Neocolonial/economic bias of the fossil record and evolution

Charles Darwin’s ideas on the evolution of species through natural selection became imprinted by his participation in the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle (1831-1836), commanded by Captain Robert Fitzroy. The voyage aimed at comprehensive surveys along its circumnavigation, Darwin having been engaged to provide geological expertise. At that time he would have been best described as a ‘natural historian’ and his only qualification was that he had an ordinary degree (BA) from Cambridge  and had read widely in natural science: had it not been for joining the Beagle he may have become a country parson.

The voyage was a maritime venture typical of British and other European imperialism and colonisation during the early 19th century – a survey not only of geodesy, geography and natural science but also of the economic potential of the places that it visited. European science benefitted immensely from such voyages and overland expeditions. Today, research in the natural sciences is still dominated by academics from the better-off nations. Significantly, the charting of the ocean floor during the 20th and 21st centuries has been conducted almost exclusively by those nations with a global reach: plate tectonics is a science for the very wealthy. It is only in the last 60 years that geological mapping of the bulk of the continental surface has been relinquished by former colonial powers to local surveys. In the majority of cases the geological surveys of these now independent countries are grossly underfunded and they still largely depend on maps produced more than half a century ago by their former rulers.

In the 19th century global palaeontology, botany and zoology, which lie at the roots of evolutionary studies, shipped specimens to the museums and universities of the colonising powers. Their scientists today still retain a near monopoly of access to those old collections. Now it is economic power that enables continued collection by researchers mainly from the former colonising countries and their institutions. There are a few exceptions, such as the rapid rise of Chinese natural science in a mere three to four decades, which has become a major ‘player’ in early and Mesozoic evolution. Gradually, hominin palaeontology has drawn in local scientists from countries well-endowed with productive sites, such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, yet funding remains largely external. Nussaïbah Raja at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlagen, Germany and colleagues from Britain, South Africa, Brazil and India  (Raja, N.B. et al. 2021. Colonial history and global economics distort our understanding of deep-time biodiversity. Nature Ecology & Evolution, v. 6, p. 1-10 ; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01608-8) have used the vast Paleobiology Database (PBDB) to assess which countries are the main influence over global fossil collection.

Proportion of publications on national fossil data with a local lead author, for regions of the world. (Credit: Raja et al., Extended Data Fig 9)

Their findings are unsurprising. The 29 thousand papers referenced by PBDB that give fossil-occurrence data from the last 30 years involved 97% of authors who were resident in high- and upper-middle-income countries: more than a third from the US and the rest of the top ten from, in order, Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Russia, China, Australia, Italy and Spain: and 92% of the publications were published in English. Interestingly, it appears that old colonial ties still exert an influence on palaeontology research in former colonies: a quarter of that conducted in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria was done by scientists based in France; 10% of work in South Africa and Egypt was authored by UK-based researchers; and 17% of Namibian palaeontology was conducted by scientists from Germany.  When it comes to first authors of papers about fossils, local scientists get increasingly short shrift as the overall wealth of their homelands decreases. The authors of the PBDB study devised an index of what they call ‘parachute science’, based on the proportion of a country’s fossil data that was contributed by foreign teams that lacked any local co-authors.

The ‘Parachute Index’ for the ten countries most exploited by external palaeontological researchers. (Credit: Raja et al., Fig 3b)

This lack of engagement with and assistance for local scientists ‘hinders local scientists and domestic scientific development, by favouring foreign input and exacerbating power imbalances between those from foreign countries and those located ‘on the ground’. Furthermore, this can also lead to mistrust by local scientists towards foreign researchers, affecting future collaborations’. Scientific ‘colonialism’ is still pervasive for much of the world, and is a major force in imposing opinions on evolution in particular. Raja and colleagues rightly call for external economic and ‘intellectual’ power over research to be replaced by ‘equitable, ethical and sustainable collaboration’. Without that, scientific expertise will advance at a very slow pace in less well-endowed regions, with the same-old, same-old beneficiaries getting the benefits.

See also: Callaway, E. 2022. How rich countries skew the fossil record.Nature News 13 January 2022. Adame, F. 2021. Meaningful collaborations can end ‘helicopter research’. Nature Careers, 29 June 2021.

3 thoughts on “Neocolonial/economic bias of the fossil record and evolution

    1. Authors say, “We developed the ‘parachute index’ to quantify the extent to which countries are impacted by parachute science, on the basis of the log ratio of publications including local researchers versus publications not including any local researchers”


  1. Interesting that Ethiopia does so much better than Tanzania. But while agreeing ith the overall argument,I wonder how much country by country results vary, since in some cases (Dominican Republic?) the total number of studies may not be large


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