Deep Time

In the presence of eternity, the mountains
are as transient as the clouds.

-- Robert Green Ingersoll

There’s an old joke that God invented time to keep everything from happening all at once. The curators of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky faced a similar dilemma in trying to cram 4.5 billion years of geological evidence into the 6,000 years of biblical time that have supposedly elapsed since the Garden of Eden. The $27-million museum opened in 2007 to present a “scientific” account of how the world began, consistent with a literal reading of the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis. In order to account for all those fossils of extinct species that keep turning up in sedimentary rock, the museum’s exhibits show dinosaurs wandering through Adam and Eve’s back yard and later riding as passengers on Noah’s ark. The so-called new Earth creationists face an even bigger challenge explaining how starlight from galaxies billions of light-years away can reach our planet if the universe is only 6,000 years old. Despite their clumsy efforts to meld science and religious dogma, the universe they depict is not only much younger than anything scientists could accept but also infinitely smaller.

Until the last two centuries, people could take comfort in the fact that the world they lived in had been built on a more-or-less human scale. Using genealogies and other evidence from the Bible, a 17th-century Anglican archbishop named James Ussher could confidently pinpoint the exact time and date of creation as the night preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. His calculations did not differ fundamentally from those of the leading scientific figures of the day, including Isaac Newton. Similarly, while the heavens remained beyond human reach, they were not so far away that anyone would question whether you could conceivably get there using Jacob’s ladder from the Old Testament story.

The irony is that biblical time was undone by naturalists – many of them clergymen – who were seeking geological evidence of the Great Flood. Instead they found that most geological formations resulted from the gradual accumulation of local disturbances, such as earthquakes or volcanoes, rather than from a single global cataclysm. Moreover, these changes occurred over vast stretches of time – not thousands of years but billions. Charles Darwin, who regarded himself primarily as a geologist when he set out on his famous voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1831, found fossil seashells high in the Andes. He realized that the hundreds of millions of years required to transform the landscape so dramatically could also accommodate the gradual evolution of species by natural selection.

Geological time may be grasped intellectually, but in any tangible sense it is utterly unimaginable. If you go back 6,000 years, humans were just beginning their transformation from hunter/gatherer tribes to agricultural societies. Writing had not yet been developed, and wooly mammoths were just at the point of extinction. Now compress the 6,000 years that have elapsed since then into a single frame of a film threading through a projector at 24 frames per second. It would take nearly nine hours to watch a movie that began when the earth was formed. If you go back to the beginning of the universe, the movie would last more than a day, with each frame encompassing 6,000 years. The cumulative life span of our species from the time that anatomically modern humans first walked the earth would occupy only a little over one second of screen time.

This will give you some sense of the relativities involved when trying to comprehend geological time, or “deep time” as the writer John McPhee calls it. But in any absolute sense, we are no better off than a mayfly trying to understand what it means to grow old. Our grasp of time is necessarily bounded by our own experience of the world. We remember events that occurred a week, a year or decades ago and try to match them up with our subjective sense of time passing. But even with such relatively short intervals, our experience of duration is highly elastic, speeding up or slowing down according to our mood and our distance from the event. Time has duration only because we remember, and without memory there is only the moment. For the mayfly that lives for a day, there is only the day. For the sea creature whose fossilized remains are now found high in the Andes, there was never a sense of long ago or of forward momentum. There was their moment of scuttling about on an ocean floor that now inches skyward century by slow century. And for those of us who reckon time in eons, is it really any different? As with all the other creatures on Noah’s ark, there is evening, and there is morning, a new day.

John McPhee, Basin and Range

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