Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Threads in deep time; reconnecting with who we are.

Scott Sampson, a dinosaur palaeontologist at Utah University is a man who thinks big. Very big in fact, as in his latest post over at his blog The Whirlpool of Life Scott discusses how we need to reconnect emotionally as well as intellectually with our place in the story of the evolution of not only life on our planet, but the evolution of the universe itself. He suggests we can each find our own thread that links us back to where we are and where we have come from in deep time and we can do this now, in the very locality we are at any one moment.

I picked up Scott's book Dinosaur Odyssey in Border's bookstore in Chicago last year, as Mrs Stu and I were on our way back to the UK after our week in the field in North Dakota and Montana. In the book, Scott uses dinosaurs as an example of how the flows of both information (evolution) and and energy ecology create into the web of life, how this web has changed from the almost unimaginable depths of deep time to the present day. The importance of food webs, the metabolism of dinosaurs and the role of technology is all discussed to illustrate this complex, remarkable and fascinating subject. It's a holistic view of dinosaur evolution and does of course, have real relevance for us as a species as the book demonstrates; it's also beautifully illustrated.

Scott's book struck a real chord with me because it was close to a subject I had been thinking about for a long time. Many years ago I was reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and (I've lost the book so this is a paraphrase) one passage really made an impression. Sagan suggests that if at the very least we are nothing more that biological machines, if our thoughts, memories and characters are nothing more than the firing of synapses and release of signalling proteins in the brain and if consciousness itself is explicable and ultimately quantifiable the at the very least we are the universe made conscious. We are the universe recognising itself and contemplating it's true nature (I think the great philosopher Alan Watts first suggested this idea but that quote eludes me too - sorry). This deeply profound insight has been with me ever since I came across it in Sagan's book.

See them galaxies? That's you, that is.
Interacting Galaxy Pair Arp 87. Image: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

To my mind the Sagan/Watts view provides answers to many questions. Firstly, it provides the basis for a firm moral framework that religions suggest atheist philosophy lacks, namely that every human life is unimaginably precious as it is the universe itself and this is such a profound fact that to cause intentional suffering to our fellow humans is a transgression from the natural order.

Next, if you take away this anthropocentric bias and apply this to all living things existing in their various states of consciousness, then we soon realise how precious and valuable everything that shares our planet with us is. The web of life Scott so brilliantly illustrates in his book is a part of us and we are a part of it, which is exactly what Scott suggests in his blog.

Like Scott Sampson I'm of the opinion we can and should reconnect emotionally with our sense of being and our sense of belonging in the natural order; concepts which science allows us to explore, give context to and perhaps one day understand fully. I think we all have that sense of something larger than us is at work in the universe; some people think it might be a creator or a supreme being (or several) and religion is a product of that recognition but for those of us for whom religion doesn't provide the answer how can we address this feeling? In it's search for truth science understands already that we are indeed part of something larger than us that we recognise through intuition and emotional connection as well as through intellectual inquiry. Books and blogs like Scott's and the work of other scientists and philosophers can give us a glimpse of the awe we feel when confronted with the grandeur and majesty of the natural world - from pulsars to protists, nebulae to nudibranchs, superstrings to sauropods.

A long-lost relative in the Lower Lias of North Yorkshire, UK.

But wait! This is a paleo art blog is it not? Well the arts are themselves an expression of our sense of being. The visual arts (such as paleo art) are as much a part of this broad and wonderful outpouring of human consciousness and creativity as anything else. As I argued in a previous post, it is desirable that some paleo art should transcend simply scientific representation and strive to express the essence of the life we are depicting, simply because we can. We are so connected to our subject (in our case palaeontology and ancient life) that we should allow ourselves to connect emotionally with what we are illustrating and in fact it might be essential to a degree; a part of our nature we cannot and should not suppress to much. My day job consists of depicting the internal mechanisms of the human body down to molecular level and this often requires a high degree of scientific accuracy, but it also leaves some room for creative licence within any given rationale (even the most utterly straight representation of data will require some interpretation by the artist). This is what I will be striving for on my journey into the art of palaeontology, my way of connecting with what Stephen J. Gould called "the old ones".

The Celts of these islands had a particular reverence for certain spots in the landscape such as springs, wells, rocks and trees and they believed (and many still do) these were inhabited by spirits particular to that specific location; the roman invaders called these spirits genius loci, the spirit of place. As Scott so eloquently argues, it is by discovering our own genius loci we can, through science and art reconnect with our own story and pick up our own very personal thread in the web of life and the universe.


  1. Wonderful stuff. I can't get enough of it! I endlessly rewatch Cosmos, and always look forward to Sampson's posts.

    And I LOVE that term: "The Old Ones." Wow. SJG could turn a phrase.

  2. Well, it's even better than that ;-) I took the quote from the last line of SJG's brilliant book 'Wonderful Life' about the Burgess Shale and what it teaches us about the evolution of life on Earth. Talking about the critters of the Burgess Shale, Gould finishes with the line:

    "They are grubby little creatures of a sea floor 530 million years old, but we greet them with awe because they are the Old Ones, and they are trying to tell us something."

    The second I read this it confirmed my opinion I'd chosen the wrong career a long time ago . . . I'd felt like that about every fossil I'd ever picked up or seen in a museum.