Look out your window. Can you see the tree growing there, or the squirrel hopping amongst its branches? Perhaps you see a small flowering bush, with a humble bumblebee buzzing about its blooms. Maybe it's night-time where you are, and you can't see very much. But open up your window and listen; can you hear the crickets chirping, or maybe the raccoon rummaging through your refuse?
How do you think of these creatures? Are they a part of your community? Neighbors? Friends?
Or are they things? Resources? Pests?
If your honest answer is the first set of sentences rather than the second, you are a member of a rather small minority of the human race. Most of us -- and not just in "the West" -- see the natural world as a mere collection of resources. Of objects, not subjects. Perhaps it's been this way since the beginning of our species. But that doesn't mean it has to keep being that way. And in this critical historical turning point, it just may have to stop being that way.
Some people take a cyncial view of global warming, species extinction, health epidemics, and the myriad other threats facing not only our species, but most others, as well. The challenges seem so overwhelming that it's easy to feel powerless and write the world off in a display of negative thinking. Cynicism is ultimately borne of despair.
But, one thing we understand from studying evolution is that change is not only possible, but inevitable. And contrary to what many people think they know about evolution, the change doesn't always have to be gradual. Sometimes, when survival pressures converge in just the right way, a species changes by leaps and bounds, emerging from the struggle reborn and remade.
This is why paleontology matters. For it gives us not merely a collection of dry facts about fossils, but a sense of time to enlighten our sense of place. It tells us where our present ecology came from, not just what it is. The world goes from being a collection of parts, to a series of subplots in the great epic of existence. And it shows us that even lowly animals like ourselves can change the whole world. We know this, because "lesser" species than us have done so.
The appearance of photosynthetic cyanobacteria 2.4 billion years ago released so much free oxygen into the atmosphere that it very nearly caused the total extinction of anaerobic life, which today subsists only in deep-ocean hot spots, "black smokers," and other places we consider downright hellish. Oxygen was given another kick-start 434 million years ago when plants evolved and began their conquest of the land; thanks to them, open fire is possible in our atmosphere.
And without fire...
The human race has thus not grappled with the full implications of evolution. We acknowledge it as a series of facts, but draw little meaning from it. And thus, it becomes, for many, a dry recitation of species names and trivia questions.
But stand back, and take in the big picture. We know from fossil morphology and genetic study alike that the lines between our species and any other -- even that tree outside your window -- is not nearly so great as we once flattered ourselves in thinking it was. We are, each of us, part of one grand community stretching back through deep time, to the earliest depths of the Archaean nearly 4.0 billion years ago, when the first life emerged on our planet.
Paleontology constructs and illuminates a narrative about our kinship across deep time with all other life forms. It empirically demonstrates our interdependence. Once we understand how little separates us from the chimps and other primates, or even from that tree outside our window, or from the trillions of bacteria who've made a colony of our bodies (far outnumbering our own cells), we are made to confront our treatment of them. To see them as potential neighbors, friends, fellow-travelers deserving of respect and compassion. How can we cage chimps for our amusement once we have this understanding? How can we enslave and fatten cows for food, depriving them of their nature by force? Would we do this to our cousin, or our neighbor, even if we didn't like them? Especially when there was no need for us to do so?
Evolution shows us that change is not only possible, but unstoppable. And that is good news for us, because it means it's not too late. We can make evolution and paleontology the core of a new curriculum, a multi-disciplinary organizing principle that cuts across not merely the physical sciences, but the fields of literature, ethics, and philosophy, as well. That inculcates new myths born from 21st Century knowledge; new narratives of history rooted in what we actually know, and not in what we wish were true; stories to teach us that we are citizens of nature, not its masters.
Starting this project now, while we still can, may seem hard. Many are the eco-education programs out there, looking for a "hook" on which to hang their approach, a hook that can engage the most important learners in the world -- children. For they are the future, not just tomorrow, but right now. We adults may be too set in our ways to make a profound change in consciousness. But not kids. They still have fairly open minds, and a hunger for continuous learning.
And... they love dinosaurs.
That, fundamentally, is why paleontology matters. It's the bedrock for getting kids to listen to the story of life's amazing panorama across billions of years, of our place in it, and of our responsibility for it. Paleontology is learning to read the autobiography of life, in its native language, and listening with humility to its lessons, forged from 4 billion years of struggle and renewal.
If we are to forge a new, sustainable destiny for our species and all the others, we must begin to make change happen now. And not just on the outside, with new technologies and new policies, though those things are absolutely indispensable to us; but on the inside, too, where our sense of place and self and time fundamentally informs the way we see and treat other species and the earth.
When we study paleontology, we are forced to stand humble before life, and recognize our kinship across deep time with even the "lowliest" of bacteria. That can be the foundation of a new paradigm that could very possibly save the world, if not in our lifetimes, then within those of our children.
What better reason, then, to dig dinosaurs? And synapsids and mammals and plants and...