Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Psychology of Sustainability

This past weekend I attended an inspiring three-day conference in San Rafael, California, called Bioneers. Bioneers is an annual gathering of people with a shared passion for environmental and social justice issues. The meeting highlights truly remarkable individuals and groups doing great things for humanity and the planet. To give just an example from this year’s program, one of the plenary speakers was renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. “Dr. Jane,” as she is known by millions of youth around the world, is arguably the most famous living scientist; these days, however, her efforts are concentrated on Roots and Shoots, a worldwide program that engages youth in community service.

In addition to the many wonderful speakers, Bioneers features afternoon panel sessions on a spectrum of topics, from permaculture and gender equity to environmental education and protecting wildlands. One session that particularly caught my eye this past weekend was titled “Ecopsychology Emerging.”

My father was a psychologist and university professor whose primary passions were family and teaching. Perhaps because of this early connection, I have always had a strong interest in matters of the mind. Nevertheless, from childhood I felt drawn even more to nonhuman nature, which took me down a wholly different path, one that wound up in the Age of Dinosaurs. Today, that same path has meandered back to the present day, and, perhaps surprisingly, to psychology.

As the name suggests, ecopsychology sits at the juxtaposition of ecology and psychology. It is a relatively new field of inquiry, tracing its origins back less than two decades [1, 2]. Although psychology has traditionally concerned itself solely with the human realm, ecopsychologists seek to explore the relationship between humans and nonhuman nature. (It is worth noting that, strictly speaking, the notion of a “relationship” between humans and nonhuman nature is nonsensical, equivalent to speaking of a person’s relationship with humanity. However, this terminology is effective in underlining the perceived disjunction between humanity and the “more-than-human,” and thus I perpetuate it here.) One of the discipline’s central ideas is “biophilia,” E. O. Wilson’s notion that humankind possesses an innate affinity with the living world, honed over many thousands of years of existing in intimate contact with other life forms [3].

In my view, and that of growing numbers of people from a variety of fields, the roots of our present sustainability crisis lie in a dysfunctional relationship between humanity and nonhuman nature. So repairing that relationship with a transformed worldview, one that reinserts humans inside nature, may just be the central challenge of our time. If so, ecopsychology—the field designated to explore the human-nature relationship—is poised to become one of the most critical and pressing areas of inquiry in this century. It was with great interest, then, that I attended the Bioneers session, which featured five prominent ecopsychologists. And, I’m sorry to say, it was with a strong sense of disappointment that I departed that same session 90 minutes later.

One by one the speakers discussed their perspectives and practices. The bulk of the discussion focused on eco-therapy, underlining the healing power of nature for individuals and small groups. The audience heard about the health benefits of outdoor therapy sessions and wilderness immersion programs. I became more hopeful when the discussion turned to the cognitive dissonance surrounding global warming, but here the consensus among the panel members seemed anything but hopeful, let alone proactive. One speaker concluded that it would take a very long time indeed to convince most people of the risks posed by climate change.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully applaud the gains made by eco-therapy, and agree wholeheartedly that we need to devote attention to such programs. But these efforts simply are not enough—not even close. We have perhaps a generation to turn things around and establish a sustainable course, not only technologically but cognitively. To be fair, the panelists did outline key elements of our disillusionment with the living world. Yet they proposed few, if any, meaningful solutions.

We need ecopsychology to do much more. Our dire situation demands bold vision and creative “backcasting,” in which we determine a set of goals and then figure out how to achieve them. With regard to remedying the human-nature divide, we must transform our perception of the natural world from “a collection of objects to a communion of subjects,” to use Thomas Berry’s poignant phrase [4].

This gargantuan revolution in thinking, almost certainly the greatest challenge our species has faced, is well beyond the transformative capacities of adults. Albert Einstein famously noted that, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” How are we to shift to a wholly new way of thinking, a new worldview, if we remain stuck in an out-dated worldview? More specifically, by what means do we get a significant chunk of humanity to adopt a perspective that regards other life forms as relatives rather than resources? The answer to this paradox, I am convinced, lies in children and education.

As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, one of the key elements in the needed education transformation (as opposed to mere “reform”) will be revamping the curriculum core to insert place and story. By place I refer to local bioregions, with much learning occurring outdoors. The kind knowledge gained by such learning has been called “ecoliteracy” [5]. By story I mean the Epic of Evolution, the grand saga of Big Bang to present day that encompasses cosmos, life, and culture. Here we can speak of “evoliteracy” [6]. With place and story as the intimate and grand contexts for education, respectively, we can begin to shift our perspective, transforming nature from exploited resources to mentor and partner.

What is ecopsychology’s role? In the 21st Century, this nascent field must undergo radical expansion to become more theoretical and analytical, including an abundance of hypothesis testing, experimentation, and data analysis. The challenge of transforming education is daunting. With school boards largely under local control, formal schooling is one of the most entrenched systems within modern culture. Before we can make the kinds of sweeping changes in education necessary to shift perspectives, it must first be demonstrated that any proposed alternatives in curriculum and pedagogy perform better than existing models. Much more than a form of therapy, then, ecopsychology must emerge as a major analytical field, testing key concepts and answering root questions. Most fundamentally, how do children form lasting bonds with nonhuman nature? Here we will benefit from studies of child development in indigenous cultures, the only societies today that possess worldviews embedding humanity within nature. My strong hunch is that developing a sense of place and cosmos will turn out to be pivotal elements, along with such practices as ritual and ceremony.

Many other questions face ecopsychologists. Exactly how effective, relative to traditional approaches, are new methods in promoting the formation of bonds with the nonhuman world? Equally important, how do these methods, including the insertion of place and story as core elements, perform relative to existing reductionist models when it comes to communicating other skills and knowledge (e.g., reading, math, writing, science)? This investigative work will need to be undertaken in partnership with progressive institutions willing to undertake such curricular experimentation, including independent and charter schools. Institutions of informal learning, particularly natural history museums, will also have a pivotal place in this process, since they possess expertise and resources unavailable to teachers. Another key prerequisite to any form of transformation will be educating the general public about the perils of our current worldview, together with the need to foster healthier alternatives through new forms of education. Here, too, ecopsychologists can help in ringing the alarm bell and getting the message out.

In the so-called “Great Turning,” moving from an “industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society” [7], ecopsychology must emerge as an intellectual powerhouse, working in partnership with educators and with Mother Nature herself to help bring about the needed transformation in worldview.

1. Roszak, T. 1993. The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. Touchstone, New York.
2. Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E. Kanner, A.D. 1995. (eds.). Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco
3. Wilson, E. O. 1986. Biophilia: The Human Bond with other Species. Harvard University Press, Boston.
4. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.
5. Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley.
6. Sampson, S. D. 2009. Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.
7. Macy, J. 2007. World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Parallax Press, Berkeley.

Photo Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Monday, September 27, 2010

New Horned Dinosaurs!

Thanks to a recent spate of papers describing new species, 2010 has been unofficially dubbed “the year of horned dinosaurs.” This past week, my colleagues (Mark Loewen, Andrew Farke, Eric Roberts, Joshua Smith, Catherine Forster, and Alan Titus) and I added two more to the list, formally announcing a pair of amazing ceratopsids discovered in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southern Utah. The giant plant-eaters were inhabitants of the “lost continent” of Laramidia, formed when a shallow sea flooded the central region of North America, isolating eastern and western portions of the continent for about 27 million years during the Late Cretaceous Period. The newly discovered dinosaurs, close relatives of the famous Triceratops, were announced in PLoS ONE, the online open-access journal produced by the Public Library of Science.

The bigger of the two new dinosaurs, with a skull 2.3 meters (about 7 feet) long, is Utahceratops gettyi. The first part of the name combines the state of origin with ceratops, Greek for “horned face.” The second part of the name refers to Mike Getty, paleontology collections manager at the Utah Museum of Natural History and the discoverer of this animal. Mike has been the driving force behind the UMNH paleo field program, and it is a great pleasure to be able to honor him in this way. In addition to a large horn over the nose, Utahceratops has short and blunt eye horns that project strongly to the side rather than upward, much more like the horns of modern bison than those of Triceratops or other ceratopsians.

