One by one, every area of science is falling prey to the “we need to purge ourself of racism” syndrome. It’s in genetics, animal behavior, ecology, chemistry, physics and now, at least for the first time I’ve seen, in paleontology. It wouldn’t be so bad if I really thought that all the fields of science are permeated with hatred and bigotry at present, but I just don’t see that. There are accusations, but rarely do we get evidence. (See the Sci Am article on E. O. Wilson the other day.)
Of course in the bad old days, when racism and misogyny were acceptable behaviors, yes, many scientists evinced racist and sexist attitudes. And yes, there are still some bigots in science, as there are in every field of endeavor, and we should call out those behaviors and ensure that they’re not common. But the kind of overall accusations of the kind leveled in this article are pure hyperbole, and, to my mind, do more to signal the authors’ virtue than to actually create equal opportunities (not equal outcomes, which are “problematic”) for oppressed people.
To really see the lack of force of accusations of rampant bigotry in STEM, look for surveys, or even examples, of bigotry in papers such as this. They’re notably lacking. The paper below, which just appeared in Paleobiology, has a lot of citations, but a big lacuna when it comes to examples. Perhaps they’re buried in the citations, but no reader is going to trawl through a gazillion citations to find instances of bigotry. And so we’re subject to a long list of accusations, which are virtually identical from field to field. In fact, in many cases you could substitute “chemistry” or “mathematics” for “paleontology” in these papers and then publish it in the discipline -appropriate journal.
The accusations here (yes, some of them are justified, especially the ones about removing fossils without permission or authority) comprise the usual mix—some are justified but exaggerated, and in the end the paper becomes so extreme that it damns the whole field of paleobiology for racism, sexism, colonialism, white supremacy—you name it.
Click on the screenshot to read, and you can find the pdf here(reference at bottom). One of our readers, I believe, said that this is the first time a political/ideological paper had appeared in the journal Paleobiology. I don’t know if that’s true.
There is what is said to be a list of “examples” of “racism and colonialism” in the field, presented in Table 1, but that’s not what Table 1 shows. It’s not a list of examples of biased behavior, but a “glossary of anti-racism terms.” (click to enlarge table).
I have neither the time nor will to look up all the citations to see if they really do show examples of bigotry in paleobiology. But I decided to pick one example and follow it back. That is the one under “erasure”: a reference to a 2016 article in the New York Times Magazine. Paragraph 3, which is the “example” cited, simply says this:
‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?
It’s a definition, and not, as promised, an example of “the history of racism and colonialism in paleontology since the 1800s. . “. Readers can look up the other references, but my initial foray was not propitious.
Now I’m not going to say that examples are totally absent from this piece. Here, for example are three (the authors count the use of geological methods to extract minerals as oppression in paleobiology):
the forced removal of Navajo and Hopi people from their lands in the Black Mesa in Arizona for access to coal deposits under the guise of a “land dispute” between the Navajo and Hopi (Redhouse Reference Redhouse1985; Cheyfitz Reference Cheyfitz2002; McBride Reference McBride2017);
encroachment upon and threats to the well-being and safety of the Meskwaki, Standing Rock Sioux, and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribes posed by the Dakota Access Pipeline (Noicecat and Spice Reference Noicecat and Spice2016), although a new environmental review is being undertaken as of this writing (Frazin Reference Frazin2020); and
the decision by the federal government to allow the state of Oklahoma to control the environmental regulations over the recently restored autonomous tribal lands of the Five Tribes of Oklahoma (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek [Muscogee], and Seminole) to the benefit of the oil and agricultural industries (Chang Reference Chang2020; Environmental Protection Agency 2020).
This does show the continuing disregard of Native Americans, but it reflects more on the perfidy of capitalists and governments than on the racism of paleobiologists themselves.
I’ll finish just by giving some quotations that struck me. Make of them what you will:
Throughout modern history, Western science has directly benefited from the extraction of biological specimens born out of colonialist expansion (Sheets-Pyenson Reference Sheets-Pyenson1986; Roy Reference Roy2018; Chakrabarti Reference Chakrabarti2019; Christison et al. Reference Christison, Tanke and Mallon2020; see also Fagan Reference Fagan2007). These specimens formed the foundations of new theories and subdisciplines of scientific thought (Stix Reference Stix2009), including scientific racism (Curtin Reference Curtin1960).
I presume that the authors know that what happened in the bad old days is being repaired, both by journals requiring documentation of legitimate acquisition of specimens, and countries themselves taking control over their own land and what lies beneath it.
Here we come close to the authors suggestion that we present “other ways of knowing” alongside “Western” wys of knowing in museums. It’s not clear whether they will be presented as having scientific validity:
The incorporation of Indigenous perspectives into museums, which may include views that are antithetical to the narratives previously professed by these institutions, would be a substantial step forward in addressing the colonial history of natural history museums (Vawda Reference Vawda2019). Furthermore, museums can and should be held accountable for cataloging their histories of colonialism and extraction to spur reflection on that history and grow beyond it (Das and Lowe Reference Das and Lowe2018). As part of this effort, the flaws of founders, scientists, and other historic figures involved in the narratives of museums must be publicly recognized for museums to maintain their credibility (Roy Reference Roy2018).
