Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dead dinos and property rights

Sometimes, you just can't rely on the market to do the right thing.

A big fossil controversy, one that will rival the $8 million sale of Sue the Tyranosaurus rex, has sprung up again in Montana. This time, a private collector has found two fully articulated dinosaur skeletons preserved together. The carnivore appears to be a Gorgosaur, a smaller relative of Tyranosaurus. The herbivore is a certopsian, related to Triceratops, but it may be a previously unknown species. There is also a chance that the Gorgosaur was either preying on the ceratopsian or scavanging its remains when they were buried.

So what's the problem? From the AP story.
Mark Eatman, the Billings floor salesman who first spotted the new fossils last summer, says he and his team have deep respect for the science of paleontology.

They also have a bottom line.

"We all went broke digging them up," said Eatman, who hopes to sell the specimens to a major American museum.

The profits would be shared among Eatman, his two digging partners and the ranch couple that owns the fossil.

The problem there is that scienctific journals won't accept papers based on fossils held in private hands. There is no way to guarantee future access to privately held bones, and therefore no way to trust the data. If a future scientist can't re-examine the same bones and write his or her own paper, there's no scientific freedom.

This scientific current of absolutely open access to data and samples sends scientists paddling against the current of Western property law. Scientists, as everyone knows who has spent time with them, are pretty damn socialist and even communalist when it comes to their work. Sure, just like everyone else, they would like to get paid well and have nice things. But the system of scientific openness that is essential for progress is about as profit-driven as a monastery.

Paleontologists would be best served in their work by a property system that used either strict usufruct or some kind of community ownership - in other words, by a libertarian-socialist system. Under usufruct, samples could pass from hand to hand, as one research team was finished another could take possession. Most likely, samples would wind up in public institutions because it would be easier than moving the damn things around all the time. Under community ownership, they would be considered an asset to humanity in general, and the community would have a responsibility to either protect them for science or to give them to some organization that would undertake that job.

Many amateur fossil hunters, those who don't need the money, already abide by the philosophy inherent in the idea of community ownership. Anything that is scientifically important, they give away to museum or university researchers. They are giving it not to one institution, but to science itself.

Whether those property systems would support any other kind of enterprise so well - or whether we'd be able to support any science without a present-day or Lockean property system - is a debate for another time.

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