Scott Sampson is a Canadian paleontologist and science communicator who lives in Marin County, California. He is the on-air host of the PBS children’s series Dinosaur Train, and author of Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. Last month, he participated in a panel discussion at Yale University about Journey of the Universe, a new film, accompanied by a book, that celebrates the sweeping story of life from the Big Bang to today. We asked Scott four questions about the cultural importance of the universe story, and the central role it might play in children’s nature literacy. The film opens on Saturday in San Francisco.
It’s hard to think of another story as totally shared as the story of the universe. What’s important, culturally, about such a shared story?
Until very recently, virtually all cultures have been rooted to their native place by origin stories—or cosmologies—that provide explanations for the origin and ordering of the world around them. Although present-day indigenous people and most followers of religious traditions have a cosmology, the bulk of us living in Western industrial societies don’t. Of course, it’s not easy to grasp the notion that we are chunks of starstuff living on the side of a giant, spherical rock hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour! But it seems likely that the lack of both a story and a deep sense of time contribute to the dearth of meaning and purpose in our culture, with one result being the dysfunctional human/nature relationship at the heart of the sustainability crisis.
Much of your work, these days, calls for building a sense of shared cosmology into children’s educational curriculums. Why focus on children’s education?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the most pressing issue of our time is promoting nature literacy among children. If the eco-crisis, at its root, is the product of a dysfunctional worldview—one that perceives humans as outside and above nonhuman nature—then our efforts must be focused on children, who are still engaged in the process of constructing worldviews.
It’s good news, then, that a “schooling for sustainability” movement has emerged, with a strong emphasis on “ecoliteracy.” This stuff deserves to reside at the core of the academic curriculum. It’s still nascent, but the effort to learn from nature and to focus education on place and community is exciting and revolutionary. Programs like school gardens and local watershed reclamation projects promote understanding of, and passion for, local places.
But a sense of deep time and evolutionary history are still notably absent.
Yes, critical concepts inherent in the universe story are still absent from the ecoliteracy approach. I think the curricular core should be two-pronged, with cosmic evolution as a vibrant addition. In addition to communicating ecoliteracy’s horizontal connections, equal attention should be given to evolution literacy, or “evoliteracy”—the vertical, transformational context that roots us in deep time. Whereas ecoliteracy addresses how nature works at any given moment, evoliteracy informs us about how nature came to be. Combining the two yields “nature literacy”: an ability to read nature using both sensory experience and learned knowledge to guide our daily decisions. The universe story deserves to be told and retold, with appropriate increases in complexity, from childhood through adulthood.
Can the universe story connect us to our local places?
At first glance, cosmic evolution has little to do with place. But the universe story adds a wondrous narrative context to local place and the characters and experience that make the story alive, immediate, and engaging. A tree could tell of life learning to harness the sun’s energy; a fish within that creek could tell of the first backboned animals and their transition onto land; a bird is a flying dinosaur ready to convey the evolutionary story of reptiles; and a local indigenous tribe might tell of the birth of humans and their changing relationship to the land.
An astonishing and staggeringly beautiful account of our deep-time evolutionary history has emerged from within science over the past several decades. How can it be that we, who have access to by far the most rigorous and comprehensive story of the cosmos, do not use it to inform the arc of our lives?