Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ask a Simple Question

Sitting on a bookshelf next to my desk at home is a jar filled with about 30 grams of washed and screened sediment from the Oxford Clay Formation, collected at a lakeside site just northeast of Yaxley, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom.  This is Late Jurassic in age – roughly 160 million years ago.  This sample of sediment is a recent purchase from UKGE Limited, a Suffolk, UK company with an amazing array of geology and paleontology supplies (the best restraint for overindulging in UKGE’s stock is the fact that shipping costs to the U.S. come close to doubling the price of what it has to sell).  The jar cost ₤4.95, or $7.81 USD.  Add in the shipping costs and I may have spent $15.60, give or take a bit, for the jar.  In my defense, my 30 grams is still cheaper than gold (at current prices, 30 grams of gold is about $52).

I have examined merely a pinch of this material and, unless I want to make this my sole occupation for the foreseeable future, I will have to become more selective as I go.  Foraminifera and ostracodes abound, as do tiny gastropods, and fragments of bone and shell.  Just to give a flavor of what this sediment contains, here is a picture of several foraminifera from that pinch of material and a close-up of one of the specimens.  These are all less than 1 millimeter across.

I tentatively identify these as Lenticulina muensteri which reportedly are normally quite variable in appearance.  (Though neither article is precisely on point regarding the formation in question, my identification relies on the illustrations in a couple of articles by W.A. Gordon – Some Foraminifera From the Ampthill Clay, Upper Jurassic, of Cambridgeshire, Palaeontology, Vol. 4, Part 4, 1961, and Foraminifera from the Corallian Beds, Upper Jurassic, of Dorset, England, Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 39, No. 5, September, 1965.  His illustrations of L. muensteri are pretty persuasive.)

Of mine and of any microfossils, Giles Miller, the Curator of Micropalaeontology at the Natural History Museum, London, asks in one of his blog posts a simple question,
How much is a microfossil worth?
Parenthetically, I would note that Miller’s blog is about his work with microfossils, and he pens posts that inform and entertain, really all that one might ask of a natural history blog, and with micropaleontology as his focus, he’s feeding my current paleontological obsession.

His lead question is a great one but his discussion reflects the ambiguities and difficulties of fashioning an answer.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in the final analysis, Miller’s answer seems to be, “It depends.”  He approaches the issue as the curator of these tiny fossils with a focus on assigning “a monetary value on microfossils,” (emphasis should be placed on monetary).  It’s a perspective that is perhaps a wee bit narrow for me.  Further, as Miller considers worth he mixes price, cost, and value.  They’re not the same thing, but I don’t think trying to be anally retentive about them is worth the effort.  And, frankly, everyone is fairly lax when using them, except, perhaps, economists.

Miller begins to answer to his lead question by asking another, “Why value?”  That is, why assign a value to a microfossil (or any other natural history specimen) in the first place?  His answer encompasses insurance, guidance for acquisitions, and defense (“remind funding bodies about the value of the collections in our care”).

He follows one good question with another – “Is there a market value?” –  which he answers affirmatively by describing his discovery that microfossils can be bought in a straight forward transaction on the web (as I know) or sometimes in an eBay auction.  That’s it for his explicit treatment of the market.  That’s a shame.  Markets are important because you need exchanges to determine price, and, besides, I have to assume that the market on the web isn’t the one he’s actually interested in.  Particularly, since, from my own experience I know ignorance is one mechanism at strong play in that market.  That was highlighted by a recent message posted on a natural history discussion forum in its identification section by someone looking for an ID of some kind of sea urchin (not a fossil, but the point made here is still the same).  I’ve excluded the picture that accompanied it, but retained the original spelling and syntax:  “I actually purchased this item on ebay, so I have no knowledge about it's history, my guess is that it is from the UK shores, but I cannot guarantee that of course.”

