Archive for January, 2010
This is among what I call the four essential books in the current discussion of reason in a world seemingly nuts for fundamentalist religious faith. I’d read Harris “Letter to a Christian Nation” and found it heartfelt, masterfully written and worthy of a read by every American. Having read Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett I thought I knew what to expect from Harris, but I was immediately surprised. What begins as a clear and reasoned (and convincing) case that the complete abolition of religious faith would do us humans a world of good, then becomes a treatise on human ethics. I wasn’t expecting that, but kept on reading, as I have a keen interest in human morality and ethics and how and why we came upon them. For as Harris briefly states: the one thing that evolutionary psychology has done is show that our ethics are completely our own (meaning NOT from God). Harris then takes another turn about a third of the way from the end, and launches into a discussion of meditation and the possibility that what we call the human sense of “self” (or “soul”) might transcend our physical death. I found this odd, and not just for his sales pitch for meditation that is best learned (it seems) from experienced teachers. I also found it strange that after 2/3rds of a book that boldly reveals the very real and present danger to our species that irrational faith presents Harris is hanging on to the idea that our consciousness can survive the death of the body and brain. Of course, we don’t know what happens after we die, but I have a difficult time imagining where my soul would possibly go.
That being said, the first (and major) part of the book lives up perfectly to its title. It is a daunting challenge when one is presented by the sheer scope and force of human “faith”, and the un-imaginable human resources that are tied up in its continuance. What many of these authors are getting at (and what Harris comes right out and says) is that the so-called “moderates” of any belief system are, in essence, not truly representative of the religions they espouse. It is the Fundamentalist who is determined to not pick and choose between the uplifting and horrific verses in their chosen holy text. He also states the (often ignored) obvious: it is the most fundamental truth about the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that they fundamentally cannot co-exist or make accommodations for each other. They all three make exclusive and comprehensives claims to being THE truth. This made my heart sink, because it is absolutely true. The only reason us Americans do not live in a Christian Theocracy (under an “American Taliban”) is because our fundamentalist fellow citizens are diluted by a marginally secular culture. And I say “marginally” advisedly, for Harris also points out the degree to which even American institutions and laws are still guided by Biblical tenants. It’s disheartening to read this and find no fact to blunt its impact. It’s then simply frightening to realize that — as backwards as we Americans are in terms of Faith — there is an entire region of the world stuck in the 14th century (in terms of Faith) that is in possession of 21st century technology and weapons. There is really going to be no living with them, as the true followers of Islam cannot rest until every living human either believes as they do, or is forced to live under their religious laws.
It’s been a long time since someone was hanged for heresy in the west, but in Islam, it is still a simple law that to leave the faith is to suffer physical death. How do we combat that level of irrational belief?
Harris touches on an interesting idea that I’ve not read before, and it refers to the kinds of spiritual practices that developed in “the East”. In the midst of his pitch for the superiority of Eastern practices such as meditation, he makes the valid point that even meditation techniques are evidence-based (one “observes” one’s own feeling/thinking state), and supply a set of tools that can be employed by anyone and require no belief in an over-arching deity. But the more interesting point is that these philosophies and practices were able to develop in a part of the world that was not dominated by the three major monotheistic religions! I’d never thought of that — the East was not held back in their exploration by the rigid troika of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Lucky them!
So there you have it. I’ve told you my criticisms, but the first big chunk of this book is an important read. Plus, I’ve never read a book that had so many precisely distilled and quotable statements about us humans and our religions (his succinct summation of ethics as being what comes into play when we hold the power to do another good or harm, for example). It’s a bold and necessary book for us and our survival. The only remaining problem we are left with is: what can we do with the knowledge this book gives us?
the not-so-reverend bob
As I neared my high school graduation, I applied for admission to a Christian college in southern California. My older brother was a student there, so I stayed with him when I went out to visit the school and interview in person. One evening during this visit we went to the weekly movie night at the campus chapel. The film was something from Disney. This was a conservative school and while enrolled any students under 21 had to remain on campus and could not date members of the opposite sex unsupervised. “Worldly” entertainments — such as contemporary films — were frowned upon. I was pondering these restrictions as my brother and I walked in to the chapel that night, and I must have been discussing this with him in the context of the entire student population attending a film showing on campus. His insightful summation of the seeming paradox was this: “We cannot condone, but we can imitate”. I have carried that thought in my mind ever since.