Second of the new species is Kosmoceratops richardsoni. Here, the first part of the name refers to kosmos, Latin for “ornate,” and ceratops, once again meaning “horned face.” The latter part of the name honors Scott Richardson, the volunteer who discovered two skulls of this animal. In contrast to most scientific disciplines, volunteers make a major, fundamental contribution to paleontology, helping to find and excavate specimens, prepare and curate them in museum collections, and sometimes do the research. Scott Richardson has been a one-man fossil-finding powerhouse in GSENM, discovering stunning new specimens for about a decade.

Like Utahceratops, Kosmoceratops has sideways oriented eye horns, although much longer and more pointed. In all, Kosmoceratops possesses a total of 15 horns—one over the nose, one atop each eye, one at the tip of each cheek bone, and ten across the rear margin of the bony frill—making it the most ornate-headed dinosaur known. This ancient beast is one of the most amazing animals known, with a huge skull decorated with an assortment of bony bells and whistles. For obvious reasons, we avoided use of the term “horniest dinosaur” as a descriptor when announcing this animal. The media, it seems, had no such reluctance and immediately jumped on the opportunity.

Much speculation has ensued about the function of ceratopsian horns and frills, from fighting off predators to recognizing other members of the same species or controlling body temperature. Nevertheless, the dominant—and, to my mind, most likely—hypothesis is that these features functioned first and foremost to enhance reproductive success. Certainly most of these exaggerated bone structures of dinosaurs—including hooks, horns, crests, bosses, and spikes—would have made poor weapons to fend off predators. It’s far more probable that they were used to intimidate or do battle with rivals of the same sex, as well as to attract individuals of the opposite sex. Best we can tell, both males and female ceratopsid dinosaurs had horns. But this relative lack of sexual differences does not take away from the mate competition hypothesis; females of large-bodied (> 300 kg), gregarious, open-living mammals alive today, like bison and caribou, also tend to have headgear similar to that of males, likely to reduce the risk of being preferentially selected by predators.

The dinosaurs were discovered in sediments of the Kaiparowits Formation within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. GSENM encompasses almost two million acres of high desert terrain in south-central Utah. This vast and rugged region, part of the National Landscape Conservation System administered by the Bureau of Land Management, was the last major area in the lower 48 states to be formally mapped by cartographers. Today GSENM is the largest national monument in the United States, and now of the country’s last great, largely unexplored dinosaur boneyards.
For most of the Late Cretaceous, exceptionally high sea levels flooded the low-lying portions of several continents around the world. In North America, a warm, shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway extended from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, subdividing the continent into eastern and western landmasses, known as Appalachia and Laramidia, respectively. Whereas little is known of the plants and animals that lived on Appalachia, the rocks of Laramidia exposed in the Western Interior of North America have generated a plethora of dinosaur remains. Laramidia was less than one-third the size of present day North America, approximating the area of Australia.

Most known Laramidian dinosaurs were concentrated in a narrow belt of plains sandwiched between the seaway to the east and mountains to the west. Today, thanks to an abundant fossil record and more than a century of collecting by paleontologists, Laramidia is the best known major landmass for the entire Age of Dinosaurs, with dig sites spanning from Alaska to Mexico. Utah was located in the southern part of Laramidia, which has yielded far fewer dinosaur remains than the fossil-rich north. The world of dinosaurs was much warmer than the present day; Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops lived in a subtropical swampy environment about 100 km from the seaway. It’s strange to contemplate giant dinosaurs making a living in a place that shares much in common with a Louisiana swamp, but that’s the emerging picture.

Beginning in the 1960’s, paleontologists began to notice that the same major groups of dinosaurs seemed to be present all over this Late Cretaceous landmass, but different species of these groups occurred in the north (for example, Alberta and Montana) than in the south (New Mexico and Texas). This finding of “dinosaur provincialism” was very puzzling, given the giant body sizes of many of the dinosaurs together with the diminutive dimensions of Laramidia. Currently, there are five giant (rhino-to-elephant-sized) mammals on the entire continent of Africa. Seventy-six million years ago, there may have been more than two dozen giant dinosaurs living on a landmass about one-quarter that size. How could so many different varieties of giant animals have co-existed on such a small “island continent?” One option is that there was a greater abundance of food during the Cretaceous. Another is that dinosaurs did not need to eat as much, perhaps because of slower metabolic rates intermediate between those of modern day lizards and crocodiles on the one hand, and mammals and birds on the other. Whatever the factors permitted the presence of so many dinosaurs, it appears that some kind of barrier near the latitude of northern Utah and Colorado limited the exchange of dinosaur species north and south. Possibilities include physical barriers such as mountains or, more likely, climatic barriers that resulted in distinct northern and southern plant communities. Testing of these ideas have been severely hampered by a dearth of dinosaurs from the southern part of Laramidia. The new fossils from GSENM are now filling that major gap.

During the past decade, crews from the University of Utah and several partner institutions (e.g., the Utah Geologic Survey, the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology, and the Bureau of Land Management) have unearthed a new assemblage of more than a dozen dinosaurs in GSENM. In addition to Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops, the collection includes a variety of other plant-eating dinosaurs—among them duck-billed hadrosaurs, armored ankylosaurs, and dome-headed pachycephalosaurs—together with carnivorous dinosaurs great and small, from “raptor-like” predators to mega-sized tyrannosaurs (not T. rex but rather its smaller-bodied relatives). Also recovered have been fossil plants, insect traces, clams, fishes, amphibians, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and mammals, offering a direct glimpse into this entire ancient ecosystem. Most remarkable of all is that virtually every identifiable dinosaur variety found in GSENM turns out to be new to science, offering dramatic confirmation of the dinosaur provincialism hypothesis. Previously, our team has described two other dinosaurs from GSENM: the giant duck-billed hadrosaur Gryposaurus monumentensis and the raptor-like theropod Hagryphus giganteus. Several other animals are still under study, and will be announced in the future.

Without doubt, however, many more dinosaurs remain to be unearthed in the Western Interior of North America, once part of the island continent of Laramidia. Equally certain is the fact that some of those dinosaurs will be found within the remote canyons and badlands of GSENM. So stay tuned! (Oh, and for any fans of Dinosaur Train out there, plans are to feature Kosmoceratops early in the second season of episodes!)

Acknowledgements: I would like to express sincere thanks to the Bureau of Land Management and to the National Science Foundation, the pair of federal organizations that supplied the bulk of the funding for this project. Thanks also to the Utah Museum of Natural History for a decade of devoted support, and to all the volunteers and students who worked on this project.

Image Credits:
All dinosaur artwork, both skull images and fleshed out head reconstructions, were skillfully executed by our Italian colleague and friend, Lukas Panzarin. Reconstruction of Late Cretaceous North America by Ron Blakey (http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~rcb7/RCB.html).

Additional Materials:
Check out the video that describes this story.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cosmological Concerns

The word “cosmology” has at least two meanings. One is strictly scientific: “The scientific study of the origin, evolution, and structure of the universe.”[1] The second is cultural: “A system of beliefs that seeks to describe or explain the origin and structure of the universe.”[2] Whereas cosmology in the first sense is an intellectual pursuit that aims to unravel the laws that govern the physical universe, in the latter sense it is a wisdom tradition that seeks insights not only through science but also via religion, art, and philosophy.[3] Scientific cosmologists make observations, gather facts, and advance theories, with a focus on the celestial. Conversely, the aim of cultural cosmology is much more down to Earth, no less than the transformation of the aesthetic, affective, and moral dimensions of being human. In short, although both cosmological forms may attempt to explain the origins of stars, planets, and other celestial phenomena, the latter mode seeks to apply this understanding in constructing a framework for living.

For more than 99% of human history, all cosmology was of the cultural variety, and every culture had its own cosmological origin story that informed their daily life. Only with the advent of modernism was the practice of cosmology split into two spheres. The scientific sphere became the realm of objective facts, whereas the religious sphere was deemed the realm of subjective meaning. The persistent tragedy of this split is that the two spheres became isolated from each other. Whereas science (and later, science education) divorced itself from meaning and purpose, the religious search for meaning and value in the universe was no longer informed by direct reference to our changing understanding of the universe! Even today, when conducted by major religious traditions, this search generally occurs within the context of a pre-scientific cosmos dominated by classical scriptures.

