In my inbox this morning was an e-mail from a palaeontology student dismayed by three things:
- The number of “gook” author names that “all sound the same”;
- The fact that he has to study material from China, a “disgusting country”, and that he might have to even make a fieldtrip there;
- The hogging of modern palaeontology by Chinese discoveries, which he thinks is a “propaganda campaign”.
Growing up as a foreigner in a xenophobic country has made me emotionally immune to racist declarations, so I read this e-mail with cool, detached bemusement. This is my answer to him, edited for web and identifying specifics redacted.
If China has become the top destination for modern palaeontology, it’s because it’s got the most fossils from the most interesting times. A full explanation of China’s palaeontological importance deserves a full post; here is a little bibliographic experiment to demonstrate just how rich China is in fossils.
In my database, I ran a full-text search for “Jiulongshan”, the first Chinese fossil locality that popped into my mind. 145 papers came back, only some on Jiulongshan fossils, others on other Chinese localities.
Of these 145 papers, 85 of them describe at least one new fossil species from China. And all that just from the past 7 years, and because Jiulongshan is known for its fossil insects, 80 of those papers describe new fossil insect species. Insects are not the easiest organisms to fossilise, and a proper metaanalysis would reveal hundreds of new species being described from China in the past decade.
Not to mention the “feathered dinosaurs” that revolutionised our knowledge of dinosaur biology and of bird evolution. Not to mention Chengjiang, which long overtook the Burgess Shale as the most important locality for investigating the Camrbian Radiation. Not to mention the fossilised embryos of Doushantuo, whose very existence should blow anyone’s mind, especially a palaeontologist’s. This propaganda just writes itself, no human action needed.
The thing with countries and other geopolitical entities is that they’re made up, with no basis in anything natural. Even our list of continents makes no sense. The fact that Europe is a standalone continent is proof of that.
As a palaeontologist, you are supposed to understand this. You’re not interested in the modern country of China. Heck, most of the time the modern Chinese landmass was separated by an ocean, and that palaeogeography is what should interest you. Chinese trilobites were not dirty commies, or whatever the current anti-Chinese stereotype is. To even bring a political slant to a study of a fossil is so absurd that Dalí couldn’t paint it.
If you can’t get forget your racial prejudices when looking at a rock, you should just get out of palaeontology and geology. Even if you lock yourself into studying a Western country’s fossils, you cannot get away from having to study international material, or at least read about it.
And of course, you might have to interact with one of these evil Chinamen. Be careful they don’t infect you – it’s possible that if you talk to them, they have so much smog in their lungs that you can get asthma by breathing in the air they breathe out. Best to talk on the phone, because all foreign e-mails in China get hacked. It’s totally true.
Or just take off the tin foil hat, meet one Chinese person to see that they are humans, just like you without the idiotic racism, and go do your job, and realise just how lucky you are that you get to work with Chinese material.
Racism has absolutely no place in any science, but to be a racist palaeontologist is something that truly beggars belief. How someone can go through studying historical geology and human evolution, and still maintain any notion that our current borders hold any natural significance is simply incomprehensible.
On a personal level, it’s true that different people learn to do science differently. If you collaborate with a scientist from outside your own scientific social sphere, you may get some surprises, e.g. in the ordering of multiple authors on the paper. You will find different methods of working and of thinking.
But this isn’t a factor of nationality, it’s just a side-effect of us being humans. We are all mere products of our upbringing and education, and that varies from person to person. Trying to identify personality traits common to all members of one country, especially one as heterogeneous as China, is an exercise in futility. Even within the same institute, you will find all kinds of people. Case in point: I never knew of modern racist palaeontologists until I read your e-mail.
Tl;dr: Get your head on straight, or quit while you’re ahead. I wish I was being mean, but this advice is actually for your own sake. You will have to face your prejudices head on and get rid of themif you want to work properly in any field of science. We’re not int he 19th century anymore, when science was an almost-exclusive club for rich Western men.