Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.

Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

The Reboot

It lied to me.  My computer.  Don’t get me wrong; I know all about trying to save face.  I also know my laptop pretty well by now.  It was running slow, taking lots of time to think over fairly simple requests.  A lull in my frantic mental activity led to the opportunity for me to initiate a reboot.  When it winked open its electronic eye my screen told me it had restarted to install an update.  Untrue.  I had told it to restart.  I gave the shutdown order to help with the obvious sluggishness that suggested to this Luddite brain of mine that my silicon friend was working on an update.  There’s no arguing with it, however.  In its mechanical mind, it decide to do the restart itself.  I was merely a bystander.

Technology and I argue often.  Like JC says, though, authority always wins.  I should know my place by now.  I’ve read enough about neuroscience (with thanks to those who write for a general audience) to know that this is incredibly human behavior.  We are creatures of story, and if our brains can’t figure out why we’ve done something they will make up an answer.  We have trouble believing that we just don’t know.  I suppose that will always be a difference between artificial intelligence and the real thing.  Our way of thinking is often pseudo-rational.  We evolved to get by but machines have been designed intelligently.  That often makes me wonder about the “intelligent design” crowd—they admit evolution, but with God driving it.  Why’d our brains, in such circumstances, evolve the capacity for story instead of for fact?

As my regular readers know, I enjoy fiction.  Fiction is the epitome of the story-crafting art.  Some analysts suggest our entire mental process involves construing the story of ourselves.  Those who articulate it well are rewarded with the sobriquet of “author.”  The rest of us, however, aren’t exactly amateurs either.  Our brains are making up reasons for what we do, even when we do irrational things (perhaps like reading this blog sometimes).  Stories give our lives a sense of continuity, of history.  What originally developed as a way of remembering important facts—good food sources, places to avoid because predators lurk there—became histories.  Stories.  And when the facts don’t align, we interpolate.  It seems that my laptop was doing the same thing.  Perhaps it’s time to reboot.

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Driving Truth

One of the problems with driving is that you can’t get pictures of billboards. Well, given the way people drive around here, I suspect that may not always be true. Nevertheless, I always think of billboards as trying to sell something. There’s sometimes fairly easy to shut out, but in long stretches of otherwise uninteresting road you fall into their trap. Now having grown up in western Pennsylvania, we always thought the people out east—Philadelphia was the largest city in the state, after all—were more sophisticated. It is around here, however, that I often see billboards selling evangelical Christianity. If you put out your wares, you’ve got something to sell. Money to make.

As I was traveling that stretch of somewhat plain highway 33 between Stroudsburg and Easton I noticed a billboard reading “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” To shore up its academic credentials the billboard footnoted Genesis 1:1. An inspirational sunrise, if I recall, shown over the Bible. Of to the left—of course to the left!—was a small “no circle” and inside the famous skeletal progression from ape to human. The message was “no evolution.” The more I pondered this, the more strange it became. Most Americans are well aware that billboards aren’t exactly the locus of truth. They are gimmicks to try to get you into the store. Like the one a few miles down that advertises the world’s largest humidor; even those with no interest in tobacco might feel just a touch curious what such a place might look like. Why would you take your most intimate personal beliefs and put them on a billboard? Does that make evolution any less likely?

A strange perception has lately taken over this country. The idea that an individual’s wants equate with the truth. Shout it loud enough and it has to be true. Billboards would never stretch the truth, would they? Is that image enlarged to show texture or what? And wouldn’t a better choice of anti-evolution rhetoric have been Genesis 2? That’s where God makes Adam from lowly dirt. Yes, Genesis 1 gives us the dramatic six-day creation, but Genesis 2 manages to say it all happened in one day—isn’t that more in keeping with capitalistic ideals? Greater efficiency leads to greater profits, after all. And profits, we all know, are the real purpose behind billboards for any product under the sun.