This was during a time when the American Christian population had not been identified as the lucrative second-tier market for media, music and entertainment that it now is. Back then it was mostly crusades, Bibles and Christian books. But the rising tide of popular culture was, it seems, such a distracting influence on “the young” that a certain relaxation of standards began to evidence itself. Before long, electric guitars were working their way into Church “music ministries”, along with bass guitars and drums. “Christian Rock” began to move into the mainstream of American Evangelicalism. The process was gradual. People needed time to adjust, after all, as the Christian Rock sounded an awful lot like secular rock with different words. Which is precisely the point: the “worldly” culture’s tools of seduction were magically redeemed by Godly intention. That intention alone (along with the inclusion of certain terms and phrases) suddenly meant that young Christians could rock, but only if Christians were playing the tune.
Eventually, the lag time between the appearance of a new form of popular music or entertainment and the creation of it’s holy doppelgänger shortened: Christian Rap, for example, took a very short time to follow its secular form into the Evangelical mainstream. Now there exists a veritable industry that absorbs whatever is popular and remakes it, seasons it with just the right amount of religious aphorisms, packages it and ships it out to Christian bookstores. My brother was right: They cannot condone, but they can imitate.
It was in the final year of my Christianity (while a missionary in Europe) that I finally began to see the ramifications of this dance between American Evangelicalism and popular culture. In essence it is this: The Bible commands the followers of Jesus to “Come out from the world, and be ye separate!”, which believers take to mean that we must follow the commands and teachings of Jesus, which are based upon the eternal truths of God and his righteousness. In short, we are not to behave as the “world” does. There are actually two counteracting forces that influence the working out of this in a believer’s life: One: A belief that one is basing his or her life and behavior on eternal, unchanging precepts, and; Two: That popular culture is not bound by these precepts, and is free to follow after whatever fancy grabs its popular imagination.
Clearly there were times (at least as described in the Bible) where God’s followers saw a clear difference between their righteous behavior and that of the culture around them (Lot in Sodom, various prophets in Israel). But, generally, good behavior is good behavior, and the need to be seen as different takes on a much larger importance. Hence the Scottish Presbyterians prohibited music (even hymns) in their services at one time. (Today it’s difficult to imagine a church service without hymns and music). Where I’m going with this is this: it is very easy to see a situation where the very ground the church has staked out as representing a holy life apart could — over time — be taken over and occupied by the popular culture around it as the fashions and tastes of that culture change. The church would then be forced to assume a contradictory position to that of the popular culture to preserve the needed appearance of separateness. Because popular culture is a moving target, religion also must move to keep from being absorbed into the very culture it is determined to redeem. In short — the Church and culture are ever in motion: culture moving where it will and the Church moving to maintain its appearance of separate-ness.
Hence what modern Evangelicalism envisions as a more homogenous and God-fearing culture seems to be a fuzzy snapshot of America the 1950′s, or the late 19th Century (during the “Great Awakening” evangelical movements). And yet the standards of behavior and the elements of popular culture absorbed or imitated by believers during those purer times would very likely shock believers from even earlier eras. Think of it for a moment: would a respected Christian minister from 1955 hold on to his position were he to welcome his flock to a sunday service with a Christian heavy metal band? Not bloody likely.
And so the dance continues, but at a pace (always relative to the popular culture) that doesn’t feel like a major shift (very important to a conservative population). But major shifts occur. In popular culture such shifts are primarily the concern of the marketing folks who have to sell whatever inventory they have on hand, and therefore keep an eye on what the next “hot” trend is going to be. It is just such shifting and change that keeps commerce alive and healthy. But the church must maintain the impression of stability, of an unchanging relationship to an unchanging God. (There are groups like the Amish that take this to an extreme, yet even they have picked a specific time in popular culture and fixed it as a point beyond which they will not budge. They draw the line at zippers, but wear pants and shoes that Jesus could not have imagined. Their choice, though quaint, is in the end arbitrary).
