Swamp Science

Imagine it's 1807 and you're wandering around the wilderness of Kentucky in search of fossils. You're an explorer; that's your job, and the guy who hired you to do it is pretty powerful. In fact, he's the president of the United States. His name is Thomas Jefferson.

You want to find him some good ones and it isn't long before you hit the jackpot — a bunch of very large, very old bones that once belonged to an elephant-like creature that scientists are calling a "mammoth." You send them back to your boss who keeps some of them on display in the entryway of his own home.

Why?

Why would the president of a new country send one of that country's top explorers to dig around in swamps for teeth and tusks?

The major reason was Jefferson's desire to map the continent (a big chunk of which the U.S. had recently bought from France) and document its flora and fauna. But that wasn't the only thing on his mind.

In the 18th century the French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon had developed a theory that he called "degeneration." It basically said that, because of the cold, humid climate of North America, animals (including people) in the New World were smaller, weaker, and all-around inferior to their counterparts in Europe.

Jefferson considered the mammoth bones a refutation of the idea of American degeneracy, arguing that any environment that could have sustained an animal as big and powerful as the mammoth (which he believed to be the largest that ever walked on land) could also support the animals and people who currently inhabited it.

It wasn't just science; it was also social, political, and cultural.

Why not?

Jefferson had another good reason to collect those bones — they looked cool in Monticello, his estate. And he was the kind of person who knew that historic things can have value just because they're part of history, that something that has no obvious use today might be very useful tomorrow or 200 years from tomorrow.

What does this mean for you?

In 1849, Jefferson's collections were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where they remain today, along with 17 million other specimens. The Academy is the kind of institution that connects the past to the future by understanding the value of their collections.

For example, back when William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) was discovering those bones for Jefferson, there was no systematic theory of evolution. Decades later, the remains of extinct species like mastodons and dinosaurs played a huge role in our understanding of how life developed. And as technology advances, isotope-dating and genetic analysis will tell us more — not just about where we've been, but where we might be headed. These kinds of discoveries go beyond biology and paleontology to ecology, public policy, and the way we think about ourselves as people, as a country, and as a world.

The Academy of Natural Sciences has recently signed a groundbreaking agreement with Drexel University. We're another historic institution with an uncanny knack for seeing value in things where most people just see rocks and twigs. This partnership will grant the Drexel community unprecedented access to the Academy's collections, not to mention its stunning exhibits.

In other words, that search for bones two centuries ago led directly to another chance for you to make your mark today.

November 15, 2011

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