Can the Laws of Robotics be Adapted for Paleontology?

Robot image by Sirrob01. CC0/Public Domain.

The Laws of Robotics, created by writer Isaac Asimov, are one of the widely-known ethical concepts to spring forth from science fiction. These three guidelines (or four, depending on if you accept the Zeroth Law) set forth the ways in which robots can interact with human beings. Inspired by the title of a recent blog post, I thought, “What if we turned the Laws of Robotics into Laws of Paleontology”?

Here’s my first draft…

  1. A paleontologist may not injure a fossil or, through inaction, allow a fossil to come to harm.
  2. A paleontologist must obey orders given them by collections managers except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A paleontologist must protect their own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

When I first posted these on Twitter, one colleague noted that Rule 1 effectively prevents any histology or isotopic work from being conducted. On further consideration, I also realized that at least some accepted practices (e.g., not collecting every single fossil fragment on a landscape) also violated the “law”. Researcher Ezequiel Vera suggested that it be rephrased as, “A paleontologist may not injure a fossil or, through inaction, allow a fossil to come to harm, unless needed to do scientific research.” Come to think of it, Law #3 probably only applies to robots, and isn’t often a good practice for working paleontologists who hope to survive the field season!

Going a bit more down the rabbit hole, I was reminded of another famous list in sci-fi, the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. Ferengi are frequent characters in the Star Trek universe, perhaps best known from Quark in Deep Space 9. They are mostly merchants, with a culture centered around the acquisition of material wealth. Thanks to some enterprising Trek fans, all of the Rules of Acquisition mentioned in the various television series have been recorded, allowing me an opportunity to modify them for paleontological purposes.

  1. Once you have their fossils, never give them back.
  2. Never spend more for an expedition than you have to.
  3. Never allow colleagues to stand in the way of opportunity.
  4. Opportunity plus instinct equals publication.
  5. A loan agreement is a loan agreement is a loan agreement…but only between paleontologists.
  6. A paleontologist without fossils is no paleontologist at all.
  7. Never place friendship above publications.
  8. Nothing is more important than your health…except for your fossils.
  9. Never make fun of a paleontologist’s Ph.D. advisor.
  10. It never hurts to suck up to the collections manager.
  11. You can’t write a publication if you’re dead.
  12. Colleagues are the rungs on the ladder of success. Don’t hesitate to step on them.
  13. ….and the list goes on….

As any Trek fan knows, the Rules of Acquisition shouldn’t be followed by any decent human being. Similarly, any paleontologist would be wise to do the opposite of my newly coined Rules of Paleontology (except perhaps for #9, 10, and 11).

On the more serious side, I think this exercise emphasizes the difficulty in formulating and consistently applying ethical codes within our field. A creative mind can think up any number of “what if” situations that throw a monkey wrench into the works. Just look at any discussion on fossil digitization, or open access, or preprints, or collections management, or the commercial fossil trade, or international fieldwork collaborations, to name a few. Even though researchers might broadly agree on most things, there will always be edge cases that require a deft and humane touch to resolve. That, I suppose, is what separates paleontologists from fictional robots!

Source: PLOS