Fossils and Profit. Side note. Libertarianism

Perhaps I overestimate the wealth of the academic world. However, any organized activity that pays local labor three dollars an hour is disingenuous to pretend that those who seek better treatment in the black market are not motivated in some measure by the fact that such treatment is indecent even in the pursuit of knowledge.

You are going to have a lot of trouble convincing me that Bwana Scientist isn’t culpable in some way for that sort of exploitation.


er, three dollars a day, otherwise I stand on what I said.

Tris, when a scientist submits a grant proposal and budget for field work, line items for things like hiring drivers/translators/laborers are expected to be commensurate with the average local labor rate. This is particularly true when dealing with expenses in foreign countries, as the US government does not see, as its duty, the raising of the foreign laborers’ living standards at the expense of scarce research dollars. Part of the proposal review process includes sending the description of the proposed work AND budget to reviewers familiar with the field conditions, and as part of the review they have to evaluate whether the budget is realistic. “Excessively high” budgets will result in the grant proposal’s budget being slashed, or in the outright rejection of the grant proposal (in which case the scientist never gets into the field, and the locals get nothing).

Most people I know who operate under such conditions try to pad their budgets a little bit so that they have something extra to spend in the field, or to give to their foreign academic collaborators (who are technically not allowed to be supported in any way by US research funds). They also don’t live in luxurious conditions, as you seem to be implying by your insulting “Bwana Scientist” comment; in fact, in some areas the living conditions are downright horrifying by western standards (in re sanitation and disease potential). Would you be willing to spend $800 out of pocket for assorted vaccinations (not covered by medical insurance, not payable from a grant budget) before spending two or three months living out of a tent with limited potable water, unfamiliar foods, irregular showers, annoying and/or dangerous wildlife and insect life, and none of the comforts/amusements of the modern world for the privilege of trying to advance scientific understanding? I sincerely doubt it. But that is principally what is expected of field-oriented scientists, and they put up with it because they need to in order to do what they love.

If you have a problem with what scientists are permitted to pay as wages to local help, then why don’t you start a letter writing campaign to your local congressional representatives and let them know that you won’t stand for the exploitation of foreign workers, and that you demand that Congress immediately approve a budget increase so that all these folks can get a wage equivalent to the going black market rates. Yeah, that’ll go over real well with your fellow taxpayers, but you can always set an example by making a private donation. :rolleyes:

If the individual scientist is entirely blameless in this matter (Which I find questinable) it does not change the facts in my original post. The material is very valuable, and the people who obtain the material receive almost nothing. Ok, let’s blame the Grantor, or Congress, or whomever, but the fact remains the individual digging up fossils in the field is not a dedicated scientist surviving the rigors of some alien environment, it is some poor schmuck who lives in that environment, and He gets squat for it.

The black market guys don’t look like they fit the black hat that is being put on them, to me. The difference between the schmuck and the scientist is that the scientist ends up with most of the benefit, and the schmuck gets to go back and plant rice after the fossil bed pans out. Although the black market is certainly not trying to benefit the common schmuck, at least it doesn’t try to use Grant politics as an excuse to avoid paying up.

You don’t seem to understand that the real value of fossils (or any other natural resource) to a scientist is not monetary, but accrues from the opportunity to increase our knowledge base. The black market guys ARE bad guys from the perspective of scientists, because they encourage the flow of new finds away from those folks who could actually LEARN from the fossils, rather than putting them in a glass case in their private collections. Oh, how shocking, to think that people might actually be motivated by something other than money!

To draw a parallel again between fossils and human artifacts… archaeologists go out of their way to avoid paying for artifacts, because if they did IT WOULD ENCOURAGE THE LOOTING AND DESTRUCTION OF SITES as the locals scrambled to find stuff worth selling. Trafficking in such artifacts is now illegal in most countries that have any such resources (especially in Central and South America), because these countries recognize that the artifacts are priceless objects that are part of their national heritage. Rare fossils (in terms of numbers, or because of exquisite preservation) are no different in that they too are part of a nation’s natural assets, and are fittingly treated as such.

You’ve emphasized the Chinese peasant angle here. Do you have any idea why Chinese peasants are important to the black market trade in China? Far from being a “fossil bed” that eventually “pans out,” the lake beds from which many of the fossils are being removed (in Liaoning province) are actually quite extensive, making the prospect of looking for “perfect” specimens somewhat labor-intensive. Why should the black marketeers bother when the peasants will do it in their spare time, anyway?

Oh, give me a damn break. Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?

