Jun 152017
 

Every culture has its own origin story. They may be short anecdotes or elaborate narratives that help explain the mysteries of our existence. “Big History” is an origin story unlike any other. Instead of being rooted in a specific culture or geography, it presents a science-based perspective and is therefore the story of all of humanity. The Big History Project was started by Bill Gates and David Christian to enable the global teaching of what they describe as “the attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.”

This week, I’d like to present readers with a greatly simplified version of the Big History story in a form that can be shared with children – maybe sitting out in the backyard under a starlit sky. By knowing this story, they will understand that humans are deeply embedded in the natural world and hopefully be inspired to protect the myriad species and habitats with which we co-evolved. Learn the story yourself, and tell it to the children in your life. More information can be found at bighistoryproject.com

Humans are the Universe becoming aware of itself (Photo by Halfblue)

“Tonight, I’m going to tell you the most amazing story you’ve ever heard. And, even better, it’s true. The story is based on everything that science has discovered. Remember, science is the tool we use to find out what’s really true about the world around us. Let’s begin by looking up at the sky and at all those stars. It’s a big Universe out there. Bigger than you or I can possibly imagine. If you’re like me, you can’t help but wonder how and when all of this began. How and why are we here?

This story takes place over 14 billion years, which is an incredibly long time. It would take five human lifetimes to count to 14 billion. So, to make this easier, we’re going to imagine that the story is squeezed into one calendar year. In other words, the story will begin on January 1 and end on December 31.

Let’s get started… In the beginning, there was nothing. There were no humans, no dinosaurs, no rocks, no stars and not even space or time. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, but it’s true. Then, all of a sudden, there was a flash of very bright and very hot light. It was like an explosion, but brighter and more powerful than any explosion you or I could ever dream of. It was called ‘The Big Bang’ – the time when the Universe was born. It was January 1 on our time scale.

The Big Bang to the first stars – Wikimedia

At first, all there was heat and light. But, as the Universe began to cool, clouds of tiny particles called atoms began to form. These were the atoms of hydrogen – the main component of water – and helium – the gas we use in party balloons that float on air. Eventually, gravity started compacting these clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms. The temperature at the centre of each cloud grew higher and higher until, suddenly, there was a huge release of energy and Boom! – we had our first stars. Billions of them across the Universe. On our calendar, we are in mid-January.

Now, stars are like people; they are born and eventually die. When very large stars die and explode, they are called supernovae. They become so hot and their gravity so strong that the helium and hydrogen atoms are actually squeezed into new kinds of atoms like oxygen, iron, carbon and even gold. If you are wearing gold jewelry, the gold was made in a supernova explosion. So were all the other atoms in your body except hydrogen. These atoms include the calcium in your bones, the iron in your blood and the oxygen that binds with hydrogen to create the water that you drink.

Take a moment to think about what I just said. These old stars were actually our ancestors. They had to exist so that we could be here. We are made of their dust – stardust! Doesn’t knowing this make you feel like the Universe is a more wonderful place to live in?

Now, with all these different kinds of atoms swirling around younger stars like our Sun, they eventually combined to form asteroids, comets and planets. This is how our solar system and our Earth were formed four and a half billion years ago. On our time scale, we’ve jumped all the way to early September.

As the new planet Earth began to cool, rain fell for the first time and gathered into oceans. Beneath these oceans, at cracks in the ocean floor, heat seeped up from inside the Earth. New chemical reactions began to take place and atoms combined in all sorts of new ways. Some of these combinations were able to make copies of themselves and to eventually form an amazing chemical (molecule) called DNA. It’s the molecule in the genes of all living things. Scientists believe that this is probably how life began. Some think life may also have travelled here from another planet, maybe even Mars. On our time scale, we are now in mid-September.

Structure of the DNA molecule – Wikimedia

One of the most amazing things about DNA is that it’s not perfect. When it copies itself, mistakes sometimes occur. A mistake can have a positive effect, a negative effect or no effect. A positive effect, for example, might give a bird a bigger bill than other members of its species and therefore allow it to survive more easily. This new trait, which will be passed on to its young, can eventually result in whole new species. We call this evolution.

