Studying the History of Life on Earth Keeps This Paleontologist Optimistic

Smithsonian scientist Nick Pyenson explains how taking an interest in natural history can help us understand our future

Studying the history of life on Earth, as paleontologist Nick Pyenson does, instills a certain level on optimism in a person. Once you realize the seemingly “outlandish” events that living things have overcome, he says, it’s hard to remain cynical.

“We are going to figure it out. We’ve been adaptable for our entire history. We’ve figured these things out before,” he told Troy Carter, founder and CEO of Atom Factory, at “The Long Conversation,” an event that brought together more than two dozen thinkers for an eight-hour relay of two-person dialogues at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on December 7, 2018.

If you go back far enough in time, most life on Earth was hanging out in the oceans. Logically so, Pyenson’s main hat is curating the marine mammal fossils at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. When he does his field work, he can’t help but think about a researcher a century from now coming across his field notes in an archives. At the very least, he hopes that when this future scientist sees the results of his activities, they “don’t curse [his] name.”

“Sometimes I’ll do that about my predecessors, but for the most, part I don’t,” he says. “I think that what they did probably was the right thing in the context of their times and the legacy they left is part of our story. And it’s a part of our story that’s worth protecting and sharing.”

Pyenson might be biased, but be firmly believes—especially considering the dialogue our society is engaging right now in regarding fact, he notes—museums are essential tools for seeing the big picture.

“It’s a way for us to know in a visceral, tactile, visual way, what we should care about in our history, to understand where we’re going,” he said.

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