No, the market I assume that Miller would be most concerned about is a scientific market, or, perhaps to be more precise, a marketplace accessed by museum curators of micropaleontology.  There are other markets, formal or otherwise, and other types of potential buyers and sellers that could put a price tag on microfossils.  These markets are composed of different combinations of participants with different interests whose willingness to spend on the same microfossil specimen may vary dramatically.  Totally clueless buyers will pay a price for a specimen that differs from that agreed to by impassioned (and mildly informed) amateur collectors, and that price may well differ from one derived by scientific professionals, which, in turn, will differ from that drawn out of thin air (and the misinformed biases) of politicians sitting in an appropriations committee markup debating funding for, say, the Smithsonian, . . . .  I would like to have learned more about the marketplaces that curators of micropaleontology actually participate in.

The additional questions Miller raises address replacement costs, history of the specimen (e.g., a fossil Darwin collected presumably has added value), and scientific import – all factors that are likely to be among those influencing any market for microfossils.  His discussion suggests how difficult it is to determine how to assess them, or, put another way, how easy it might be to manipulate one’s assessment of those factors.  Take replacement costs – one could estimate what the entire operation that generated a specific specimen required in terms of outlay (travel, recovery, preparation, curation, etc.) or, more reasonably perhaps, figure out just the added costs of finding that specimen.  But what of specimens from sites that are no longer accessible (covered over by a shopping mall, for example)?  Even if the same kind of specimen could be had from other sites, is there some value associated with those that come from an unreachable site?  What of type specimens – those first-finds that were the basis of the original published descriptions?  That type specimen status carries great value in some markets and to some people, though sometimes the type specimen is vastly inferior to subsequent finds of the same kind of fossil.  What’s the added value of a fossil collected by Darwin?  It all gets so problematic.  Letting the market resolve these issues isn’t responsive since we have to figure out which market accessed by which combination of parties.

And I come back to that web market Miller discovered.  In addition to eBay as an arbiter of worth, he learned that “you can buy a whole jar of sand including literally thousands of microfossils for ₤1.49 – significantly less than one pence per individual specimen.”  At a recent exchange rate, that ₤1.49 is $2.35 USD.  Possibly a better deal than the one I struck with UKGE, though the volume of Miller’s jar of sand is unstated.

So, what are the microfossils in his jar or my jar worth?  He approaches that by dividing the price paid for the jar of sand by the number of microfossils recovered.  But that’s not a reasonable thing for me to do because I may never know precisely how many microfossils are in my jar (and does a bone fragment of less than a millimeter in length count as a microfossil for this calculation?).  What else should be factored in?  The time invested, overhead costs, commonness and rarity of the finds?  Miller addresses that kind of multifaceted calculation.
Some species in the ₤1.49 jar of microfossils may be 10 to a penny but for others there may be only one example in the jar.  Time taken for an expert to look through the residue under a microscope and provide an identification should also be built into any valuation in this instance.  A rare specimen in this jar may well be worth far more than ₤1.49 as a result.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I was left a bit dissatisfied by Miller’s post.  As I noted at the outset, it seemed to be built on too narrow a perspective, even if he did consider a wide range of factors that might influence that determination of “worth.”  To see if I could identify the root of my discontent I decided to read up on price and value.  All that I had at hand was a 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica (the best my summer cottage had to offer and, besides, I wanted to turn real pages).  In addition to confirming that Miller was creating a melange of price, cost, and value, it offered the following (written by philosopher Wilbur Marshall Urban):
The economic theory of value made its first scientific steps by abandoning the notion of value, whether in use or exchange, as an objective quality inherent in the thing, and conceiving it as the function of the relation of the object to satisfaction of desire.  (p. 962 of Volume 22.)
That’s the key – “satisfaction of desire.”  (Admittedly I didn’t really study the Britannica offerings – the mind did wander – isn’t it time for the beach?)  Though microfossils are not, under nearly any circumstances, among those things that money absolutely cannot buy (they’re not a “priceless” thing as described in those MasterCard ads), I raise another simple question regarding the worth of microfossils whose answer may contribute to what price I would assign to (but not necessarily be able to pay for) microfossils, but which is not susceptible to any sort of cold, hard calculation and which is inherently psychological:
What do they mean to me?

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