Perhaps I need to state that there is no crime being committed here by American Evangelicalism (we’re social animals, we all want to fit in), but there is a self-deception at work. For in essence what is most sought after is that delicate balance of just enough difference to appear above it all, but not so great a distance from the mainstream that the average secular person is simply, well, appalled at the backwardness of belief. For each believer is commanded to be a “witness”, a walking advertisement for how following God makes you happier, healthier, wiser (humbler?) and, well, better than the average bear (or evolved primate). So, “mega-church” Pastor Rick Warren re-packages modern popular psychology as a God-centered book and sells a gazillion copies, even as Evangelicalism decries that same modern psychology as anti-god secular humanism; So-called Creation “Scientists” labor to cherry pick genuine scientific discoveries to bolster their young-earth hokum, while painting any opposing scientific claims as “the foolishness of man”.
There remain large swathes of western art history wherein the great works of art were those paid for by the Church. Artists are, as a rule, “the property of the rich” (as the crass saying goes) and so it’s little wonder they gravitated to where the work was. The same applies today, where second-tier artists and intellectuals, musicians and writers can (when mainstream popular culture has shunned them) yet find work and a living in the now fully-blossomed Evangelical Economy — the holy doppelgänger” of our nation’s economy at large. (The credentials aren’t hard to master and the vocabulary’s easy to learn, after which they can — like rock musicians that play country music because that’s where the current gigs are — keep on doing what they’ve always done). There are now Christian theme parks where you can see Jesus crucified every afternoon, or visit the Creation Museum where a Bronze-age middle-eastern child plays near (what looks like) a late Cretaceous velociraptor (and you can, I’m sure,purchase all sorts of mementos from a fully-stocked gift shop the equal of any secular museum).
Part of the problem in all of this is a classic and longstanding one for us humans: our sociability brings us together, even as our tribalism clots us into small groups that need a clearly defined sense of “differentness” to maintain cohesion (in the absence, that is, of familial ties). Basically, we want to be our own tribe while having everything that the other tribes have. I have no real issue with this. I am quite sympathetic to the mix of needs, desires and ideas that we human animals carry within us. I only have issue with the occasions in which our tribalism threatens the safety or happiness of the species. For instance, I doubt we’ll ever see a Model Railroading club turn into a terrorist cell that blows Amtrak trains off the rails because they displaced the older, way-cooler steam engines. Hobbyists recognize the individuality of their interests: geek seeks geek. But religion adds another element, where it is not enough to be another human being with a particular interest. With religion one is promised something quite a few steps above that: a shared interest with the one, true God of the Universe. If God were into model trains, toy stores around the world would soon be terrorist targets for selling models rockets or radio-controlled cars.
I was accepted to that Christian college, by the way, under the condition that I never speak aloud of my belief in the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” or “speaking in tongues” (I was a “Charismatic” Christian then but the college was Baptist). The acceptance letter that gave me that mixed news broke my young believing heart. Weren’t we all believers in the same God, in the same Jesus? Well, yes and, well, no. Even among believers in the same God, we crave separateness, specialness, and a sense of being a slightly better believer than the guy next to you, and religion accommodates. Even within American Evangelicalism the dance to maintain the oppositional geometry continues.
It’s sort of a grown-up version of what we do as kids (if you’re from a large family of siblings like I am you’ll understand): we want what our brothers (or sisters) have, but stake out our own interests in order to establish our own identity. In my family, we tended toward respecting each other’s boundaries of interest, as we tended to steer clear of each other’s girlfriends (the operative phrase here being “tended to”). That’s natural behavioral stuff, pretty standard. But then we weren’t trying to make a religious dogma out of it.
We humans are actually fairly predictable in our behavior, and most of us have a pretty good working knowledge of what to expect from each other. Which makes it all the more puzzling that religion persists in successfully selling a hyper-tribal behavior as an enlightened pursuit of righteousness and God, that believers of all stripes fail to see the unholy dance of difference for what it is: A posturing that locks them into forever keeping an eye on the whims and shifts in popular culture so that they can maintain the appearance of separateness.
