Pharyngula

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Some people might think I’m a rather morbid fellow. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate lackey at the University of Washington and working at the med school, there, I made a wonderful discovery one lunch hour: a bone room. Tucked away in an odd corner of the building was a room full of shelves stacked with cardboard boxes, each one containing the bones of some individual who’d left their remains to science. They’d been thoroughly cleaned and disarticulated, and many had parts sawed apart so you could peer into the sinuses or the hollow spaces for marrow or poke around in the caverns of the cranium. It became my favorite quiet, private place. I could putter about reassembling someone, or just contemplate some scrap of bone for a Yorick moment.

Look at a humerus, for instance. It’s elegant. You can see the traces of the muscle insertions that worked it in life, and its entire form is a product of the combination of a general genetic specification and a detailed, day-to-day remodeling response to the forces the individual applied to it. A pelvis or vertebra are sculptures, intricate and odd. And a skull is a personal relic, a last vestige of a face someone knew well and loved without knowing all the wonderful knobs and seams and hollows buried under the flesh.

That’s another thing; a bone isn’t just beautiful operational engineering, it’s a trace of a person. It’s a melancholy memento of all that’s been lost…here is this human being who struggled and loved and dreamed and hurt for sixty years, and all that I had of her was a few exquisitely patterned swirls of hydroxyapatite. So much was gone, so much lost, and that’s the fate of all of us—all it takes is a few generations for all personal memory to fade away, and all that’s left is abstractions. For most of us, there won’t even be bits of dry bone in a box in a forgotten room, we’ll be ash and slime, our existence unremembered.

Maybe, though, while we are personally unacknowledged, there will be some trace left in the genes of several times great grandchildren, or in a few words preserved in a library, or in some tiny nudge we’ve given history. That’s all I aim for, that I can sow a seed that will in turn sow a seed that will sow a seed that…and so it goes. That’s enough.

I am not a religious person by any means (that is a bit of an understatement), but I can feel something of the same reverence for the Bible that I do for a piece of bone. It’s a record, spotty and incomplete and flawed, of human lives, that leaves out far more than it includes. It’s not as pretty as a bone, but then it is representative of some of the ugliness of human history, as well as of some of the poetry. I can appreciate it as a slice of a few thousand years of the events and beliefs of one fairly influential tribe of people. There are a lot of lives and time, mostly unmentioned, bound up in that book.

I want to try something, though, with the intent of getting a point about the history of humanity across. Let me reduce the Bible to an icon, a few pixels to stand for the whole thing, here:

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Imagine that is a Bible sitting on a shelf. My tiny black bar of pixels is a placeholder to represent everything in it, not to minimize it; if you have a grand view of the Bible’s contents, that’s fine, those few pixels should then conjure up your memory of historic events and aspirations and people who loved and raised families and created art and fought for what they believed in. And for those of us with less romantic visions of the Bible, it represents thousands of years of war and folly and pain and loss. No matter what, it’s a big thing, a huge thing, and I’ve reduced it to a cartoon of the spine of a black-bound book for convenience. Just for now, keep in mind that it stands for 2000 years and the lives of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

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Here’s another representation. That picture to the left is one of the Laetoli footprints. Once upon a time in East Africa, there was a volcanic eruption that deposited a coat of fine-grained ash on the landscape, which was then wetted by rain to form a vast sheet like firm cement over everything in the region. Two, maybe three, people walked across the sheet, leaving their footprints behind in a material that would then harden in the sun, preserving their trail. We don’t know anything about who they were, where they were coming from, or where they were going. We can imagine; they were walking together, one person larger than the other (a man and a woman? A woman and a child?), in a barren landscape wrecked by the volcano. This was certainly a life-changing tragedy, a catastrophe that upset everything they hoped for. They were living through a disaster of Biblical proportions, and all we have left is a few lonely footprints, no other record of their life or their struggles remains.

These people were our very distant ancestors, small-brained and lightly boned, but with a human posture. They were probably Australopithecus afarensis, and this earthshaking event occurred 3.6 million years ago. It may be presumptuous to call them “people”, “man”, or “woman”, since they aren’t classified as human, but still…from what we know of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, they certainly cared and felt and thought, and are somewhere closer still to us in our family tree, and I’ll recognize that they at least had something close to human feelings.

