At the turn of the 20th century, museums began funding excavations to unearth dinosaur bones. Credit: Museum Wales

Dinosaurs are in the news today, but it’s not just groundbreaking discoveries.

More and more paleontologists sound the alarm about high-profile auctions in which dinosaur fossils sell for outrageous sums. The last example includes a 77 million year old Gorgosaurus skeleton that Sotheby’s sold for more than US$6 million in August 2022.

But that’s not even close to the highest amount ever paid for a dinosaur. In May 2022, Christie’s sold the Deinonychus skeleton for 12.4 million dollars. And a couple of months before that, the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi paid a staggering $31.8 million for Stana remarkably complete T. rex from South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation that will be the centerpiece of a new natural history museum in the Gulf city.

Some scientists are so confused that they are speaking out. University of Edinburgh palaeontologist Steve Brusat said the Daily Mail that auction houses turn valuable specimens into “nothing more than toys for the rich.” Thomas Carr of Carthage College in Wisconsin was even more directly, saying, “These auctions are driven by greed for money.” He also complained that the wealthy elites –including actors Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio— compete to acquire the best specimens in the juvenile game, describing them as “time thieves.”

Most commentators have been tracking the explosive growth of the dinosaur market back to Sue, the largest and most complete T. rex ever found. After the FBI seized it in the the same group of fossil hunters who found Stan, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago purchased it—with financial backing from Disney and McDonald’s—for more than $8 million in 1997.

But as I documented in my recent book, “Dinosaur assembly“The trade in commercial specimens is as old as the science of paleontology itself. And its history shows that the debate over whether to buy and sell dinosaurs involves much deeper questions about the long-standing but highly contested relationship between science and capitalism.

Two sides of the argument

Paleontologists have good reasons to oppose the commercial sale of precious fossils. Science is fundamentally a public enterprise, and if specimens are not available for public study, paleontologists have no way to assess whether new finds are true. What if a particularly surprising theory is based on a false pattern?

This happens more often than you think. In the late 1990s a private collector purchased what appeared to be a feathered dinosaur at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. National Geographic then reported it with great fanfare, claiming it was the “missing link” between dinosaurs and modern birds. When scientists became suspicious, they found that the so-called “archaeoraptor” fossils combined pieces of several different specimens to create a chimeric creature that never existed.

But commercial fossil hunters make a compelling point, too. Most fossils are first discovered as a result of the natural process of erosion. Eventually, however, erosion also destroys the specimen itself—and there simply aren’t enough scientists to find every fossil before it’s lost. It is therefore argued that commercial collectors should be commended for rescuing specimens by digging them up.

Wealthy philanthropists distance themselves

Both sides of the argument make a compelling point. But as the Archaearaptor fiasco shows, it’s worth asking whether financial incentives undermine trust.

Dinosaurs first attracted the attention of geologists in the 19th century. In fact, these giant lizards didn’t get their name until comparative anatomist Richard Owen invented biological category “Dinosaurs” in 1842.

At that time scientists didn’t treat dinosaurs any differently from other valuables that could be dug out of the ground, such as gold, silver, and coal. Museums acquired most fossils from commercial collectors, often using funds donated by wealthy industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, for whom the dinosaur was even named: Diplodocus carnegia.

This began to change at the very end of the 19th century, when a concerted effort was made to demolish dinosaur bones and museums began to distance themselves from the commercial trade of specimens.

One push came from wealthy museum patrons, who sought demarcation their charity work from the boring world of commerce. Philanthropists such as Carnegie and J. P. Morgan, gave money to cultural institutions because they wanted to show their refined taste, their appreciation for education and their republican values, and not to enter into business operations.

Moreover, the first Gilded Age resembled the present one in that it has also seen a sharp increase in economic inequality. This led to the widespread class conflict that could have been extremely violent and bloody. Wealthy elites, fearing that fiery labor leaders would bring the industrial economy to its knees, using public displays of apparent generosity to demonstrate that American capitalism can produce public goods in addition to profits.

For all these reasons, it was important to see their charitable activities as selfless acts of true altruism, completely detached from the fierce competition of the market.

Scientists take control

At the same time paleontologists adopted the language of “pure science” to claim that they acquired the knowledge for its own sake, not for financial gain.

Claiming that their work was free from the corrupting influence of money, scientists made themselves more reliable.

Ironically, scientists have found that they can attract more funds by declaring that they are not interested in money at all, making themselves the perfect recipients of the philanthropic largesse of the wealthy elite. But it also necessitated a clear distinction between the culture of capitalism and scientific practice, which entailed a reluctance to acquire specimens through purchase.

As scientists began to shun the commercial trade of specimens, museums began to use generous donations from wealthy philanthropists to organize increasingly ambitious expeditions that allowed scientists to collect fossils themselves.

Dinosaurs in the New Gilded Age

But their ability to control the private market for dinosaur bones didn’t last forever. With the United States in the middle of what some call a The New Gilded Agehe roared back.

Today, the most impressive dinosaur fossils often come from the Jehol Formation northeastern China. And most often they are purchased from local farmers who supplement their income by hunting for fossils on the side.

As a result, the question of whether commercial incentives undermine trust has returned with a vengeance. Li Chun, a professor at the prestigious Beijing Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, estimates that over 80% of all marine reptiles on display in Chinese museums have been fraudulently altered to some degree, often to increase their value.

The age-old concern about whether the profit motive threatens to undermine the values ​​of science is real. But this is hardly unique to paleontology.

Spectacular implosion of Theranos, a tech startup that raised more than $700 million in venture capital based on false promises to develop a better way to test blood, is just one particularly high-profile example of commercial fraud combined with scientific misconduct. So much scientific research now paid for by people who have a commercial stake in the knowledge gained – and you can see the effects in everything from Exxon’s decision to hide its early climate change research until Moderna’s recent move to start applying your patent on the mRNA technology behind the most effective vaccines against COVID-19.

Is it any wonder that so many people have lost faith in science?

Gargosaurus was sold at a New York auction for $6.1 million


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