Bias in the Fossil Record

The contributions of women and underrepresented minorities have been obscured from the history of geology and paleontology.

Women and minorities have been purposefully omitted from the history of geology and paleontology. Textbooks contain countless black and white mosaics of white men staring sternly into the future, devoid of even a hint of diversity. Absent from these books are women or those of non North American or European descent, despite their actual significant and foundational contributions. 

If you ask anyone to describe a paleontologist, they will likely discuss the trademarked features of Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, a character based mostly on real-life paleontologist Jack Horner. They will describe a white man with a hat, button down shirt, and khakis in his natural desert habitat digging for amazingly complete dinosaur skeletons. This is, and never was, a complete representation of paleontology or paleontologists. It instead paints a picture of the science as a white man’s hobby, discouraging the development of a diverse community. 

Two white men paleontologists who are being referenced as our usual standard paleontologist
What we usually think of as the “standard” paleontologist.
“05528 Grand Canyon Paleontologists” by Grand Canyon NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Most paleontologists considered as the “top” or “pioneers” of the field are white men from either Europe or the United States. I agree these men did important work, and their contributions need to be lauded. However, the lack of equal representation is a major issue. How are we supposed to encourage diversity in the field when our representation of “top paleontologists” all look the same?  

Despite the strong drive for progressing equality and inclusion in all sciences, geology and paleontology lag other fields. According to the American Geosciences Institute, one third of employees in geoscience occupations are women, lagging most other sciences. Other underrepresented minorities were even more poorly represented, comprising around 10-15% of the total employed. Even in my fairly diverse corporate geoscience team, only 3/10 are women and only 3/10 are non white. Clearly geoscience in general still has a diversity problem likely a result of systemic issues and personal biases (see for example Dutt, 2020).

One of the many potential reasons for the lack of diversity in geosciences is the absence of role models for women and other underrepresented minorities. Women and non-white men are absent from textbooks, lists, or compilations highlighting significant contributions to paleontology. I call this the “bias in the fossil record” because it acts just as actual fossil record biases. It obscures the truth and amplifies the contributions of white men at the expense of others. 

A group of geologists in the field who are mostly white men
Image I took of one of the field trips I led in 2019. (J. Schueth, C.C. BY 2.0)

One way to overcome this “fossil bias” is to amplify the many significant contributions of women and minorities. I still remember hearing about the great, foundational works of Charles Lyell. Lyell clearly deserves mention and accolades, as he developed many of the underlying principles that guide the science still today. But, did you know that Lyell’s wife, Mary, cataloged his samples, did other field and laboratory work, and acted as Lyell’s translator in the field1? Lyell does not mention his wife’s contributions in any of his works, nor do our geology texts. This is my “bias of the fossil record.”

The more and more I read, I find the history of Earth Science is filled with these “fossil biases” of women and others who have contributed so much but given so little credit. This is what inspired me to write their stories.

I find the stories of the obscured contributions of women and other minorities to geosciences fascinating, and I want to retell them in ways I think would be interesting to others. Perhaps I can play some small part changing who we think of as our “standard” paleontologist. Maybe instead we will choose Annie Alexander, likely one of the first known LGBQT paleontologists, instead of Sam Neill in a blue button-down shirt and wide-brimmed hat, even though they were dressed similarly.

Annie Alexander in the field taken in 1905
Annie Alexander in the field (1905)
Image: CC0, digitized by David K. Smith, University of California Museum of Paleontology

I plan on updating the blog about every two weeks with stories of lesser known contributions to geosciences. I may also write commentary on the field of paleontology or general thoughts, opinions, and research on diversity and inclusion in Earth sciences. Occasionally I may write shorter posts on other geoscience news, issues or other thoughts I have on diversity and inclusion.

My first post will be to establish my Founding Five: lesser known paleontologists that I argue should be included in any list of the “founders” of paleontology. I will gradually reveal each one then have a series of discussions on their contributions and other aspects of them I find interesting.

I look forward to any feedback, insights, and contributions from any readers. Feel free to leave feedback below or contact me through email or social media.

References

  1. Cole, E., Rothblum, E. D., Ashcraft, D. M. (2013). Women’s Work: A Survey of Scholarship By and About Women. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.

5 thoughts on “Bias in the Fossil Record

  1. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

    Like

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