Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We Humans on the Ancient Earth

The human line hails from humble origins. An unsurprising fact, since most life does. The rise of humanity from a lemur-like creature to an ape-like creature to an upright-walker to today’s humans is a remarkable story, one far more imaginative, universal, ancient, and more solidly based in fact and observation than any religion. If God were to have a way to create life, evolution would be a far more amazing and beautiful way to do it than making things instantly appear as they are. Evolution gives living things a history, an ancient and glorious heritage.

The Earth is a greater thing than us. It has been around for 4.5 billion years, and has been teeming with live for 3.5 billion years of that. The Paleozoic era alone is 325 million years long (570 - 245 million years ago), and is even divided into seven smaller periods, each lasting from 30 to 70 million years (thumbnail the image right to view it larger). To really think about and comprehend these numbers bewilders me. Each period in Earth’s history sees further development in living things, with scores of brand new species and scores of extinctions from the previous period. The relatively rapid change that evolution is capable of guarantees a great amount of variation, increasing with time. As Carl Sagan once said, evolution “makes life more beautiful as the aeons pass.”

Using the theory of evolution and comparative anatomy, our picture of hominid evolution is quite complete. The “missing link” is no longer missing. Those claiming a lack of transitional fossils in evolution need only look at our own hominid tree (and other very complete transitions like those of horses, whales, and tetrapods) to see a smooth progression from ape-like species into more human-like species over a period of 6 - 7.8 million years.

When we look at nature - at plants, animals, fish - we see beauty. The evidence shows us that all this beauty evolved over time, over billions of years. The overwhelming ancientness of life places us as a very young and fledgling line. After all, the first known civilization of humans was Sumer, dating back to 5400 BC, and only 10,000 years ago all humans on the planet were hunter-gatherers. These are very small lengths of time compared to even the smallest period in the Paleozoic, a mind-blowing 30 million years. In fact, the entire hominid line has only been around for about 0.2% of the history of life. Humans may be the first life with higher intelligence, but we are demonstrably not the reason for the Earth’s existence.

This fact however does not make our existence meaningless. The same beauty that we see in nature is also present in us: we came about in the same way. We are part of life’s grand story, and we are special in our intelligence, imagination, and drive. To be part of nature, not just an observer of it, is enthralling, fascinating, and, dare I say it, mystifying.

- Evan

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