I’m reminded of a chapter from the book “Strange Angel: The Gospel According to Benny Joe” by Ben Davis (see the review on this site), where the author (who grew up in a deeply Pentecostal culture in south Texas) struggles with his emerging homosexuality while in Bible college and eventually finds himself in gay bars where he’s shocked to recognize more than a few practicing evangelists cruising for some action. He learns the sad truth often at work in Religion: the preacher presents the illusion, and it is left to the poor believer to figure out how to make it really work in their life.
And so the religious are no more anchored in an unchanging reality than the rest of us. But in this (as in our other shared human behaviors — including popular culture) religion cannot risk giving the appearance of approval, and so they imitate what they can…and hide the rest.
the not-so-reverend bob
Five days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a baby was pulled alive from the rubble. According to CBS News: “Her father knew it was a miracle, saying in French, “Grace of God. Grace of God!”
At the end of the story we get the actual reasons for this baby’s survival:
“CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who helped treat Michelle, told Smith, “In pediatrics, we say children kind of tend to the extremes. They can get sick very quickly and really crash quickly, but they have amazing reserve and resiliency, and they can compensate for a long period of time. So, again, she was caught in an area where she didn’t sustain any crush injury, and she was able to actually survive not only the rubble, but not have severe dehydration, which is amazing.”"
Amazing, yes. Very near the edge, yes, yet still within the realm of the humanly possible. But miraculous?
All we can say with any honesty based on the evidence is that blind chance and an impressive capacity for survival put this infant among the living as an enormous natural seismic event leveled cities and villages killing what looks to be nearly two hundred thousand people (the island of Haiti is on an active fault line and — as a geophysicist recently said — “That’s how you get islands”).
Our favorite national religious clown Pat Robertson famously blamed the earthquake on a pact the Haitians made with the “Devil” to get out from under the French more than two hundred years ago (blithely ignoring the reality that we live on a cooling, active planet with a molten core.) . This globe of ours has never required an external cause to rumble, erupt or storm. And yet believers in the goodness of an all-powerful God are somehow able to assign credit to God for the “miracle” of the handful of survivors that will be rescued from this overwhelming human disaster without ever questioning how this same (supposedly) loving God wiped out the two-hundred-thousand Haitians (and who knows how many equally loved and deserving infants) that didn’t qualify for a miraculous survival! (I think it was Christopher Hitchens who pointed out the obvious: it is only the survivors that we hear proclaiming that their faith in God saved them — we hear nothing from the dead whose faith in God was, it would seem, of little help).
When Captain Sullenberger successfully ditched flight 1549 in the Hudson on January 15th of 2009, with no loss of life and only a few injuries among his one-hundred and fifty-five passengers, it was quickly dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson”. I’m aware of no argument (at the time) with that moniker. About a month later I got an e-mail from a friend containing a cartoon from Rex Babin of the Sacramento Bee (that was apparently then making the rounds on the web), showing the hands of God gently laying the aircraft on the water, like it were a toy he could so tenderly bring back to earth (suspending, one would assume, the natural laws of gravity, physics and aerodynamics for the “miracle”).
I sent my friend a one-sentence reply: “Where’s the cartoon for the plane that crashed in Buffalo?” To which he replied: “What???”
For on February 12th (less than a month after the “Miracle on the Hudson”) Continental Flight 3407 fell from the sky (in icing conditions at night) on its approach to Buffalo International Airport. All forty-nine passengers and crew were killed, along with one person on the ground. Clearly, if the “Miracle on the Hudson” was proof of the grace of God, the complete loss of Flight 3407 must be taken as a judgement of God. So who did God kill this time? An historian and human rights advocate who documented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; and the widow of a Buffalo native who was killed in the September 11th attacks (the widow was on her way to both celebrate her dead husband’s 58th birthday and attend the presentation of a High School scholarship established in his honor). In the latter’s case Pastor Robinson might say it was because she shook hands with President Obama (she’d been at the White House with other relatives of those killed in 9/11 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole).
I think in order to believe that God held up Flight 1549 with his saving hands, one has to believe that God used the finger of one of those hands to flick Flight 3407 out of the sky. Or, at the very least, he stood by silent and still as the deadly ice built up on the wings of the commuter jet. Take your pick. (Neither speaks well of God’s character or temperament).