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Here’s another icon, a few bits of bone from another australopithecine, Lucy. Like the relics in those cardboard boxes from the bone room, we know little about Lucy the thinking, acting, living being. She was a small female, less than four feet tall, living in old Africa. We can imagine that she had family, she lived in a group or tribe, she foraged, she had hungry days and full days, she courted or was courted, she had moments of happiness and moments of grief. All of the things she thought most important are gone and lost to knowledge, and all we have now are these few bones. When I hold the femur of a man dead 50 years, I can feel the sorrow of a life lost to me; how much more reverence should we feel for these bones of a person from a world gone 3.2 million years?

And look at how much is lost. Between the time of the couple fleeing across a field of volcanic ash and poor dead Lucy lies 400,000 years. If a Bible is a record of the struggle of a people for 2,000 years, we’d need 200 Bibles to tell us the tale of just this one obscure, remote branch of our lineage.

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Two hundred Bibles that were never written, books that even had they existed would be gone now. There was a vast history of events reduced now to nothing but a few footprints and a scattering of bones.

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Here’s one more tragedy (what’s left to us is a record of the dead, and it’s hard to avoid the sense that human history is one long tragedy. Joy is rarely preserved). The picture to the left is the bones of Nariokotome boy, another skeleton from Africa, this time of a pre-teen Homo erectus. We can refer to these as human now, with no worry of picky quibbles that these are mere animal remains. These bones also disturb my imagination even more. I’m a father; these are the bones of a young man, maybe 12 years old, and he’s tall and strong. In those dangerous days, I can picture the parents of such a robust boy feeling relief; he’s well past those risky years of high mortality, when one would have been reluctant to become attached to an infant likely to be carried away by some disease or brief famine. Here instead is a vigorous young fellow on the edge of adulthood, someone to carry on the line, someone to help on the hunt, someone to be proud of, and suddenly, he’s dead.

You wonder—did his mother weep over him?

Nariokotome boy died 1.6 million years ago. Between Lucy and this lost son, how many Eves weeping over dead Abels where there? Enough to fill 800 Bibles.

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Now here’s the shocking thing; Nariokotome boy only takes us halfway from Lucy to the modern day. We need 800 more books in this hypothetical lost library of humankind.

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Remember, each black bar is an icon representing a long, elaborate book on the scale of the Bible, which in turn is only a small representative subset of the human experience over a span of time. So much has been lost to us, and those few scraps we do have must stand in proxy for such a burden of history.

And, you know, there are people now who claim that one book is sufficient, that it is complete, that it is enough to explain who we are and where we came from.

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Strangely enough, these are the same people who claim to be “spiritual”. To me, though, they are the ahistorical, unthinking ones who fail to offer the proper reverence due those who have gone before.

Comments

  1. #1 DawnCNM
    January 31, 2006

    Very interesting and thought provoking post. Your Bible imagery is great, and really shows time passage in an visual way. Bones always intrigued me, too. One thing I remember from anatomy that fascinated me–childbirth leaves permanent marks on a woman’s pelvis so that, like a Wild West gunslinger, she has “notches on her gunbelt (pelvis) for every birth. (The simile is from my professor, not my own).

  2. #2 Tara Mobley
    January 31, 2006

    I’ve always loved this one. It’s nice to see your squishy side, PZ.

  3. #3 IanB in NJ
    January 31, 2006

    Wow. Very good. And, nicely paired with “Planet of the Hats”.

    When I am in a discussion about evolution, one of the greatest hang-ups for people is the length of time required for “us” or “bananas” to happen. I’ve never thought of the most recent developments of “us” in terms of lost stories/lives/meaning.

    And just think, people consider athiests to be cold and heartless.

  4. #4 craig
    January 31, 2006

    great post. Thank you.

  5. #5 j-dog
    January 31, 2006

    Thank you for the outstanding perspective.

  6. #6 Bill Snedden
    January 31, 2006

    Incredible PZ, simply incredible. There just aren’t enough superlatives.

    One nitpick: isn’t the penultimate “bible” graphic (the final one being the final presentation of the single bible image) supposed to represent 1,600 bibles? I only count 800 (it appears to be identical to the one above it).

