Science

It’s Time for the Heroic Male Paleontologist Trope to Go Extinct

The New Yorker’s story on the day the dinosaurs died brings up more questions than it answers, but it does make the staleness of this genre clear.

A fossilized fish
Getty Images Plus.

Under the sweltering desert sun, a man painstakingly scrapes away at ancient stone. A weathered fedora offers what passes for shade in these harsh conditions. With each carefully controlled scratch, a lost world comes into view—a time of monsters never before seen, the strata seeming to glow with potential.

This isn’t a scene from the next Indiana Jones film; it’s the kind of breathless prose novelist Douglas Preston employs in his latest New Yorker feature hyping a controversial fossil site that slammed onto social media last week like the asteroid that closed the Cretaceous. It also happens to be exactly the kind of scruffy, macho, lone-scientist stereotype legend that needs to go extinct.

Preston’s account is about as bloated as a brontosaur, but the basic story goes like this: In 2012, a fossil collector introduced paleontology graduate student Robert DePalma to what looked like a so-so fossil site in the roughly 66-million-year-old strata of North Dakota. The delicate fish found there seemed ho-hum at first. But, Preston writes, as DePalma dug in, he kept finding more. In addition to the fish, there were downed trees, remains of marine organisms where there shouldn’t have been, dinosaur bones, dinosaur eggs, and dinosaur feathers. DePalma theorized that the site was created when the massive asteroid struck what’s now the Yucatán Peninsula, sending debris into the air that later rained down on this site as seismic waves sloshed in a local body of water, killing the area’s inhabitants before burial. This supposedly happened in the minutes and hours after impact, recording death in the closing moments of the Cretaceous to a degree not seen elsewhere. DePalma named the site Tanis as a nod to the lost Egyptian city’s plot point appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The wild claims in this story came as a surprise, especially as word spread that there was a paper said to detail what had been uncovered at Tanis, North Dakota. Press offices scrambled to fire off notices to journalists Friday about the initial scientific description of the site, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lifted its embargo early, though the paper itself was not made available to all researchers until Monday. Who had the paper, who didn’t, why the leak happened, and whether the study supported what the bombastic article promised kept paleontologists busy on social media for days. For my own part, it was hard to contain my incredulousness at a story that seemed to keep getting stranger and stranger.

As one paleontologist commented, there’s something about the story for everyone in this field to loathe. Given the embargo break, science Twitter was frenetic with questions, criticisms, defenses, and hot takes on hot takes. Now that the paper’s finally been published—a sedimentological study from a dozen authors in which the only dinosaur bone revealed is a weathered fragment of a hip—questions still remain about the fantastic claims of the New Yorker piece, from the ethics of how the collected fossils may only be technically on loan to museums from DePalma to whether the more brow-raising claims of the New Yorker piece are true.

In all the back-and-forth, there is one particular point that really rankles me. Readers were instantly fascinated with the New Yorker story. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s a tale of desert adventure about a plucky scientist who wants to outline what happened on one of the most infamous days in all of Earth’s history. Why the non-avian dinosaurs and so many other forms of life disappeared 66 million years ago is of almost universal interest, particularly as the world’s next mass extinction seems well underway. Which means that this was an opportunity to highlight the best of the field, to tell a rich story that brings all the diverse voices and perspectives working on paleontology in the 21st century to bear. We did not get that story. Instead, we got the same sexist schtick about one guy at one fossil site who’s going to figure it all out.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with a little Indiana Jones cosplay—I can tell you from my own years doing fieldwork in the Southwest that paleontologists aren’t dusty old fossils. They have funny bones too. But there’s something else running beneath the pulp-novel depiction of DePalma as the scrappy young man fighting the stodgy academic system, flexing shirtless beneath the North Dakota sun to wrap plaster bandages around the bones of extinct titans. Not only does this perpetuate the lone genius trope that’s demonstrably false, but it underscores paleontology’s deeply rooted problem with male privilege.

The search and study of extinct life has persistently been depicted as a man’s science. The contributions of pioneering paleontologists such as the Philpot sisters and Mary Anning are often overshadowed in historical accounts by figures like grumpy British anatomist Richard Owen; the cantankerous, warring Bone Wars experts E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh of the late 19th century; and, perhaps the first prototype of the modern fieldwork macho man for his exploits in Mongolia, Roy Chapman Andrews. The Dinomania wave of the 1980s and 1990s that many young paleontologists and fossil fans grew up with only doubled down on the imagery, with documentaries repeatedly featuring bearded, plaid-clad experts like Jack Horner and Bob Bakker setting an image that was further underscored by the fictional Alan Grant of the Jurassic Park franchise. The image of who a paleontologist is has long been definitively male, pale, and dust-coated, never without his trusty broad-brimmed hat, a trend that’s now perpetuated by the New Yorker’s stab at fieldwork fan fic. Preston’s story revels in the mythology. As he himself acknowledges, DePalma’s story sounded to him like a real-life version of his novel Tyrannosaur Canyon, in which a hero scientist has to defend the dinosaur find of the century against conspiratorial forces of the sort more often seen in a Tom Clancy novel. The tropes were already there to be reinvigorated.

It’d be one thing if the rogue-heroic-scientist-makes-amazing-discovery storyline was one of many types of tales of how we make progress in this field. But it’s the only one we ever seem to get with paleontology, and in this case, the hype just doesn’t match the published results. The claims that made the New Yorker story so popular and shareable are not all included in the paper out this week—DePalma’s team said it cut some of them to get the first paper to publication more quickly. DePalma has asserted that researchers should only be talking about what’s in the paper, as if a mass dinosaur graveyard had not been mentioned at all. Yet how could anyone not talk about what was purported to be a dinosaur boneyard full of fossils from almost every species, down to their eggs and plumage?

Preston’s bombastic piece was a sloppy and sensational rollout, getting to the public first before the scientific results could be published, discussed, and questioned. Possibilities and uncertainties were recast as facts that the rest of the scientific community would simply have to deal with. This shouldn’t be how science, or science journalism, works.

The reason embargos exist is to give journalists and the researchers they talk to some time to look at fresh findings and determine what the story is, whether it’s worth telling, and if there’s anything suspicious about what’s presented. That’s standard practice for science news, whether we’re talking about dinosaurs or questionable news about health and psychology that are part of science’s replication crisis. Science is a discussion of theories, not a library of papers.

More lead time would have allowed a more careful story to be told, perhaps one that could have involved some of the more diverse voices in the field that will undoubtedly now go about investigating and testing the fantastic claims Preston and DePalma have made. That work is largely going to go on behind the scenes, in labs, journals, and conferences, tearing off the tattered tropes to get at the underlying reality. But this isn’t a narrative of scientists trying to keep a young maverick down, as Preston’s story suggests. Paleontologists want to be excited about such a find. But they also want to see research done right. It’s like the old math class admonition—show your work.