How does God, then, deserve credit for the disproportionate few that survive a disaster, but get a pass on the much greater numbers that do not? Simply put, He doesn’t.
Here’s what really happened to those two flights:
According to the New York Times (the final NTSB report has not yet been issued):
“The airplane, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 with two turboprop engines and room for 74 passengers, is certified for flight into “known icing conditions.” But when the pilots change the shape of the wings, by moving the flaps or other controls, sometimes buildups of ice that were not a factor in an earlier configuration are suddenly exposed to the passing wind and make the plane uncontrollable.”
And so the crew of this plane with ice already building on the wings and windshield (and no assurance that the de-icing boots were functioning properly even though they were turned “on”) dropped flaps and gear on approach and found themselves losing control of a wildly bucking aircraft that soon fell from the sky on an occupied house near Buffalo.
And (according to Wikipedia,) here’s what really saved Flight 1549 or “The Miracle on the Hudson” (as set forth in the citation from The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators as they awarded the entire flight crew a Master’s Medal on January 22, 2009):
“The reactions of all members of the crew, the split second decision making and the handling of this emergency and evacuation was ‘text book’ and an example to us all. To have safely executed this emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement. It deserves the immediate recognition that has today been given by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators.”
Note that the people that actually know flying correctly called the actions of the crew “heroic and unique”. That is a truthful statement well deserved. Notice that there is no mention of any miraculous suspension of the laws that govern flight.
I might be less averse to our irrational impulse to give credit to God (who — should he by some miracle actually exist — isn’t really earning it) if in that action we weren’t taking credit away from real humans that really do deserve it. To add to that injury, we dismiss the suffering of innumerable others by writing off the deaths of their loved ones as an “act of God” (or the Devil — same difference). How can we sit in front of a television and ignore the giant tomb of Haiti as we get giddy with the goodness of God for one infant that was in just the right place (and personally tough enough) to survive being buried alive? Why not rather honor that tough and tenacious kid?
I would do nothing to diminish the joy of that infant’s father at her rescue. But neither would I do anything to increase the suffering of thousands of others who will not see their friends and loved ones again. Attributing natural disaster to divine causes is a ludicrous insult to real and present human grief. It is callous and cowardly. It is also factually false. We have to stop letting such mindless pronouncements go unchallenged.
Living as we do on the planet earth, it is never a question of “if” but merely “when” the next earthquake, tsunami, tornado or airplane crash will occur. Stuff happens, and it is our fellow humans that will both suffer the loss and come to the rescue. Irrational and superstitious belief in spiritual causes of natural events only gets in the way of responding as caring human beings (and worse, doesn’t really do anyone any good).
Give me a warm human hand reaching out to really help me over an entire Church bowed in prayer any day.
We may be convinced that we are the believers in the one, true God, and are not among the credulous that occupy the dark corners of the globe (and who are absolute fools to believe the weird stuff that they do). But that’s what they think about us as well! (if you had no previous knowledge of religion and were given the task of deciding which religion was “true”, on what evidence could you make your decision? Number of adherents? Who has their prayers answered more often? Who has the most “miracles”? Who has the best hymns?)
If tomorrow the magma heaving beneath Yellowstone were to erupt into another “super-volcano” (it’s happened before), there would be cheers from billions of Muslims at God’s just and righteous punishment of America (attributing another purely natural event to cosmic forces). Pat Robertson would also find a divine cause, no doubt. (According to the USGS — by the way — we needn’t worry too much about Yellowstone exploding soon).
Ignorance of history and the sciences leaves us ever susceptible to cosmic bullshit from the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design to the (literal) hands of God taking time out of his busy day (watching over millions dying from starvation, disease and disaster) to gently set a bird-strike crippled jet full of terrified people down upon the Hudson River.
To God be the glory, indeed, for the things he hasn’t done.