  7. #7 KeithB
    January 31, 2006

    I got a bonus DVD with my new copy of Zoo Tycoon II – what a great game! That DVD contains a bunch of short scenes from some National Geographic Channel special.

    Anyway, there is a section there on elephants grieving over some elephant bones. When they find some bones they pick them up, feel them all over and linger over them quite a while. It was quite touching to see the care and concern shown by the elephants for their dead relatives.

    You, and by extension, we, are not the only ones PZ.

  8. #8 Adam
    January 31, 2006

    I feel sufficiently shocked and awed. Best blog post I have ever read.

  9. #9 Ocellated
    January 31, 2006

    PZ, are you sure you don’t read my blog?

    I wrote a strikingly similiar post last night about Time Well Spent in a Cemetery.

    I’ve quibbled with you in the past. I’m one of those pesky Christians you seem to think so irrational.

    But as I read your blog, it always strikes me that people who think they’re diametrically opposed can often find much in common.

    My only wish is that you’d strike a tone like this post, and even your Planet of the Hats more often.

    And good post by the way. I liked it a lot, especially since I’ve been reflecting on this very same issue.

  10. #10 Glen Davidson
    January 31, 2006

    How many “bibles” might have been written in a given scenario always depends on the level of resolution one is attempting to reach. What is important is that we have not come close to writing anything that could really tell us what the present is like (the sensory and social contexts have to supply so much to any textual experience), while the deficit in the past is far greater.

    What seems odd about the reverence for bibles is that writing always distorts (in a way that makes communication possible and profitable) what actually is observed. We always must go back to the bones to check out what is written about bones, and not the other way around. It’s like preferring TV to reality whenever one holds the writing above what is actually perceived.

    Certainly the importance of any bones can hardly be exaggerated, however, and if bibles are not as honest as bones are, they also remain a crucial access link to what was known in the past. That said, the Bible itself would be almost useless as a data source without the context of other writings and archaeological remains. Bones need context, too, however they are not as context-dependent as texts are (Taung baby was informative on its own, and would have been recognized as such if it hadn’t been for Piltdown Man). And the Bible remains a difficult book precisely because of the dearth of good contextual information for it. A number of words appear in the Bible and nowhere else in texts dating to, say, earlier than the time of Christ, so that understanding the Bible is rather more difficult than understanding Greco-Roman texts typically is . Which means that it isn’t really just the smallness of the Bible in the total possible data set that is a problem, its relative isolation is another important factor in its difficulties.

    In any case, I too think this was a good post by PZ. Evidently giving more credit to the Bible than he has in the past, he also puts into perspective the drop in the information ocean that it represents. As long as we value each drop in that ocean, without overvaluing certain drops, I think that we’ll do all right.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  11. #11 Stephanie
    January 31, 2006

    Just as beautiful and provocative as it was the first time I read it.

  12. #12 tdrury
    January 31, 2006

    This is one of the best blog entries I’ve ever read. As a teenager I used to try to imagine how much time would pass from my death until the end of the Universe. I suppose for those that believe in an afterlife, it’s one long party. Since I didn’t know what I believe, and still don’t, it’s a source of anxiety and melancholy. I wonder how, or if, those ancient people had the same thoughts. Or were they too busy looking for grubs and hiding from predators.

  13. #13 Len37
    January 31, 2006

    wonderful perspective….thank you!

  14. #14 Matt McIrvin
    January 31, 2006

    And don’t forget that he’s actually underestimated the number of volumes, since the Bible only had to do with goings-on in a relatively small region of the world. Then there are the mostly-unwritten ones for all the people living everywhere else. Once upon a time, Homo ergaster/erectus lived over most of the Old World, much like Homo sapiens did later. All those people we’ll never know.

  15. #15 G-Do
    January 31, 2006

    Ah, nicely done.

    You know, this is very accessible stuff – if you were to start a mailbox-stuffing campaign in swing-state suburbs, this post would make an excellent pamphlet.

  16. #16 strait woman
    January 31, 2006

    Oh, PZ, this is the best yet. I’m going to copy it for my next meeting of Straight Thinkers. We may call ourselves something else by then but what we are are irreligous, non-religious supporters of the Enlightenment. Thank you. This is the essay I’m going to vote for.

