Academy paleontologist Ted Daeschler was a featured speaker at the Philadelphia March for Science on April 22. Below are Ted’s full remarks.
Good afternoon. It is a great honor to here with each of you for this wonderful celebration of science, and to discuss the immense impact that science has on the human condition.
My name is Ted Daeschler. I am a paleontologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences and a Professor of Geosciences at Drexel University.
I study the earth and life on earth within a particularly long, evolutionary timeframe. In that context, mankind is a very recent player in a very long story. We are, certainly unique animals – bipedal primates with large brains and dexterous hands, with a capacity to reflect on and synthesize information about our world.
But my interests lie deeper down the tree of life – beyond the origin of the primate body plan, beyond the origin of mammalian endothermy and reproductive strategy, beyond the branching point in the tree where mammals and reptiles share a common ancestor, to the beginnings of the evolutionary lineage of all limbed animals ….. Yes, the iconic “fish” coming out of the water….. Your inner fish!
Research into evolutionary history makes sense of biodiversity and places us within the beautifully complex tree of life. This knowledge has innumerable applications for medicine (things like genetics, anatomy, physiology, and developmental biology). Evolutionary history documents how life has interacted with changing environments informing issues of sustainability and adaptation, conservation, and even philosophy.
An evolutionary perspective also demonstrates that we are threads in the tapestry of life on earth – interconnected to the complex ecological interactions of all life on this verdant planet.
Scientific inquiries into the patterns and processes of biological change, ecological change and geological change are especially relevant to sustaining living conditions for mankind, and all life. It is clearly in our own self-interest to maintain the diversity of life that underpins the planet’s ecosystems and supports us in so many ways.
These fundamental truths (derived from scientific inquiry of our connections in the tree of life and our co-evolutionary history with life-sustaining earth systems) comes with a relatively small public investment in science and education, but, I would argue, brings foundational knowledge and perspectives for shaping the quality of the human condition.
I get to do my science at field sites across the world and within the walls of the Academy of Natural Sciences at 19th and the Parkway. The Academy is a library of life and laboratory of environmental change built during more than 200 years of enlightened science focused on exploration, description and preservation of the natural world.
I am fortunate to work in such an esteemed institution in a remarkable city for science. Just outside my office are two gleaming white cabinets with Thomas Jefferson’s Fossil Collection. Among his many interests, Jefferson sought to document the variety of life in North America, even from the unusual fossil remains of animals that no one had ever seen alive.
Jefferson’s political rivals belittled his interest in scientific inquiry of these prehistoric remains. To those critics Jefferson answered as follows:
“Of all the criticisms brought against me by my political adversaries, that of possessing some science has probably done them the least credit.
Our countrymen are too enlightened themselves to believe that ignorance is the best qualification for their service.”
“Ignorance” is this context seems to be the inability or unwillingness to hear evidence-based inquiry that can inform issues of the day.
Did Thomas Jefferson have more confidence in his fellow citizens to recognize the importance of science than we have today? Although I believe most people today would acknowledge the importance of science, they, and many scientists, may not concede that science has a social and political component. As much as we want to believe that the value of science is self-evident, it seems we cannot take that for granted!
To encourage better understanding, all of us need to communicate our science and its impact to our fellow citizens. No ivory towers ….. we need to get out into the classrooms, town halls and corridors of democracy to join public debate and inform others about the impacts of our work.
To conclude, the most important thing to me about science is the perspective it brings that we are part of something so much larger than human society. Science connects us to the earth and life on earth in profound ways. As such, science is critical for understanding the past, managing the present, and ensuring a healthy future for all.