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In our iteration of “Earth,” there are several studies suggesting that the study of paleontology is itself going extinct. In an attempt to envision a brighter future for the field, I want to build a world whereby society values paleontology above all else — essentially valuing ancient life more than present life.
Feeling that notion was just a bit too extreme, I dialed back a bit and settled for “paleontology becomes the largest / profitable industry.”
Other industries can/need to exist too (food/beverage/transportation/ect), but the core of this world’s economy is the study, extraction and celebration of ancient life.
In our world, understanding the formation of fossil fuels has powerful real world benefits, but may not always be conducive to a broader embrace of the field outside of utilitarian resource exraction. I want the economy to be driven solely by the enthusiasm and demand for understanding ancient life (dinosaurs, therapsids, ect). So the success metric here is designing society’s values to be as fond as possible to ancient life. Equivalently, answers that propose paleontology for utilitarian purposes (gas for cars) will score lower.
Assuming everything else to be earth-like and technology near or at modern-age, how might I design the values of society such that paleontology becomes the largest / most profitable industry?
You can’t make it the biggest, but it can be a lot bigger
The largest and most profitable industries work with the most available resources and sell them to the largest markets. Everyone wants oil, everyone wants steel (though mostly indirectly), everyone wants software, everyone wants to buy stuff cheaply and easily, you can probably name at least one company for each of those markets.
Fossils are of limited supply and of interest to a comparitively small number of organisations. There are commercial fossil hunters and private collectors often with more money to spend than the museums, though the ethics of this industry are sometimes questioned. Clean up the image of this industry and you’re still talking about a luxury product in limited supply.
It’s that limited supply that causes the issue. Consider the gold rush. The way to make money was to sell fresh food and tools to miners. You didn’t mine gold, you mined the miners.
The core of your economy might be extracting fossils for one reason or another, but the biggest industry won’t be paleontology itself, it will be one of the support industries that also has a market to the general population (possibly software), or the equivalent of De Beers that acts as a clearing house for lots of smaller paleontology operations and acts to keep prices up.
Chinese medicine claims it can be used to treat impotency.
Rhino horn does nothing medicinal yet fetches up to $30,000 per pound and has managed to drive rhinos to the point of extinction.
If fossil dust was used instead, it’s value was be much greater thus funding an industry to collect them.
Someone discovers ancient alien technology (stasis boxes, warp cores, etc.) that are incredibly important and valuable. Paleontology (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleontology) is anything older than 11,700 before present, so that covers a lot.
Now, astro paleontology might get a space program roaring along – imagine if someone found something interesting on the Moon or Mars…
Fossils actually cure diseases
Some impurity in fossil oil cures diseases such as AIDS, COVID-19 and Ebola. But only in reservoirs that have the fossil from animals that filled some specific niches in the past. In fact, different species produce different impurities which cure different diseases. Paleontology then becomes a matter of survival for the world as a whole, and children will probably learn a lot more about it in school. Countries that do not invest heavily in it enter a recession whenever a pandemic hits, whereas those that invest in this science thrive relatively unnafected.
Make paleontology relevant to everyday life
The problem with paleontology and why it’s always the awkward unwanted stepchild when it comes to getting funding is that paleontology has absolutely no broader relevance to modern life. Even compared to similar disciplines such as the taxonomy or ecology of living organisms or history in general. Other evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins have even gone on record declaring their contempt for paleontology and how superfluous it is, saying things like “the evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized“. Or the elder Alvarez calling paleontologists “stamp collectors” and “not very good scientists” (though that one I will dispute because 1) paleontology has become more relevant since Alvarez’ day and 2) he was a huge jerk who said things like this without doing any research and often made these half-baked, poorly-researched statements. Though his argument that a physicist managed to make paleontology more relevant than actual paleontologists still stands.
Compared to the study of living organisms paleontology comes up short because studies of the ecology and taxonomy of living animals can be applied to conservation efforts, controlling invasive species, using living animals as barometers to determine the health of an environment, pest control, etc. Paleontology doesn’t do any of those things. And society has already shown how little it values biological taxonomists.
Paleontology is a historical science. It’s basically chronicling the history of the Earth and all the things that live upon it. One might say “well, knowing where one came from is important, as well as what did and did not work in the past”. That’s true. But the problem is that nobody ever starved to death from not knowing their history. It’s intellectually enriching, a nice bonus, but otherwise a superfluous luxury. Compare that to human history, which does have more relevance because it is about human behaviors, and therefore the policies and decisions that worked in the past can be more easily extrapolated to the present day. Those who do not learn from history and doomed to repeat it, and such.
There is no lesson that can be broadly applicable to social policy about how there was a massive volcanic event 225 million years ago at the end of the Triassic or that there was an inland sea in Kansas in the middle of the Cretaceous. No medical advances have ever been made by the discovery of Lucy and Ardi (and other hominins) and piecing together when and how human bipedalism originated. What knowledge can be applied to the present day (e.g., conservation efforts for Burramys finding out that the animal is actually more adaptive than we thought based on its fossil record, or “maybe we should be worrying about meteors”) are rare exceptions that prove the rule.