For most of the time of life on Earth, living organisms were very simple. Like present-day bacteria, they were made up of a single cell. However, these cells were still quite complex. Early plant cells, for example, evolved the ability to use the sun’s energy to make food through photosynthesis in which sunlight, water and carbon dioxide (the gas we exhale when we breathe) are converted into sugar and oxygen. On our calendar, this happened in late September.

An artist’s rendition of photosynthesis – Wikimedia

Then, about 700 million years ago (around December 5), living things made up of multiple cells began to appear. In the oceans, animals such as sponges and jellyfish emerged. The first ancestors of insects appeared in mid-December, followed by the first fish. On December 20, the first plants colonized the land when algae (seaweed) evolved ways to survive outside of water. Some of these plants were able to grow into trees when changes in their DNA led to the production of sturdy wood in the stems.

On about December 21, the first true insects appeared. Some, like dragonflies, have hardly changed since. Amphibians, like salamanders, evolved from fish that had developed the ability to crawl out of the water and breathe air. One of these, a fossil called Tiktaalik, was discovered in the Canadian arctic. It is part fish and part amphian. Next, reptiles like turtles appeared on the scene and, by Christmas day, the dinosaurs. The first mammals appeared December 26, the first birds on December 27 and the first plants with flowers on December 28.

An artist’s recreation of what Tiktaalik looked like – Wikimedia

 

Occasionally, there were disasters. Sixty-five million years ago (December 30 at 6 am on our scale), a 10 kilometre-wide asteroid smashed into the Earth near Mexico. It caused winter-like conditions over the entire planet. For a long time, it was impossible for plants to grow. The dinosaurs were wiped out. Many of our mammal ancestors, however, managed to survive and to flourish in the habitats left empty by the dinosaurs. Through evolution, they changed into many different species.

By late on December 30, some of these mammals had evolved into primates that lived in trees and evolved fingers and toes to hold onto branches. One group of primates, probably looking a little like today’s chimpanzees, learned to walk upright. These were the first primitive humans. They appeared on December 31 – New Year’s Eve – at about 10 pm.

Over time, because of changes in DNA and reasons that we’re just beginning to understand, the human brain tripled in size. With bigger brains, humans were able to develop language and became much better at learning, remembering and passing on information to the next generation. They adopted wolves, which became the dogs we know today. The dogs helped them hunt and provided protection. By eight minutes before midnight on December 31, these early humans looked almost identical to us.

About 70,000 years ago, some humans left the plains of Africa and began migrating to new continents like Europe, Asia and North America. Each migration involved learning — learning new ways of dealing with their surroundings.

Model of Homo erectus – an ancestor of today’s humans – Wikimedia

Then, just 10,000 years ago (18 seconds before midnight) humans learned to farm. With all the food they were able to produce, the human populations got much larger and different groups of humans became more connected to each other. Written language was invented and humans learned to read. At two seconds before midnight, Christopher Columbus traveled to the Americas.

In the last second of our time scale, all of modern history has taken place. With cars, airplanes, radio, phones and now the Internet, humans have become more connected than ever. This has allowed us to learn faster than ever, too. And, in the last 200 years, something else has happened. We stumbled on a cheap, incredibly powerful source of energy in the form of fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil. Fossil fuels and connected learning together explain the modern world we see around us. At the same time, however, burning fossil fuels is changing our climate and making our future less certain. It may be difficult to live as we are now in the climate that is coming.

So, hear we are at the campfire. We’ve been on a journey of almost 14 billion years. Don’t you feel lucky to know the true story of how we humans, along with all the other species and modern civilization came to be here? Where the story goes from here is largely up to us. How will you help?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 062014
 

Human beings are questioning animals. It is in our genes. And nowhere is the desire for answers greater than when it comes to the question of our origins.  But how we arrive at these answers really matters – as does how we arrive at knowledge in general. There are very real   dangers when we ignore reality and simply forge ahead with claims and beliefs that are not supported by scientifically-proven evidence. At a personal level, it results in people getting caught up in all manner of scams and delusions like the effectiveness of homeopathic medicine and astrology. At a societal level, ignoring reality has done great damage to the teaching of evolution. It has also resulted in near-complete inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to a very effective campaign to distort and lie about climate science and to mislead the public.   

