Flying back from Luxembourg I continued reading Richard Dawkins’ wonderful book The Blind Watchmaker. As someone who has taken Evolutionary theory for granted, I’ve realised since starting this book how little I really knew and how much I’ve subsequently learned. I’ve also begun thinking more seriously about religion and in particular Creationism. Creation myths are beautiful stories – I’ve always thought that – but when they are posited as theories and fact, one can only look on with some degree of despair. Reading this book has deepened that sense within me for Evolution and Natural Selection is not only an astounding theory but a beautiful fact of life.
I’ve often wondered what it is that Creationists and other religious persons object to when they insist that Evolution isn’t true – when clearly it is- and I think it can be summed up in one word: Time. We all find it very hard to conceive of Geological Time, that vast, incomprehensible span which makes each of us, as individuals, appear absurdly insignificant. We can easily imagine a century and even a millennium. We might if we have good imaginations contemplate the ice-age. But when we start considering the emergence of man 2 million years ago – let alone the Dinosaurs at 65 million – then we really start to struggle. Trying to imagine the age of the earth and we start gasping like a fish out of water.
As Professor Dawkins explains, we are not built to conceive of such spans of time such is why mutation (such as the fish leaving the water to walk upon the land) appears to us as absurd as a fish on a bicycle. We tend to ‘see’ these changes in our mind’s eye as happening within a length of time relative to our own brief lives. We see a fish suddenly sprout legs and leap onto land as if it were one in a garden pond taking a stroll on the lawn. Clearly it wasn’t like that. The length of time that was required for this process to occur is simply beyond our comprehension.
Before science began making strides out into the Universe and into ourselves, no-one could imagine the Earth and the Universe were so old. It made perfect sense to give them – or at least the Earth – an age within the grasp of human comprehension. It could be argued that the age of the Earth – given as a few thousand years – was arrived at, because it was at the limits of what the human mind could reasonably conceive. But what about the after life? Surely people could happily imagine eternity as a span beyond the supposed age of the earth? Well, yes, perhaps they could. But the difference between the eternity of life after death as opposed to the comparative eternity of time before life is stark. In the former, the individual being exists – one assumes as a soul, but in the latter the individual being has to contend with non-existence.
One of the most beautiful descriptions of the vastness of time comes from the seventeenth century and was written by Sir Thomas Browne in his book Urne Burial.
“We whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations. And being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh Pyramids pillars of snow, and all that’s past a moment.”
It was one thing to conceive of a span of time which made ‘all that’s past a moment,’ as being time of which one would somehow be aware or a part, but to conceive of the same span of time before one’s birth was – and is for many – quite impossible. My aunt once said to me ‘you have to believe in something.’ If you take that argument and turn it around it becomes quite telling: you can’t believe in nothing. Is religion therefore a consequence of a fear of nothing? And is a fear of nothing a fear of time?