Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fossil Collecting as a Competitive Sport

“The instinct to collect, like the process of fermentation, cannot be put out of existence by legislation nor can it be deprived of its vitality by the frowns of those who are insensitive to its urge.”

Lawrence C. Wroth, librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, speaking of book collecting, as quoted by Nicholas A. Basbanes, in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (1995).

The Impulse to Collect

In thinking about what I view as a competitive aspect of fossil collecting, I read a little bit of the stuff floating around the web that purports to explain why people collect in the first place. Many of the explanations offered are disquieting and often seem to be “reaching for it,” to say the least. They range from the simplistic and useless – such as, we do it because it’s fun – to the psychological and truly disturbing – such as, collectors are more comfortable with “things” than with people, and we do it to make up for the “losses” we experienced during toilet training (don’t ask). Not much fun in these latter explanations.

The idea that collecting is an attempt at mastery over an unruly world is sometimes ascribed to children and their myriad collections of things. I like that. Maybe, after all, collectors simply have never grown up. That explanation is different from the one that says collectors are trying to impose order on a disorderly world, an explanation that depends on what we do with what we’ve collected. (Imposing order is a losing battle for me; each collecting trip just puts me that much farther behind.) Finally, collecting as a way to define one’s self and display expertise about some aspect of the world is an explanation that resonates with me; it’s certainly an aspect of the desire for mastery and extended childhood.

Not Always a Good Thing

This is really an extended aside. Clearly, some people collect to the verge of self destruction or beyond. We have the over-the-top book collector stereotype in mind when we think of the recluse living in rooms that are stacked high with books, narrow passage ways snaking through the mounds of books. The stereotype is all too true. The sheer weight of such a collection can be staggering. Nicholas Basbanes in A Gentle Madness cites Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick who taught botany at the University of Nebraska in the first half of the 20th century. His book collection, which he stored in his home, was so enormous that he was cited for violating the city code that imposed a load limit in a house of 40 pounds per square foot. It was estimated that the load on the floors in Fitzpatrick’s house was over 320 pounds per square foot; he was storing 90 tons of prized collection in his house!!

Okay, books may be one thing, but surely fossils are something else. Not so. As a resident of the D.C. area, I was very interested in an Associated Press article by Sarah Karush, entitled “Self-taught tracker finds trove of dino prints in D.C. suburbs.” (link) The piece was accompanied by pictures of said tracker Ray Stanford, including one in which he was shown crouched on a narrow path of carpet in his living room amid myriad slabs of rock with dinosaur prints. The caption noted in passing that the floors of his house had to be reinforced because of the weight of all of his dinosaur tracks.


The competitive urge doesn’t figure prominently in the literature on collecting that I turned up (admittedly, the product of a desultory search of the web). Yet, I think it’s a very real and robust part of the collecting world in general, and the fossil collecting world in particular.

A major coin of the realm in the fossil collecting world appears to be the degree of success one has had in his or her latest collecting foray. The number of specimens found, their size, their rarity, their beauty, as well as the difficulty of the hunt – these constitute the metric to gauge the success of the outing. The same goes for a collector’s overall collection of fossils. Fair enough. But, sometimes this seems to be very competitive one-upsmanship, perhaps intended to foster collection envy. Pictures posted on the web by collectors of their latest haul are often populated with dozens and dozens of redundant specimens. The more, the merrier. (Often it’s “the more, the blurrier” – but that’s a different story about collectors and digital cameras.) This is particularly true of those in pursuit of fossil teeth. I confess, I’ve been guilty of this piling on and felt put down by it as well.

A competitive drive is, I am sure, innate in human beings; certainly, it has an evolutionary basis. So, the competitive aspects of the fossil collecting impulse may be natural, but, I would suppose, they’ve long since shed their evolutionary value. (I certainly hope so.) Is there a gender aspect to this in the fossil collecting world? Fossil one-upsmanship on the web seems generally to be a male phenomenon, but gender is elusive on the web, for sure. I’m familiar with the doings of amateur paleontologists and collectors. At first, I wondered whether professional paleontologists exhibited the same behavior regarding their collecting and collections, but I suspect they do, in possibly more subtle and vicious ways as befit their advanced academic training.

The other morning, in the midst of a run, I crossed a small bridge. There, in the creek below, mallard after mallard rode on the surface of the bitterly cold water. I paused to catch my breath and counted – 30 males (wearing their flashy feathers so well) and 21 females (blending into the woodsy background). Now, that’s competition with real meaning and consequence.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network