Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hands off approach

Last week, I overheard a comment as a couple of people were leaving the shop. It's one I've heard a few times before, and went a little along the lines of:

'I don't think they should be allowed to take things from the Earth. It's like shells, isn't it?'

I can understand the conservational principles behind the thinking, but cannot agree with the sentiment. Firstly, there's a significant difference between the shell trade and fossils. Without knowing a great deal about the shell business I can't say what standard practice is, but there is at least the potential for dealers being pro-active - actually killing lots of cuddly little slime-lumps to sell their homes to somebody. Rather than just filling a bucket with shells from the beach after a high tide, for example. I don't know if this goes on or not and I don't want to be in any way accusatory, but my point is that with fossils, it can't. Nobody can go out with a shotgun, a flask of coffee and a couple of cheese and pickle sandwiches on a day's trilobite hunting. Beaten to the punch by hundreds of millions of years.

A common comment in the shop is 'Why aren't all these things in museums?'. I'm pretty sure I've addressed this issue in an earlier post. If I can be bothered, maybe I'll go and have a look later, and edit this. Would be a good exercise in posting a link, which I should get round to. (Stone sentinels - ooh, look, I could be bothered). Anyway, there's clearly a link with these lines of thinking. With one, an assumption of intrinsic scarcity leading to the feeling that everything should be locked away and looked after by somebody for the greater good. And with the other, perhaps, the feeling of collective ownership, or ownership by 'the planet' leading to a feeling of suspicion of those exploiting a common resource. Both 'hands off those fossils' lines of thinking, in different ways.

As I said, I have addressed the former point already, but one moment of tv annoyed me greatly. Let me vent for a second. Tony Robinson's Time Team archaeology program had a sideways dip into matters palaeontological a few years ago. Early in this programme, they stated that they knew very little about the subject, and less about the commercial side to the subject. Yet later on they were scathing and condemnatory about a little 'Mom and Pop' store they came across selling fragments of dinosaur bone and eggshell. They were horrified that anyone should be selling this precious and rare material, and were outraged that it wasn't all safely locked away in a museum somewhere. I don't think there would have been many museums that would have taken that stuff if they had offered to drop it on their doorstep. It's purely commercial material, of little or no scientific value. And they ought to have done a little research into that before writing off a whole industry like that.

On to the second 'pillaging the Earth' line. If fossils weren't collected then nobody would see them. Nobody would learn from them. Nobody would be able to appreciate their beauty. Those that are lying around on the surface may be seen by a few diligent beachcombers or desert wanderers, but would eventually be destroyed by the elements. Those buried within the rocks, the vast majority, would stay there, benefitting no-one, until the rock is eroded. However many fossils are found and collected (and sold), most will remain hidden from view.

One issue that I should probably raise here is the possibility that the Earth would 'feel' the loss of the stones. I mean as some sort of sentient being. Mother Earth. I've said before that I hold very strong atheist views, so this doesn't hold any water for me. Gaia Theory is a fascinating topic, and one I'll save for another post, but I would contend that it's a form of religion for scientists. Poor Mother Earth would also then presumably feel the loss of metal ores, oils and gases by that measure. In which case the loss of a few fossils here and there is small beer.

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