Structure of the DNA molecule

Structure of the DNA molecule

            Believing things on insufficient evidence – e.g., that the creation story of the Bible is literally true – is still hindering students from knowing the real story of how we, as human beings, came to be.  When fully understood and felt emotionally, the power and the wonder of evolution should inspire all of us profoundly. What this story says is that every bacterium, plant, fungus and animal that ever existed— and, yes, every person  — owes its existence to a completely unbroken stream of DNA stemming from the earliest self-replicating organism through to every creature living today.   But yet, many teachers still feel  uncomfortable teaching this foundational part of science because of  push-back from creationist students and parents –  something I experienced as a teacher.  I would argue that even at the high school level, we do a poor job of teaching  evolution. Just ask your own kids how much they know about it.

            I am addressing this subject partly  in response to Jim Mason’s recent Examiner column “Answers to new story found in the old story” (January 13, 2013) in which he makes the extraordinary claim that DNA evidence points to  dinosaurs roaming the planet 4500 years ago, and that they died in “the global flood that formed the fossils.” As outrageous as these claims may be, they don’t stem from any lack of education on Mason’s part.  He has a BSc in engineering physics and a PhD in experimental nuclear physics. The reason for these assertions lies in the fact that Mason is a biblical creationist and speaker for Creation Ministries International. According to the biography that appears on the creation.com website, Jim Mason believes that “the Bible is believable from first verse to last.”

            Claims such as these clearly demonstrate how creationists engage in belief without evidence.  This is not because they are bad people, lack  intelligence or are not being exposed to the scientific arguments, but rather because of a belief system that prevents acceptance of reality. The religious beliefs that they have bought into – or, as is usually the case, instilled with since childhood – have constructed a brain that is unable to deal with science honestly. Why? Because science disproves what they believe, and belief is their starting point, not evidence.  If, for example, evolution was  untrue – what Mason is implying –  you can be sure that some ambitious scientist would have exposed the faulty science by now and  have become as famous as Charles Darwin in the process. Mason knows this.

Albertosaurus display at the Royal Terrell Museum near Drumheller, Alberta

Albertosaurus display at the Royal Terrell Museum near Drumheller, Alberta

            If we lower our standard of evidence to the point that it is acceptable to voice claims about the literal truth of the Bible with all its miracles – just because such beliefs may be  comforting and  appear on the surface to be  morally superior – then we have no good reason to reject any claims of miraculous events. These would include Mohammed being carried to heaven on a winged horse or, according to some Muslims, that martyrs will be greeted by 72 virgins upon their death. Is this the kind of thinking we want to condone and leave unchallenged in an age of nuclear weapons? By respecting the claims of biblical literalists, we give cover and respectability to all kinds of religious beliefs, some of which are incredibly damaging. Just look at what homosexuals are facing in Russia as a result of pressure on the government from the Russian Orthodox Church.

             One reason why creationists reject the theory of evolution is because it doesn’t elevate humans above other forms of life. In other words, it doesn’t make us feel special. But, should we not feel special as humans that we alone have a brain that has evolved to the point of being able to unravel, understand and appreciate the true story of how we came to be? No other organism can claim that. And isn’t that an accomplishment hugely more impressive and awe-inspiring than believing in miracles?  The truth is indeed more “magical” than is any myth.

What is science?

            Unfortunately, the word science is loaded with preconceptions, many of them  negative or at least stereotypical. White lab coats, bubbling beakers and emotionless researchers come to mind. We therefore need to be reminded of what science really is, namely the best way humans have come up with yet to acquire knowledge and to understand the world.  Scientists are motivated by the excitement of discovering or explaining something new, knowing all the while that other scientists will be closely scrutinizing their work. They are also motivated by debunking old explanations if they can be proved false. So far, both evolution and man-made  climate change have withstood every argument that has been presented to disprove them. And, by the way, Jim Mason, too, denies that humans are causing climate change (Peterborough Examiner, Nov. 6, 2013).

