Dinosaurs in your garden: An interview with Lizzie Coyle

Archaeopteryx_fossil
Archaeopteryx fossil By James L. Amos (National Geographic Society) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you have the chance to explore science and religion when you were younger? A safe place to explore new ideas and questions between subject boundaries? Today we hear (transcript below) from someone who works to create and encourage such a space – introducing Lizzie Coyle and her travelling bag of fossils.

Today I am excited to talk to Lizzie Coyle, evolutionary biologist and the youth and schools outreach officer for the Faraday Institute for Science and ReligionAmong many other things Lizzie is the Institute’s go-to girl for all things fossilized. Can I start with a personal question? What first got you so excited about studying animals that are now extinct?

Lizzie Little
© Lizzie Coyle

Oh, you make it sound so interesting. Do you know, I don’t really know. I know that’s a terrible answer. I just really have always been fascinated. So when I was a kid, around two or three years old, learning to talk, you know you have conversations about what you want to be when you grow up. I remember having this conversation one time. My best friend wanted to be a housefly and my sister, who is 3 years older, wanted to be a lamppost. I announced to the world that I wanted to be a geologist. Nobody is quite sure where it came from. I was always fascinated by the living world – trees and bugs and animals and stuff, but rocks and shells as well. My mum in particular encouraged that. She was very into biology and the natural world, and we would go out collecting shells, caterpillars, bits of rocks and stuff. It just grew from there, I think.

As part of your educational role at the Institute you and your travelling fossil collection conduct hands on science workshops talking about evolutionary history. What sort of audiences do you talk to and what’s the aim for these sessions?

Big Bang 1
© God and the Big Bang

I talk to any audience, really, anybody who wants us. Within the schools work anybody from about the age of three up to, generally, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen. We have lots of staff in as well, so I talk to them, have done some staff training sessions and occasionally they let me loose talking to groups of adults as well. We have a lot of fun in schools because you get so many great questions.

Really the point of them is to provide an opportunity for young people to think about questions they don’t normally get the chance to. In school everything is divided up into subjects and they’re often quite focussed on getting through an exam at the end of the year. You have particular sort of topics you have to cover and everything’s very geared towards ‘these are the questions you are going to be asked and you know, that’s what we have to get through’. And that means that different subjects can become quite boxed off from each other. Science is taught in one way.  This is the way we learn about the world. Here are the facts. And then you walk out of that room, walk into another room, and suddenly you’re doing RE or learning about Christianity, Islam or all these kind of things, and they never really get the chance to interact.

So what happens when I go in to schools is that we learn about evolutionary history or some other sort of topic on the science-faith boundary and we give young people a chance to think about the interactions of different ways of thinking. They think about what kinds of questions they have and ask those questions, for example, does the bible says anything about dinosaurs, what do we think about science and religion interacting at all, what do we do with evolutionary science and what the bible and other religions seem to say about creation? Once you start off with those kinds of questions, questions about everything come out of the woodwork and it’s a really good chance to just help people explore the boundaries of the traditional areas of study.

 

You speak to a wide variety of audiences, also adults as you mentioned, but generally, and I know it’s hard to generalise, what’s the response like and which part of the workshop, or the new knowledge, seems to most grab people’s curiosity or their wonder?

The response is generally really good. People are generally very enthusiastic, very positive and they tend to like learning things they didn’t know before. Obviously audiences do vary a huge amount – so particularly, with questions like evolution, you’ll have some audiences from particular faith backgrounds who are a little bit nervous about approaching that topic. Lots of people of all ages have questions that come from a place of ‘I feel like I should be uncomfortable with the topic of evolution and I’m not quite sure what to think about it.’ So actually getting to discuss those kind of questions with them in a very open way, getting to try and create a space where they feel comfortable to ask those questions is really good – it’s a real privilege to be able to create that and have those conversations with people.

So part of what I talk about is the enormous great long history of life on earth before humans turned up. You have activities like, if you stretch your arms out to the side of you nice and wide and that’s the scale we’re working on for the history of earth, then humanity’s history can be wiped out with one swipe of a nail file. You’ve got this enormous great long history of life on earth that we would have no idea about if it weren’t for the fossil record. So you start to explore that a bit, show people a few examples of the kind of things that have been alive on earth and you show them that on that scale dinosaurs only turned up at the base of your middle finger, right on that hand at the end. There’s this huge swathe of life before that which we can start to explore and think about – not just what they looked like but how these things interacted. Think about how complicated our ecosystem is today. That’s been changing and growing and interacting with itself and with everything else for millions, hundreds of millions, of years. You start to see people’s minds open up to this and a sense of awe, wonder and curiosity that’s really tied up in recognising the scale of life on earth is something that often impacts people.

