By Barry Maher
Two hundred million years ago a sustained volcanic explosion centered in Florida split apart the ancient supercontinent. It created the Atlantic Ocean. It destroyed much of life on Earth. You or I may be having a bad day, but nothing that happened to either of us today was likely to be quite that bad. Chances are excellent that whatever I’m currently bothering myself about is unlikely to have quite that impact 200 million years from now. Or 200 years. Or next week.
In Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future, Nobel Prize winner H.J. Muller asked his readers to imagine the history of life on this planet as a rope reaching from Boston to the center of the desk in J.P. Morgan’s Wall Street office. That’s about 220 miles representing three or four billion years. The rope starts with the first primeval protoplasm—in the Massachusetts statehouse by the Boston Common. (I used to hang out around there when I was a kid, and I can attest that it’s still brimming with primeval protoplasm.)
Genes multiply, differentiate or mutate. The creatures along the rope in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Connecticut aren’t impressive. No actual four-footed land animals emerge until we’re well inside the New York City limits. In Harlem, the first mammals and birds show up. The last dinosaur is at 42nd Street. Monkeys develop near Macy’s. We’re already inside Morgan’s building before we get Neanderthals. According to Muller, “Man the wise,” homo sapien, “leaves his first remains within the private office, only seven and a half feet from the desk.” Three feet later, the initial signs of civilization appear.
“On the desk, one foot from the center, stands old King Tut. Five and a half inches from the center we mark the Fall of Rome and the beginnings of the Dark Ages. Only one and a half inches from the present end of the cord come the discovery of America and the promulgation of the Copernican theory [that the Earth revolves around the sun not visa versa]–through which man opens his eyes to the vastness of the world in which he lives and his relative insignificance.” Then, a half inch from the end, “The first faint reverberations of the Industrial Revolution . . . A quarter of an inch from the end, Darwin speaks, and man awakes to the transitory character of his shape and his institutions.”
Muller wrote this about a century ago but the scale is basically the same today. All of our history has happened in the last foot of a 220 mile chain of life. That’s 1/1,161,600th of the rope, .0000008 percent of life on the planet.
And, we don’t even want to talk about—nor are we really capable of conceptualizing—how insignificant that planet is in the scale of the Universe.
Now let me tell you about this HUGE problem I’m having with the plant manager in Boise.