Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
The Story of (Fossil) Dinosaurs Who Walked into an Auction Room
By Victor Monnin
At the end of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), genetically-engineered dinosaurs are being sold to an evil consortium of arms dealers and military leaders during a secret auction. In their attempt to stop the sale, the three protagonists free the dinosaurs, unleashing them into the world.
The display of caged dinosaurs raises issues concerning the commodification of animals for purposes ranging from entertainment to clinical testing.
But what about fossils?
Fossils of prehistoric animals have been breaking records in auctions since the sale of “Sue” in 1997. One of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in the world, “Sue” was sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $8.36 million. In 2020, “Stan”, another T-Rex skeleton, drew a record price of $31.8 million. Most recently, the skeleton of a Deinonychus antirrhopus, the species that inspired the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, sold for $12.4 million. Beyond museums, fossils have evolved into a new kind of luxury business. More and more private collectors are now investing in the remains of extinct species.
But should fossils be up for sale? As rare and valuable clues to the deep history of life, shouldn’t fossils be reserved for the work of scientists? Should fossils be just another commodity on the market? Or should they be seen as intrinsically scientific objects, part of a collective heritage to be protected?
The argument for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils
The growth of the fossil business is a cause of great concern among the community of paleontologists. Specimens may be scattered across a myriad of private collections, and private collectors might not be sufficiently educated or appropriately advised on proper conservation techniques. As a result, the integrity of rare fossil specimens might be jeopardized.
In response, some paleontologists and museum professionals have argued that we must recognize the intrinsic scientific value of fossils, meaning that the scientific value of fossils does not derive from a specific set of circumstances, but from the nature of fossils themselves. Fossils are the preserved remains and traces of extinct lifeforms. Since the overwhelming majority of remains and traces do not get fossilized, fossils represent a rare and precious source of information about the deep history of life. The fossils that we have and find need to be properly prepared, curated, and described to provide scientific evidence for the present and upcoming generations of paleontologists.
Obstacles to the argument for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils
At least four obstacles stand in the way of fully subscribing to the argument for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils.
First, the argument is more rhetorical than factual. Asserting the intrinsic value of something is a convenient way to devalue any statements referring to specific circumstances. The rhetorical efficiency of the argument does not prove it wrong, but once highlighted, we are justified in adopting a cautionary skeptical stance toward it.
Second, the factual basis of the argument for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils is weak. Yes, fossils are incredibly rare objects that often harbor an unexpected amount of information about the Earth’s deep past. But fossils can also be seen as naturally occurring things, similar in certain ways to rocks and pebbles. They were not made to be studied. In fact, they were not “made” at all, they just happened. Hence, the scientific value of fossils is not intrinsic to them. Rather, it comes from the process of collecting, studying, and curating them.
Third, the argument for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils does not pass the test of history. Fossils have been collected and used by humans since prehistoric times and in a great variety of cultural contexts. Fossils have served not only as objects of philosophical speculation and scientific research, but also as ingredients for traditional medicine, trophies, religious relics, etc. Even though some of these usages of fossils were/are based on misconceptions or ignorance of the organic origin of fossils, they still support the claim that any value attributed to fossils (scientific value included) emerges within a specific set of cultural and historical circumstances.
Fourth, although the intention behind the argument for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils is laudable, that same argument has been used throughout history to justify the dispossession of fossils (among other natural resources) belonging to nations and populations who did not necessarily value fossils in a primarily scientific fashion. This cultural bias cannot be ignored without leaving the door open to the rationalization of unethical actions in the name of science.
Avoiding the Manichean approach and taking cues from the past
All these obstacles leave us in an awkward position. On the one hand, we recognize the urgency of protecting fossil specimens from being treated as mere commodities. On the other hand, we find the argument for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils to be more of a rhetorical short-cut than a sustainable answer.
In the auction sale sequence in Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, the stakes are blatantly clear. The people bidding for the engineered dinosaurs are unmistakably evil. Their motivations for acquiring these animals are as far removed from the common good as possible. This black-and-white scenario may evoke the real-life auction sales of fossil specimens, but it also greatly differs from it. The private collectors bidding for fossil specimens cannot be readily identified with the evil-minded buyers in Fallen Kingdom.
In fact, the development of paleontology as a scientific field has been historically tied to the support of not only public, but also private patrons. This historical perspective can help us formulate an alternative approach to promote the protection of fossil remains and of their scientific value. Fossils can be considered as what scholars call “boundary objects.” This means that fossils exist simultaneously as objects of interest for different social groups whose respective values and agendas may compete or align.
Instead of arguing for the intrinsic scientific value of fossils, which can involve a false sense of radical opposition with other ways of valuing fossils, efforts can be oriented toward promoting and improving the historical connection between private patronage and paleontological research. The scientific value of fossils (as well as many other natural objects) can be safeguarded through renewed social negotiations. This is obviously a challenging and frustrating journey to be on, especially for paleontologists oftentimes short on resources. But would we rather live in a Manichean world where such negotiations are not even an option and genetically-engineered prehistoric predators eventually roam free?
Victor Monnin, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Professor of Humanities at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, IL and an Associate Researcher at the Archives Henri-Poincaré in Strasbourg, France.