Mailbag: Ardipithecus

thanks for your pellucid ardipithecus blognote--it was enormously helpful in digesting the reports. i was astounded though by the 15 year study "under wraps"--it reminds me of the dead sea scroll scholars who hoarded the scraps for decades to prevent other scholars from getting any credit for scholarly efforts. given technological advances are very accurate casts of the materials found available for other scholars to examine?

Someday I think they will be. I’m very hopeful about this now.

There are bright spots. The NESPOS project stands out as one making data avaiable to qualified researchers. The Kenya National Museums has done very well getting casts of recent fossil discoveries out there for sale. There are others. At the same time, there are many fossils where neither scans nor casts can be had at any price. Unless, of course, you are friends with the right people.

One of the things the Ardipithecus work shows its that it is now possible to use CT technology along with primary specimen preparation and reconstruction. With plaster, glue and plasticine, reconstruction was potentially destructive to the fossils, so repeated attempts at reconstruction were not made. Now, anyone can attempt a new reconstruction, using different comparative data or models, and replicate or alter all the decisions made in the reconstruction process. I think that’s very exciting, because it makes the process of anatomical interpretation a real science.

But unless people have the scans, they can’t replicate the science. That means access is not just a convenience or courtesy, it is essential. Without access, it’s not science, it’s authority.

So I’m hopeful. I think people are beginning to understand the value of access, and that only a few interests – powerful, but few – are holding it back.