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               Understanding the Universe

                                                                                                                              Earth Manifesto Insights

                                                                                                              Dr. Tiffany B. Twain  

                                                                                                             January 2006

The purpose of this essay is to present a brief summary of humanity's best modern understandings of the physical evolution of the Universe and the evolution of life on Earth.

In the beginning there was nothingness, to the best of our imagination, a Void without matter, devoid of any medium that could support anything similar to our anthropocentric concepts of life, intelligence, or the capability to plan, see, or feel.  This ultimate emptiness seems to somehow have contained within it the potentiality of everything that ever has been and ever will be.  

We might think of this as analogous to the biological potentiality in a small acorn that contains the entire genetic code for what can become a stately old oak tree.  Yet this analogy is very weak, for we cannot comprehend how the nascent Void contained anything.  How could nothingness contain matter, or physical laws, or life, or an omnipotent Divine Being hanging around with a handy blueprint for a grand scheme of existence?

An energetic precipitation of matter out of this nothingness resulted in a Universe hurtling outwards as if a Big Bang had occurred from some central black hole of creation.  An infinite unfolding of space and time and events has been transpiring since then, as an estimated 14 billion years have passed.  The laws of nature appear to be the only things that have never changed.  The nature of energy, light, gravity, and the qualities and the relationships described by the sciences of physics and chemistry and mathematics have apparently been in effect since the beginning of time.  Meanwhile, change in the Universe is continuous.  Even molecules and atoms seem to be in constant motion.

Scientists of various disciplines make careful observations to understand the extensive evidence of the physical evolution of galaxies, solar systems, planets, mountains, and life on Earth.  Our telescopes allow us to see far back in time, where we witness supernova explosions and the formation and dissolution of stars.  Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and it is arriving continually from thousands of billions of stars, each at great distances from all other stars.  Light takes 8 minutes to arrive from Sun, which is 93 million miles away.  It takes 4 years for light to arrive from Alpha Centauri, the second closest star to Earth.  And it takes light almost 14 billion years to arrive from the farthest galaxies that our telescopes can detect.

The implication of these facts?  When we look at the night sky, we see back into the history of the Universe to the way stars were at the time the light left them.  This understanding provides us with a cogent perspective of deep time, and of relativity.  It frames the context of our existence in this miniscule instant of time in our tiny portion of space in the far reaches of the Milky Way galaxy.

The Big Bang model is a respectable, rational, and coherent description for the creation and physical evolution of the universe.  It is an elegant explanation of the origin of everything we see in the night sky.  It is one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect and spirit.  It is the consequence of the human race's insatiable curiosity, its fabulous imagination, and much attentive observation and rigorous analysis and disciplined logic.  

Modern physics strives to understand infinity and eternity, order and chaos, creation and destruction, and the heat-forged transformation of atoms into elements in the stars.  Albert Einstein discovered the relatively inscrutable fact that matter and energy are equivalent.  He posited the famous equation that says that Energy is equal to Mass times the Speed of Light, squared.  Who would have thought!

Geologists today understand that all religious explanations of creation are distinctly simplistic, and factually inaccurate.  The Universe was neither recently created, nor has it existed for all of eternity.  Physicists and other scientists have found extensive evidence concerning the formative mechanisms and the physical evolution of our solar system and its planets.  Ten billion years after the Big Bang, our earth formed from matter orbiting the Sun.  In a very real sense, all matter and life on earth is composed of stardust, i.e., debris from ancient stars and supernovas and comets and asteroids.  Crater impacts on the moon lend to our imagination an evocative image of the probable process of matter accumulating into planetary and lunar masses.

Life apparently began within 500 million years after the Earth's formation.  For three billion years, all forms of life were single-celled organisms.  The insight that every species of life has a similar cellular anatomy is cogent evidence that all life forms emanated from common ancestors with a similar cellular structure.  

It is a misconception to think scientists believe we are descended from other species of life in existence today.  More accurately understood, we share with all species of life the similarity of having evolved from progenitors further back along the tree of life, as revealed by genetic similarities and the science of molecular biology.  Biological lineages for every species of life can be correlated to earlier ancestors that have genetic similarities at various removes back in ancient biological history.  For instance, humans may have a common ancestor with chimpanzees about 7 million years ago, and a common ancestor with rabbits 100 million years ago.

Plants use sunshine to create food, giving off oxygen as a byproduct through the process of photosynthesis.  When plants had created enough oxygen in the atmosphere on Earth long ago, iron oxides began to be formed into vast beds of iron ore in rock formations more than 2 billion years old.  Much red sandstone like that in the American Southwest dates from this era, and the preponderance of iron ore mined in the world was formed in those times, incomprehensibly long ago.