Meanwhile, science has radically and irrevocably changed our conception of who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things. For about four centuries now, we have known that the Earth revolves around the sun instead of the opposite. One and a half centuries have passed since we came to understand that all life on this planet, including us, shares common ancestry, evolving from single-celled lifeforms over unfathomable spans of time. Only during the past century, a single human lifetime, have we learned that we live in a galaxy of billions of stars, in turn merely one of billions of galaxies. For less than half a century have we realized that the earth’s surface consists of a dozen or so crustal plates that move about, bumping into each other before being resorbed into the planet’s interior. At about the same time, astronomers discovered that we are constantly bombarded with faint radiation that has traveled 14 billion years from the cataclysmic birth of the universe. And only in the past decade have biologists determined that the bacterial cells on and in our bodies outnumber human cells by a factor of about 10 to 1, which means that each of us is walking colony of trillions of lifeforms rather than an isolated self of one.

Most profoundly, science has taught us that we are living in a dynamic, evolutionary universe. We now speak of the origin and evolution of particles, galaxies, stars, planets, life, and culture. It is more than poetry to claim that we humans, offspring of this evolutionary process, are the universe becoming conscious of itself. Thus, it’s horribly ironic that we, who have arguably the most accurate understanding of the history of the cosmos, are members of the first culture to lack a cosmology.

Indeed few of us today have even the most meager comprehension of the astounding insights generated by science. Why have we failed to communicate these profound ideas more broadly? A major obstacle to dissemination is that the deepest scientific insights tend to be counterintuitive. Some of the most brilliant minds of recent history have struggled mightily with notions that scientists now take for granted. (Take, for example, Albert Einstein’s famous refusal to initially accept his own finding that the universe is expanding.) So it should come as no surprise that it requires considerable work to garner meaning from science. To grossly understate matters, it’s not easy to grasp intellectually, let alone bodily or emotionally, that we are chunks of starstuff living on the side of a giant, spherical rock hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour.

Nevertheless, if we are to address the sustainability crisis and shift the course of civilization so as to come into harmony with nonhuman nature, an entirely new worldview is required, one that reinserts humanity inside nature. This moment in history demands no less than a transformation of what it means to be human.[4] If this pressing transformation is to occur, we must reunite the scientific and religious spheres of cosmology in order to establish a revitalized sense of meaning and purpose based upon our best understanding of the cosmos. On the one hand, success will depend on religions embracing the new view of the universe revealed by science. On the other, science must not shy away from its central role in defining who we are and where we come from, presenting this story in a grand narrative rather than a meaningless staccato of “facts.”

Critical to this endeavor will be the transformation of education. One legacy of the scientific enterprise has been the minimizing of subjective experiences in favor of objective observations. Only the latter have been considered “real,” worthy of our attention and value. At present, science education strictly adheres to its modernist heritage, concerning itself almost solely with quantifiable facts. If we are to learn to live sustainably in this world, facts alone are not enough. We must revamp science education to address the aesthetic and affective dimensions so long avoided. I see no reason why science learning cannot foster a vivid sense of mystery, wonder, and awe.

In particular, if science is to inform the meaning of our lives, we must experience key concepts bodily. Among other things, this will require that we venture outside classrooms into natural settings. Scientific ideas become meaningful when we experience and reflect upon them directly with multiple senses. An understanding of nature must enter our bodies through our pores as well as our minds. Alongside ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy[5], we must foster evolutionary literacy, or evoliteracy—that is, an understanding of the Epic of Evolution, the story of the Big Bang to the present day[6].

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that we change the way we do science, but rather the way we teach science. Nor am I advocating that humanity embrace a single, global cosmology. The beauty of the Epic of Evolution is that it allows for an endless variety of interpretations, with and without God(s). So every culture can still fashion its own unique cosmology, informed by its own unique historical, cultural, and ecological context.

I will explore experiential education in a future post, discussing the contributions of John Dewey and others. For the moment, suffice it to say that the acquisition of knowledge must be accompanied by an inner transformation.[3] Only then can we hope to raise a generation that regards the world as a meaningful place worthy of respect and nurturing. Only then can we establish new, more accurate cosmologies that reflect what we actually know of the universe. Only then can we begin the move toward a new, more viable form of human existence.

1. The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
2. The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
3. Swimme, B. 1996. The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story. Orbis, New York, 115 pp.
4. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York, 242 pp.
5. Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley, 275 pp.
6. Chaisson, E. 2006. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. Columbia University Press, New York, 479 pp.

All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Monday, August 9, 2010

Saving Natural History (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this essay, I argued for the critical importance of natural history as a powerful and timely approach to communicating science, one with great potential to (re)place humans within nature. I further claimed that expertise in natural history—an in-depth understanding of local plants and animals—is sorely lacking, and that natural history institutions may represent the greatest hope for disseminating this kind of knowledge traditionally associated with naturalists. Today I will further articulate this vision.

First, the problem. We are enveloped in an ecological crisis that threatens to rend not only the web of life, but the very fabric of civilization. If species extinctions proceed at current rates, we may lose about half of today’s biological diversity by the end of the century. If we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at present day levels, the planet will warm by at least three degrees, causing runaway melting of polar ice, flooding of coastal regions, and desertification of arable land. The best science confirms that we have perhaps a generation to turn things around and establish a sustainable course. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the fundamental crisis at this critical moment in history is much less an external crisis of environment than an internal crisis of mind. Far more than innovative, “green” technologies, we need a new mindset that reinserts humanity inside nature.

Surely, then, part of the solution to the sustainability crisis must include natural history museums, aquariums, zoos, and botanical gardens, whose mandate includes conveying natural sciences to the general public. (Zoos, in my estimation, are currently much more a part of the problem than the solution, conveying to visitors the unspoken and erroneous message that we are masters of nature.) In recent years, these institutions have begun to address sustainability issues, from research and exhibits on extinction, conservation, and global warming to "citizen science" programs that engage volunteers in the actual practice of science, often with an eye toward conservation [1,2]. Yet these efforts simply are not enough. We need a true re-envisioning—or, more accurately, transformation—of natural history institutions. Below I focus in particular on museums, where my experience lies.

Within the walls of natural history museums, much hand-wringing occurs over the topic of advocacy. Should museums, many of which are publicly-funded, be advocates of anything? Fears of offending donors, board members, or the general public often result in watered down messages, even with regard to sustainability. But let’s be frank. If museums of natural history can't become strong advocates for a healthy future on planet Earth at this critical juncture, exactly what institution should we appoint to serve this role? In my view, if museums shy away from advocating for a healthy planet, they deserve to go extinct along with the practice of natural history. Conversely, if institutions of natural history are to survive and thrive in this century, a combination of strong leadership and strong vision are required, with an unrelenting focus on sustainability.

Let me begin, then, with what some will undoubtedly interpret as a radical vision. Imagine for a moment natural history museums becoming agents of social change. Imagine if they fostered a new, more sustainable worldview by connecting people with local (nonhuman) nature. Imagine if the information flow went two ways instead of one, with museums acting as centers for convocation, catalysts for conversation about the current state of our community, our country, our world. And imagine if these institutions functioned more as trailheads than destinations, with strong emphasis on getting people outside to experience nature firsthand [3]. Such a vision would not only include advocacy, but embrace it.

Taking this transformational vision as a starting point, what kinds of educational activities would 21st Century natural history museums engage in? I propose three. The first activity is translating natural science basics and key issues for the general public. This task has long been a mainstay of science museums, yet they could do a much better job of demonstrating how human systems are inextricably interwoven with nonhuman systems. Moreover, museums must communicate not only the essentials of hot button issues like species extinctions and global warming, but also the ecological impacts of our daily decisions and the need to lobby our elected representatives (e.g., for immediate and drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions).

The second key role for natural history museums is to promote a meaningful sense of place through education and outreach programs that focus on local bioregions, including plants, animals, and landscapes. Returning to the point made in my last essay, how can we expect people to protect and nurture the places they live if they don’t know or care about them? In stark contrast to the traditional "cabinets of curiosities" model of museums, strong emphasis must be directed toward outdoor, experiential education programs that seek to foster wonder in equal amounts with knowledge. With these goals in mind, indoor exhibits become educational tools designed to inform the outdoor experience. Ultimately, a key goal should be fostering ecoliteracy, such that residents can adequately answer the question: How does this place work and who are the main characters involved?

