Monday, February 7, 2011

What Every One Should Know About Paleontology

After a question was posed on the Dinosaur Mailing List regarding the basic information the general public needs to know about paleontology, Dr. Tom Holtz replied with a comprehensive breakdown of what the science has taught us about the history of life on Earth. It has been cross posted on other blogs today, including Superoceras, Archosaur Musings, and SV-POW (UPDATED: Project Drypto, Crurotarsi, RMDRC Paleo Lab, too). Please be sure to click on the link of your choice to read the entirety of Dr. Holtz's piece. I'm not going to include it all here, but I would like to share my perspective on the subject.

When Dr. Holtz's email came through, I was working on a design project on my sofa, facing the south window of our living room. The window looks out on a small dogwood tree that holds a bird feeder - one of the those long tubes full of nyjer thistle seed. A suet cage is sequestered on a shepherd's hook, necessary to keep the squirrels from hogging the scrumptious blocks of fat-encased seeds all for themselves. Naturally, once Dr. Holtz reached the Mesozoic era, covered the evolution of dinosaurs, mammals, and flowering plants. It was impossible not to notice the resonance of the email with what I was watching: all players in the scene before me were members of lineages who began in the Mesozoic. Finch, squirrel, and dogwood: all important parts of the little ecosystem of my yard, all reminders of a heritage stretching back tens of millions of years or more.

Charles Darwin didn't invent the idea of evolution. But his mechanisms of natural and sexual selection were what forced us as a species to take an honest look at our place in nature. It hasn't been an easy understanding to grapple with - we're still arguing over it, after all. Though the opponents of evolutionary education grasp at more and more desperate ways to undermine it, the evidence has piled up to the extent that the absurdity of their arguments is plain to any reasonable person. I'm like plenty of other people: I whine and moan at the state of science education in my home country. The fact that emotion can persuade so much more easily than logical arguments can be discouraging. But the fact is that the scientific story of life on Earth can create an emotional connection, too. I've felt it. Others have felt it. And that's a hopeful thought.

Mr Darwin
Photo by Stu the Limey, via Flickr.

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