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

   The idea that science has nothing to offer our spiritual lives is also untrue. On the contrary, the revelations of science should add immensely to our capacity to feel awe and wonder – all the more so because no leap of faith is required. Part of the problem is that science is usually taught as a purely practical subject. What we need is much more of a “Carl Sagan” approach, especially for younger children. Sagan was an American astronomer, author and science communicator, known especially for his award-winning 1980 television series “Cosmos”, which can be still be found on YouTube. I’m sure that Sagan would say that the greatest value in understanding evolution, for example, is as a source of wonder. It doesn’t matter if you can’t quite grasp all of the genetics involved. There is an analogy here with music. You can be a lover of music and appreciate all of its emotional depth without being a musician or having any understanding of music theory. We need to teach students in such a way that they feel the same awe, wonder and emotion in science that we all recognize in music.  

             And, yes, there are things that science cannot yet fully answer, but that doesn’t mean that the default explanation is “God did it”. Often, the only honest answer is: “This is something we don’t yet understand, but we’re working on it.” How life got started in the first place is one such question. Interestingly enough, according to a recent article in the Globe and Mail (January 25),  a Canadian Nobel Prize-winning biochemist at Harvard University, Dr. Jack Szostak, believes that the mystery of how life began will be answered during the course of his remaining scientific career. He is 61 now.   

            Living on a planet of seven billion people with limited resources and civilization-ending weapons, we really do need to care whether or not our beliefs are true and not simply comforting or tailored to fit our ideology. We need to develop a habit of mind in which we follow the evidence to where it leads, instead of leading the evidence to where we want it to go. We need to be willing to change our mind when the evidence warrants it. In many situations, we also need to be able to say “I don’t know”.  

            We also need to see the wonder in what we do know. As Elizabeth Johnson wrote, we do know this: “Out of the Big Bang, the stars; out of the stardust, the Earth; out of the Earth, single-celled living creatures; out of evolutionary life and death of these creatures, human beings with a consciousness and freedom.”  Seen in this way, science, along with evidence-based thinking, can help us feel connected to the natural world and hopefully help us strive to be far better stewards. A literal belief in the Bible, however, sets humans apart from nature and is  one reason why we are seeing such devastating environmental degradation.

 

Dec 262013
 

 

I remember feeling sad

That miracles don’t happen still

Now I can’t keep track

Because everything’s a miracle.

From “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer

 

Artist's impression of supernova (Wikimedia)

Artist’s impression of supernova (Wikimedia)

The great wheel of the year has once again brought us to the end of December. At this time of reflection, we have much to be grateful for. At the same time, however, it is easy to become disillusioned. From the continued muzzling of Canadian scientists by the federal government to the failure of climate change talks in Warsaw, there seems to be less and less respect for science and for evidence-based decision making in general. Too many of us still go on believing things that have been proven demonstrably false – one example being that we can continue to pour CO2 into the atmosphere with little or no negative effects.

I have long believed that the starting point for ushering in a more rational, evidence-based way of thinking is to respect and honour evidence of the most fundamental kind, namely the evidence from mainstream science that explains our place and story in the Universe. A story is something that allows us to orient ourselves in the world and to find our way forward. It tells us who we are and thereby provides fundamental meaning to our lives.

The story I’m referring to is nothing less than what it means to be human and to be surrounded by this Universe from which we emerged. Not knowing, honouring and embracing the story as “revealed” by science is what allows human society to have so little regard for the health of the planet and for the flourishing of other life forms. It explains how we are able to live in denial about climate change and other existential threats. As human beings, we experience ourselves, our thoughts and our feelings as somehow being outside of nature and that we live on Earth like on some kind of stage. We now know, however, that this too is a kind of delusion.

 

The Old Story  

The old story of what it is to be human – some might call it the redemption story – was informed mostly by traditional religion in a time pre-dating modern science. It came to us through private revelation – revelation that we never used to question because, prior to science, we had no real way of knowing anything for certain.

Although the Old Story sustained us for millennia, we now know that it does not reflect the true nature of the Universe. It tells us that we are not part of nature but somehow outside and above it, that nature is there for our consumption and, in some forms of this story, that all that really matters is what awaits us after death. The Old Story is what allows some religious fundamentalists to blow themselves up since they know they will be going to Heaven. Clearly, this story is no longer sustaining us, especially in a world with seven billion people and nuclear weapons. Nor has it provided any kind of meaningful response to the environmental crisis.