The third key role is communication of the Epic of Evolution, the multi-billion-year story of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day [4,5]. In addition to a sense of place founded on ecoliteracy, we require a “sense of cosmos” [6] grounded in a meaningful understanding of our deep time evolutionary epic [7]. Here the goal is evolutionary literacy, or “evoliteracy,” encompassing cosmos, life, and culture. How are we to know or care about where we’re going if we have no idea of where we’ve been and the ways in which our lives and our local places are enfolded into the cosmic story? Broad dissemination of this grand saga, arguably the greatest contribution of modern science, may just be an essential element in achieving sustainable societies [7].

At present, museums engage a fair amount in the first activity, very little in the second, and virtually none in the third. Almost since their inception, museums have translated natural science concepts for nonspecialist audiences. Yet advocacy remains contentious, even when it relates to something as general and seemingly noncontroversial as healthy environments. The second activity, place-based education, is something that regional natural museums have been doing to some extent for many years. Yet I would argue that these efforts have met with minimal success. In particular, until recently, little effort has been directed toward outdoor education, and we have all but failed to recognize the vital importance of engendering a sense of wonder.

With regard to the third activity, championing evoliteracy, I’m not aware of any museum that has made the Epic of Evolution a core part of their vision. This is in spite of the fact that the Great Story has tremendous potential to connect people to their cosmic heritage, and thus to the natural world, in meaningful ways [7]. Who better to tell the Epic of Evolution—the scientific story of cosmos, life, and culture—than natural history museums? After all, these institutions frequently possess both the necessary expertise and tools, sometimes including planetarium theaters. In this century, natural history should be redefined more broadly, and more literally, as the astounding history of nature, and therefore of us.

Like universities, museums have succumbed to the siren song of reductionist science, subdividing the evolutionary epic into bite-sized chunks that leave few opportunities for influencing a sense of meaning or purpose. The end result tends to be a spewing of quantifiable “facts,” with little consideration allotted to the big picture. Additionally, becoming an agent of social change will require not only advancing intellectual knowledge, but encouraging a profound shift in ethics. Thus, if museums are to be advocates of sustainability, as proposed here, they will need to consider the role of human psychology in shifting behaviors. Among other things, we would do well to consider how we might “reinvent the sacred” [8], helping visitors develop a keen sense of the wonder, awe, and mystery of nature.

While great ideas can come from any level in the museum (or from outside the institution), in my experience the implementation of new, transformative ideas invariably requires strong leadership, beginning with the institution’s chief administrator. Without unwavering support from the top, visions tend to fade and die, or at least become empty. Of course, any vision must be backed by sufficient funds to pay salaries and keep the museum doors open. But this should not stop us from using our imaginations to generate fun and inspiring programs that enable us do the Great Work [7] that needs to be done.

Let me be clear. I do not mean to disparage all institutions of natural history. Many facilities, programs, and individuals are already actively engaged in aspects of this work. Among institutions of natural history, the Monterey Bay Aquarium may come closest to the vision described above. This remarkable institution combines a vibrant, sustainability-based vision with effective leadership to create an amazing and inspiring experience; and I'd bet that most visitors depart with a much deeper appreciation of the changes that need to occur if we're going to conserve the nature we have left. Nevertheless, within the profession as a whole, a gaping chasm exists between the activities of present day natural history institutions and the vision articulated here.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, natural history has a vital cultural role to play in saving both nature and civilization. With the terrible potential for impending environmental disaster and untold human suffering, is there really another viable and responsible vision for natural history institutions in this century?

Notes and References
1. Cornell Ornithological Lab: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=708
2. Wilson, E. O. 2005. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W. W. Norton, New York, 175 pp.
3. The new Utah Museum of Natural History has embraced the notion of trailhead over destination. See: Sampson, S. D. and George, S. B. 2004. Reinventing a Natural History Museum for the 21st Century. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 55, Suppl. 1 (13): 283-294.
4. Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York, 305 pp.
5. Chaisson, E. 2006. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. Columbia University Press, New York, 479 pp.
6. Needleman, J. 2003. A Sense of Cosmos. Monkfish, Rhinebeck, NY., 192 pp.
7. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York, 242 pp.
8. Kauffman, S. A. 2008. Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Basic Books, New York, 320 pp.

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Saving Natural History (Part 1)

As a youngster, I was fascinated by all aspects of nature, regularly coming home with pocketfuls of sticks, rocks, bugs, or some other terrestrial flotsam and jetsam discovered during my daily travels. Returning from family camping trips in the wilds of British Columbia, there were inevitably heavy, oddly shaped rocks or fossils to be unloaded and placed in a corner of the yard with collections from previous excursions. For me, the highlights of these camping adventures were the guided walks, where I would stick like glue to the park naturalist and ask an unending flurry of questions. When I was five years old my mother recognized this passion by signing me up for the “Young Naturalists Club.” I still remember the excitement I felt when my membership package finally arrived, including a white button emblazoned with the club name and the face of a smiling raccoon. Finally, I thought, I was a real naturalist.

This passion for nature (including dinosaurs, of course) persisted through my childhood and teen years, despite the near absence of nature study I received in school. When I finally arrived at university in the late 70’s, I immediately searched the course listings for offerings on natural history, and was dismayed to find that the only such courses were for senior students specializing in a particular area of biological study: for example, oceanography, ornithology, or entomology. Little did I know that I was about 20 years too late [1].

For the first half of the 20th Century, natural history—the systematic study of natural objects and organisms—was not only a thriving discipline within the natural sciences, but a major part of growing up for vast numbers of people in Western societies. Practitioners of this respected subject, including many lacking formal credentials, were known as “natural historians,” or, more simply, “naturalists.” Naturalists identify and categorize the denizens of their local environs. Serious enthusiasts tend to be collectors, with rocks, plants, butterflies, and beetles among the common targets. Serious birders, who collect observations rather than specimens, can also be placed within these ranks. Most importantly, naturalists love to spend time outdoors interacting with the nonhuman world. Many, perhaps most, children raised prior to the close of WW II were introduced to the practice of natural history, often at school and at home.

Then, for the latter half of the 20th Century, natural history underwent a steady and precipitous decline. At the professional level, the scientific study of natural history, with its focus on observing whole organisms, was largely supplanted by a suite of reductionist sub-disciplines like cell and molecular biology. Even fields with a larger perspective, like ecology, placed overwhelming emphasis on “rigorous” experimental studies, eschewing as quaint and outdated the kinds of subjective observations that are the bread and butter of naturalists. Among laypersons, fewer and fewer people were trained in nature study, largely because those doing the training had no successors. Other trends, like the migration from rural to urban settings and the increased emphasis on “hard” sciences like math and physics, further relegated natural history to a neglected corner of the library stacks [1].

Today, although children (and adults) can identify dozens of corporate logos, few can name even a handful of the plants and animals that live around them. Fewer still spend significant amounts of time outside, choosing instead to remain plugged into the artificial reality of cyber-world instead of experiencing the real world beyond the front door. As a result, natural history teeters on the edge of extinction, threatening to take down much of the biosphere with it. It seems highly unlikely that people will save something they don’t care about. And they’re certainly not going to care about something with which they’ve had no meaningful experience. That’s why the loss of nature study embodied by natural history is so tragic, and dangerous.

To compound matters, the demise of natural history teaching means that the overwhelming majority of educators today lack any background in nature study, and thus they are ill prepared to convey even the basics on local plants and animals. Fortunately, the number of exceptions to this disturbing trend is growing, including remarkable teachers and initiatives often gathered under the umbrella of “environmental education.” Yet even these outdoor-focused programs tend to have a strong ecological bent, emphasizing the big picture of ecosystem function, with minimal time spent identifying local plants and animals, let alone sitting quietly in the company of one’s nonhuman neighbors.

Outside of formal education, the primary cultural institutions engaging in natural history are museums, augmented by nature centers (and, to a lesser extent, zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens). Natural history museums emerged in the Victorian era as “cabinets of curiosities,” places where one could witness rare, beautiful, and/or ancient objects from the natural world--everything from minerals and fossils to animals and artifacts—often collected in distant lands. They remained very popular through the 20th Century, with institutions like the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum (Washington, DC), and the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago) amassing vast collections.