  17. #17 Daniel Drucker
    January 31, 2006

    Wonderful post. Of course, when I tried to share this with a so-called christian contemporary of mine, I got what I supposed should have been an entirely predictable response: This is simply ridiculous. The Bible isn’t just another story, it’s the story that has God in it. None of the other stories matter, and for that matter, none of the other stories likely even happened.

  18. #18 Calcaneus
    January 31, 2006

    This is a truely beautiful piece PZ.

  19. #19 Jyotirmoy
    January 31, 2006

    Poetic and political.

  20. #20 Don
    January 31, 2006

    And imagine this: If your last graphic representation of 800 bibles were all set side by side, and if that length of 800 bibles were reduced in size so that they spanned merely the diameter of a grain of sand, or say the thickness of a single blade of grass, then the history of the earth we live on would be the length of a football field.

    And the history of our universe would be a little short of a quarter mile.

  21. #21 Dscribe
    February 1, 2006

    It’s good to see a scientist thinking metaphysically. Our culture needs thoughtful scientists who think metaphysically as well as non-scientists who think scientifically, especially those of the Fundamentalist persuasion.

    Everyone needs to feel that there is some meaning to their existence. You seem to feel that yours is in leaving behind some ideas that may in some small way benefit the human race after you are reduced to ashes and slime. You also seem to want a connection with those totally unknown and unknowable ancestors who tracked across the volcanic ash, and those who mourned the loss of a healthy and strong adolescent boy. I believe that the desire for immortality and connectedness is common to all people and has been so since the time when the brain evolved to sufficient complexity to think abstractly.

    Until the time of the scientific revolution, the questions of immortality, meaning and connectedness were the property of religion and myth. Unfortunately, we in the 21st century have become so limited in our vocabulary, knowing only words of data and reason, that the words of religion and myth have lost much of their meaning. And this is a pity because the world of mythos can tell us many valuable truths about ourselves that the world of logos cannot.

    It is equally a pity that the bible is so misunderstood. As many have so often correctly pointed out the bible is not a book of facts. It belongs to the world of mythos, that is, the world of myth and meaning. It is a terrible mistake to apply the vocabulary of logos, that is, the language of science and technology, to it. It results in a gross distortion of the bible’s meaning.

    On the other hand it also distorts the meaning when we apply contemporary values to the events described. When the historical books talk about slaughtering entire villages: men, women and children, we are justified in feeling squeamish and outraged. But we are not justified in judging those events as barbaric and cruel. We must take into account the ethos, i.e., the values and outlook of the people who lived and wrote about those events. Those scenes of massacre were commonplace and part of their world. Just like those whose unknowable lives and deaths you mourn, the people in the bible are ultimately unknowable to us. Unless someone invents a wayback machine we can never know what those people really thought, what motivated them or any of the myriad things that make up a culture that we never even think about.

    The value of the bible is in the truths about ourselves and God that the stories tell. Admittedly it is not always consistent, as the Fundies will tell you. But there are coherent streams of thought. It is a collection of writings written over a period of about 1500 years, written by people struggling to make sense of their world in light of their perceptions of God.

    Anybody who tells you the bible is the absolute truth is full of . . . . .

    dscribe

  22. #22 arc_legion
    February 1, 2006

    Dscribe, I’ve always taken the bible as metaphysical – well, once I learned to think for myself I did, anyway – representation of common conflict. In fact, I was playing Alpha Centauri several years back and a quote came up, saying

    “Once a man has changed the relationship between himself and his environment, he can no longer return to the blissful ignorance from which he came. Motion, by necessity, requires a change of perspective.”

    I would never have thought of a more fitting allegory than the tale of Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. I have some hesitant respect for the Bible in that sense, but lack any respect for it otherwise. Besides, whatever values it may impart are no substitute for an apt parent.

    Excellent article, PZ; thoughtful and eloquent.

  23. #23 ChristieJ
    February 1, 2006

    PZ, this is beautiful. Thanks for writing it.