 

The New Story

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

What is the New Story? In simplest terms, the story is one of never-ending creativity. It begins with the Big Bang, a great radiance of light that occurred some 13.7 billion years ago. Flaring forth from a space infinitesimally small, the Universe expanded and cooled. As the elementary particles stabilized, hydrogen and helium atoms were formed and eventually gathered together to make stars. When these stars died in stellar explosions known as supernovae, the helium and hydrogen atoms were transformed into new atoms that had not existed before such as carbon, oxygen, phosphorous and iron – the stuff of all life.

Another level of creativity appeared when planets such as our Earth began to take shape. The stage was now set for yet another blossoming of ingenuity in the Universe – the emergence of life about four billion years ago. Over unfathomably long eons of time, organisms became more complex. Life started packaging itself in multicellular forms. Some forms were able to capture the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. Other forms became predators. The predator-prey relationship would lead to novelty upon novelty. Eventually, everything from eyesight to sexual reproduction emerged, often independently and in different ways in different organisms.

And then something took place about seven million years ago in Africa that ignited a new line of apes that acquired massive brains and the ability to dream, ponder, show compassion, remember and anticipate. Whatever the exact mechanism, consciousness arose, thanks largely to our ability to externalize our thinking through oral and written language. This, in turn, led to the staggering cultural and scientific accomplishments of Homo sapiens. So, who are we as human beings? In the words of Carl Sagan, “we are the embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins – starstuff pondering stars!” Like every other living thing, we have emerged from the elements created in supernovae and the interplay of sunlight, water, atmosphere and especially time.

As humans, we are meaning-making creatures. Possibly one of the first events we pondered was the Winter Solstice. On December 21st   the northern hemisphere is tipped farthest away from the sun. From our perspective, we see the sun tracing its lowest arc through the southern sky. The solstice has always been a time of awe and amazement and is believed to have been a precursor to faith. As the hours of daylight grew shorter and shorter, our ancestors thought the end of the world was coming   But, just when the world appeared to be on the brink of utter darkness, the sun would once again begin to climb higher and higher in the sky. Clearly, this was a time for rejoicing and giving thanks.

 

Inspiration

A huge part of understanding and embracing the New Story is its ability to answer all of the fundamental questions of who we are. But just as importantly, it inspires wonder. How could a curious young person who has been taught this story not want to become a scientist! There is still so much to be discovered and explained, including the exact mechanisms of the origin of life and how the Universe emerged from “nothing”. Supernatural explanations are no longer required. Modern physics has even discovered that there is always “something,” even in the vacuum of deepest space.

Snowy Owl (Karl Egressy)

Snowy Owl (Karl Egressy)

Seen through the lens of evolution, every life-form that exists is far more amazing than we ever could imagine. Although our education system still does a terrible job of teaching it, we now understand how this process works: All organisms struggle to survive and reproduce but many fail. Thanks to random genetic mutations, some creatures are born with a helpful trait (e.g., a slightly bigger beak) and are therefore the most likely to survive and reproduce. Parents pass on the useful trait(s) to their young. Over time these new traits lead to a new species. When I look at plants and animals, such as the Snowy Owl I saw last week, I try to reflect on just how magical the reality of evolution actually is. Is it not incredible that this process can mold a creature with fringed feathers for silent flight, asymmetrical ear placement for pin-point hearing precision and front-facing, tubular eyes for visual acuity we can’t even imagine? Even naturalists need to be far more appreciative of the evolutionary wonder of every organism they contemplate. As Peter Mayer sings, “everything’s a miracle.”

 

A religious view

If one wants to use the language of religion, an understanding of the New Story as holy enlarges and enlivens faith. God can be understood as the divine, proper name for the Wholeness of Reality, including the intrinsic creativity of the Universe that is at the core of the New Story. This is not to imply that there is a force or intelligence that is making evolution or the Cosmos itself go in a particular direction. As for Jesus, it is his humanity that is all important, not his supposed divinity. We, of course, are reminded of his transformative compassion at Christmas. For me the carols and hymns inspire as much joy and Yuletide goodwill as ever. In some ways, I probably appreciate them even more now, since I no longer have the burden of trying to convince myself that the many miracles eluded to are factually true.  If we are ever to respect science and evidence, we need a spirituality that is coherent with reality. Civilization is far more likely to thrive if people everywhere are offered ways of thinking about science – and especially evolution – that they can enthusiastically embrace.