Here in the early 21st Century, museums of natural history are struggling to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves. Of particular concern are issues like relevancy and the balance of education versus entertainment (the “edutainment” conundrum) [2]. Recognizing natural history as a dying practice that few today can even define, some museums are electing to divorce themselves from the term (e.g., the Chicago institution is now formally known as “The Field Museum”). Although most natural history museums still engage in collections-based research, only a smattering of the scientists doing this work could honestly identify with the term “naturalist.” Rather than making detailed observations of local flora and fauna, these scientists engage in analytical, often experimental studies like those of their counterparts at universities. Most museum staff (including the scientists) would struggle to name multiple examples of local plants, rocks, insects, or birds.

As someone with almost 25 years of experience around natural history museums, I am of the strong opinion that natural history deserves not only to be saved, but to be resurrected to its former glory. However, like the museums housing the collections of plants, animals, rocks, and artifacts, the notion of natural history itself must be reinvented to address the pressing needs of our time. I think that museums are the best available candidates to carry out this resurrection/reinvention. We desperately need more systematists, researchers who can go out and catalogue the world’s biological diversity. Of the estimated 10-15 million species alive on earth today, less than 3 million have been formally named, let alone investigated in detail [3]. Speaking of which, we also need more field biologists and ecologists to carry out firsthand studies of organisms living in their native habitats. Only by understanding how those habitats work (for example, the flow of energy and the cycling of nutrients) can we begin to determine how to preserve them.

Natural history museums have an equally vital role to play in the realm of education. They possess the expertise and tools (collections, exhibits, and other programming) to help children and adults (including educators!) learn about the plants and animals native to their region. This statement applies particularly to regional museums like the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, the Utah Museum of Natural History (Salt Lake City), and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which tend to have more of a local focus than their larger sister institutions like the AMNH and Field Museum. Both personally and professionally, I am very pleased to see “Young Naturalist”-type organizations popping up once again, some of them linked closely to museums. More than ever before, we need to raise a generation of naturalists!

I suspect that relatively few in the museum world would disagree with the above statements. Scientists like the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson have long sounded the clarion call for more systematists and field biologists [3,4]. Indeed Wilson, a self-proclaimed naturalist, is striving for no less than a comprehensive Encyclopedia of Life, with an entry for every species on Earth [5]. Similarly, museum educators, swept up in the rapidly growing “No Child Left Inside” movement [6], are now spending more time developing outdoor education programs.

Nevertheless, in my view, more of the same kind of science and education simply won’t cut it. If we are to face the sustainability challenge head-on, we need a bolder, more encompassing vision well beyond that generally being considered within both formal and informal education circles. To my mind, natural history must be central to that vision. In stark contrast to the cabinets of curiosities model, natural history museums in the 21st Century have the potential to reinvent themselves as key players in the drive toward sustainability. In my next Whirlpool of Life post, I will delve into this vision.

Many of the ideas presented here and in my next post were developed while I served as chief curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT. I am indebted to the UMNH for allowing me to pursue some of these ideas, and am happy to say that the new UMNH facility, scheduled to open late in 2011, will include some of the concepts addressed in this blog. For more info, check out: http://umnh.utah.edu/newmuseum

1. R. M. Pyle. 2007. The rise and fall of natural history. In B. Lopez (ed.), The Future of Nature. Milkweed, Minneapolis. (This article was originally published in Orion Magazine in 2001)
2. Weil, S. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
3. Wilson, E. O. 2005. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W. W. Norton, New York. 4. Wilson, E. O. 2002. The Future of Life. Knopf, New York.
5. Encyclopedia of Life Project: http://www.eol.org/
6. Children & Nature Network: http://www.childrenandnature.org/

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Subjectification of Nature

Several weeks ago while hammering away on the computer, struggling to improve the same paragraph for the umpteenth time, I heard it again—the cry of a red-tailed hawk. This was not the beautiful, haunting, and justifiably famous red-tail “kree-eee-ar” that seems to pierce the core of your being. No, this was more of a repetitive, high-pitched wailing that brought to mind a demented sea-gull. Over the previous days and weeks, this incessant noise had driven me to the ragged edge of distraction. What’s the problem with that bird?, I kept asking myself (but in much less kind language).

The following day, while ascending the stairs after a long walk, I heard that same wailing, but this time it was directly overhead. Craning my neck and raising a hand to block the sun, I saw a young hawk wobble unsteadily on unskilled wings, barely navigating its way to a nearby tree. Suddenly the chaos of my thoughts was shattered by the realization that those incessant shrieks were the desperate cries of a fledgling red-tail calling out to parents for food and comfort. Immediately my frustration over the clamor vanished, replaced by a sense of compassion for this awkward youngster attempting to master a talent about which I could only dream. The animal that had seconds before been little more than an object of annoyance was transformed into a marvelous, freshly volant subject—a living, breathing creature that filled me with wonder. (I also reminded myself of this animal's dinosaurian status, making the connection back into deep time.)

Today, we in Western societies are in desperate need of a large-scale transformation in consciousness that parallels my attitude shift toward the hawk. Much of our unsustainable behavior can be traced to a broken relationship with nature, a worldview that treats the nonhuman world as a realm of mindless objects all but incapable of feeling. The road to sustainability must be built upon a radically new perspective (or at least a re-invention of an old one) that reanimates the living world and views other creatures as relatives to be respected rather than resources to be exploited. What we require is no less than the subjectification of nature. In the insightful words of “geologian” Thomas Berry, we must transform the world “from a collection of objects to a communion of subjects.”

To subjectify is to interiorize, such that the exterior world interpenetrates one’s interior world. Whereas the relationships we share with subjects often tap into our hearts, objects are dead to our emotions. Finding ourselves in relationship, boundaries of self can actually become permeable and blurred. Many of us have experienced such feelings with lovers, family, friends, and even pets. For indigenous peoples around the world, the notion of being embedded in a landscape of relatives is not alien at all; we have much to learn from this ancient wisdom.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the subjectification of nature is science, a cultural practice founded on the notion of objectivity. Scientists seek to objectify nature so that they can measure, test, and study it. In order to undertake such studies, we biologists tend to think animals in terms of fragments—from genes and bones to reproductive strategies and dietary preferences. Yet it is my contention that this pervasive, centuries-old trend toward fragmentation and objectification need not preclude us from treating nature as subjects. In other words, the subjectification of nature would not require that we abandon objectivity. After all, scientists have managed (at least most of the time) to treat their fellow humans as both subjects and objects. Why can’t we extend this same duality to nonhuman nature?

What would nature look like if we truly regarded it as a communion of subjects? Perhaps more to the point, what would it feel like? As evidenced by my initial attitude toward the fledgling red-tail, I am hardly an authority on the matter, and have a long way to go in my own personal growth. Like most of us in the industrialized West, I must battle a lifetime of practice in objectification, augmented in my case by training as a scientist. Nevertheless, while I can attest only to brief glimpses of such a fundamentally different perspective, I have found these fleeting insights both profound and inspiring. Such experiences have left me deeply convinced that widespread subjectification will be an essential element in sustainability.

But how might we undertake the “subjectification transformation?” Worldviews are deeply ingrained in adult minds, so much so that they become like the air we breathe—essential but ignored. As I’ve argued previously on this blog, much of the answer is going to be found in education. We must gain the wisdom to shift our views and raise our children so that they can see the world with new eyes. It may sound heretical, but science education in particular could be re-invented with subjectification in mind. Certainly the practice of science—the actual doing of scientific research—must be done as objectively as possible. But the communicating of science could include both objective and subjective components. Imagine if the bulk of science education took place outdoors, in direct contact with the natural world. And imagine if parents and educators emphasized not only the identification and functioning of parts (say, of flowers or insects), but the notion of organisms as sensate beings. What if students were asked more to spend more time learning about how a particular plant or animal experienced its world?

