As 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.