 

You know, the part of your presentation which really surprised and stuck with me was the quiz you did – dinosaur or not-dinosaur. Put up your hands if you think the animal on the screen is a dinosaur or not a dinosaur. I am yet to get 100% which slightly upsets me.

The 5 year olds are really good at that one, just so you know.

 

I’m sure they outshine me! So, I’m going to pick your brains. Can we look at the one or two examples people most get wrong? So, birds. Help me out with birds.

So birds are a really fun one to bring up in this quiz because, obviously, a lot of people see birds around today, all the different kinds of birds, and most people think that since dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, birds can’t be dinosaurs. Actually, according to the way we understand evolutionary biology, birds are dinosaurs because if we trace the bird family tree all the way back to the beginning of what we would call a bird (something that has the characteristics of a bird), it comes straight out of the middle of the dinosaurs. There’s a group called the theropod dinosaurs that includes things like T-rex and velociraptor and all those kind of big, scary, meat-eating dinosaurs and the birds descended directly from a group of those.

 

This ties a little into my next one. Birds aren’t in any way kind of coming from the pterodactyls which look similar to birds are they? Pterodactyls are not in the dinosaur camp, am I right?

Pterodactyls are not dinosaurs.

Great, why?

So, pterodactyls are part of a wider group called the pterosaurs, which are the big sort of flying flappy things which, although they look a little bit like birds in that they fly, are really not related at all. If you think about a family tree, you have close family grouped together on branches that are very close to each other and then you have some branches a bit further away which might be people like cousins or second cousins, that kind of idea. We do the same thing with evolutionary history, just on a slightly larger scale. If we think about the dinosaurs as one family, the pterodactyls are kind of cousins, a little bit further away, a little bit more distant. They were an entire group of animals, like the dinosaurs were an entire group of animals. They lived alongside lots of the dinosaurs for a long time. They were around for a couple hundred million years, loads of different types of them, lots of different strategies and approaches to doing life, but not strictly speaking dinosaurs.

 

Great. And then finally, crocodiles.

Yes, crocodiles are another one that people start to get a little bit thoughtful about. Once you introduce the idea that maybe dinosaurs might still be around today and then tell them that crocodiles have been around about 200 million years they think ‘ah, they look a little bit dinosaur-y and scaly you know, hmm, maybe’. But actually crocodiles are not dinosaurs. Similarly to the pterodactyls and the pterosaurs they are sort of cousins. They have been around a very long time in a very similar kind of body plan (this is crocodilians, which includes crocodiles, alligators, caymans, all of those) but are not dinosaurs.

 

OK, here’s to me getting 100% next time. As an evolutionary biologist and a Christian you present a harmonious picture of science and faith in your own life, do these workshops, the dinosaurs, the evolutionary themes, encourage people to think about those questions beyond science?

They definitely encourage people to think beyond scientific questions. They vary slightly depending on where I am, what I’m doing and who I’m presenting to as they’re always slightly tailored to the different audience. In some cases all I will do is turn up and say ‘Hi, I’m Lizzie, I’m here to talk about fossils, by the way I’m a Christian’ and that’s the only religious content in a sense. Often that is all it takes for people to go ‘Oh, that’s different’. So many people have this idea that Christians don’t believe in evolution and so to have somebody there who openly says they’re a Christian and then explains the process of evolution to them, I always get questions about how that works. The reason I ended up doing this was because I got so many questions from people, you know, ‘How can you be a scientist and a Christian?’, ‘How can you study evolution and believe what the bible says is true?’ So very often these sessions go into a lot more detail on that as well.

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Genesis by Erik Schepers. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The description and understanding of evolutionary biology forms part of a much wider picture which looks at what kind of questions science asks and answers. These questions we ask in evolutionary biology are very much questions of mechanism – how the world works, how all these things come to be the way they are, what developmental processes occurred, what is related to what, where does it fit in the tree of life, that kind of thing. And through exploring that you say, OK, well what does that really tell us about our origins, what do we want to know about our identity, who we are, where we come from? Students and people will often offer up questions like ‘What’s the point of life?’, ‘Why are we here?’, ‘Where do we come from?’ So we go through the evolutionary explanation and then we go, ok, well what has that told us? Essentially it tells us our family tree, but does it really start to answer those questions of who are we, why are we here, why are we asking these questions? Then you get to look at lots of other kinds of questioning. Science is one very specific type of questioning about the world, but there are so many other types of questioning that interact with science and lead on to different types of thinking – one of which is looking at religious questions. So, yes, they really often go a lot broader and help people to explore those much wider, deeper questions as well.