Even Jack Horner’s suggestion of using developmental biology to rebuild pseudo-dinosaurs from chickens has been laughed at for having no broader applications. Just because you’ve engineered a chicken to have teeth and claws doesn’t mean it’s going to know how to use them, or that it’s behavior will give you any indication on how dinosaurs behaved. It’s still going to act like a chicken. Even the genes or developmental signals you tweak to cause it to turn into a pseudo-dinosaur may not be the same ones that actual dinosaurs used when birds first evolved. Talking with colleagues we concluded the best use for such an animal would be to try to sell it as a curiosity to rich patrons for research money.
As someone who works in paleontology, you should see the kinds of mental gymnastics people do during grant season to try and justify how their research is relevant to the modern day. The big one nowadays is climate change (no, knowing how fast a certain mountain range was thrust up does not tell you how species will adapt to changing climates and anthropogenic habitat destruction).
People often say the fossil fuel industry makes paleontology relevant, but there’s a saying in paleontology: “no oil company cares about your thesis on spinosaur paleoecology”. Fossil fuel companies only care about a select group of paleontologists (people who study stratigraphy or certain microfossils like conodonts and forams), and even then you basically can’t get a job as an oil geologist anymore because what used to require detailed geological knowledge and ferreting conodonts out of rock is now done by machines.
These features are why paleontology is almost always the first science on the chopping block at any major university. And a lot of scientific fields seem to thing the only thing paleontology is good for is getting people interested in science and bringing people into natural history museums.
What’s the point of this long, seemingly nonsensical rant? In order to make paleontology the largest/most profitable industry in your setting it is necessary to understand why it is not so in our timeline. If you want to make paleontology the largest/most profitable industry in real life, you need to make it so that it has some direct application to real life that makes it relevant. Relevant enough that it doesn’t just benefit humanity when funded (and therefore could be passed off as a luxury), but there have to be actual reasons why cutting funding would be bad. Look at other sciences. If medicine research funding gets cuts we don’t have the resources to come up with new vaccines and cures. If engineering funding gets cut countries lose opportunities to make technological advancements. If ecology funding gets cut there are invasive species out there that we spend literal billions each year to contain that will become unleashed. If paleontology gets cut nothing happens. Indeed, this is what happens in IRL museums, the curators get fired and the collections get put in storage, the board of directors only cares about the dinosaur fossils on display.
Some people have brought up ancient technology, and I agree with them. Basically if you’re in a technological arms race and how far ahead you are is dependent on what you dig up, then the people who do the digging are your lifeline. Except that would be archaeology or xeno-archaeology instead of paleontology. Paleontology focuses on non-sentient organisms.
Bringing things back to life is another option but even Michael Crichton pointed out there is no money to be made for bringing dinosaurs back to life. The whole reason he had Jurassic Park set in a dinosaur theme park was he couldn’t think of a way that someone would want to clone dinosaurs and not go bankrupt in the process beyond “rich idiot decides to clone dinosaurs and make a zoo for them”.
If they got out and things went full Dino Crisis you might have a reason for an adult knowing more than an eight-year-old about Tyrannosaurus rex. But even then it’s technically interest in contemporary (if resurrected) animals that requires no knowledge of their fossil history. Field biologists would rapidly outpace paleontologists in their knowledge of these creatures due to accurate, first-hand experience of raptors trying to eat their faces.
Time travel is a good option. There you kind of have to know the landscape in order to know where things are, how to survive, and how to not get eaten by a T. rex. The downside is that from a relativity point of view it’s more looking at contemporary animals than digging up bones, and what would happen really quickly is that scientists would stop digging up bones because you can get more by studying the living, breathing thing. One paper on a flesh-and-blood tyrannosaur would be worth more to science than 100 years of painstakingly pulling information from its fossil bones. Paleontology is like a roadmap to the past, only the map is torn, faded, written in a dead language, and somebody scribbled on it with magic marker.
Fossils as jewels.
Diamonds are precious because they are rare, because people want them for jewels, and because of a Belgian family with a monopoly. Fossils are already rare: if your world values them as much as they do diamonds, and makes necklaces with authentic dinosaur teeth, tribolite seal rings, or bracelets/cuffs from hollowed out vertebrae, then there would be an industry to mine them. Add a little crony capitalism and they become the most expensive thing in the world.
Anthropology required for time traveling
A certain amount of detail is needed in order to time travel to specific times and places, the more is known about the period you’re visiting, the less other resources are needed to make the trip.
Conclusive evidence of dinosaurs being aliens, found
An alien civilisation makes first contact. They are super smart dragons currently and claim that dinosaurs are their ancestors.
They also claim to be Earth’s true owner and have broadcasted an ultimatum of wiping the human civilisation to make way for their return.
Humans must do accelerated research like we are doing for covid-19 right now to
- Fight the aliens.
- Better Negotiations.
