Digging for Insight: On Paleontology and Lifelong Learning

by Chris Berger

Three things never fail to snag a kid’s attention: the huge, the weird, and the mysterious. It’s no wonder then that dinosaurs have occupied a special place in children’s imaginations for as long as they’ve been known to science.  And it’s equally obvious why dinosaurs so often serve as budding young minds’ gateway into the life of discovery.  

One of my favourite stories of how this fascination helped inform a life goal comes from one of my childhood idols, Dr. Philip J. Currie.  Over the summer I attended a talk at which Currie was a keynote speaker. He told the story of how, as a boy, reading the books of adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews and finding dinosaur toys in his cereal boxes led him to decide on a career digging up dinosaurs in the Alberta badlands.  Sure enough, decades later, he’s at the top of his field and world-renowned for his groundbreaking contributions to the fields of paleontology and dinosaur paleobiology – accomplishments that have landed him in the Canada Research Chair in Paleobiology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. One striking thing about hearing Currie speak, however, is how little the prestige in the paleontological community seems to matter to him – they pale next to his palpable energy as he explains what he finds so exciting and important about what he dedicates his energies to.

Ever since I was a kid myself, Currie’s passion not just for dinosaurs but for the thrill of discovery served as a lifeline of energy and inspiration for my own love of lifelong learning.  But if you know me, you’ll know that I didn’t end up a paleontologist. I didn’t even study the natural sciences (or, if you prefer, the so-called “hard” sciences) in university. I’m an Arts graduate – political science, to be exact, with a philosophical and literary slant. I know we all like to sing the praises of interdisciplinary studies, but I recognize that I have some explaining to do on this one – the connection isn’t exactly self-evident.

If you’re a kid (or adult) who likes dinosaurs, living in Edmonton is a remarkable stroke of luck.  We’re just three hours from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, and four from Dinosaur Provincial Park – veritable Meccas for researchers of Late Cretaceous fossils. (And as lucky as I thought I was, kids today also have the new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Grande Prairie, showcasing the fossil finds of Pipestone Creek and the Peace Region.) As I was entering kindergarten, it was my family’s weekend road trips around the province that introduced me to Alberta’s fossil treasures and, with it, an entire imagination’s worth of fantastic worlds lost to time. This, combined with my elementary school’s library and its selection of dinosaur books, introduced me to the joys of reading. The knowledge that my hero, Dr. Currie, worked in my hometown studying wonders right below the ground I walked on daily, helped too.

From that point, there was no stopping me; I devoured every book I could find on the topic, quickly propelling myself well beyond my grade level. (I was living proof that a kid, when given the opportunity and something he’s interested in, can rise to the challenge.) Inevitably, this non-stop exposure to books fueled my inquisitiveness as I branched into other genres and areas of knowledge. Eventually, literature itself became a focal point of my interests, and with it the “human question” and its trappings – politics, philosophy, art, and so on. Yet despite my ostensible reorientation around the humanities, an enthusiasm for paleontology stuck with me, and still persists as a twenty-something.

Having recently transitioned away from an all-consuming political job and into something more, shall we say, stable and humane, the opportunity to re-engage in non-job-related interests led me to a world-class hub of research in our own backyard.  Edmonton gets a lot of recognition for chemical and environmental engineering and medical research, and for good reason.  But those who extract fossils of extinct organisms from rocks toil in relative anonymity – Dr. Allan Grant’s perpetual funding dilemmas in Jurassic Park are rooted in unfortunate real-life struggles.  In this we only do ourselves a disservice; we overlook under our noses a field with much of intrinsic, enduring value to teach us. What is more, a bastion of its innovation is to be found at our own University of Alberta.  This is what I re-discovered firsthand at Dino Lab, the volunteer-friendly community run out of the Biological Sciences building.

This is a community I myself hadn’t been savvy to until this past year, and considering my proclivities, that’s saying something.  Run by a corps of paleontology grad students and eager volunteers of diverse backgrounds, Dino Lab works weekdays and evenings to extract the valuable remains of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals from their matrices (the “matrix” is the rock encasing the fossil specimens).  For a dinosaur enthusiast, perusing the identifying labels for each specimen is tantalizing on its own; they’re recovered from locales as exotic as the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, to more familiar spots such as the Dinosaur Park and Horseshoe Canyon formations closer to home. In fact, fossils in the latter formation have been recovered from the Danek bonebed, found within the Edmonton city limits near Twin Brooks.

But it’s the meticulous work of nursing a specimen with dental pick, toothbrush, and (highly potent) glue that revealed to me an insight into the value of paleontology beyond the lab.  It also highlighted the inherent kinship between this oft-overlooked discipline and my own in the liberal arts.   The liberal arts are called such because, of course, they culminate in a liberal education, an education that equips its participant for a liberated life. A person educated in this way can think independently, see the worth in self-cultivation, and find the noble and beautiful in things apart from the merely useful.  In my admittedly amateurish experience, paleontology is perfectly suited to preparing an individual for a life informed by such things.

By asking what paleontology is good for, and why money should be directed toward its study, one will be met with some not unfamiliar answers. It’s worth our while to know why species and ecosystems of the past are no longer around now. The ebb and flow and change of life on Earth, and the geological, climatological, and even cosmological forces that influence this perpetual flux are mysteries the answers to which can help us predict and even inform our own future as a society or as a species.  

This sounds similar in spirit to the more instrumental defenses of the liberal arts. It is important to understand how civilizations rise, fall, and evolve; how poets interpret and inspire ways of experiencing the world; how hubris makes and breaks the ambitious; how love inspires acts of profound self-sacrifice; and how the desire to ask probing questions comes into conflict with the political community. Grappling with such questions yields important insights into how we can or should think and act, now and in years to come.

This is all well and good, but it is something less grand in scale that strikes me as I scrape rock from bone and pick the brains of (very patient) graduate students in Dino Lab.  The very simple, almost instinctual pleasure is similar to that one gets in poring over the masterpieces of Shakespeare, Plato, or Michelangelo.  It’s the experience of focusing the mind on something beautiful and nuanced, a reflection of nature in which you can discern something of yourself.  There is no extrinsic reason for doing what you’re doing in that moment, nor need there be.  It’s the fruit of unassisted insight, no matter how seemingly small.  

In most cases in the liberal arts, it’s not usually the case that you’ve got Plato, or even a truly great interpreter of Plato, to ask for assistance. The difference in the case of the ceratopsian coracoid I worked on the other week is that I was in Dino Lab, on the University of Alberta campus, under the supervision of motivated and knowledgeable students and technicians, down the hall from world-class researchers. These are the people who have made the study of paleontology what it is today.

Take it from a liberal arts grad: one need not be a professional in the field in order to derive some benefit from the study of paleontology, namely a deepened understanding of our world and our place within it.  This, after all, is the essence of a liberal education. Whether one is a dinosaur enthusiast or a committed adherent to the life informed by liberal education (or both), a person is bound to find plenty to discover in one of the more unsung research institutions in our town.  Edmonton is a centre for investigating some of the most enigmatic mysteries of life on Earth – how lucky can we get?

Chris Berger | Education & Politics Editor

Illustration courtesy of Chris Berger


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