working at the Burke Museum and I didn’t get paid, although the museum gave us a very nice dinner once…

There are many motivators for human behaviour - hunger, lust, desire for power, are just a few of the powerful ones. ‘Profit’ or maney, is only a result of evolution in our society, a way to reconcile transactions between people.

The idea that no one would do anything without the money motivation is rediculous. There would be less (maybe much less) in the way of non-essential transactions without the profit motive, but not everything would stop. It’s not just the idea of getting rich or ‘owning the means of production’ that motivates most people - it’s simply the idea of providing for yourself/family. Create an envoronment where you supposedly give to each according to their need, etc., and most people will do less, and rely on others to do more. Just past experience.

In a libertarian context, people are free to trade things they place X value on in return for other things they place Y value on. If Y > X, this is considered an incentive to make the trade. The things traded do not have to be tangible. Generally, people do not make trades where X > Y. Keep in mind that X and Y are the values that the person making the trade has for the things involved, and, as in the case of lottery tickets, may make no sense to a rational observer.

As for money, it can be either X or Y in a trade between two people, if used at all. The adavntage of it is that money is the one thing where you have the greatest freedom to use. If I give you money in exchange for something, you can decide for yourself what to do with it. Granted there are some things that money can’t buy, but it can be traded for more things than anything else, which the person spending it places a higher value on than the money itself.

Thus, if you pay me $7.00 for an hour of my labor, for me the trade is between the hour of labor and whatever I want to do with $7.00. If you were to give me $7.00 worth of free long distance calls, I would be somewhat less enthused.

There are perhaps fields where all the people involved value the innate rewards of the work itself more than the money they could make doing something else. They are, however, going to need to eat and step in out of the rain. So, if you banned people from making any money off of fossils, the fossil people would probably have to devote less time to it.

For a different example, if you were to ban people from making money off of fossil fuels, how long would the stockholders of Exxon continue to run gas stations out of the goodness of their hearts.

Under socialism, the value of X and Y are not determined by the parties to the trade, but by society at large, at least for trades involving money. Certainly doesn’t seem like a free society, but I guess that’s not the point. Explaining why this isn’t a good policy for society at large is a much more involved discussion.

But the landowner ended up with all of the eight million. He said he’d never given up the rights to Sue.

That’s the same reason things having to do with so-called public schools and so-called public property is equally murky. In this antilibertarian world, those who own anything are they with enough political clout to declare eminent domain, a “right” akin in principle to the “right” of prima nocte.

This is a pretty weird-arse thread. I mean that in a nice way. If we’re taking a “let’s imagine the world is very different” view of this topic, then sure property rights for fossils would work.

Something like this:
As part of your land title you retain (or not if you wish) the right to allow various people to come onto your land.

Some fossil-hunters want to come onto your land. Perhaps you chanrge them a fee for entry, perhaps you sign an agreement to share the profits of any finds. In a rally low transactions cost world, maybe you sign a contingent contract that states that the landholder’s reward varies under certain circumstances.

Maybe you hold out for joint authorship of any papers.

Any knowledge generated would be a public good (jointly consumable) and it would be difficult in the real world to make a profit out of it. Of course many scholars are motivated by more profitable things than money, like prestige.

Under these circumtances, there would be more fossil-hunting.

Now a serious point: Oldscratch, economic incentives have nothing to do with money. They don’t even necessarily have to do with narrow personal gain. It is just that if you want someone to do something the surest way to get it done is offer them something they want. If you don’t give fossil-hunters money, fame, intellectual satisfaction, promotion prospects or something they want, they won’t go out in the rain to find the things.


What about fossils?

Clearly, they are awaiting a better offer.


In Nature magazine in an article dated today, one Rex Dalton portrays the loss of fossils into the black market in China. I read the article with some interest. The paleontology community is much distressed to learn that Chinese peasants are willing to ignore the three dollars a day that the scientists are willing to pay them, and take the five or six thousand dollars that the evil black market will provide for a good fossil.

No where in the article is there any indication that the multi-billion dollar Academic Industry considered paying a fair market value for a very special resource to the people who live in the country where that resource lies. Colonialism lives on in the scientific community. If the fossils are truly as precious at they are portrayed, then the farmers deserve the payment they can get on the free market, or at least a reasonable fraction of it. If the paleontologists of the world are not willing to fork over the money, well, I guess the fossils weren’t that valuable to them, now were they?

If the scientific community were willing to use fossil resources, and then sell the specimens after they have been studied, the “black market” demand would reimburse them for the fair value of the same resource that they now wish to demand by reason of their “right to study” the fossils. But institutions are more interested in public display of these resources, and are no different from the black market private collectors in that regard.

If you want a Chinese rice farmer to give you the rocks from his field, you should pay him. If he turns out not to be as dumb as you hoped he was, tough luck. Your advanced degree doesn’t entitle you to a bargain, unless you are willing to make the peasant a partner in the enterprise.


Tris, I have a great deal of respect for your posts generally. But when you say things like this:

it suggests to me that you have NO idea how scientific research is funded in this country, or how short on funds the scientific community is in general. “Academic Industry,” my *ss! Research funds largely come from your tax dollars via the federal government; paleontology is a minor subdivision of the National Science Foundation, the entire budget of which is only 3.8% of the total annual federal budget for R&D: see . Paleontologists do NOT go into the field because there’s so much money around - please re-read Lemur866’s last post more carefully for an accurate description of the state of the field.

From the scientists’ perspective, the problem with fossils going directly from the finders (e.g. Chinese peasants) to the private collectors is that they vanish from view before they can be studied, and the potential to learn something new is almost certainly lost forever. Wealthy Japanese mad to collect things have driven fossil prices through the roof in recent years, which encourages not just the Chinese peasants to bypass the scientists, but also the fossil poachers that are willing to raid valuable sites and rip rare specimens out of the ground. Just as in archaeology, a great deal of information can be lost if the fossil is removed from context, or if much of a site is disturbed in an effort to get at the biggest or “best” pieces. If this were a discussion about prehistoric artifacts, would you be so cavalier about collectors paying whatever price to get what they want?

As far as museums are concerned… I do believe that far too many of them have many more fossils than they can ever hope to have accessible as research collections or on public display. For common items, I would not be against public sale. But the auctioning off of rare specimens such as the Icarosaurus siefkeri sold last Sunday ( ) is just plain stupid, as it only encourages trafficking in rare items.

BTW, China may not care right now, but most countries with valuable fossil sites (e.g., Canada with the Burgess Shale fauna, Australia with the Ediacaran fauna) have laws against ANY removal of rare specimens without special permission. Most paleontologists have to either travel to the country in question or make do with plastic casts of the fossils… thanks to the high-price fossil trade.