You are being more a bit naive if you think that black marketeers, at whatever rates they pay (out of the goodness of their hearts, of course), are actually paying the peasants any significant percentage of the income their fossils bring. Let’s see… scientist on a shoestring budget gets pilloried for paying only three dollars a day, but the black marketeer who pays ten bucks a day and gets $10,000 for a single fossil (if not more) is a righteous dude. Whatever. :rolleyes:

I must say, your insistence on laying blame at the scientists’ feet for what you perceive as a social injustice is remarkable for its baselessness in fact, when normally you’ve struck me as a rational thinker who had more than your “gut feelings” to offer in a great debate. I think that you have seriously confused matters like corporate exploitation of foreign workers (a la Nike) with what is actually a very small pool of western scientists who can barely scrape the money together and get permission to work in China.

If you’ve been reading Nature, why don’t you try reading the plethora of articles about how bad the funding situation is for scientists the world over, before you toss out ill-formed opinions and indict scientists for not raising the living standards of everyone they come in contact with.

I don’t think the scientist’s good intentions are going to put more food on the table of said peasants. I agree with Tris that the scientist sounds like an idiot when he blames the peasants for taking the higher offer. The black market, at the very least, doesn’t have the arrogance to fault the peasants for finding a better offer.

When you look for work, do you take into account how much the company could afford to pay you or what they are actually offering you? How about if it made the difference between eating 5 or 7 days per week?

As far as I can tell, Tris is not blaming the scientists for not paying fossil diggers more, rather pointing out how ridiculous it is for them to expect the fossil diggers to starve for their cause. Rather than arguing here, why don’t you try to convince the peasants of the benefits to society that would accrue due to their sacrifice of $7 a week?

Thanks, Waterj2.

Archeologists, and paleoanthropologists feel that the quest for knowlege is reason enough to justify taking the dead from their graves, and the alters of the ancients from their shrines. They are quite sure that others who wish to take those same things from their resting places have inferior reasons for doing so. I find that outlook self serving at best. I think the difference between a grave robber and an anthropologist is one of degree.

King Tut would not have chosen to increase our knowlege base, or to tour the United States. Spare me the protestations of altruistic motives. Getting ahead in the academic world is as much a matter of competition as it is in business, however different the coinage might be.

Three bucks a day to increase the knowlege base, or five bucks a day for selling rocks to black marketeers. Hmmmmm, let me think about that. How many kids do I have? How likely is it that I am going to be included in the spread of all this new knowlege? What chance is there that I will share in the acclaim that will reach the “finder” of the new phyla which my dumb rock represents? Hmmmm. Nope, you still haven’t convinced me.


By the way, your all cap panic line above does speak of your great concern that paying market value would drive up prices. Doesn’t sound all that altruistic to me still.

For you, anytime.

Being a Chinese peasant, I would guess one.

I confess, I’ve made a serious error. So did you, waterj2. We both accepted the summary of the article that Tris read as he presented it. Having read it for the first time this morning, I would suggest that you take a look at it too before commenting further (and Tris ought to read it again more carefully). The full citation is Nature, v. 406, p. 930-932 (and by the way, Rex Dalton is a science writer, not a scientist, as is clearly indicated at the close of the article).

Because this issue of Nature will not make it into people’s mailboxes and libraries until next week, I’ll post some key extracts here (all items in boldface are my emphasis).

Please note that the institution and scientists involved here are Chinese, not western. The article then speaks about the first-hand experiences and observations of about 30 western scientists when they visit Liaoning for four days, prior to a meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution (SAPE) in Beijing.

Clearly, there is a difference in perspective on the fossils between scientist and local workers that has an awful lot to do with the normally low standard of living. As the article puts it:

Then there’s the paragraph that seems to have ignited Tris’s wrath:

Please note that the wages quoted are the US$ equivalent of what the CHINESE themselves pay the diggers - the figure does not purport to represent what western scientists pay. However, that figure would indeed limit what a US scientist would be able to offer a laborer if they had permission to work in China, because US gov’t rules require that “consultants” be paid in accordance with their normal (i.e., legal) rates (see NSF’s Grant Proposal Guidelines, ). I do not know what the specific rules are for non-US western scientists, but I imagine that they operate under similar constraints.

NOWHERE in this article does the author say, or quote any scientist as saying, that the villagers are fools for accepting black market offers over scientist-proffered digging wages. Scientists can and do mourn the loss of rare specimens for study, but I think there are damn few that don’t recognize the economics of the situation.

waterj2 said:

Sorry, but when Tris says, “Although the black market is certainly not trying to benefit the common schmuck, at least it doesn’t try to use Grant politics as an excuse to avoid paying up (emphasis mine),” I believe that he is most certainly saying that the scientists should be paying the laborers more.