- Find their own original stories
Ending could include something heartwarming like the Dragonforce actually just wanting humans to unite and mend their ways towards how they treat the environment or
It could be made fantastical like humans being revealed to be another alien civilisation that are galactic arch nemesis of the Dragonkin or another species of apes that inhabited the same planet as the dragons but were forced to vacate their home planet for various reasons.
Fossils are more common
The reason fossils are rare in our world is because bones decompose; within a few hundred years, most skeletons are reduced to nothing, and only a few rare exceptions survive the millions of years to become what we consider fossils.
So, what would have to change? We have a couple options:
Bones don’t decay: This happened with wood when it was first developed. For a long time, there was no biological process to decompose the wood, meaning that it just piled up. If we’re working with a world where modern bone structure is relatively new (this might be tricky evolutionarilly, but if skeletons were a very recent development, possibly even after intelligence developed, it might work), then it might be possible for bones to not decay yet.
The world is much older: We have had animals with skeletons on our planet for about half a billion years. If this world had skeletons for a lot longer, say many billions of years, it would be possible for a much larger number of fossils to be available.
Events that cause fossilization are more common: The most common cause for fossilization is for the creature to be buried either before or soon after it died in materials that cause the bones to fossilize rather than decay. Now, having a world where creatures die in landslides all the time seems rather unlikely, but this actually seems like the most likely solution. If an ancient (worldwide) civilization had a tradition that would cause them to bury people in a way that would usually cause them to fossilize, it would carry the potential for billions, or perhaps even trillions of fossils to exist, scattered around the world. This is more than enough to create a major industry.
The main enduring large-scale motive in this world is power (basically via money or military might), so you’ll need to tie into that if you want everyone in the world interested in paleontology. Depending on your genre and the story you’re wanting to tell, there are many possibilities. Here are some off the top of my head:
- Ancient advanced race that leaves behind technological advantages. Trite, but effective (so many examples: Stargate, Disney’s Atlantis, etc.)
- Ancient elements that assist in present-day military power. A substance, material, or refined base element (e.g. vibranium)
- Ancient DNA. Either Jurassic Park approach, or super-soldier Captain America approach. Could maybe make a Jurassic/Pokemon hybrid where people are trying to find new and novel DNA sources, but again the DNA has to be universally advantageous to everyone.
- Ancient secret material that provides longer life/near immortality. The Dune approach.
Basically, whatever it is, it has to be desirable by anyone in the world, and it has to actually work and provide some kind of advantage for the individual who possesses it.
In addition to thinking of the “what” above, equally important is where in the cycle of discovery, widespread interest, and decline you want to place your story. In each of the cases above, there’s a time when only a few people know about it, and given the universal interest and advantage of the thing, it becomes in high demand. But all paleontology materials are limited and will eventually be used up, so there will be some kind of scarcity/decline (unless you can think of a way to make it all sustainable, I guess).
You can’t do it in a truly realistic way but you can do it in a fantastical way.
The wild arms series had this with dragon bones. Dragon bones made of a fantastical metal that could not be acquired any other way except digging up dead dragons. the metal was incredibly useful entire industries and military complexes grew up around exploiting it. Later it is discovered dragons were actually ancient alien bio-mechanical weapons and graveyards are actually ancient battlefields.
We assume evolution builds to superior intelligence. We assume no branches existed that got just as far, in a similar span of time, but were cut-down by calamity.
That all changes the first time a Pioneer- or Voyager-like golden disk with pictures of velociraptors is pulled from the dirt.
If it can be reliably dated to several million years ago (say Uranium impurities in the disk, present with Uranium decay products), and can be irrefutably established that they were a peer (or maybe even superior) to us in technology (say, for example, a sister plaque is discovered on the Moon or Mars), I think you’d have a sudden big resurgence in wanting to understand ancient history before the Holocene.
I think the most realistic approach would be to imagine a world not too far removed from our own, where automated machinery and more equitable distribution of resources has freed up humanity to spend far less time just trying to make a living, and offered us more time to explore our world and dwell on the big questions. Paleontology (like prehistoric archaeology and come forms of astronomy) offers the only available means of gathering knowledge about the past. It’s a limited resource, and the process of gathering and studying materials requires destroying the context in which they were found. Engaging in excavation requires shouldering a great deal of responsibility, as you’re denying future generations the opportunity to do what you’re about to do. If society as a whole valued this knowledge more, then we would devote more resources to making sure it’s done as well as possible (thus, spinoff industries in tech and manufacturing would exist to support paleontology).
Previous opening: My initial thoughts all run in the direction of making fossils more valuable as economic resources, similar to the ‘fossils’ on Harlan’s World in the Altered Carbon universe (a nonrenewable resource that is required for their most advanced technology), or by making some changes in the process by which some fossils become preserved for study and others transform into fossil fuels–which, in a sense, ARE the most important industry in our world. Maybe if it were necessary to excavate and study fossils to produce fossil fuels… but that would ultimately transform the meaning and purpose of paleontology itself.