In the meantime let’s not waste our breath on prayers and praise that do nothing practical to relieve human suffering. Here are some practical ways to help:
Non-Believers Giving Aid
Dawkin’s is one of the four books I might call “cornerstones” of a rational response to Religion and religious belief among us humans (the other three are “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” by Daniel Dennett and “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris). Dawkins is the scientist among the four authors mentioned and is therefore in the best position to present the tonic of science and reason to our seemingly ineradicable religious impulse. For that reason alone the book is worth reading. Hawkins begins by laying out the framework for carrying on a discussion of the true conflicts between science and religion, defining his terms before presenting his case.
Having made his case, he moves into new ideas including his offering of the term “memes” as defining ideas that evolve over time just as organisms do. I think it’s a useful term, and I found it helped me to understand how and why religion has survived so long by adapting and refining over the centuries through it’s own “survival of the fittest” process. I’m not as crazy about his suggestion of the term “Brights” to identify rational non-believers who accepts the truths of science and eschew a religious worldview. I think a term more precise and descriptive than “atheist” or “agnostic” is called for, I’m just not sure this is the one (though I have seen the word gaining some traction in other writing).
Dawkins comes across as a man who has never really been troubled by a deep religious belief (the same can be said for Hitchens and Dennett), so I expect that the still-religious that read these books will consider them cold and unsympathetic to the reader’s cherished beliefs. I don’ t think that to be the case, but often the critics of these writers are quick to call them “rigid” , “strident” or “arrogant”– as if their tone, alone, were excuse to dismiss the impressive case for reason and science that they present. The laying bare of the very real dangers of reality-denying religious belief in our modern age is a chilling aspect of the reading experience. I recommend this book to all.
The not-so-reverend bob
I want to offer you a key to understanding the scientific theory of EVOLUTION. The key to really understanding evolution is opening our minds to the concept of geologic time.
Through most of our human history, we have only had to deal with measures of time that were important to our survival: the day, the season, the span of a lifetime. Anything beyond the years we might live was either the distant past, or the unknowable future.
Early attempts to determine the true age of the earth and the length of human history used the Bible. By assigning a certain number of years to each human generation described in the genealogies of the Old Testament, early scholars arrived at an estimate of some six thousand years from the time of earth’s creation to the time in which these estimates were made. (Six thousand years may be a long time, but it is a length of time we could grasp).
But with the rise of science and the ever-growing number of discoveries in geology, genetics, astronomy and biology, our modern brains are suddenly confronted with concepts and measurements that can literally make our heads hurt. And while we struggle to make sense of atoms and cells and viruses that are within our bodies, but which we cannot see with our own unaided eyes, we are also overwhelmed by measurements of time that have moved the age of the earth back into the darkness of history far beyond six thousand years.
HOW OLD IS THE EARTH?
We now know (from the geologic evidence) that the earth began to form some 4.5 billion years ago, or 4, 500 million years.
Thousands of hundreds of millions of years. To minds that live by minutes, days and months (that might in one lifetime add up to a hundred) we might as well call such millions of years “eternity” or “infinity”.
In fact, we do call them just that. Often we invoke God as both explanation and answer, as if the past were a black hole in the wall of our cozy little house disturbing us with its vastness each time we walk past it. (The darkness of space and deep time is a frightening thing to behold and it sends a chill up our back each time we think about it). So it’s little wonder that we sometimes hang an image called “god” over the hole to cover it up — to get it out of our mind. But that action does nothing to answer the question and it doesn’t make the past eons go away (for even the concept of “god” makes us consider infinity and eternity). And so time (on this scale) is something we cannot escape.
So, if we can’t escape it and if we can’t cover it up, what do we do with it? We work towards a way of understanding it.
And we need to understand it, for there are many who doubt evolution because they can’t see it happening in the time scale of their own lives. They wonder why they don’t see monkeys at the zoo changing, day by day, into humans. To this we have to explain two principals from the theory of evolution:
The first: INDIVIDUALS DON’T EVOLVE: POPULATIONS DO. The inherited traits and genetic mutations that make up the process of evolution occur as organisms reproduce and create new offspring: genetic mutations accumulate over time as environment and the challenges of daily living naturally select the individuals that are most suited to survival in a given place and time.
The second: TIME. Small changes in each generation over many, many generations lead to dramatic changes in the traits of living organisms: Whales evolved from four-legged animals that walked on land and modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.