. . . A reflection upon how the history of paleontology is presented in the classroom provides an introduction to the concept of power imbalances in modern academia. In many Western paleontology courses, syllabi ignore how the establishment of paleontology (and geology) in the Americas relied on the removal and erasure of BIPOC groups. In addition to the material presented in the previous sections, examples include Native American beliefs surrounding the biological origins of fossils (Dussias Reference Dussias1996); the first fossils known to Western science in the Americas were identified by enslaved Africans (Mayor Reference Mayor2005); evolutionary theory was grounded in societal and political views regarding race and culture, wherein evolution and extinction were viewed as mechanisms of removing “unfit” species, and was used to justify Western colonialism (Sepkoski Reference Sepkoski2020). Discussing these facts in a science classroom at all ages and education levels may seem inconvenient and unsettling. Students are often taught that science is apolitical, unbiased, and egalitarian, when in reality it is not. Because of this, reality is often supplanted by a racist, colonialist, and inherently misleading narrative (Sabbagh Reference Sabbagh2017).
We see that, in all these interpretations, the field and the way it’s taught is asked to change dramatically, from an instructional presentation of scientific truth to a form of social engineering designed to indict practitioners in the field in the past, and to validate “indigenous” views of science that are invalid. Science class, as in all of these manifestos, will change from people learning the truths uncovered by paleobiology into a discussion of the bigotry, racism, and sexism of paleobiologists themselves. Doesn’t this belong in a “studies” course or a “history of science” course?
I’m starting to think that the purpose of these attacks is not just to indict everyone for bigotry and white supremacy, but to fundamentally change the nature of science. It is no longer an objective search for truth (yes, of course some scientists are biased), but just one more tool to achieve not just equality but equity. If anything is being “erased,” it’s the distinction between the sciences and the humanities. “Science” is to become “science studies.”
However, meaningful redress of these issues is effectively prevented by the same power dynamics that facilitated the growth of the geosciences described here. Indeed, the structure of Western academia, including the geosciences, is built upon imbalances of power (Clauset et al. Reference Clauset, Arbesman and Larremore2015; Moss Reference Moss2018; Marín-Spiotta et al. Reference Marín-Spiotta, Barnes, Berhe, Hastings, Mattheis, Schneider and Williams2020). These kinds of power imbalances are ubiquitous, yet seldom addressed, in professional or academic settings (Marín-Spiotta et al. Reference Marín-Spiotta, Barnes, Berhe, Hastings, Mattheis, Schneider and Williams2020). Here, we illustrate how perception of the history of paleontology reflects these imbalances of power, before discussing how these dynamics reinforce racist structures and norms within academia.
Note that any meritocracy will involve some imbalance of power, and that’s why people like this are also trying to water down merit-based advancement in science. My emphases in the below.
Students are often taught that science is apolitical, unbiased, and egalitarian, when in reality it is not. Because of this, reality is often supplanted by a racist, colonialist, and inherently misleading narrative (Sabbagh Reference Sabbagh2017). Most Western paleontology and geoscience courses are taught by white faculty who control course curricula (Dutt Reference Dutt2020; Marín-Spiotta et al. Reference Marín-Spiotta, Barnes, Berhe, Hastings, Mattheis, Schneider and Williams2020). Without uncomfortable examination of current teaching methods and textbooks, most paleontology courses will continue to emphasize the contributions of white (often male) Western scientists to paleontology, while simultaneously failing to address the racist beliefs of Western scientists, the knowledge of BIPOC scholars, and the historical and modern exploitation of BIPOC communities to benefit Western institutions. This amounts to white supremacy (Truss Reference Truss2019; Table 1). Failure to recognize and address unequal power dynamics and their effects on academia only serves to entrench these behaviors.
Imagine a minority student (or any student) signing up for a paleobiology course only to learn not the facts and theories of paleobiology, but a litany of how the field has been used to suppress the marginalized—and is still being used that way! What minority student would want to enter such a field? And wouldn’t students who want to learn paleobiology be a bit peeved that they are repeatedly indicted for white supremacy?
I love biology and I have studied a bit of paleobiology, too (I pride myself in having read nearly everything that Steve Gould wrote, including his final behemoth tome, which you don’t need to read). But I’m not sure I would have loved evolutionary biology so much if, at the outset of my studies, I was told that I was entering a field riddled, like a house with termites, with bigotry, racism, and white supremacy. Darwin, Fisher, Galton, Wallace, and even poor Mendel—racists all. Let’s leave science classes for science (with perhaps a rare mention of perfidy), and move this kind of stuff to the area of “studies” and history of science.
In the end, articles like the one above will serve to chill the speech of dissenters, for who dares criticize this article? The fear is that you’ll be called a racist, sexist, or other species of bigot. Some of us, though, aren’t put off by those epithets, nor do we have anything to lose professionally.
Monarrez, P., Zimmt, J., Clement, A., Gearty, W., Jacisin, J., Jenkins, K., . . . Thompson, C. (2021). Our past creates our present: A brief overview of racism and colonialism in Western paleontology. Paleobiology, 1-13. doi:10.1017/pab.2021.28