Another day, another article in the Washington Post on the seemingly never ending evolution controversy. This latest article is more about the controversy in Cobb County, Georgia, whose school board is insisting that biology textbooks that discuss evolution have a prominent sticker on it that says evolution is a theory and not a fact.
Regular readers know that I have discussed evolution before. I will not beat the God vs. Evolution meme to death again, except to point out once again that there are two definitions to “theory”. As it applies to evolution, it more simply stated as the law of evolution. For Cobb County to declare that evolution is only a theory means they are either letting their personal biases creep into public policies, or they cannot be bothered to consult a dictionary.
Still, I have to wonder what engine is feeding all this antievolution hysteria. Religion seems to play a big role in it. However, the more I read about the issue the less convinced I am that the creation myth in the Bible and other holy books is its root cause. I think much of it is because to accept evolution we have to come to grips with evolution’s obvious conclusion that our little lives simply do not matter.
The billions of years that our planet has been around is, after all, a hard concept to get our minds around. If our planet is about 4.5 billion years old, let us wrap that timescale into something we can get our mind around: the radius of the planet. The Earth’s radius is 6378 kilometers or about 4000 miles. Divide that distance into 4.5 billion units. Let each unit represent one year. By my calculation, a year would amount to 1.42 centimeters.
Now pick up a metric ruler and look at the size of 1.42 centimeters (about .55 inches). Then imagine an airline trip of 6378 kilometers, the distance to the center of the earth. That is roughly the distance from where I live (near Washington, D.C.) to Zurich, Switzerland. In the span of a human life, say 80 years, you would travel about 113.6 centimeters, or about 3.7 feet toward Switzerland. That would not even amount to the initial bump of our airplane out of the gate!
According to scientists, it took about a billion of those 4.5 billion years before primitive life (bacteria) evolved on earth. The first mammals evolved around 565 million years ago. (Our plane, which left Washington D.C., has traversed all but 502 miles of the distance to Zurich.) Dinosaurs roamed the earth 150 million years ago. (We are 133 miles from Zurich.) The first human ancestors appeared 13 million years ago (11 miles from our destination.) 3.7 million years ago (3.28 miles away) the Australopithecus Afarensis, one of our distant ancestors, left footprints in the sands of Kenya. 27,000 years ago (1,257 feet to go!) the Neanderthals became extinct. The start of recorded history was 4000 years ago (186 feet from our destination gate).
On such timescales, all individual lives become irrelevant. A million years from now, it is unlikely that human life will even exist on our planet. In the timescale of the earth’s evolution, our species is going to be just another flash in the pan.
If we could acknowledge our insignificance in the grand scheme of things then perhaps evolution would be better accepted. However, many of us cannot. We see our lives as having purpose, meaning and most importantly some enduring value. However if we were to imagine our life as being random chance then it is hard not to embrace atheism as a religious philosophy, because it seems to be the only one that makes any sense. What is the point of anything including the belief in an intelligent and creative force to the universe if nothing we do in our lives endures?
While some part of our logical mind can accept it, our emotional side has a tough time with the knowledge. Indeed, it is hard not to even recoil at the very idea. It is no wonder then that evolution is such a flashpoint in our society. For to accept evolution at its face value we must in some sense to deny our intrinsic human feelings. Our genetics inform us that life matters, and consequently that we matter. We are a hopeful species, likely as a direct result of evolution. So for some, by our schools endorsing evolution then the government in some sense is advocating atheism and spreading hopelessness. We recoil.
Therefore, we look for any rationalization that we can find. For many we leave God to sort it out. Evolution becomes yet another big mystery in our wonderful and amazing universe. However, we are still confident that despite evidence to the contrary that our lives do have lasting meaning. For others though perhaps a pure faith-based response is insufficient. Therefore, they give it many names including “creation science” and “intelligent design”. They all amounts to the same thing: trying to use pseudo science to refute evolution’s truth. To accept evolution on some level we must also admit that we are alone in a random and pointless universe. Accepting it can lead many of us to madness. After all, our brains are biological organisms. They exist to bring order to chaos, so we can live another day. Accepting evolution then becomes something of an acknowledgement of existentialism. We feel reduced to the parts of Vladimir and Estragon, waiting endlessly for Godot to show up.
Those of us pondering metaphysics have other potentially plausible ways to reconcile the contradictory feelings. For me, as I outlined elsewhere, there is some comfort found in the simple laws of thermodynamics. For while time marches relentlessly forward and all things seem to change, while form changes matter and energy do not. They are simply transformed endlessly from one state to another. This in itself is a big mystery, and one physicists are trying to understand, but offers some feeling of hope to the rational.