2008 Joint Meeting of The Geological Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies with the Gulf Coast Section of SEPM

Paper No. 12
Presentation Time: 11:40 AM

Paleontology and the Public--The Last 100 Years

LIPPS, Jere H., Department of Integrative Biology & Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, jlipps@berkeley.edu

In general the public loves paleontology. It has always been excited by fossils--dinosaurs, giant marine reptiles, trilobites, and sharks, in particular. Over the past 100 years, that interest increased chiefly because of blockbuster movies and TV documentaries, and most recently by the Internet. Paleontology plays a larger role in K-12 education, including the use of less popular fossils, like foraminifera. These, plus abundant good books, served to increase public attention and scientific literacy as people search to understand the real science behind those presentations.

Not all is perfect, however. A very serious negative element, creationism and its spinoffs—scientific creationism and intelligent design--arose again as fundamental religious groups promoted their beliefs over those of all others who accept evolution and an old earth, including mainstream religions that accept it all. The scientific community responded vigorously and successfully in court cases to ensure that only science and not belief is included in science classes. Evolution and paleontology remain targets of these fundamentalists.

Collectors created a booming business of selling fossils as objects of art as well as interest, increasing pressure to collect more and better material and driving up prices of fossils. This created concern among professionals who wish to study unique but valuable specimens. Legislation in various countries has prevented indiscriminate collecting without permits, and understandings and communication between the collecting public and professional paleontologists has worked to ameliorate the difficulties. In some cases, a real partnership exists. Perhaps even more important is the destruction of important fossil sites by private and government development. While legislation to assess and remove valuable fossils before destruction is common, many sites containing fundamental and valuable data, as well as specimens, have been lost. The public benefits by the preservation of good sites and their use in education, recreation and research.