It does not take a great leap of faith to see the continuousness of change in natural processes.  Erosion wears away even the hardest of rock, so that with the passage of sufficient amounts of time, great changes affect the Earth.  The four seasons follow one another inexorably as planet Earth makes its stately voyage around the Sun every 365 days, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, and eon after eon.

The geophysical evolution of Earth can be seen in thousands and thousand of layers of sedimentary rock, like those composed of marine limestone that were formed on the bottom of the Indian Ocean and now comprise the summit of the planet's tallest peak, Mount Everest in the Himalayas.  Physical evolution can be seen in awesome eroded remnants of mountain ranges, in canyon mesas, in outwash plains, in glacial moraines, in active volcanoes, in metamorphic rock that has been uplifted and eroded down, in astonishing batholiths of granite like California's Sierra Nevada that were formed by hot magma cooled over long ages, and in fossil fuels that contain the stored energy of sunshine, thanks to ancient photosynthesis by plants.  

Natural processes and eons of change are evident everywhere, in every mountain range, every river, every volcano, every glacier, every sandstorm, every hurricane, every flood, and every season.

Consider this carefully: the evolution of life, like the physical evolution of the planet, is not some speculative theory.  Evolution is a fact supported by some of the most extensive evidence of any understanding ever.  The mechanisms of evolution may not be completely comprehensible, just as it is beyond our ability to fully fathom the eons-long evolution of earth's continents and oceanic crust, and its endless cycle of rock formation and erosion processes and mountain uplifting.  But this in no way implies that the grand sweep of evolutionary biological history is mere speculation!

Fossils are so rarely preserved, relative to the number of organisms that die and decompose, that the fossil record is quite incomplete.  This is because it takes very rare circumstances for bones and other traces of life to be preserved for millions of years.  But fossils are just one aspect of the physical evolution of our planet.  To deny the evolution of life is to also deny the greatest insight of geology -- that the Earth is billions of years old, and that given great amounts of time, continents move and mountains ranges are uplifted and erode away and climatic conditions change.  Ninety-nine percent of all species of life ever in existence are extinct, and life survives only if it is able to adapt to the changes.

Paleontology is the study of the physical evolution of earth through the examination of the fossil life preserved in sandstone, limestone, tar pits, amber, and other mediums.  Ancient fossil species represent life forms that existed in distant ages.  They provide us with evidence of the relative age during which the preserving medium was formed.  Even without modern methods of determining the age of sedimentary rock in which fossils are found, paleontological studies reveal the physical principle that older layers lie beneath more recently deposited layers.  The older the layers of rock, the more ancient are the species they contain.

The fossil record shows that there was a dramatic increase in varieties of life starting about 545 million years ago, when life somehow began evolving from single-celled organisms into more complex multi-cellular species.  This was the beginning of what scientists call the Paleozoic ("old life") Era, which was characterized by the appearance of primitive fishes, land plants, and amphibians.  It includes the Carboniferous Period, from 345 million to 280 million years ago, when extensive oil and coal-bearing rock formations were created from the fossilized remains of countless plants that died and were covered up on bottom of shallow seas.

The Paleozoic Era ended with the Permian Extinction.  The fossil record shows that this mass extinction event was the largest in all of evolutionary history.  Tens of thousands of species of life, including half of all fish species and invertebrates, 75% of all amphibians, and more than 90% of all marine animal species became extinct.

The next era in the fossil record is called the Mesozoic ("middle life") Era, which is comprised of the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous Periods from 245 million to 65 million years ago.  Two families of reptiles that survived the Permian Extinction began to show patterns in the fossil record of unprecedented growth, culminating in numerous forms of dinosaurs.  Primitive mammals and birds also evolved during the Mesozoic Era.  The Cretaceous Extinction, which evidence indicates was caused by a giant meteorite impact 65 million years ago, led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and thousands of other species of life, and the beginning of the Cenozoic ("recent life") Era.

The first mammals apparently evolved from highly specialized reptiles somewhere around 200 million years ago.  These primitive mammals developed into the insectivores, and eventually led to the emergence of true primates by the time of the Cretaceous Extinction.  Prosimians and then Anthropoid species evolved over the subsequent ages. Some fossil primates evolved high degrees of specialization, only to become extinct, whereas others developed into today's well-known monkeys, apes, and man.

Hominoid species evolved around 30 million years ago, including gibbons, great apes, and early man-like beings.  Our oldest direct ancestor in the fossil record appears to belong to the genus Ramapithecus from about 14 million years ago.  Homo erectus appeared about a million years ago.  Neanderthal man, perhaps an early member of our own species, Homo sapiens, dates from about 250,000 years ago, and modern man dates from somewhere around 150,000 years ago.

