Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Wonder of What We Are

So we're cousins to moles, to fish and tadpoles,
  Don't smile friends, beware--that's called "science" today...
Those are the first two lines of a bit of verse written by Arthur I. Brown, M.D., possibly the most prominent creationist of the second quarter of the twentieth century, though he may not be remembered much today. (Source: The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, by Ronald L. Numbers, University of California Press.) Brown's intent, of course, was to ridicule evolution, and the "smile" he had in mind was one of derision; at the end of the poem he insisted that "Not one ape roosts in my family tree!"

That shows an attitude that's characterized creationists up to the present day; the very idea of relationship with apes and lower animals seems to strike them as distasteful at best. But why should it? What's wrong with being related to other animals? Though frequently it's claimed that this reduces man to the same status as beasts, no more moral and no more valuable, this is a complete non sequitur. Man certainly has something that other animals don't--high intelligence, sentience, and consciousness of our status--, and while the question of animal rights may be a valid issue, it's one that's entirely independent of our biological relationship.

I don't see the fact that we're related to other animals--and, for that matter, much more distantly to plants, fungi, and even protists and bacteria--as anything to get upset about. On the contrary, I think it's wonderful to contemplate that the squirrels we see running across the grass, the birds we hear singing in the trees, even the very trees they're singing in, are in fact very distant relatives, that many millions of years ago we came from the same stock. Even in the case of household pests like the cockroach and the mouse, reviled as they may be, there's something marvelous in knowing that they and we share the same ancient ancestry. We may not be literal children of God, but we are something far more fascinating and more spectacular; we are the result of billions of years of complex processes and slow changes, culminating--for now--in the current life on Earth, humanity as well as other organisms.

Recognizing our relationship to the rest of the biological world doesn't debase man; it uplifts us, more than supposing we're arbitrary creations of some supernatural being ever could. It's often been said (though I've been unable to track down the originator of the phrase) that man is "a little higher than the beasts, a little lower than the angels". Many modern Christians disagree with the first part, insisting that we're more than a little higher than the beasts, but all (as far as I know) agree on the second, which is straight out of Psalms--however high we may be above the beasts, Christianity teaches that we're a little lower than the angels. But the truth is that in a sense we are the angels. We are, again, the only representatives of life on Earth to have attained full sentience and consciousness and the potential to be aware of our condition, and so it falls to us, in a way, to be the messengers (which is what "angel" literally means). In a sense, we do, as the Bible says, have dominion over the other creatures on the Earth--but not because God gave it to us, but because we're the only beings on Earth with the capacity to exercise that dominion.

As awe-inspiring as it is to think on the processes that have led to humanity today, and our relationship to the creatures with which we share the Earth, it is, of course, humbling too. It's humbling to realize that we arose from the same processes that gave rise to the slug and the fly and the dandelion, that we and they operate by many of the same internal mechanisms, that we're much more similar to even the lowliest of our fellow creatures than we may outwardly appear. But it's important not to confuse humility with contempt--I don't think an understanding of humanity's place in nature makes man at all contemptible. Humility is a healthy attitude that even Christianity recognizes as a virtue, and a proper humility allows us to recognize, among other things, that while we may have dominion over other creatures, we also have the incumbency to use that dominion wisely and responsibly.

Of course, it's not only evolution that fosters these feelings of transcendence and humility. Pretty much everything we discover about man's place in the natural world is similarly awe-inspiring. Take cellular biology, for instance. What we see--and experience--as a continuous organism is really a colony of trillions of cells, each in a way a separate organism in its own right. I, at the same time as I am a discrete and conscious entity, am also a community of trillions of smaller entities, working together in concert to make a gestalt whole that I experience as, well, me. Moreover, there's evidence that individual (eukaryotic) cells may themselves have originated as colonies of smaller organisms, that some of the organelles within the cells--the mitochondria, specifically--can also in a sense be regarded as symbiotic organisms in their own right. I am a colony of colonies, a community of communities. So are you. What can be more wonderful than that? Especially when one considers that each cell is itself made up of many billions of atoms. Or when one thinks on the other end of affairs, and considers whether we may in turn be part of larger "organisms", whether, just as the cells in our body combine to give rise to us as conscious entities, there may be a sense in which our communities, collections of people, may in turn be living organisms of which we are parts...

And then, of course, there's astronomy. The Earth on which we live, and on which also live all the other organisms that have been mentioned here, is one of a handful of planets orbitting the Sun, a star a million times the Earth's size. Moreover, the distance from the Earth to the Sun is more than ten thousand times the Earth's diameter, and some of the other planets are an order of magnitude farther out still; relative to the size of the entire solar system, the Earth, the stage of all humanity's existence and experience (the jaunt a handful of humans have made only as a far as the relatively close moon aside), is absolutely minuscule. And yet the Sun itself is just one of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is a hundred million times as wide as the orbit of the outermost planet in the solar system. The Milky Way, in turn, is an average galaxy, possibly one of literally infinitely many in the universe as a whole...And yet, for all the vastness of the universe, we still have something in common with it, and we still have a place within it. We're made of the same basic constituents, the same fundamental particles, as the stars themselves (and presumably as the dark matter that seems to permeate much of the universe, though scientists aren't quite sure just what that is yet). And the stars play an important role in our own development. The atoms that make us up, with the exception of the very lightest, were fashioned by fusion in the hearts of stars, and most of the heavier ones in particular are probably the debris of supernova explosions. The billion-year cycles of star life and death play an essential role in enabling our own much more ephemeral existences. We are made of dead stars. And, though as of yet humanity's impact on anything outside our own solar system has been negligible, who knows what the future may bring, and whether perhaps, as our technological abilities increase, we may yet leave a significant mark on areas beyond the tiny provinicial sphere we've hitherto been confined to?

All of this, it seems to me, is much more interesting, much more awe-inspiring, much more humbling, than any mere supposition that we were simply placed here by some supernatural being, that the Earth and our fellow creatures are nothing more than such a being's relatively recent creations. Contemplating what science has revealed to us about life, about the Earth, about the universe, and about our place in them all, can lead to about as profound and transcendent and--in a sense--as spiritual a feeling as one could possibly hope for.

So yes, Dr. Brown's mockery notwithstanding, we are cousins to moles, to fish and tadpoles--and to mushrooms and lobsters and paramecia and, less literally, even to stars and comets.

And, yes, it is something to smile about.


At 4/25/2007 6:15 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

I'd rather be related to a paramecium than Dr. Brown here or GW Bush but, alas, I am related to all three of them.

Wonderful post.

At 4/27/2007 6:36 AM, Blogger vjack said...

Great post, and I heartily agree that awe of the natural world is so much more rewarding than making up a sky daddy.

At 4/29/2007 11:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post.

Somebody (Douglas Adams I think) once said "isn't it enough that the garden is beautiful without imagining that there are fairies at the bottom of it"?

That about sums up my attitude towards the universe, why do we need to invent supernatural beings when the natural world is so amazing?

And I'd really rather be related to a paramecium then to GWB or Fred Phelps. Heck, I'd rather be related to E. coli and samonella then Fred Phelps.

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