A tool with amazing potential is the “soap bubble technique,” attributed to biologist Jakob von Uexküll [1]. Take a group of children outside and ask them to imagine each and every organism to be surrounded by a transparent bubble, within which they can experience only the perceptual world of that organism. Then ask the children to select a particular organism (perhaps from a sample considered earlier in the classroom) and try to imagine what it might be like to actually be that creature. Take earthworms for example. These soil denizens detect light but not color, so the rainbow of hues with which we construct our world suddenly disappears. Earthworms have a keen sense of taste, but no ability to smell. In lieu of vision, their dominant senses are taste and touch, and they are particularly sensitive to ground vibrations.

The soap bubble technique is powerful because it helps to transport us beyond our everyday world and foster a sense of relationship with nonhuman organisms. Done repeatedly over a period of years, it is easy to envision how practices like this might encourage children to see their native places as communities of subjects worthy of care and respect. Conversely, I cannot imagine any community becoming sustainable if people do not care about their native places.

As I type the final paragraph of this post, I can still hear that fledgling red-tail calling out. Although far from melodious, the sound now generates within me feelings of compassion rather than frustration. I have hopes that Western societies will embrace a similar transition; that we will realize the promise and potential of subjectification and begin a dialogue on how we might inject this much-needed perspective into schooling for sustainability.

1. Evernden, N. 1993. The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment, Second Edition. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 172 pp.

Image Credits
Top: Red-tail hawk: http://content.cornell.ornith.edu/
Middle images: National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/ Bottom image: http://www.kentsimmons.uwinnipeg.ca/

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Great Triad

The mysterious power of the number three has a long and distinguished history. Among the Classical Greeks, Plato suggested that truth, beauty, and goodness are the primordial values against which all things can be judged. His student Aristotle, speaking on rhetoric, argued for three primary modes of persuasion—logos, pathos, and ethos—appeals to logic, emotions, and the character of the speaker, respectively. I’m convinced that these two Greek triads are interwoven, with modern lessons for a world in crisis.

Aristotle’s rhetorical trio is often linked to body parts: logos to brain, pathos to heart, and ethos to gut. Equivalent linkages can be made to Plato’s “Big Three.” Truth reflects mind, beauty reflects pathos or spirit, and goodness reflects gut or consciousness. More recently, philosophers have sometimes associated Plato’s primal values with the developmental sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; begin with beauty, layer on truth, and synthesize these into a sense of goodness.

Once unified, it seems to me that this “Great Triad” holds immense power because it embodies different kinds of knowing. All of us have experience understanding something intellectually that has minimal bearing on our emotions (street names or geometry, for example). Conversely, knowledge may be rooted in emotions or intuitions, fostering deeply held beliefs with little to no basis in reason (choice of partner, sacredness of a particular place). A third, even deeper kind of knowledge is founded on “gut feelings” that often reflect the marriage of intellect and emotions. Worldviews, I would like to propose, reside in the gut, rooted in a messy mixture of logos and pathos.

I make no assertions about the originality of this claim. I’m a paleontologist, not a philosopher, so my expertise relates more to ancient life than to the nature of reality. Yet, whether empirically accurate or not, it seems to me that this tripartite division of knowledge offers a useful tool for probing our present eco-crisis. Ecological sustainability in any meaningful sense will require not only new technologies, but a new worldview, one that re-inserts humanity inside nature and transforms the nonhuman world (to borrow Thomas Berry’s poignant phrase) from “a collection objects to communion of subjects.”

At present, Western societies rely overwhelmingly on intellect and scientific truth, giving little credit to the role of emotions and spirit. We live too much in our heads, not enough in our hearts. This centuries-old bias results in terribly skewed worldviews, causing our guts to mislead us again and again into decisions devoid of any sense of beauty. Resetting the balance will demand, among other things, a transformation (rather than mere “reform”) of our schooling system, including new approaches to both the delivery and content of education. In particular, learning must spark the heart as well as the mind. Devoid of any sense of what is beautiful, let alone sacred, intellectual knowledge remains sterile, often unable to influence worldviews and behavior (or doing so in dangerous ways).

Let me illustrate by making what may seem an outlandish claim. At heart, most of us in Western societies are a bunch of flat-earthers and creationists.

Intellectually, we know that we live on a spherical world hurtling with a gaggle of other planets around a nearby star. Yet we still speak of sunrise and sunset, and persist in conceiving of ourselves as living on the top of the world. Of course, reality is rather different; the rotation of the Earth causes the sun to appear to rise and fall in our sky, and we live on the side of our rapidly spinning globe, anchored by the mysterious force of gravity. My point is this—we know (in our minds) that we live on a sphere, but live (through our hearts) as if the world was flat.

Similarly, even for those who embrace the notion of evolution, the vast majority of us are effectively creationists. Don’t believe me? Step outside, look at the nearest tree, or dog, or bird, and ask yourself the following question: Do I regard this organism as my relative, part of my extended family tree? If you’re like the vast majority of people, your honest answer is no.

If we truly embraced the notion of common descent through deep time—not just in our minds, but in our hearts—would we put chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives, in cages for public display? Would we decimate rainforests, overfish oceans, or foul our native bioregions? Perhaps. After all, humans frequently don’t treat members of their own kind with compassion and empathy. Nevertheless, for those of us in the industrialized West, the notion of living in community with the natural world is an alien one. For us, nature isn’t relatives, its resources.

How, then, might we communicate scientific concepts like spherical planets and biological evolution so as to engage emotions, building upon the “knowledge” of pathos so as to influence ethos? I am aware of two principle tools: experience and narrative.

Firsthand experience outdoors has the potential to stir our emotions deeply. As most of us know, smelling wildflowers, holding a slug, and beholding a full moon are all experiences that differ mightily from virtual alternatives. Next time you watch a sunset, hold the image in your mind of sitting on the side of rotating globe; it helps to have a planet like Venus nearby to the sun so that you can picture yourself as part of a solar system of worlds. If you’re lucky, just as the sun disappears below the horizon, you will have a momentary experience of vertigo as you fathom your true relationship to our nearest star. Do this frequently and you may just shift the way you envision your place on Earth.

Now imagine if, in stark contrast to the vast bulk of present day schooling, children learned about evolution largely in natural settings, with appropriate reverence given to the bounty of relatives inhabiting our communities. We might call this “experiential science education,” a strategy worthy of broad application in science teaching. As I see it, without abundant time spent outside in intimate contact with nonhuman nature, some of it guided by adult mentors, we will be unable to move beyond intellectual understanding to form meaningful bonds with the nonhuman world.

With regard to the second tool, narrative, I have written previously in this blog of the importance of the Great Story, the epic of evolution that extends from the Big Bang to the present day. If evolution were taught as the history of the universe (rather than focusing predominantly on obtuse concepts like mutation, natural selection, and adaptation), we would become fully engaged in this astounding story, which just happens to be our story. Beyond the science class, this story could be conveyed through numerous creative arts—from painting and poetry and to drama and dance—with the potential to reach our deepest emotions. Only when the Great Story becomes meaningful in both our minds and hearts, tapping into our sense of truth and beauty, will we begin to truly understand what it means to be part of a single, evolving universe at this pivotal moment in deep time. And only then will we begin to conceive of nature as relatives deserving of our compassion and empathy rather than resources for our exploitation.

In short, the lesson of the Great Triad is this: If we are to foster wisdom and navigate our way into a sustainable future, knowledge must pass through our hearts on the way from the mind to the gut. The roots of service (Goodness) lie in the amalgam of both insight (Truth) and compassion (Beauty). Logos + Pathos = Ethos.

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Training the Brain

As a society, we are techno-addicts, shifting obsessively back and forth between gadgets, from smart phones and iPods to laptops and televisions, among others. Over the past 50 years, our consumption of information has more than tripled. The bulk of young people now spend 7-10 hours each day staring at screens—and that’s when they’re not at school or working! On average, we compulsively check our email about 37 times each day and visit about the same number of websites [1]. Awash in an ever-shifting sea of digital information, we all too rarely stop to consider the impact of this rampant technophilia on ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Several months ago, I argued on this blog [2] that the Internet is a mixed blessing, offering up the “Great Source” of information while simultaneously leading us toward the “extinction of experience”—that is, the absence of time spent outdoors in nature. If we are to stave off the deepening sustainability crisis, I suggested, our experience of reality must become less virtual and more “real.” Today I would like to build on this discussion. Instead of focusing on what we lose by not spending time outdoors, my emphasis here is directed at the influence of technology on our minds.