These understandings outline the unfathomable stretches of time revealed in our planet's geological history.  The human race's modern civilizations essentially begin with the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to the beginning of settlements about 10,000 years ago.  This development was facilitated by the beginning of primitive cultivation of crops at the dawn of recorded history, which led to extensive agriculture and the correlated growth of villages and towns and cities.

James Hutton, considered the father of the science of geology, discovered an "angular unconformity" in rock formations in England in the year 1795.  An angular unconformity is a juxtaposition of rock strata that gives clear evidence of two separate rock formation episodes, one on top of the other.  These layers lie at different angles to each other, meaning that they formed at significantly different times in separate eras of geological history.  Angular unconformities provide cogent evidence of the long process of the physical evolution of planet Earth.

A visit to Box Canyon just south of Ouray, Colorado, reveals one of these formations, where billion-year-old sedimentary rock strata, which have been compressed into many layers of very durable quartzite and black slate, have been uplifted until the layers are vertical instead of horizontal.  They had to have been subsequently covered by seas that allowed many more layers of sediment to be laid down, and these new layers have been transformed into layers of sandstone that lie perpendicular on top of the layers of older rock.  All of these rock layers have been revealed in Box Canyon by the uplifting and erosion of the Colorado plateau along a fault in the earth's crust.

James Hutton's insight led to the study of fossils in many thousands of different layers of rock worldwide.  Even before techniques were developed to determine the true age of rock layers, the successive eras of geological time began to be identified.  The science of paleontology studies this history of geology through the examination of fossils occurring in progressive stages in ancient rock.  A very good summary of the detailed evolution of our understanding of this illuminating era of discovery is contained in John McPhee's excellent book, Basin and Range.

Every good observer will note that erosion is a slow and incremental process, with such forces as rain and wind and ice acting on resistant rock almost imperceptibly.  Great floods and glaciers and hurricanes and volcanoes and earthquakes affect the landscape much more rapidly.  These facts make geologic change better understood as a kind of "punctuated equilibrium."  For instance, Los Angeles is moving northward on the Pacific tectonic plate of the Earth's crust, relative to San Francisco, which is on the edge of the North American tectonic plate.  In 1906, these plates moved almost 20 feet relative to one another in less than one minute as the Pacific Plate lurched northward along the San Andreas Fault.  The fault has not ruptured since then as forcefully.  But it is only a matter of time before the next Big One.  

Californians wonder when the next big earthquake will occur, barely cognizant that there will be 100,000 Big Ones in the next 15 million years, by which time Los Angeles will have moved to a latitude north of San Francisco.  Slow change accumulates into big differences!

Let us be realistic with ourselves about this fact:  no matter what interpretation we project upon the Universe, it does not affect its true nature.  Whether we actually believe that the sun rises every morning and orbits all the way around the earth every 24 hours, it does not change the fact that it is actually the rotation of the earth that makes it appear that the Sun rises and moves across the sky.  Likewise, if we think that the earth is flat, it does not change the way the earth actually is.

It may comfort us to create gods to explain the way things are, but we turn this into a serious problem when we deny scientific understandings that are vitally important to recognize.  It would does not matter what explanations we choose to believe if there were no adverse consequences of believing one way or another, but in cases where such beliefs create adversities and dangers to our well-being or even our survival, we must pay more attention to truth and probability.

Modern ecological understandings tell us that it is potentially calamitous to choose to deny the way things realistically are, environmentally speaking.  We are better off being more observant, open-minded, intelligent, critical of thought, and proactive when it comes to activities and behaviors that damage the environment, because we are intricately dependent upon the environs as a fundamental foundation of our existence.  We must be able to adapt to reality and objective truth.  When we carry a millstone of stubborn faith in doctrines that are socially and environmentally harmful, then we oppose rational understanding and intelligent planning and positive action to improve the world.

Many holy books suppose that the earth is young, and that it was created for mankind's dominion.  It is extremely improbable that this is literally true.  Faith in such doctrines is becoming increasingly dangerous.  Truer understandings -- ones that correspond more accurately to the way things actually are -- must be considered and respected.  As mankind's numbers grow, and our detrimental impacts become more pronounced on the planet's natural resources, atmosphere, climate, biological diversity, and healthy ecosystems, we simply must take this into serious account.  We must!

Now is the time to begin the transition from an unsustainable existence to an ecologically sound one.  Let us cease denying and arguing, and begin the challenging process of cooperating to improve our species' prospects and those of future generations.  Let us boldly commit to leave our descendents a legacy of sustainable consumption, wise development, fair institutions, sane economic systems, clear understandings, and protected lands and waterways and natural resources.

In other words, let us begin NOW to transform our societies with intelligent design into better ones!


      Dr. Tiffany Twain