  24. #24 Judy Budreau
    February 1, 2006

    An eloquent classic, PZ. I’m glad you’ve posted it here for many others to enjoy. I still think you ought to submit it to the NYTimes or WashPost – our citizenry needs to contemplate this.

  25. #25 Vasha
    February 1, 2006

    arc_legion, my favorite use of the Eden metaphor in somewhat the sense you mention is Kipling’s poem The Four Angels. It’s a bittersweet, ambivalent poem — Kipling was a more complex writer than he’s usually given credit for.

  26. #26 rje
    February 2, 2006

    It’s beautiful.

    I’ve often thought that religion belongs to people incapable of grasping numbers, or magnitude. It’s not just a matter of being unable to estimate the number of hominid generations over a period of a couple of million years: an immense amount of time came before and an immense amount of time will follow our brief span. The universe is vast beyond their understanding.

  27. #27 James Gambrell
    February 2, 2006

    Wonderful post!

    But I just wanted to point out, in response to some of the sentiment in the comments and in the blog, that the bible should be considered as a work of literature and not as a history book. It is a record of the culture of a great many people and in relation to this PZ’s post is perfectly accurate. But some of the references to the “distortions” in the bible are misplaced I think. It is like pointing out the “distortions” in Homer. The bible is about culture, not history, and the two are not at all the same. Most early civilizations did not think it was very important to record “history”, after all, things didn’t change much! certainly not much would change over one lifetime, so what history was there? Instead they passed their values and worldviews down through meticulously crafted myths and legends, perfected by generation after generation of retelling. The works in the bible, especially the old testament, should be given the same respect and viewed in the same light as the works of Homer. Blaming the bible itself for the ways these stories have been misconstrued, distorted, and manipulated for political gain by modern “Christians” is akin to blaming the Koran for islamic extremism and terrorism. The real roots of these things lie in historical events like the Crusades, or in cultural transformations like the Enlightenment, not in great literature.

  28. #28 Glen Davidson
    February 3, 2006

    But some of the references to the “distortions” in the bible are misplaced I think. It is like pointing out the “distortions” in Homer. The bible is about culture, not history, and the two are not at all the same. Most early civilizations did not think it was very important to record “history”, after all, things didn’t change much!

    Homer is poetry and was probably understood by sophisticated Greeks as just that, poetry. Genesis may be similar, although it is prose, in that it may have been recognized as myth and “poetic” by the literati, and not as history.

    However, the Bible has within it a set of books which are called the books of history, and for good reason. Books like 1st and 2nd Chronicles are exactly that, chronicles. They almost certainly do report actual historical facts, as they are meant to do, and yet one has to be quite careful in believing what is apparently a priestly and pro-Davidic “history”. This is not to fault the chroniclers greatly, since there were not standards of objective history guiding anybody at the time, yet it is crucial to recognize that all, or nearly all, histories coming from ancient times were in fact slanted toward the writers’ biases. Attempts to be more objective seem to begin with the Greeks, like Herodotus (and yes, of course they too were biased, only it doesn’t show as much).

    Furthermore, there is certainly little reason to suppose that only the “histories” were meant to be giving us history. Likely enough the later chapters of Genesis were understood by most of even the educated Israelites as history, along with the rest of the Torah, Joshuah, Judges, Ruth, whatever history ends up in Ezra, Nehemiah, and the prophets, at least. I know the apologies given the Bible, and there is little excuse for most of them, any more than there is reason for blaming ancient Hebrews for not being educated modern humans benefiting from more peaceful and humane times.

    What is more, there was plenty of grist for the Crusaders’ mills in the OT. ‘Kill the infidels and heathens’ is commanded in both the Bible and in the Koran, and there is no excuse to say otherwise. Again, this bothers me little more than does, say, cannibalism in the Americas, but to pretend that cruelty, persecution, and genocide is not heartily recommended for the righteous to commit upon their neighbors is as great a distortion as any that I have encountered.

    Beyond all that, though, if you were referring to what I had written about distortion, my actual words were, “writing always distorts (in a way that makes communication possible and profitable) what actually is observed.” I was contrasting the distortions of all writing with the superiority of observation for understanding the world. One has to turn to the bones, one cannot simply rely upon written records (unless this is all that remains, in which case much valuable data has been lost). Writing itself is woefully incomplete and distorted, if also necessary. These statements are a philosophy thing.

