Saturday, November 28, 2009

Can Dinosaurs Save the World?

Why should we give a whit about dinosaurs? After all, they’ve been extinct for millions of years. I mean, it’s probably ok for little kids to be fascinated with these long-dead beasts. But how can we possibly justify spending precious time and resources trying to understand dinosaurs?

As a dinosaur paleontologist, I’ve been asked some version of this question many times over the years, and I admit to trying on a variety of answers. Often I've said something like, “The study of dinosaurs can lead to unexpected discoveries; for example, the ways in which ecosystems transform over long time periods.” In the end, however, most of these appeals to scientific insights with supposed benefits to humans seem, shall we say, wanting. The one exception may be the asteroid impact hypothesis. This now familiar idea claims that the collision of a giant asteroid with the Earth (generally thought to be in the Gulf of Mexico region) caused an immense cloud of dust to be tossed high into the atmosphere, circulating around the globe, blocking out the sun, halting photosynthesis for some brief period, and thereby causing the deaths of numerous species, including most dinosaurs alive at that time. Recognition that such a localized event could result in dire global repercussions was used by scientists testifying before the U.S. Congress to argue that the notion of “winners” in an all-out exchange of thermonuclear warheads was sheer madness. In effect, then, one could argue that the scientific study of dinosaurs resulted in a discovery that may have saved humanity!

Nevertheless, these days I argue more strongly than ever that we humans have much to learn from dinosaurs. The difference is that the identity of the “we” has morphed. Instead of referring to all that scientists can glean from understanding dinosaurs, I am convinced that the public can benefit most from such understanding. To be clear, I am not saying that dinosaur paleontology is dead or dying. No, this small but vibrant corner of science is more active than ever; to give one superficial metric, more “new” dinosaurs have been discovered in the past quarter century than in all prior history. My argument is simply that, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint (which, of course, is only one reason for doing science, and completely misses the long-standing human passion for exploring nature), it’s the non-scientists who have the most to gain from learning about dinosaurs. Let me explain.

Today most of us exist within a snapshot of time. We do not consider our place in the deep time pageant of life on Earth, and thus think little about life’s future on this planet. Sustainability, I contend, must include a shift in mindset rooted in a revised sense of our place in nature. Recognizing that “everything is connected”— the mantra of many environmentalists, as well as ecologically-minded educators—is certainly critical. But if these connections exist only in the present day, we are lacking an essential component: the Great Story. As the only human cultures lacking an origin story, industrialized societies may well be unique in the history of our species. Yes, the major religious traditions offer origin stories, and all indigenous peoples of which I am aware have such grounding myths. Yet vast numbers of us in the Western world lack any meaningful comprehension of where we come from, with dire consequences for our sense of meaning and larger purpose. This ignorance persists despite the fact that, particularly during the past few decades, sciences like cosmology, geology, paleontology, and anthropology have generated what is without doubt the most accurate glimpse into who we are and how we got here. The Great Story—encompassing the origins of the universe, the Milky Way galaxy, the Solar System, Earth, life, and humanity—has abundant potential to provide the larger context of our lives. It deserves to be taught at all levels of education, from elementary years, through middle and high school, and on into university. Yet thus far it is all but absent from education.

At present, dinosaurs are presented like some sort of prehistoric eye candy, strange giants from a distant time that might as well be from a distant planet as well. (As I receive feedback on my recent book, Dinosaur Odyssey, I continue to be struck by how many people comment on the lack of glossy pictures, as if any treatment of dinosaurs cannot be complete without a large format and page after page of color reconstructions.) Yet, as the most famous of all extinct animals, dinosaurs offer an exceptional access point into the Great Story—our story. They can help us forge links between the distant past and the present day (e.g., modern birds as living dinosaurs) and insert us back into the flow of deep time (Tyrannosaurus lived closer to you in time than to Allosaurus or Stegosaurus). These ancient creatures can be used to demonstrate that every ecosystem on Earth, whether in the Mesozoic or the present day, is the culmination of millions upon millions of years of co-evolution between and among life forms. Since their heyday overlapped with the fragmentation of Pangaea, dinosaurs also provide an excellent forum for communicating the workings of plate tectonics and the physical evolution of our planet. They can even serve as able guides as we contemplate such pressing issues as global warming (i.e., the Mesozoic was a hothouse world with perhaps no persistent polar ice caps) and mass extinction (the end-Cretaceous event was the last mass extinction on Earth, until the most recent one caused by humans). I am not suggesting that we lay the weight of the world’s ecological crisis on the shoulders of youngsters. As educator David Sobel says, education should include no disasters before the fourth grade. Yet, in part because they spark the imaginations of children and adults, dinosaurs are a terrific vehicle for addressing numerous aspects of science and nature, including the Great Story.

Can dinosaurs save the world? Not on their own. But they can be a tremendous help as we educate coming generations to contemplate nature, and their place within it, in ways that may seem almost unimaginable to us now.

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!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Only a few days to go!

Just a reminder that the Whirlpool of Life goes live this coming Tuesday, November 24th. The kick-off will include an essay marking the sesquicentennial of Darwin's On the Origin of Species; the essay will also serve as a foundation for the blog, describing how Darwin's central idea--common descent through deep time--deserves a special place at the core of our educational curriculum.