Brave Old World

WorldFromBeginningsAs we continue to evolve, it is helpful to learn where we’ve been. Besides, the title, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is difficult for an old Genesis reader to pass up. I knew Ian Tattersall’s book was about human evolution—a subject that has made me feel naughty ever since being raised to believe, quite opposite of reality, that evolution was a myth and Genesis fact. I remember the strange disconnect from my earliest years. Standing under the 13th Street Bridge, just before French Creek joins the Allegheny River, the main tributary of the Ohio, and, in turn, the Mississippi, my brothers and I would look for fossils. And find them we did. If you found the right kind of rock, preferably with a recent fracture, you could find the impressions of dozens of sea shells jumbled together in a glorious, fluted profusion. These were the exoskeletons of animals dead for millions of years, and thinking myself a budding scientist, I stared at them in awe, not quite sure what to make of it all. At church I learned the earth was young—not even a teenager in geologic terms—and yet, in my hand, encased in rock, contrary evidence.

Indeed, Tattersall begins his book, as many college-level texts do, apologizing to the culture that still somehow believes that the earth is just 6000 years old, despite the Tyrannosaurus towering over your head at the Carnegie Museum. Humans are latecomers on this scene, however. Tattersall gives a solid introduction to the current human family tree. Instead of being ashamed of our heritage, I’m more inclined to feel a little pride. Our ancestors, prey to large carnivores, took a distinctive evolutionary track that enlarged our brains to help us outwit our natural enemies and learn how to destroy the very planet we inhabit. Well, maybe pride is a little too strong a word. Good and evil, it seems, always stroll hand-in-hand. So we evolved, but not yet to perfection.

Evolution always makes me think of the future. A strange sense of accomplishment makes prominent thinkers, particularly those who declare themselves bright, marvel at our greatness. I can’t help but to think that something better must lie ahead. We’re told that evolution has no direction in mind—traits that help to survive until reproduction are all that really count—and yet, having the minds we do, it seems that something more might be going on. Have we built all this merely to have sex and die? Glorified May-flies? Isn’t the future a wonder of what we might become? Evolution takes so long, even with punctuated equilibrium, that we’ll never live to see it. I have a suspicion, however, that if we give it enough time, we might offer our as yet unimagined offspring a world as full of wonder as it always has been. And they’ll still be standing by the river, staring in amazement at animals made of stone.

6 thoughts on “Brave Old World

  1. Brent Snavely

    It is easy to forget about evolutionary dead-ends. Having filled our environment with by-products of our existence in such quantities and concentrations as are likely to kill us off, I wonder if we are not more like some of the yeasts than the great apes…

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  2. M.K.

    Seems to me we need to achieve some sort of new tipping point where the self-destructive impulse that leads to constant war must eliminate the more base ‘thinkers’ under the biofilm. Then, perhaps…something unimaginably wonderous in the evolution. ? Favorite quote: “,,,and yet, having the minds we do, it seems that something more might be going on.” I think I have to agree. And I sure wish I could witness the finding of the ‘something more’. Until then, I try to help myself and my family to evolve. It’s a pragmatic thing and also a rewarding thing most of the time.

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  3. When I wrote my first novel – sixteen years ago now I started writing – I played with this dichotomy (is that the right word?). Set on a world called OhLo that was created by the gods somewhere in our future, one character who witnessed the creation is explaining it to another character born thousands of years after:
    If you were to study OhLo geologically or archaeologically then you would have to conclude that OhLo had existed for billions of years, and even that we were created in the moment of Creation. And who is to say that you would be wrong? OhLo has memory of a time before the Creation, just as we do. The memories may be incompatible but which is true? Is one memory more real than the other? Geologically these caves have been here since before the Creation.

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  4. Thank you all for your comments. Brent, good point about evolutionary dead ends. M.K., thanks for noting that evolution’s not an evil thing. Frank, I’m jealous–did your first novel get published? Any tips for a frustrated writer?

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    • It languished on a shelf for ten years until I dusted it off and self-published on Amazon. Apart from one friendly and enthusiastic (unsolicited) reviewer, I can’t tell if anyone other than myself has read it. Tips? If you’re stuck, step back and ask whether you started at the right point…

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