Thursday, November 27, 2008
An Idiot's Guide to Evolution
“You said you needed more space, more time. Whole dimensions!”
Protagonist to her boyfriend, who has broken up with her. (From a novel in progress, by a writer whose name I have lost, Banff, 1999)
I think there are some things that the human mind is just not capable of grasping: how almost 50% of Americans voted for McCain/Palin, how a remote control really works, and deep time.
I guess it’s not our fault, at least the time part. We’ve buried it under human clutter, roads, houses, malls, sports arenas. Inside them our clocks are set to tick away in bite-sized pieces. We think in fragments of the day, maybe weeks, months, sometimes, though we resist it (look how we ignore history and are in denial about the future) years.
There’s a clock in Strasbourg with a gear that turns once every 1200 years. That’s more like it! You could sit and watch that gear making its infinitesimal progress and contemplate time. Or maybe we should all wear a geological watch, along with our Timex. Then, while we were obsessing about how quickly our kids grow up, how much we’ve aged, or how there’s never enough time to do everything we have to, we could look down at our wrist and notice the millennial hand hasn’t moved.
O.K., speaking of time, you have things to do today, so, where’s this going? This, of course, is about the Galapagos. Because since getting back I am not in culture, but rather in time shock. There are some landscapes that pull us back into the flow of deep time. Perhaps even before we understood how vast time is, we have been drawn to them. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which I picked up in the Houston airport) the party of young people (including the sensitive, intelligent heroine and the man of excellent wealth and character she agonizes over) take the air in Lyme. They went to the sands, to watch the flowing of the tide, which a fine south-easterly breeze was bringing in with the grandeur which so flat a shore admitted.
It is as if certain places quiet our minds, give us a little escape from the relentless micro-timing of life. Places where the land is opened, where we can see its bones: seashores, mountains, volcanic islands.
In the Galapagos the landscape is still being made by an oceanic hot spot. Moving through the islands, from newest to oldest lava is like moving through time, on stages where everything is laid out clearly for us, so that there is no way for us to misunderstand: here is the land, the sea, the tides and currents, here is the life that has arrived and been fashioned through time to thrive here: an idiot’s guide to evolution.
Still it takes mental effort to comprehend how a perfectly ordinary cormorant becomes flightless, sporting tiny stubs of wings, how an iguana, unlike other self-respecting lizards in the world, takes to the sea, its face becoming pug for grazing marine algae, its nostrils spritzing brine from glands which extract the extra salt from their blood.
For some people the effort seems to be too much. Here in the US nearly half the citizens (I would guess the same half that voted for McCain) do not believe in evolution, but rather that the world was created by God, in something like its present form, within the past 10,000 years.
This strikes me as odd. The world didn’t come to an end when we found we weren’t at the centre of the universe. The faithful simply re-arranged God’s cosmos and carried on.
I guess it’s harder for us to give up on ourselves as God’s special favourites than earth being his special planet.
Darwin knew what his theory meant. And he was a reluctant messenger. He waited years to publish. He lost his own faith. But he found consolation in the elegance of what lay spread before him and wrote “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
As for his fellow man, he wrote in a letter to the zoologist Asa Gray, “I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.”
I'm thinking a pair of boots this colour some day. Maybe the next time I'm in Montreal--that wonderful Greek boot maker (Imperial Boots) on rue de Bleury....