Thursday, March 03, 2005

Never in a Million Years

It might have been during the Alleghenian Orogeny, in the Permian Period of the Paleozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon, which is to say about 286,000,000 years ago, that a series of floods and evaporations, lasting a few million years each, deposited layers of mud and silt on a flood-plain on the part of the Earth that would eventually become what its hominid inhabitants were pleased to refer to as the East Coast of the United States of America. This floor finally dried up completely, was heaved heavenward by the tectonic plate movement that produced the Blue Ridge Mountains, and produced this egg-sized object:

This little rock survived floods and fires and dinosaur-killing meteor-impacts, sometimes buried underground, sometimes exposed to the open air, slowly eroding here and there, until, 286,000,001 years later, a hapless hominid goober whose entire species had inhabited the planet for considerably less than 5/286th of the life of this rock, and 1/4,500th of the life of the planet, and whose own existence had lasted for about 1/102,272,727th of that span, walking his canine goobers along the Maryland bank of the Potomac River one day, used his spanking-new, highly fashionable opposable thumb to pick it up.

And promptly, with the savoir-faire characteristic of his species, shattered it into bits.

The reason, I'm sure, that we still to this day have to endlessly refight the Scopes Monkey Trial is simply that we silly little human beings are just not capable of comprehending what A Million Years means. I was trying just now at dinner to explain the idea to Betty and Freddy. To children who are quite convinced that the entire universe came into being the instant the OB/GYN smacked their little meconium-encrusted buttocks, the idea of Weird Old Dad trying to get them to understand the howling, yawning gulfs of geological time over Swedish meatballs and egg noodles was pretty risible. I can't imagine I'd have much more luck with your average Southern Baptist.

After 44 years on this planet. I think have a pretty good grasp of what a hundred years means. Plenty of cultural upheaval, plenty of cosmetic change to the earthly landscape, lots of human activity. Three generations born and died. 1905 to 2005? Yeah, I get it. Takes a bit of reading, a bit of empathy, but I get it.

Geologically, of course, it doesn't even register as a nanosecond.

I also flatter myself that I can comprehend a thousand years. One day long ago I stood in the reliquary of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, contemplating the marble steps that led down to the display of a fingerbone of the Apostle James, noting soberly that a thousand years' worth of pilgrims had worn deep foot-shaped twin grooves into the stone. It was quite eerie to think that those stones had begun to be ground down by the worn shoes of hopeful people at some point in the Norman Conquest of Britain. The wearing away of the stone had continued through the Magna Carta, the discovery of America, the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the First and Second World Wars, and on up to today. A thousand years.

Still, of course, nothing but a geological eye-blink. My little striated rock snaps its fingers and barks a contemptuous laugh.

Now, try to wrap your brain around A THOUSAND THOUSAND YEARS. Not one time through all that stuff up there, not ten times through, not even simply many times. I mean TEN HUNDRED TIMES TEN HUNDRED YEARS. All of that stuff, from William the Conqueror down (aaaaaall the way down!) to George W. Bush, a thousand times. We can say "a million years" to ourselves over and over, and never understand what we mean. It's simply too immense a thing to comprehend.

In the history of this planet, it's the Second Hand going around the clock ONCE. That's ONE MINUTE, in Geology Time.

So I don't hold much (not much) contempt for people who insist against overwhelming evidence that Grandpa Weren't No Monkey. That little striated rock that just crumbled in your hand, that little clod of schmutz that you just hamfisted into dust, that rock is, quite literally, older than you can possibly understand....

The impulse against Darwinian evolution arises from an understandable desire for certainty, against random chance. Of course it also arises from just good ol' human hubris, from a refusal (or inability) to acknowledge the relatively recent discovery that we've inhabited a 4.5 billion-year-old rock in space for the tiniest, most infinitessimally insignificant doink of its existence. We can't possibly be an accident! We must be here for a reason!

Here's Richard Dawkins, in his concluding paragraphs to The Blind Watchmaker:
We have sought a way of taming chance, of drawing its fangs. "Untamed chance," pure, naked chance, means ordered design springing into existence from nothing, in a single leap. It would be untamed chance if once there was no eye, and then, suddenly, in the twinkling of a generation, an eye appeared, fully fashioned, perfect and whole. This is possible, but the odds against it will keep us writing noughts till the end of time. The same applies against the spontaneous existence of any fully fashioned, perfect and whole being, including -- I see no way to avoid the conclusion -- deities.

To "tame" chance means to break down the very improbable into less probable small components arranged in a series. No matter how improbable it is that an X could have arisen from a Y in a single step, it is always possible to conceive of a series of infinitessimally graded intermediates between them. However improbable a large-scale change may be, smaller changes are less improbable. And provided we postulate a sufficiently large series of sufficiently graded intermediates, we shall be able to derive anything from anything else, without invoking astronomical improbabilities. We are allowed to do this only if there has been sufficient time to fit all the intermediates in.... (My emphasis.)
If all the foregoing is a bit dense, let's call up another source for our conclusion, another of Life's Great Philosophers:
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger-all down here on Earth.

Postscript: If you're a geologist or an evolutionary biologist, I freely admit to pulling nearly all of that science gobbledegook right outta my fundamental aperture: I know precisely squadoosh about geology and what I know about evolution I got from Dawkins' book, which is an utterly compelling read and reinforces everything I've ever suspected about the nature of reality. The geology I got from a .edu site at The College of William and Mary. I probably misread all of it.

But I guarantee, you still can't imagine a million years.


Phil said...

I enjoyed that.

What little bits I could understand.

Bernard Purdie said...

I think it all pretty much went down like it did so's the universe could enable me to do those ass-kickin' drum fills in "Rain". Check it out- here's me recordin' 'em- that's George there in the foreground.

Man, I miss '66.

Neddie said...

Bernie! Baby! Don't sell yourself short, homes!

When you smacked the skins on "It Won't Be Long," you created whole universes!

Of course you miss '66, that was the last year you got paid.

Smashed said...

I like the one second is equivalent to 100 years time line.

In that compression, a long human life is 1 second long, cities and Agriculture have been around for about about a minute and a half, the dinosaurs went extinct about a week ago, and all of life fits into about 5 seasons...