Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy Birthday to Darwin's Origin of Species!

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:

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.

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:

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!


  1. I am very excited about your blog and look forward to your posts. As a child I was crazy about dinosaurs! Now I am about to turn 40, am a mother to two sons - one who just started kindergarten and a 2 1/2 year old - and you very much a part of my life right now. I watch you daily on Dinosaur Train with my youngest and my kindergartener on his days off of school. It was like the show was written just for them! It is fun, intelligent and has really unearthed my interest in dinosaurs as well. As a family, education has come front and center in our priorities and we are looking at all ways to improve on the traditional education that left me and my husband feeling very uninspired. We know there is a better way. To not have the subject, especially science, to be something that is taught in the classroom and left behind when the bell rings. I want our sons to do more than just learn information...I want them to live it. Thank you for bringing this to us!

  2. Hi Scott - My son (3 1/2) loves Dinosaur Train! I look forward to your blog posts and will add a link on my blog...

  3. Hi Scott,

    It's great to see another professional addition to the growing paleoblogosphere. Best of luck!

    Nick Gardner

  4. Hi Scott,
    It was great to meet and talk to you in Bristol and, as Nick has said, welcome to paleoblog land!

  5. Good start Scott and good luck with the project.


  6. Dr. Sampson,

    Let me begin by telling you it is an HONOR to ¨meet¨ you on the blogosphere! I am a HUGE fan of Dinosaur Planet and LOVE how you explain the Dinosauria to a broad audience! You truly inspire me when it comes to explaining the subject to a broad audience! :D

    So, simply put, I will be following this blog intently! :)


    "Raptor" Lewis

  7. Hi Scott! Thats so funny, my 4 year old loves dinosaur train, me too! He looks forward to it and it is one of the few children's programs on science that is not annoying (don't get me started on Sid the Science Kid...). I'm also a scientist with strong ties to outreach so I am looking forward to your contributions in the blogosphere!

  8. Scott: Sounds awesome, I look forward to your blogs as well!

  9. Welcome to the blogopshere. I came here from Pharyngula; have the Borg dropped in for a visit?

  10. Hi Scott,

    Welcome to the PaleoBlogosphere! I am looking forward to your post! Hope all is well!


  11. I am looking forward to reading your blog. Welcome.

  12. Dr. Sampson,

    just found out about "The Whirpool" from the vertpaleo listserve and am so glad to see that you've joined the Paleo-blogosphere as well. It was great to meet you at the "Dinosaur Train" event at the Smithsonian a few weeks back, and I'm really enjoying "Dinosaur Odyssey". Keep the posts coming!

    David Tana - Superoceras

  13. Welcome to the Paleo-blogosphere, Dr. Sampson!

  14. Very much looking forward to your perspectives on the "Great Story". I'm glad you've started blogging.

  15. As a paleontologist and a father, I have enjoyed watched Dinosaur Train with my kids. The shows have inspired them to watch other adult-oriented documentaries and look up more information in real science books. Great job.

    I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  16. Your essay was quite intriguing. I like your metaphor of the whirlpool and I agree that our worldview is the most important and most difficult thing we need to change. Many people have pointed out that no advance in technology will do anything but delay the inevitable if we continue to think the way we do and continue to grow our population without limits.
    I do have one disagreement with you though. You talk about earlier cultures, such as the Native Americans living sustainably with their environment. contrary to popular opinion, this really isn't true. Even if one doesn't buy the argument that most of the megafauna were wiped out by early native americans, they fundamentally altered the ecological landscape of North America by extensive slash and burn agriculture. They only appeared to live in harmony due to small population size and lack of advanced technology which made Europeans so much better at fouling their environment.

  17. I liked your discussion of Darwin and teaching evolution as transformation. The whirlpool metaphor and the transformative message of evolution is much more hopeful and positive than most people approach the subject.
    Have you seen Dennis Sewell's book, The Political Gene: How Darwin's Ideas Changed Politics? In it he gives a much dimmer view of Darwin and evolution. He does not dispute it, but says that it has not helped us and in fact has been used for evil. I think your comments give a fresh, positive way to counter his arguments.

  18. Looking foward to watch your blog develop and evolve, Scott.

    Best wishes, Spike.

  19. My 2 1/2-year-old daughter's love of "Dinosaur Train" led me to your blog and then your book, which I am enjoying immensely. I have long believed in the need for the kind of interaction between academic disciplines which you espouse. I look forward to reading your continued thoughts on this and other subjects and applaud your efforts to lead subsequent generations in taking up the mantle of interdependent thought.

  20. Stumbled upon your website today from a link on Facebook. We're HUGE fans of Dinosaur Train in this house. You have taught my sons (3 1/2 and almost 2) a wealth of knowledge about dinosaurs and the topic dominates a LOT of conversations in our home because of that. I've put your book on my christmas list. And hope to come hear your talk in Pittsburgh.

    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge with our family!
    Cara Rolinson
    (who SHOULD have studied and pursued a career in geology)

  21. Sweet! Another palaeo blog! I look forward to reading you.

  22. Best wishes on your blog, Scott! Those are rich ideas to launch off with, and I can't wait to see what you come up with in future posts.

  23. Hearty thanks to the many folks who commented on my first posts and/or sent me messages welcoming me to the blogosphere. It's great to be here, and I look forward to the discussions to come!

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