Monday, September 03, 2007

Deep Time Trippin'

All human beings have a difficult time with – time. That is, trying to imagine deep time or, as it is commonly referred to in the science articles and books I’ve read, “time in geological terms”. As in, “100,000 years. That's a blink of the eye in geological terms.”

The explanation I’ve heard that makes the most sense is that, intelligent though we are, our brains are not evolved to comprehend deep time. The American writer John McPhee is generally credited with the term "deep time” and for exploring its implications. It is the same problem our minds have in grasping enormous numbers, microscopic life, the size of our universe, or the dizzying complexity of some of the cosmological hypotheses from the past 100 years.

Our minds were adapted to day-to-day survival during the past 3 million years on the African savannas. Richard Dawkins, among others, has referred to this a number of times including in his book “The Ancestor’s Tale” (2004). We had to survive by understanding months, years and (at most) decades. We needed to count from one to ten and, occasionally, up to the low hundreds. Humans dealt with objects in sizes ranging from a grain of sand to a mountain. Nothing else was part of the evolutionary landscape, and our amazing abilities today are simply by-products of that specific evolutionary setting. The fact that we can conceptualize beyond these simple things is really a great tribute to the complexity of the human mind.

In contemplating the creationist belief that this entire world was created just 6,000 years ago, we can see this problem in action. To these believers, 6,000 years is an enormous amount of time. For anyone who has studied a little geology or cosmology, it quickly becomes clear 6,000 years (although a huge number for people who might, at best, live to be 100 years old) is not long ago. It’s yesterday.

If we go back day by day to the creationist “beginning of time” it would be about 2,190,000 days. Over 2 million days! Surely that is a long, long time ago?

No, it’s not.

Compare that 2 plus million days to The Hawaiian Islands, a volcanic chain, that had barely started poking out of the Pacific Ocean over 2 billion days ago. To go back to the day the last dinosaur walked this planet we would travel nearly 23 billion days. We would travel back nearly 100 billion days to see the first of these dinosaurs. Over 200 billion days ago the first multi-cellular life was spreading. And we would have barely begun the day by day journey back to first single cell organisms and even further yet to the earth’s beginning.

Number’s like these are hard to grasp for the most intellectually advanced, who spend their lives studying the sciences of archaeology, genetics, biology, paleontology, geology, cosmology, etc. For the average person who hardly (if ever) gives it a thought – it’s nearly impossible. For us average folks, 2,190,000 days ago does indeed seem like “forever”.

The response from creationists to this usually takes the form of doubts about science itself, and its ability to accurately estimate such ages. It’s interesting when one doesn’t accept scientific evidence that life began billions of years ago in oceans or tide pools as single celled organisms, but is completely credulous to the bible when it claims that human life was simply created out of the mud or clay of the earth a few thousand years ago.

The reasons why we can trust the findings of science on these matters deserves its own post and will have to wait for another day. Meanwhile, ponder this phrase – Convergence of Data.

After I finished writing this post, the following video was brought to my attention. I think it completes my point.


PhillyChief said...

Yeah I guess it's like how I can't fathom how long people have been believing some of this religious dogma like a 6,000 year old Earth but at a constant rate of ignorance it all becomes plausible. ;)

Sillysighbean said...

Thanks for posting! I recently took up an interest in Astronomy and I have having a difficult time wrapping my mind around these vast distances between things. I try to imagine sitting in a spaceship traveling the speed of light and it STILL takes me 100,000 years to transverse our itsy bitsy grain of a galaxy. I cannot even grasp the number 100,000! I feel better now knowing my brain has not evolved to comprehend such things and I am not a dolt after all.hahaha..Keep up the good work..

Sillysighbean said...

ooops , i should preview first what i post..but it was my first day back at school and I am still on summer hours ..or maybe i am a dolt after all.