Last week, a cover story in the New York Times [1] tackled this timely topic and highlighted a number of revealing studies. Since you are likely a consumer of technology yourself, and thus have considerable personal experience, most of the results will likely come as no surprise. Heavy consumption of information technologies reduces attention spans and makes us more easily distracted. Regular email interruptions tend to increase stress and decrease short term memory, making it more difficult to learn or perform even simple tasks. Brain researchers are becoming increasingly convinced that excessive use of the Internet makes us more impatient, impulsive, forgetful, and even narcissistic.

More surprising perhaps is the multitasking myth. That is, with the exception of few “supertaskers” (about 3% of us), concurrent use of multiple technologies does not increase efficiency. Indeed committed multitaskers tend to be slower than non-multitaskers when attempting to do several tasks simultaneously. The problem, it seems, is that multitaskers have trained their brains to be highly sensitive to new information and thus tend to be easily distracted, always searching for that next digital tidbit.

At a deeper level, many psychologists now worry, and are attempting to document, what they see as impacts to our very identity wrought by a fixation on gadgets. The NY Times article cites one Stanford researcher, Elias Aboujaoude, referring to the “fracturing of the self” caused by excessive reliance on technology. Another Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass, thinks that, by limiting face-to-face interactions, heavy technology use reduces our empathy. The concern seems to be that all of this interaction with technology is somehow rewiring our brains in ways that diminishes our humanity.

Less than two decades ago, researchers thought that the brain ceased developing at the onset of adulthood. A slew of recent studies, however, demonstrate that the brain has the capacity to adapt throughout life, including in our senior years—a phenomenon dubbed “neuroplasticity.” To cite just one example, a study of Tibetan monks showed much higher gamma wave activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain during meditation than in a control group, resulting in stronger feelings of happiness and compassion in the former [3]. The remarkable truth of the matter, then, seems to be that, one way or the other, we “train our brains,” actually rewiring parts of our neurocircuitry based upon the activities we choose to engage in. So it’s best to give serious consideration to the things we allow to dominate our minds.

Why are we so prone to techno-addiction? Some researchers suggest that, for the bulk of human evolution, an ability to pay attention to novel stimuli had a major survival advantage. To give the most simplistic example, that stimulus just might be an animal you’re hunting or a predator stalking you. More nuanced discussions have addressed the ability to recognize any novel patterns in one’s environment that might indicate the presence of food, medicine, or other items necessary for survival. Today, information technologies seem to tap into this ancient predisposition, making it more likely that we will become addicted to glowing gadgets.

Despite the tone of this piece, I’m no Luddite. On a personal level, I am a major technology user myself, and battle the daily siren call to “stay connected.” On a societal level, I see no path forward, whether sustainable or not, that does not embrace technology. So, as I see it, the key question is this: given our penchant for what may best be described as techno-addition, how are we going to learn to co-exist with information technologies?

Some psychologists compare our dependence on screen technologies to an eating disorder [1]. Like food, technology is now an essential component of our daily life. And just as a food addict cannot stop consuming calories, we must learn to moderate our consumption of technologies, both for ourselves and our children. At a minimum, this will require setting thoughtful constraints, such as limiting the number of times you check your email, and restricting children’s screen time to 1-2 hours per day (their choice of gadget?). In extreme cases, just as with any addiction, heavy technology users may require therapy to assess the underlying reasons for the repeated escape into the Internet [1].

The bottom line is that, despite their many advantages, phones, computers, and televisions can be dangerous tools. Our obsession with technology threatens not only our personal health, but also the health of our communities and even the biosphere. If we are to set sail and navigate a sustainable path into the future, we must limit the amount of time we allow ourselves (and our kids!) to be immersed in this ocean of information. Don’t forget to come out on the deck, breath the fresh air, and connect with each other and the spectacular world we inhabit. Your brain will be thankful.

1) Richtel, M. 2010. Hooked on gadgets, and paying a mental price. New York Times, June 7, 2010. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html)

2) Sampson, S. D. 2010. The extinction of experience. The Whirlpool of Life (blog). (http://scottsampson.blogspot.com/2010/01/extinction-of-experience.html)

3) Kaufman, M. 2005. Meditation gives brain a change, study finds. The Washington Post, January 3, 2005. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43006-2005Jan2.html).

Top three images courtesy of of Free Digital Photos: http://freedigitalphotos.net/
Bottom image courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Transforming Education

Education reform is a phrase that is virtually ubiquitous in American political circles. Any outsider would assume—correctly, I’m afraid—that we never get education right. To give a couple of recent metrics, a 2007 study found that only one-third of US students could read and do math up to current grade level standards, and that one in four students does not graduate from high school.

While in New York City recently, I had the opportunity to listen to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan present his reform vision to an audience of well over a thousand teachers. Duncan is a thoughtful, intelligent man, as well as a polished speaker, and I enjoyed hearing him speak about replacing the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” with a new alternative, “Race to the Top” [1-4]. “The Race,” as its nicknamed, is a $4.3 billion incentive program (read “competition”) designed by the US Department of Education to overhaul the education system. Key elements include performance pay for teachers (together with a system for firing teachers deemed “inadequate”) and a major boost in the number of public charter schools. States compete for large sums of money by demonstrating that they are aligning their education system with the new criteria.

I applaud the renewed emphasis on teaching performance. To my mind, we should go much further, transforming teaching into a high-status, well paid profession akin to medicine. With greatly increased salaries paired to much higher standards, we could recruit the very best teachers and offer them appropriate kinds of training both before and after receipt of their education certificates.

Why is teaching so important? Not, as is generally argued, because American kids need to keep up with youth in other countries so that the US can maintain its position in the global economy. No, teaching is critical because education reform—or, more accurately, transformation—may just be the key to saving civilization. As argued previously in this blog, techno-fixes alone simply aren’t going to cut it. Sustainability will depend on raising future generations of citizens possessing a different perspective on the human-nature connection. Specifically, we must counter the prevalent and erroneous notion of viewing ourselves as external conquerors of nature, and begin to understand that we are fully embedded within nature.

What most disturbs me about the ongoing debate over education reform, including the Race, is the virtual lack of conversation, let alone debate, about curriculum content. The unspoken assumption is that a shift in the delivery mechanism is all that is needed to “fix” education. Yet in addition to how we are teaching our children, we should be equally concerned with what we are teaching them.

Today, as for most of the 20th Century, education is about careerism, preparing students to successfully enter consumer society—that is, to be “upwardly mobile.” Although we are well aware of the environmental calamity facing us today, and the fundamental role of that “consumers” play in accelerating our pace toward disaster, education (K-16) is still organized as if no such specter is sitting out there on the horizon.

Education for the 21st Century should be education for sustainability, a system of teaching and learning that helps our youth understand how to live well in the world. At its root, sustainability depends on two factors: 1) human justice; and 2) an harmonious relationship between the human and nonhuman world (i.e., justice for nonhuman nature). One of the greatest problems with our present day education system is that it fragments the world into artificial chunks (biology, history, geography, math, etc.) and prevents us from seeing larger patterns and unified wholes [5]. A partial remedy to this curricular myopia, and certainly a fundamental element that deserves residence at the curriculum core, is ecological literacy, or “ecoliteracy” [6,7]: the interweaving of Earth’s natural systems, and the human role is those systems. Some remarkable progress is being made is the ecoliteracy arena [8], but we urgently need to find ways to scale up these successes so that they are applied more broadly.

Another key content element is what I have termed “evolutionary literacy,” or “evoliteracy” [9]. Whereas ecoliteracy focuses on connections and energy flow within the temporal snapshots of ecological systems, evoliteracy inserts the vertical dimension of deep time. The Epic of Evolution, from the beginnings of the universe to the present day, is our amazing origin story delivered by science [10-12]. As argued in recent posts, this grand, unifying saga, also called the “Great Story,” is capable of offering a critical dose of meaning and purpose to our lives. Far from the random, meaningless place so often portrayed in textbooks and the popular media, our universe is a stunningly creative place that birthed us through a long series of transformations, beginning with simple hydrogen atoms. Seeing ourselves as players in this 14 billion year old drama, and recognizing that our decisions will impact that next 14 billion years, may just be an essential element in achieving anything worthy of the title “sustainable.” Yet, at present, the Great Story is virtually absent from all levels of education, communicated, if at all, only as a series of fragments rather than a unified whole.

