Do fossils have rights?

By Ismael Acosta, to fulfill the ethics in science requirement for the Young Scientist Program at BMSIS.

A fossil is any material identified as the remains of an organism (e.g., dinosaur bones, insect exoskeletons, plant leaf impressions, animal tracks, remains of microorganisms accumulated in rocks, etc.). Fossils open a window into the past and are extremely important for the study of life, its origins, and evolution. Fossils are therefore a key part of science, and it is for this reason that scientific institutions and scientists all over the world try to protect them, pushing for laws for their conservation. What kind of ethical frameworks encompass the protection of fossils? What kind of ethical justifications can be made to encourage the conservation and protection of fossilized materials? What kind of ethical arguments could oppose their scientific value?


In practice, not all remains of past organisms are considered fossils. A geologically reasonable amount of time (>10,000 years, approx.) must necessarily elapse for the remains of an organism to be considered a true fossil. This is because the fossilized material must be incorporated into a stratum, i.e. a rock assemblage defined in a certain time and space (e.g., bones buried by a dog are not considered fossils). 

One could argue that rights associated with living organisms cease to apply once the organism dies. Thus, the rights of preservation and conservation of an endangered species cease to have effect once the species becomes extinct, since there are no specimens to preserve and protect. However, is it possible that fossils can have other kinds of rights associated with their intrinsic nature? Different ethical frameworks can provide us with a logical reasoning platform for choosing a position in favor of fossil preservation or against it. 

The vast majority of countries that protect the conservation of fossils include the category of “fossil” within geological heritage (this category includes in most cases: minerals, geological sites of scientific interest such as hydrothermal vents, fossils, and archaeological material). The heritage of a region is defined by its culture, although the concept of ‘culture’ varies according to a particular historical, philosophical, and geographical setting. The categorization of fossils within geological heritage implies that they have an intrinsic cultural value worth preserving, associated with scientific research. However, this categorization can have various levels of importance and is not free from legal loopholes that encourage the sale of fossils by scientific institutions. 


The deontological perspective on this ethical problem states that the valuation of fossils as cultural heritage of a region depends on the ethical system used, and by extension, on the culture of that region. A culture that does not understand (ignorance) or accept the theory of evolution by natural selection and the gradual appearance of fossils over geological time will not recognize fossils as material worthy of preservation. If a culture has no basic notion of what fossils are, it will not be able to adopt a position towards their preservation. It often happens that the first people to discover fossils are not paleontologists but instead non-scientists who are unaware of the material found and discard or even destroy it. Similarly, a culture based exclusively on market value would come to the conclusion that fossils are an object of economic value and therefore, although they acknowledge some value in order to encourage excavation and characterization, they would not consider them geological heritage worthy of being exhibited in a museum for all people to study. 

Kantian perspective

Kant’s categorical imperative establishes the need to universalize actions for the purpose of establishing whether they are morally right or wrong. Under this view, fossils must possess some historical-scientific right, because if the universal rule were: “fossils have no right to be preserved”, a valuable insight into natural history would be lost, regardless of the geographical-cultural origin where the fossil is located.

Consequentialism and utilitarianism

Consequentialism morally judges actions according to their consequences. Therefore, this ethical perspective would establish that fossils are indeed worth preserving, since the consequences of not preserving them would lead to the loss of knowledge, in the same way as the Kantian perspective.

The utilitarian perspective would be in some agreement with the Kantian and the consequentialist perspectives. However, utilitarianism would argue that there are economic reasons that favor the fossil market over the preservation and study of fossils, and perhaps even taking a position against the preservation of fossils for monetary gain. Similarly, if the cultural framework of a region penalizes the preservation of fossils (for some ideological-religious anti-scientific reasons) a utilitarian view would agree to disregard fossil rights because of the penal consequences of studying them. 

Aristotelian ethical virtues

An ethical perspective according to Aristotle’s virtue ethics leads us to evaluate an action as morally good or bad according to whether it contributes to the enrichment of human virtues. According to this perspective, fossils should possess some historical-scientific right of being preserved because the study of fossils promotes and enhances scientific honesty and collaboration over the selfishness of a fossil collector or dealer who keeps for himself a fossil material (potentially a new discovery) that belongs to humanity. 


The vast majority of ethical frameworks state that the protection and cultural appreciation of fossils is an ethically good action and should be encouraged by all governments. Failure to protect fossil heritage would result in the loss of invaluable information on the history of the Earth. This scientific appreciation must predominate over any individual monetary enrichment or any ideological-religious thinking that denies the gradual and evolutionary nature that allowed fossil material to come into existence. 


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Ismael Acosta is a Research Associate with the BMSIS Young Scientist Program (2019-2021) and is currently an undergraduate student in Biological Sciences and Astronomy at the Faculty of Sciences, Universidad de la República, Montevideo, Uruguay.