Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dimetredon, Religion and the Impermanent Apex

Humans have a tendency to perceive time in a somewhat self-absorbed manner. We grow up in a world that thinks in terms of the calendar as it relates to the immediacy of our lives. How many days until the weekend? How many moons until the harvest? When is that meeting with the client? When is the next holiday? This is completely reasonable. Without this tendency nothing would get done and plans would fall apart. Nearly all humans are capable of thinking beyond this, but many simply do not.

Ever since I was very young I have always been interested in dinosaurs, ancient history, space and the future. I grew up intensely curious about things that are both far in the past or far into the future. These are things that are not immediate. I think about the timeline of the Universe like you see in specials about history with a line moving along the bottom of the TV screen with points of interest along the way: 4.5 billion years ago the Earth formed, 251.4 million years ago the Permian-Triassic extinction event occurred, around 7500 years ago Çatalhöyük was settled, at 333 A.D. Alexander defeated Darius III at the Battle of Issus, on July 4th 1776 the United States Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress, etc.

Not everyone thinks like this. Obviously. There are people that willfully reject this timeline, believe the Earth to be 6,000 years old and the best history book is the bible. This is because religion, while making it’s appeal to authority, looks to scriptures. Scriptures that were written during the Bronze Age and with a Bronze Age understanding of the universe. Since they are “holy” they are unchanging. They cannot be updated with new and accurate information. So too are the perceptions of many of the people that adhere to them. This is simply human hubris. Human history is barely perceptible on a timeline that includes the whole of the universe.

So how does our human history relate to the Earth’s timeline? To even faintly grasp the length of time as it pertains to the history of our planet is to see the novelty of humans compared to...let’s say...Dimetredon.

So regal!
The Dimetredon was a Pelycosaur apex predator for 15 million years during the Permian period. Compare that timeline to humans (homo) and we have existed as a genus for 1/6th of that time. Anatomically modern humans? Just over 1% of Dimetredon’s timeline. Human civilization, with a generous starting point of 14,500 B.P. is ~1/1034th of that time. You have to go back to the origins of our family “hominidae” to rival that success. My point, other than having a pictures of Dimetredon, is that so much has occurred prior to our measly several millennia being at the apex. Most people have no real grasp of  the scale.

Another point I wish to make is that change is inevitable. No matter how successful something is it will eventually be replaced. There are very few, if any, true constants. Species, cultures, ideas...all of these rise and fall.  Only the adaptable have a chance at continuing.

Think about this in the context of any religion. We can dismiss the arguments that evolution and abiogenesis are lies by atheists or the devil. These are arguments of the desperate. Evolution is an established fact with mountains of evidence and in the case of abiogenesis...well...there is work to do. However, the less than concrete answers that abiogenesis (so far) provides are not reason to dismiss it entirely and say “God did it!” That is not a valid scientific argument and we fall back into the “God of the Gaps” trap. Eventually, that gap will be filled and yet again the concept and works of god will continue to get smaller and smaller. Whether the model ends up being abiogenesis or something else is irrelevant.  Science can discard it’s outmoded ideas and start anew. Religion and “god” are static, unchanging monoliths. Several reactions occur when the religious are confronted with this.

  1. The faithful lash out and attack those that challenge their authority. Challengers are vilified and labelled heretics, liars, devils, infidels, immoral atheists, among other things.
  2. The modes of science and reason are labeled incorrect, unsupported, or fabrications.  Eventually, and ironically,  they are called “dogma” and “religions” based on nothing more than “faith” in an attempt to diminish their authority.
  3. Explanations to reinforce the supernatural beliefs are invented that mimic scientific conclusions. However, the conclusions are a poisoned well since they have drawn their conclusion before establishing a methodology, collecting evidence and testing their hypotheses, if they ever tried at all.
  4. A moderate form of religion will try and mediate the discussion and sooth those challenging the orthodoxy.  They make statements that “both can coexist”, but fail to attempt to reign in their fundamentalist brethren.  
  5. Moderate religionists hem and haw about scripture being “interpretable” and cherry pick and ignore to avoid the truly heinous aspects of their “faith.’”
  6. While the fundamentalists are busy becoming irrelevant by making caricatures of themselves the moderates winnow their religion down to some vague sense of spirituality.  

How will this end? Either the fundamentalists and moderates slowly fade away due to their actions outlined above or they will abandon any sense of reason and establish a theocracy.  I believe this century is the tipping point in the struggle between fundamentalism and secularism.  Throughout the brief time of humanity; some form of religion has been the "apex predator" within human culture to explain the universe. Beginning with the Enlightenment it has become less and less successful at doing this. It finally has a competitor.

Anyway, I just had this thought swimming around in my head for awhile now and I wanted to put it down. That and the fact that I like Dimetredon.

Oh shi...


Adam said...

Seriously people. Steve has an actual timeline in his head like the computer in Minority Report. Its demented.