BTW, Tris has glossed over the comment in the sidebar on p. 931 about the financial condition of the IVPP in Beijing: “[The IVPP] has such a limited budget that it was unable to repair the elevator and some toilets in time for the June meeting of the [SAPE]…” To underscore the general lack of funding available in China for academics and their endeavors, I’ll add here that a former officemate of mine, who was an assistant professor of geology at Beijing University before coming to the US, was paid a monthly salary of approximately US$30. That’s equivalent to 10 days digging fossils as a laborer. Who’s worse off?

OK, for the sake of argument let’s say that western scientists should pay more. With a maximum of maybe 100 or so scientists worldwide who: a) are interested in the types of fossils found in China and b) able to get permission to enter China for field work (not an easy task), what do you suggest they pay as a comfortable wage? How do they counter that when the black market can easily pay more and still make a tidy profit? How do you counter accusations of “scientific imperialism” (sure to come) when the locals cease to deal with native Chinese scientists at all, who can’t match western scientists’ new rates? Or are you suggesting that all efforts at academic work should simply cease, so that the locals can take the sites apart in order to buy some more motorcycles?

BTW, I was wrong when I said earlier that the Chinese government doesn’t care about the fate of fossils:

It seems to me that the government, at some level, acknowledges the scientific treasures it has and would prefer that they not leave the country. If you want to argue that the Chinese government (and other governments that have similar controls on fossil or human artifact trafficking) is morally in the wrong because they are preventing the locals from exploiting national resources for personal gain, please start another thread. Then we talk about the pros and cons of all sorts of illegal activities that support thriving black markets in Third World countries.

A brief aside to address Tris’s diatribe on archaeologists and anthropologists: Your comments only illustrate further that you have no idea how field research is done these days. For US scientists (again, I would assume other western scientists operate under similar strictures), field work abroad is not funded unless a research collaboration is established with scientists from the country in question (as backed up by letters of support, government permits, and indications that co-authored publications will arise from the research). Most countries with archaeological treasures now exercise tight controls on the disposition of any artifacts found, and strongly encourage (if not require) that research projects include opportunities for training local students in the proper excavation and curation of their country’s assets. The days of the British and American “gentleman” archaeologists wandering in and looting sites for museums back home are long gone (and good riddance). Please take some care to research these matters a bit further before spreading such misinformation.

The fact that modern paleontologists and archeologists are, or are not gentlemen has little bearing on their right to disturb the altars of ancient peoples. Science considers its quest for knowledge as some sort of undeniable precedence of purpose. I don’t. I feel that a grave has significance to those who made it, and that that significance survives though the culture has perished.

The long ago days of rampant spoiling of ancient relics are only in the last century because the current century is but a year old. I merely refuse to agree as one set of grave robbers tries to disparage another. What you did with my grandfathers’ bones after you dug them up is not enough to convince me that you honor our traditions.

The bones of dinosaurs, or palm fronds, or diatoms are not of interest to many. But those who are interested must claim their precedence to be given those things on some basis other than “My purpose is noble, and yours is base.” While blaming the wages of Chinese peasants on Chinese Scientists might make you feel less guilty, that isn’t the point. Science agrees that the material is precious and then objects when anyone expects to be paid for the treasures that science wants. The study of paleontology will have precious little benefit to the daily lives of farmers anywhere.

And when science claims this right of eminent domain for the noble purpose of expanding knowledge it calls up another question. When the expansion of knowledge opens up vast new resources upon which great ventures of commercial enterprise might be founded, are the same scientists so vocal about the greater good, and the sharing of that wealth with the entire world? If so, it is a well-kept secret.

I do not oppose science. I simply do not deify it. It is an enterprise of ordinary men, and should be viewed as such. If the resource of the rocks in my back yard are greatly valued by science, let’s talk about value in words that I understand. I have absolute assurance that others will speak in dollars. Why then must science speak of precious treasures beyond price. Name a price! But don’t forget these are precious treasures, by your own evaluation. Others might agree. Though you find their purposes less to your liking, their money stacks the same as yours.


Rather than address my specific questions to you about how to deal with the “social injustice” of scientists not paying black market rates to laborers for fossils that are legally not theirs to dispose of anyway, you’ve decided to counter with lofty arguments of how you feel that scientists are merely grave robbers of a different stripe, or self-centered individuals on a quest for “great ventures of commercial enterprise.” And your last few posts in general have a “this is the way I feel about it, and nothing you say will change my mind” tone. Not really a great debate, so I’m not going to spend much more of my time countering such posts. Unlike some others on this board, I just don’t have the inclination to keep beating my head against the wall with someone who is clearly close-minded on a topic that could truly spur some thought-provoking discussions (as it has for years within the scientific community itself).