Wildly impossible feats if you think that the earth and all its creatures have been around for only six thousand years. But once you realize just how much time life had to get started, and then how much time it had to evolve, evolution can at last be appreciated for the astonishing explanation it supplies us for understanding life on earth. So let’s try to understand just how long this has been going on.
I will try to assist by using some of the tools that I used to understand geologic time. To do that I will use three pieces of lumber and a tape measure.
Let’s imagine laying three 8-foot long 2×4 boards end to end. That gives us 24 feet of lumber for our “timeline”. The “big bang” that spawned our universe occurred some 13,000 million years ago, but our earth formed only 4,500 million years ago, so let’s start with that number and divide 4.5 billion (or 4,500 million years) by 24. Now, each foot of lumber represents 187.5 million years starting on the left end (at 4.5 billion years ago) and ending at the right end (the present).
At the tip of the first board, the earth begins to form (4,500 mya); where the first board meets the second board, earth’s first landmasses form at about 3,000 mya.
So, we’re already on the second board. Where is life?
There is fossil evidence to suggest that light-reactive bacteria were around as early as 3.8 billion years ago – which means it may have begun evolving as much as 4 billion years ago. But, the earliest definitive fossil evidence for complex, multi-cellular life shows up at 1.2 billion years ago. (Another 6.4 feet onto the second board).
So from the earliest dated rock to the earliest definitive fossil of a complex cell: Three point three four billion years pass. Three thousand three hundred and four thousand million years (more than half of our “timeline”) passed for life to begin (or 18.13 feet from “the beginning”)
Six hundred fifty-seven million years later, during the “Cambrian Explosion” life starts developing shells and hard parts. (580mya, or only 3.93 feet from “today”).
Fifty million years after that (or about 3.2 inches): the first known footprints are made on land.
Another three inches or so (or 55 million years later): Primitive plants appear (followed later by insects, sharks and seed-bearing plants).
Then about 290 million years ago: (a foot and a half from today) Dimetrodon – a pre-mammalian reptile — leaves his muddy footprints on the Permian shoreline. But then: (252 mya 2.5 inches later) The Permian-Triassic extinction event. 70% of all life on land and 95% of life in the oceans are wiped out.
Life recovers. Like it probably had before, the fossil evidence suggesting this was not the first major extinction event. Life recovers in a big way.
THE AGE OF THE DINOSAURS
The impressive one hundred sixty-five million year reign of dinosaurs covers about 10.25 inches of board.
That means that a Tyrannosaurus Rex living in the late Cretaceous (the last of the Dinosaurs) could have tripped over the fossil of a Jurassic Stegosaurus that had been extinct already for millions of years. Dinosaurs were walking on the fossils of earlier, extinct dinosaurs.
During their reign the first viruses appear, as do flowering plants.
Then 65 mya (About four and a half inches ago): The Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) Extinction event. Dinosaurs and about ½ of all species are wiped out.
35mya Grasses evolve.
About 5 million years ago we split off from our last common ancestor with the other primates (and no, Evolution doesn’t say we descended from a chimp — that would be like saying you descended from your own distant cousin — but it does show chimps and humans shared a distant common ancestor).
Then — some 200,000 years ago — the first anatomically modern humans appear (us without a shave and a suit).
50,000 years ago we inhabit Europe.
25,000 years ago the last of the dead-end branches of our hominid family tree, our distant cousins the Neanderthals die out.
10,000 the Neolithic: Our modern history begins. Tools, art, language, and then you and me.
After 4.5 billion years of bubbling, rumbling, profligate evolution and extinctions (large and small) here we are — our entire human history occupying less than the last 1/64th of an inch of earth’s 24 feet of history.
So that’s how long it took for us to get here. That is how much time life — you and I — had to evolve.
I hope this helps you understand evolution, and helps you appreciate how amazing it is to be alive right here and right now.
– the not-so-reverend bob
Below is a link to a fine article by Christopher Hitchens that speaks for both the reason and the humanity that we need to uphold as we respond to natural disasters that are seen as opportunities by the unscrupulous to sway the credulous.
And note the link in the article to a non-religious channel to make donations for (in this instance) Haitian relief.