For more from Lizzie on what fossils can teach us about God, visit her Science and Belief blog article: Fossils: A Window onto God’s Creation.

 

imageLizzie Coyle is the Youth and Schools Outreach Officer and Children’s Media Project Coordinator at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. She holds a degree from Cambridge University in Evolutionary and Behavioural Biology, Geology and the History and Philosophy of Science. Lizzie is passionate about the communication and public understanding of the interactions of science and faith and regularly participates in formal and informal discussion of the science and faith dialogue. She has worked with children and young people for many years and regularly provides lessons, workshops and talks on science and faith for children, young people and students.

5 thoughts on “Dinosaurs in your garden: An interview with Lizzie Coyle

  1. Michala August 11, 2016 / 12:02 pm

    Yes critical thinking should be encouraged.
    54% of Britons would like to see creation taught with evolution in schools.See 2009 poll The Guardian.
    The strengths & weaknesses of evolution should be addressed using peer reviewed papers from.Behe which illustrates the limitations of the Darwinian mechanism.
    This article is rather a rose coloured version of theistic evolution for children.
    For example, it is only inferred that theropods evolved into modern birds.there is no DNA link or single/certain common ancestor in the fossil record.this pattern emerges again with tikalik ( end of line then gap) it is inferred not proven that fishapods evolved into tetrapods. In fact they have discovered a tetrapod in earlier strata so it could have evolved separately.
    In summary, speciation should be taught as fact & macro evolution should be taught with other theories because it is historical evidence open to interpretation. This is called Academic Freedom.

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  2. Michael Panao August 17, 2016 / 6:13 pm

    Interesting interview. Science and Faith is also one of my favorite topics. Reading your interview, I though that one of the essential elements for having evolution – correct me if I’m wrong – is that species die, making suffering and death part of the evolutionary process. When you look deeper into the “ugly” aspects in the world’s evolution, how do you interpret the presence of God?

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    • jono113 August 18, 2016 / 5:49 pm

      Everything happens according to the laws of nature. All living beings come into existence, flourish and die according to those laws. Death is not an “ugly” aspect of anything; it simply is. God made the laws of nature and living and dying is part of those laws.

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    • Lizzie Coyle August 22, 2016 / 11:24 am

      Dear Michael,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you found the interview interesting.

      Thank you also for your question. It’s a very important one that is often considered in discussion about evolution and, as with so many such questions, it is much bigger and deeper than it might initially appear! The following points address what I believe to be the main aspects of the question and the suggested reading included below should provide some extra information and food-for-thought regarding this interesting area of questioning.

      1) Evolution involves death.
      It is, of course, true that the evolutionary process involves death. However, what we often miss when exploring this question is that our biological system involves death regardless of what we think about evolution. Living things die. Unless you posit eternal lifespans of a small number of inorganically-fed, non-reproducing creatures then any understanding of the Earth’s biological system necessarily involves death. What’s more, our biological system relies on death: almost all living things rely on other living things for their food; nutrient cycling though the soil, air and oceans relies directly on the death and decomposition of living things; most living things are primarily geared towards reproduction which, without death, would quickly lead to the earth being overrun. Without death, reproduction and birth would be irrelevant, unnecessary and widely problematic! In addition, developmental cycles including birth and growth are governed and determined by processes such as programmed cell death. For all living things on earth, death shapes us, allows us to grow and keeps us healthy until we too become part of the natural cycle of life and death. Death is a natural and necessary aspect of the biological system we observe. Evolutionary theory is not, therefore, more death-filled than any other concept of life’s development. The difference with evolutionary theory is that it provides a description of the apparent mechanism for change and development throughout the cycles of birth and death which form natural elements of our biological system. As described in my above interview, I am captivated by the complex, intertwined processes of evolution and the diversity they produce. To me, they speak of incredible creativity.

      2) Death before ‘the fall’?
      In response to the above, many people would say, “Yes, of course, death is a part of the system today but has it always been that way?” There is a common school of thought (informed by a ‘literal historical’ interpretation of Genesis 1-11) which holds that God initially created the world without death, that he created individual living things, including humanity, which were not subject to death until ‘the fall’, a point in time at which humans made a choice to disobey God thereby incurring the consequences – death for all living things. In contrast to this, the view that evolution describes God’s method of creation requires that the cycles of life and death have been an inherent part of God’s creation since the beginnings of life on Earth. There are many, fascinating points to explore in this area, some of which are covered in the suggested reading below. For the sake of space, I will limit my answer here to two brief points.