A side note, for the sake of clarity, since MagicalSilverKey has just complained in another forum that sometimes scientists do not explain themselves clearly: Paleontologists study the fossils of all plants and creatures, but generally not the fossils of man’s ancestors. Paleoanthropologists study the fossil remains of human ancestors, generally up to the dawn of agriculture (approx. 10,000 years ago). Physical anthropologists generally study the physical remains of prehistoric and historic societies. Archaeologists study artifacts that are evidence of human cultures. Archaeologists may work with either paleoanthropologists or physical anthropologists, depending on the age of the finds they discover.

The various issues concerning archaeological activities, disposition of artifacts, etc. can readily be debated in a general context (should anyone attempt systematic study of psat cultural remains?), or in the specific context of laws like NAGPRA (Native American Grave Repatriation Act) in the US. I drew some parallels between the way many in the scientific community feel rare fossils should be treated, and how archeological artifacts are currently treated, simply thinking that perhaps the link might make it easier to see the problem with fossil poaching and black marketeers. You have seized the opportunity to get on the soapbox about a different topic. Please start a separate thread if you feel so strongly about archaeological issues - this one’s about fossil trafficking.

[nitpick]This century is not less than a year old, because the new century hasn’t begun yet.[/nitpick] Still and all, archaeological practices have, by and large, changed drastically in the past few decades, largely because countries have realized the importance of their cultural heritage and have taken steps to ensure that it isn’t just sold off to the highest bidder. From a purely scientific angle (I know, so self-serving :rolleyes: ), modern analytical techniques that can provide so much more information require undisturbed context. The system is at its best when both archaeologists and governments work together to interpret and preserve cultural remains.

Apparently, you would prefer the wanton destruction of sites and the retailing of cultural artifacts so that we learn nothing of our past, while black marketeers get rich and wealthy collectors line their vaults. I can’t pretend to comprehend that view in the slightest.

Sorry, I thought that expanding the breadth of our knowledge was a noble purpose; how silly of me. What other basis would you propose paleontologists use to encourage the saving of rare fossils for the nation that lays claim to them?

I’m not a paleontologist, so I haven’t actually been in the position of having to pay anything. But why assume I would feel guilty for paying someone a fee commensurate with, or slightly higher than, what they would normally earn? I would only feel guilty if I had the capability to match black market prices and didn’t. And I thought I explained earlier that paleontologists don’t have that kind of money; perhaps you missed that point.

As I also mentioned earlier, science attaches worth to objects that accrue from their value as objects that can teach us something new. You seem to be unable to even consider that viewpoint, and act as though scientists have a huge wad of money that they just don’t want to spend. I can only shake my head in wonder at this stance, which is completely unfounded in fact.

No, fossils found today in Liaoning don’t have any immediate impact on the daily life of a Chinese peasant; but that is an extremely short-sighted view of the worth of a discipline. A little geology lesson… paleontology was, until the 1950’s, the only way to age-date rocks relative to one another (biostratigraphy). With the advent of radiometric absolute dating techniques (U/Pb, K/Ar, etc.), the combination of radiometric ages and biostratigraphy has made it possible to date many rocks less than 500 million years old quite reliably. And that means nothing to you, I know, except for the fact that the industrialized world relies on targeting appropriate rock units as petroleum sources… and those rock units are often identified by their fossil assemblages. [sarcasm]Nope, no use for paleontology of any kind. [/sarcasm]

Again, you are confusing corporate research activity with government-funded activity. Government-funded basic research activity HAS to be made accessible to the broader scientific community, and to anyone else that has a passing interest in the subject, via publication in journals and (increasingly) via dissemination on the web. Grant proposals are evaluated these days partly on the basis of whether they include educational opportunities and outreach programs, particularly to the K-12 schools. In the cases of technological applications, companies can hook up with the government to take the results of basic research to a commercial level, at which point presumably a whole bunch of people can benefit either as recipients of new technology or as investors in the commercialization effort. See e.g., NASA’s technology transfer office home page for the wide range of items developed as a result of basic research relating to the space program.

Private corporations that pay for their own R&D are, in this country and many others, entitled to the fruits of their labor and expense. I would rather see some of these entities (especially pharmaceutical companies) behaving in a somewhat more altruistic fashion, but I’m cynical enough to know that it would never happen voluntarily. Another excellent topic for another thread, with no application to the problem of fossil poaching in China.

Actually, to me your comments ring with just the opposite sentiment.

Apparently you can only see things in this world as being worth a given amount of money. How sad.

What is more valuable: An ounce of gold or a gold ring worn by King Tut and why?