The fossil record, which documents the history of life on Earth, is heavily biased by influences such as colonialism, history and the global economy, according to a new study involving paleontologists from the University of Birmingham and the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg.
The findings have significance in the field of paleontology, but also for how researchers can use our knowledge of the ancient fossil record to gain clearer, long-term insights into Earth’s biodiversity.
In the study published in Nature ecology and evolutionThe researchers investigated the influence and extent of these biases within the Paleobiology Database, a vast, widely used and publicly available resource that forms the cornerstone of analytical studies in the field.
They found significant biases in areas such as knowledge production, with researchers from high- and upper-middle-income countries contributing 97% of fossil data. This means that rich countries, mainly located in the North, control the majority of paleontological research power.
In addition, the team found that the main countries contributing to paleontological research carried out a disproportionate amount of work abroad, more than half of which did not involve any local researchers (researchers based in the country where the fossils are collected ).
There are many famous examples of colonial, political and economic bias in the natural sciences and humanities. During the 19and century, specimens discovered as a result of exploratory expeditions were returned to the respective imperial capitals for safekeeping in museums, where many are still used for scientific research today. Among these, perhaps the most important are the Parthenon sculptures, sometimes called the Elgin Marbles, whose return the Greek government has repeatedly demanded since they were taken from Athens in the early 19and century.
These biases affect the way paleontologists conduct their research, and can lead to unethical practices in the most extreme cases.
Co-lead author Dr Emma Dunne said: “Although we know that there are these irregularities and gaps in our knowledge of the fossil record, the historical, social and economic factors that influence these gaps are not well known. Many research practices that are informed by these biases still persist today and we need to take steps to address them.”
“We know, for example, ‘scientific colonialism’, or ‘parachute science’, in which researchers, usually from high-income countries, travel to other countries to conduct research and then leave without any commitment with local communities and local expertise. But this problem goes deeper than that: the expertise of local researchers is devalued and laws are often violated, which hampers national scientific development and leads to mistrust among researchers.”
According to the researchers, the first step towards more equitable and ethical research is to tackle the power relations that underlie the production of scientific research. This means involving and properly acknowledging local expertise.
One project that strives to achieve this is a research project involving researchers from European and African universities, based in a remote area of the Western Cape in South Africa. Here, paleontologists from Witz University and the University of Johannesburg are at the forefront of research and working with local Play Africa education specialists to create interactive materials that can be visited in schools of the region.
Dr Dunne added: “We know we can’t just eradicate prejudice, but by understanding it we are opening up whole new avenues of understanding our past that cross borders and stretch across science and art. Paleontology really thrives when we embrace that kind of diversity.”