Rapid education transformation (as opposed to mere “reform”) is critical to the future of humans and millions of other species on this planet. We need a major mindshift, one that may only come through empowering future generations. So get informed. If you’re an educator, think about the underlying messages of your teaching, and how you might alter these in the direction of sustainability. If you’re a parent, find out what your children are learning in school, and make efforts to shift the content (as well as the delivery) in ways that will enable our youth to live well in the world. Earth’s future depends on our mobilization efforts.

Notes and References
1) Obama Offers “Race to the Top” Contest for Schools. Guardian News, London, UK, July 24, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/8625198?FORM=ZZNR7.
2) Dillon, S. and T. Lewin. 2010. Education chief vies to expand U.S. role as partner on local schools. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/education/04educate.html
3) Brill, S. 2010. The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand. New York Times Magazine, May 17, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/magazine/23Race-t.html
4) Race to the Top, Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_to_the_Top
5) Orr, D. W. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
6) Orr, D. W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. State University of New York Press, Albany, 210 pp.
7) Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley, 275 pp.
8) Stone, M. K. 2009. Smart By Nature. University of California Press, Berkeley.
9) Sampson, S. D. 2009. Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.
10) Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.
11) Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York.
12) I strongly encourage readers to check out a brand new website, Journey of the Universe, supporting an upcoming documentary by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. This project promises to provide some excellent tools for educators interested in communicating the Great Story. Check out: http://www.journeyoftheuniverse.org/

All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/

Monday, May 24, 2010

Re-Defining the E-Word

What does the word “evolution” mean?

In last week’s post on this blog, I argued (as have a number of others before me) that the “e-word” should be expanded beyond biological evolution to include no less than the “history of the universe.” In this more comprehensive sense, evolution is able to capture in a single word the unified story of the cosmos, life, and culture. In response to this post, one of the comments I received came from Kenneth (last name not included), who argued that evolution should be restricted to biological evolution. In his words,

"So much of the refusal to accept evolution (in this country at least, the US) comes from those who think evolution explains the origin of life. It, of course, does not and has nothing to do with abiogenesis. But presenting the origin of the cosmos as "the epic of evolution" is just going to further that divide. We need to teach about the Big Bang, stellar birth and refinement, how planets form, the Miller-Urey experiment's results, and evolution and natural selection. But we can't put them all in the same basket since they're not actually related (and saying that non-reproducing things "evolve" is adding gasoline to the fire, too).

Kenneth raises a critical issue, and I thank him sincerely for taking the time to articulate it. Because “evolution” has become such a loaded word in the United States (and a number of other countries), I have thought long and hard about whether or not to expand the word to refer to the history of the universe. After all, I reasoned, people might reject the Great Story out of hand, effectively tossing out the baby with the bathwater because of a bias against anything evolutionary. Eventually, however, I came to think that the two truly deserve--even need--to be linked. Not only is the teaching of biological evolution a critical endeavor worthy of our energies—so too is the teaching of the Great Story. And I’m convinced that this pair of ideas can be mutually reinforcing. I devote today’s post to a brief outline of my position.

Ultimately, of course, how we decide to define the word “evolution” is a matter of semantics, and words can have multiple meanings. For example, at Dictionary.com, the biological definition of evolution is, “change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift.” However, nine other definitions are also listed, including one that applies to the history of the universe: “any process of formation or growth; development.” So the question is this: Do we elucidate or muddy our understanding of nature if we refer to the Great Story of everything as the “epic of evolution”?

Kenneth contends that the expanded version of the word gives ammunition to those who conflate the process of (biological) evolution with the origin of life, suggesting that evolution has nothing to do with life’s beginnings. I would disagree with at least the latter half of this claim. Recent work by origin of life researchers have revealed remarkable continuities between geochemistry and biochemistry, between the living and nonliving worlds (1). My strong hunch—likely bolstered by the announcement this week of the first synthetic life (2)— is that resolution of the origin of life problem, one of the greatest mysteries in science, will reveal blurry boundaries between the animate and inanimate, akin to what we see between major groups of biological ancestors and descendents (e.g., theropod dinosaurs and birds).

On a larger scale, I think that using evolution to describe the Great Story serves at least two important purposes. First, it underlines the fact that the evolution of life (and humans in particular) is not separate from the rest of nature. Rather, life’s origin and expansion is merely one of the latest examples of increasing complexity within a single, unified, and stunningly creative whole. By treating biological evolution as an entirely distinct process, we tend to construct a false dichotomy and ignore the many similarities between organic and inorganic transformations.

For example, although increasing diversification has been a major trend in both cosmic and biological evolution, another frequently overlooked propensity is toward unification. As I described in a previous post, “The numerous and dramatic increases in complexity, it turns out, have been achieved largely through a process of integration, with smaller wholes becoming parts of larger wholes. Again and again we see the progressive development of multi-part individuals from simpler forms. Thus, for example, atoms become integrated into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into organisms. At each higher, emergent stage, older forms are enveloped and incorporated into newer forms, with the end result being a nested, multilevel hierarchy.” Indeed a strong argument can be made that the major steps in complexification over the past 14 billion years have been achieved large through unifying rather than diversifying (3).

A Darwinian sense of evolution has also helped to inform ideas about evolution in the nonliving realm. Perhaps the most surprising case in point is Lee Smolin’s cosmological natural selection theory (4,5). Smolin, a theoretical physicist, has suggested that the rules of biology apply on the scale of the cosmos. Specifically, the eventual collapse of a black hole may result in the creation of another universe on “the other side.” If so, each universe generates as many universes as it does black holes, the equivalent of reproduction. Due to a number of physical constraints, the majority of these universes may undergo “heat death” before they can generate stars and black holes; that is, they die off before reproducing. If so, there would be a kind of natural selection favoring the formation of universes of that could successfully spawn new universes!

The second important reason I advocate use of the e-word to describe the Great Story is that it increases the scope of the challenge facing those who oppose the notion of organic evolution. That is, opponents of evolution, especially young Earth creationists who argue that the universe is a mere 6,000 years old, must contend not only with the Everest of evidence supporting biological evolution, but also with the equally abundant evidence in favor of cosmological evolution (the origins of the universe, galaxy, solar system, etc.) and cultural evolution (e.g., evidence of tool use within the hominid lineage). Anti-evolutionists typically search for supposedly “fatal flaws” (e.g., structures showing “irreducible complexity”) that might indicate the work of a “Designer.” But there will always be things in science that cannot be fully explained (at least not yet), and overthrowing the notion of evolution requires that one upturn the entire mountain rather than a few grains of sand. Explicitly linking the evolution of life with the evolution of the non-living universe greatly increases the size of that mountain.

Finally, much of my confidence in promoting an expanded definition of evolution comes from such luminaries as biologist E. O. Wilson (6), who made this argument long before I did. I recently received additional assurance when I ran into my friend Eugenie Scott, Executive Director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE; the leading organization promoting). Arguably more than anyone else in the country, Genie and the NCSE are on the frontlines fighting to keep the teaching of biological evolution in the science classroom (and creationism out). When I asked for her view on the matter, Genie responded in wholehearted agreement with me, adding that she too defines evolution as “the history of the universe.”

So let’s feel free to refer to our cosmic story as “the epic of evolution,” and then recognize biological evolution as a subset of this grand narrative (7). At present, the general public is effectively illiterate with regard to both, a dire situation that, as argued last week, deserves immediate and widespread attention.

References and Suggested Sources
1) To give just one example, check out a terrific talk by one of these workers, Eric Smith (http://fora.tv/2007/04/18/Inevitable_Life).

2) Wade, N. Researchers say the created a “Synthetic Cell.” New York Times, May 20, 2010. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/21/science/21cell.html).

3) Margulis, L. 1998. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Sciencewriters, Amherst.

4) Smolin, L. 1997. Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

5) Lee Smolin Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Smolin

6) Wilson, Edward O. 1978. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. Pp. 206-207.
7) For additional reading on this topic, I recommend:
- Cosmic Evolution Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_evolution

- Epic of Evolution website: http://epicofevolution.com/celebrate.html

- Chaisson, E. 2006. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos

All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/