The colonial bias permeating history and global economics is felt heavily in the fossil record, which documents the history of life on Earth
A new study involving palaeontologists at the University of Birmingham and the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg argues that colonial bias is deeply rooted in the field of palaeontology, and this must change.
The findings are extremely significant in the palaeontology world but also allow researchers to better understand and gain clearer, long-term perspectives on Earth’s biodiversity.
In the study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers investigated the influence and extent of these biases within the Paleobiology Database. The Paleobiology Database is a publicly accessible resource which forms the cornerstone of analytical studies in the field.
Wealthy Global North controls fossil research
The research team identified colonial bias in knowledge production. Specifically, researchers in high or upper-middle-income countries contributed to 97% of fossil data.
Essentially, this means that wealthy countries, primarily located in the Global North, control the majority of the palaeontological research power.
The top countries contributing to fossil research carried a disproportionate amount of work abroad, whereby more than half of them did not involve any local researchers (researchers based in the country where the fossils are being collected).
These colonial biases affect how palaeontologists conduct their research and can lead to unethical practices in extreme cases.
Co-lead author Dr Emma Dunne comments: “Although we know there are these irregularities and gaps in our knowledge of the fossil record, the historical, social and economic factors which influence these gaps are not well understood. Many of the research practices that are informed by these biases still persist today, and we ought to be taking action to address them.
“We are familiar, for example, with ‘scientific colonialism, or ‘parachute science’, in which researchers, generally from higher income countries, drop into other countries to conduct research, and then leave without any engagement with local communities and local expertise.
“But this issue goes further than that – the expertise of local researchers is devalued, and laws are often violated, hindering domestic scientific development and leading to mistrust between researchers.”
We must address power relations driving scientific research
How do we conduct science that is more equitable and ethical? Researchers argue that the first step is to address the power relations driving the production of scientific research.
How can we achieve this? By properly involving and acknowledging local expertise, the team believe.
One project which strives to do this is a research project involving researchers from European and African universities based in a remote area of the Western Cape in South Africa.
Here palaeontologists from Witz University and the University of Johannesburg are at the forefront of the research and are working with local education specialists Play Africa to create interactive materials that can be toured around regional schools.
‘We know we can’t just eradicate bias, but by understanding it we open up whole new avenues for understanding our past’
Dr Dunne added: “We know we can’t just eradicate bias, but by understanding it we open up whole new avenues for understanding our past that cross boundaries and stretches across science and arts subjects. Palaeontology really flourishes when we embrace this kind of diversity.”
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