      a. Firstly, one cannot overestimate the importance of thoughtful, robust and wise Biblical interpretation regarding these questions. The Bible describes creation and God as creator in so many different places and styles that I think it is necessary to take a whole-Bible approach to understanding what we can of the Biblical writers’ intentions regarding God’s creation. It is essential to explore and do our best to interpret the original context, literary style and intention of each passage. Who were they written by? Who were they written for? What message were they trying to convey? Having spent some time exploring Biblical creation literature, I have come to the conclusion that the early chapters of Genesis are not intended to convey historical or scientific descriptions but story-driven, poetic, theological essays describing a radically different God to contrast with other civilisations’ ideas of the time. I believe this, therefore, leaves us free to explore what God’s natural world reveals to us of the processes through which it works and has been formed.

      b. Secondly, there are a number of problems with a concept of the existence of anything resembling our biological system without death. As I mentioned earlier, all living things are geared towards eating and reproduction. Without death, nothing could eat and reproduction would quickly get out of hand! The creation accounts described in Genesis even refer to God instructing Adam and Eve to both eat and ‘go forth and multiply’. Even if we posit a distinction between plant and animal life (perhaps all the animals were vegetarian?) we run into a number of difficulties explaining the teeth, claws, musculature and digestive systems of animals such as lions and bears which, today, are clearly carnivorous. Essentially, a biological system without death would look entirely different from the one we know today, requiring a complete overhaul at the ‘fall’ which is not reflected in the Genesis texts. On top of all of these problems, we encounter countless more when we begin to consider the fossil record and the extremely solid evidence for the long timescales involved in the development of life on Earth well before humanity came on the scene. Of course there are countless more questions to explore regarding the development of humanity and the precise nature of ‘the fall’. I don’t have the space to explore these here but I highly recommend taking a look at some of the recommended reading below on the subject.

      3) Suffering?
      The third aspect of your question which I’d like to pick up concerns the question of suffering. Again there are a vast number of related questions here: What is suffering? Can non-humans suffer? Why do some people appear to suffer more than others? Why would God allow suffering in the world today? If ‘the fall’ was an historic event, was there suffering beforehand? I don’t have the space to explore all of these now but I think that these are all very important questions to take seriously when considering God and his relationship with his creation, including humanity. Many people try to cite the presence of suffering in the world as some kind of evidence for the introduction of death at a historical ‘fall’. However, all of the problems with that interpretation still stand and, for many reasons, I don’t find it a convincing explanation for the existence of suffering. In short, I consider it very important to recognise that (regardless of our opinions about God’s method of creation or the precise nature of ‘the fall’) we currently live in a world in which God’s ideal standard is not met but that the message of Christianity is that there is hope within God’s grace and sovereignty. The precise details of God’s relationship with his creation and what its redemption might look like are some of the greatest mysteries I have encountered. I don’t know whether a bacterium or a sardine suffers. I don’t know why some people die from cancer as children and others live into their hundreds. No interpretation of how God created the world we live in can provide answers to these questions. They may well remain as mysteries. But they do provide the opportunity to recognise something vitally important to this whole discussion. The Christian faith that I, and so many, hold is not built on those answers or even on our understanding of how God chose to create. The focus of the Bible and of Christianity is on our need for relationship with God. The question of how we, and everything else, got here, whilst it is completely fascinating, is therefore not foundational.

      In conclusion, there are many, many questions to ask about God’s relationship to His creation. But the idea of God as creator does not rest on any particular understanding of how he created. Evolution is not an argument against God as creator. It is merely our best description of how the processes by which the natural world he has created appear to play out. And, the more that I explore evolutionary theory, the more beautiful and creative I discover it to be.

      Suggested Further Reading:

      There are many, excellent articles and blogs on these topics on http://www.scienceandbelief.com and also http://www.biologos.org. A few of these are picked out below as well as a couple of very readable, very useful books on the topic.

      Science and Belief Blogs:
      The Bible and Human Origins (http://bit.ly/2bb7TkC)
      Guest Post: On Not Having a Third Eyelid (http://bit.ly/2bwlq6K)
      Some Very Extraordinary Animals: The Burgess Shale Fossils (http://bit.ly/2bbolNi)

      Biologos Articles:
      What factors should be considered in determining how to approach a passage of Scripture? (http://bit.ly/2bf8b7e)
      Did death occur before the Fall? (http://bit.ly/2bph9AA)
      Were Adam and Eve Historical Figures? (http://bit.ly/2bf7VFp)

      Books:
      “Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?” – Denis Alexander (http://amzn.to/2bboDnn)
      “Can we Believe Genesis Today?” – Ernest Lucas (http://amzn.to/2bIf01b)

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