Need To Know

To assess our universe's potential to create other life and intelligence, we need a framework for understanding our own arrival on Earth. What is this place and how did we get here? We need to know, so we construct cosmologies. A multitude of fine origin tales suggest themselves, but they can't all be true. How do we choose? We can test our answers against the nature of nature itself.

The tale of Cosmic Evolution is our new origin story. Over the past four hundred years, we've found some answers, at least partial and provisional ones, to many of our oldest questions: "How did the world begin, and when?" "How does life work?" "Who were the first humans?" "What are the heavens made of, and how are they related to us?" Once these may have seemed to be disconnected, independent mysteries. Now we've found that the answers can all be woven together into one continuous chronicle: our journey from universal birth through galaxies, stars and planets, elements, molecules, and life, into mind, and then, perhaps, onward to something beyond.

This story has not been handed down, but dug up and cobbled together. It is full of holes, inconsistencies, and paradox. An inexhaustible stream of new evidence ensures that it is a living myth, a script always in rewrite. Paradoxically, this provisional and changing nature of the story of Cosmic Evolution is what gives it its great credibility. We see it improving before our very eyes, admitting error and making corrections. It's getting so much better all the time.

What do I mean when I say this is "our" origin story? Just whom am I referring to? A bunch of males who are not only dead but white? Is this story accepted and embraced by everyone? Of course not. But our knowledge of Cosmic Evolution is not in conflict with the core beliefs of most of the religions, and it certainly isn't necessary to discard or discredit older origin stories to embrace this new one. Even if you go to church, temple, or ashram for the singing and the dancing (that's the part I like), for the comfort of spiritual community, or to receive ancient wisdom, you probably accept that science has clued us in to some big truths about our origins that the writers of our ancient texts could not have known. Except for some Rastas I used to play with in a reggae band, and some Jehovah's Witnesses who've knocked on my door, I haven't met many people who take a seven-day Genesis literally.

Clearly, if our society endorses any "official" story of genesis, it is the scientific account. It is the most generally accepted origin scenario in our culture, and the one we teach in public schools, when we bother to teach about origins at all. Strange, isn't it, that science has become the keeper of official wisdom? Since Galileo's time, science has grown from an upstart, radical fringe to a dominant worldview. To punish us for our contempt for authority, fate made us secular priests with pocket protectors.

Yet, the story of Cosmic Evolution itself is not well-known or widely celebrated. This new creation story is typically regarded as an impressive work that is quite incomprehensible to nonexperts. Most people do not look to this story for vital beliefs and satisfying answers to deep questions. Rather, they think of it as science. Many people associate science with a dry recitation of facts or torture by algebra while waiting for the clock to signal freedom from incarceration. So here we've found what seem to be convincing clues to our real origins, a story about a point of nothingness exploding and evolving over billions of years to generate our entire universe of galaxies and flowers, and many regard the tale as Dullsville. Maybe we're not telling it in the right way.

Part of the problem is that an ethos running deep within our profession suggests that science, to be objective, must be devoid of passion. The conduct of research does require a dispassionate attitude. When we do science, we have to practice nonattachment. To keep ourselves honest, we have to pretend not to care and always be willing to accept nature's verdict on our precious theories.

But we've spent too much time in the lab, and something has gone wrong. This necessary emotional distance has led to a Spock-like detachment in the way we share science with the rest of the world. It's all too easy to lapse into a science-class drone when telling the story of Cosmic Evolution—the same, almost obligatory dry tone in which it was taught to us. When we discover something fantastic about the age of the Earth, the history of life, or our true location among the stars and galaxies, we should be shouting it out with glee, not droning on with only dim life signs. Why aren't we singing the song of the galaxies on television and doing the DNA dance in every town square?

Certainly Cosmic Evolution is the story I was brought up to believe, but I've also studied enough of the evidence that now I think my continuing belief represents more than the tendency to retain the views of one's parents. It wasn't exactly Fiddler on the Roof in our household, but in my upbringing as a secular humanist Jewish American, I did learn some of the traditional stories. Each year, we held a Passover seder with a gathering of relatives and friends and recited the Haggadah, the tale of the escape of the Jewish people from slavery, as the kids and some adults fidgeted in eager anticipation of matzo ball soup. I suppose the association with good food is part of the secret of the success of this ritual—whose story has survived intact for thousands of years, much of that time primarily as oral history. Maybe what the story of Cosmic Evolution needs is a similar association with a family gathering and an enticing hot meal.

Though I was deprived of (or saved from) spending my Sundays learning the tale of Genesis, I picked up the basics later on. Genesis, like many other prescientific takes on our origins, contains a kind of temporal anthropocentrism: not only are humans the focus and the crown of creation, but the universe itself is only 5,775 years old. Thus the entire scope of all existence is held to be not much longer than the time during which people have been walking the Earth (five days longer according to Torah).* In the absence of evidence to the contrary, why assume that the world is older than we are? But we now know that our entire written history is just a one-sixteenth note in a long cosmic symphony of many movements.

Try to stretch your mind around the sweep of time envisioned in this new tale: ten thousand times a thousand times a thousand years. Just as the Copernican revolution and its aftermath put us in our place in space, teaching us that we are very small and not centrally located, Cosmic Evolution shows our time to be tiny. Humans have been around for perhaps a few million years, a hundredth of a percent of all existence, so far. Next to nothing.

Feeling diminished? Not to worry. This story invites us to identify with something much larger: our biosphere—the totality of life on Earth. "We," Earth's biosphere, have been around for a thousand times longer, for several billion years. This is a significant fraction of cosmic history, perhaps a third of it. So we are not so small, in time.

In one sense, this tale cannot compete with the older origin stories because there are no people in it. Most chapters have no characters at all, just particles and forces following blind compulsions of physical law, and from this perspective it's only the story of an elaborate machine. Not that exciting, really. But through all its stages, the universe has been molting, preparing to awaken, becoming us and everything else.

The presence of human minds, then, permeates this story, along with the minds of any counterparts who may be watching the same drama unfold from distant stellar perches. We've been in it all along. Cosmic Evolution is not "merely" science. Longing to know our origins is a spiritual itch that this story can help us scratch.

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