AND WELCOME TO DAY 1 of The Whirlpool of Life! To kick things off, let’s get a few questions and answers out of the way:
1) Who am I?
I’m a scientist and a science communicator. Until a few years ago, I held a dual position at the University of Utah (chief curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History and associate professor in the Dept. of Geology and Geophysics). Although I retain formal affiliations with the U of Utah and still oversee a major paleontology field project in that state, I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. When I made this geographic leap a few years ago, I simultaneously made a career leap. Today, I devote the bulk of my time to education-related projects aimed at reconnecting people with nature. I just completed a general audience book on the world of dinosaurs (Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life; University of California Press, 2009) and I currently serve as science advisor and on-air host of a new PBS television show for preschoolers (the Jim Henson Company’s Dinosaur Train). For more info, go to: www.scottsampson.net
2) What is this blog about?
The Whirlpool of Life is a blog about nature. It’s about how the living world works and how we perceive it. I will also be much concerned with deep time and our relationships with the 99% of “earthlings” that are now extinct. Posts will encompass a wide range of topics, spanning paleontology, evolution, ecology, education, sustainability, philosophy, and psychology. The thread that I will use to weave these topics together is science education, and nature literacy more specifically.
3) Who is The Whirlpool of Life intended for?
Parents, educators, students, scientists, environmentalists, nature lovers, and anyone else who cares about the future of our children, and of the living world more generally. This is NOT a blog solely for academics, or for specialists of any kind. Rather it is intended for a general audience, and I will work to keep the language accessible to a broad audience.
4) What is the rationale behind this blog?
My underlying contention (shared by growing numbers of people from all walks of life) is that the current sustainability crisis is not merely an external crisis of the environment. More fundamentally, it is an internal crisis of worldview rooted in a dysfunctional relationship between humans and nonhuman nature. Thus, any meaningful resolution to the eco-crisis will require not only “greener” technologies and lifestyles, but also a fundamental shift in awareness and understanding, particularly within Western nations.
Since worldviews are built upon a lifetime of experience, it’s highly doubtful that the necessary transformation will occur solely among adults. Rather we must rethink, indeed reinvent, education, placing less emphasis on upward mobility and more on living well; less on generating consumers and more on serving communities, including communities of nature. I am convinced that the concept of evolution has a pivotal role to play in this gargantuan effort. Darwin triggered an intellectual revolution, with effects that have cascaded through science and society. Yet Darwin’s foundational concept of common descent through deep time remains virtually untapped outside academia. In particular, this concept has not been communicated in such a way as to shift our relationship with nature.
Schooling for sustainability, I will contend, should be rooted in three intertwined elements, each of which informs the other two: 1) new metaphors that augment the dominant “life-as-machine” and “web of life” examples, enabling us to perceive the world in new and instructive ways; 2) the Great Story (encompassing the evolution of cosmos, life, and culture), which provides a universal origin myth and anchors us in the grand narrative of life on Earth; and 3) a strong emphasis on place, including abundant time spent outdoors actually experiencing nature. Together, this trio of elements—metaphor, story, and place—have the power to transform education and help trigger a change in the dominant worldview, thereby serving as springboard to a sustainable future.
Ultimately, I am not out to provide comprehensive answers to the daunting questions surrounding education and sustainability. My aims are much more modest, though still ambitious: 1) promote a much-needed (and presently ignored) discourse about education’s role in shifting worldviews; 2) propose new language and a series of ideas aimed at altering the human-nature relationship; and 3) foster the conditions for changing the education system. Think of The Whirlpool of Life as a trailhead of sorts, offering readers an increasingly nuanced map of unfamiliar terrain, together with a set of tools to continue the exploration along a variety of paths.
5) What format will the posts take?
Although my goals are lofty and my argument multifaceted, each post will be written as a self-contained whole. Many will take the form of a narrative, in keeping with my strong bias that science is best communicated through stories. In general, I will begin with a specific item from my personal experience—perhaps an encounter in nature or a conversation—and use this as an entry point into a broader issue.
6) How often will new posts appear?
My aim is to post at least once per week.
7) Ok, so how do we get this thing started?
Today, November 24th, 2009 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species—one of the most important and influential books of all time. In this Darwinian anniversary year (also marking his 200th birthday), we have seen much discussion of the profound impact of evolutionary thinking on diverse realms of human inquiry, from genetics, nanotechnology, and paleontology to psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience. Without doubt, Darwin has had a deep and lasting influence on our intellectual understanding of the world. Nevertheless, I would argue that, 150 years after the Origin, the essence of Darwin’s contribution has yet to be broadly realized, or at least internalized. . . .
Still intrigued? I hope so. You are cordially invited to find out more by reading The Whirlpool of Life, an essay I have written specifically for this inaugural blogging occasion. The essay delves more deeply into the approach and scope of the blog, laying out my general argument together with hopes and biases. It also explains the blog's chosen moniker. Check it out at: http://www.scottsampson.net/index.php?page=education
Thanks very much for visiting! And stay tuned. Upcoming posts will discuss some unfamiliar and provocative metaphors for understanding nature, and address the surprising role that dinosaurs might play in saving the planet!