    I had avoided pointing out the more particular faults of the Bible in a bid to treat it similar to other ancient writings (which is fair in the broader context, but leaves out the fact that the Bible is almost certainly more biased than are some more contextually complete collections of ancient writings), yet you were able to evoke such particulars from me through your whitewash of what remains an often damaging and destructive book. Only if we actually recognize how much damage it has caused, and then properly aestheticize and detoxify its teachings, does it become what it should be, simply another set of old writings reflecting the misery, violence, and sometime transcendence, of its time.

    Glen D.
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  29. #29 Meliors
    February 5, 2006

    One small quibble, which is that most serious biblical scholars (not necessarily creationists bible bashers) generally agree that the bible was written/accumulated/developed/describing a period of about 5000 years ending more or less 2300 years ago (if you are a Jew) and about 1800 years ago if you are a Christian. Thus your excellent, graphic breakdown of human evolution timescale by biblical units (so to speak) would be better served by saying the bible stands for 5000 years rather than 2000. As it’s currently written I don’t feel I can forward this post to any of the people I would like to, but for whom this quibble would be just as problematic as it is for me.

  30. #30 derek black
    February 20, 2006

    Nice use of selective facts. I for one have never understood the ranking proof of the “evolution of man” charts exemplified. It demonstrates that people can put things in order from oldest to youngest but still fails to determine relationship between a homo find and an a pithicus. I’m mean there are some dead southern apes of the past, yet we know that one of lucy’s bones was discovered 200 ft below the rest of the remains in a different strata and 1.5 miles from the original site one year prior to the remainder. This bone happens to be the one that provides the 1 to 1.75 ratio needed for the the homonoid like skeletal structure. These facts are not disputeted by J. and L. even speaks of them. Additionally as Dr. L pointed out to Dr J. the pelvis is shattered and can not be used as solid proof for an upright walking structure

  31. #31 PZ Myers
    February 20, 2006

    Be ashamed, Mr Black, very ashamed. You are parroting a dishonest creationist source: your claim is utterly false.

    Do not accuse others of selective use of facts when you’ve completely buggered the facts to support your assertion.

  32. #32 mitch
    February 23, 2006

    Dear Mr. Myers,
    I am so happy to see someone taking serious thought to the origins of man-kind, especially with your perspective of human compassions and struggles. It is refreshing for me, a bible believing christian to read how you have sought/ are seeking how the bible corresponds with human history as we know it. Do you feel like you have the answer? If so, is God in that answer? If the bible and God are not in your worldview, why and what is your worldview? I’m honestly curious.
    I know men and women who say God does not logically, spiritually, or otherwise exist for X, Y, & Z reasons. They have had very complex and some very simple explanations of why; Some I have not been able to refute. But always they struggle interally. They had to prove to others and themselves that God was not real, or active, and most of not concerned with silly little humans. The struggle seems to be not that there is a God or not but “how could God let this happen” or “didn’t God care when..” And of everyone who shared openly with me, there was a time in their life when they felt close to God. They felt this emotionally, spiritually, some intellectually. One man said it was undescribable. He could only answer “yes, I think I have felt that way.”
    I want to ask you that same question, have you ever felt like God was close to you? Like he was calling out to you as you lay in bed, or drive to work, or see the horrors of humanity, or the beauties of this universe. I’d love to hear from you, but before you respond really think about your answer. And please be honest, whatever your answer.
    I’m fairly confident God is, has, and will continue to reach out to you, so I’ll be praying for you to see it more clearly if you haven’t already. I don’t have anything to gain from you becoming a christian, or reading the bible, or accepting God is real; but you have everything to lose if you’re wrong. I hope this comment is the sweet fragrance to you and not foul stench.

    Mitch Williamson

    ps. I need to apologize for my brothers and sisters in the faith who have abused you. They know not what they do. I’ve read the one comment above and I can only imagine that is the tip of the iceberg.

  33. #33 mitch
    February 23, 2006

    sorry I’m sure you are a doctor.
    Please address the comment:
    Dr. Myers

    Mitch Williamson

  34. #34 rod mcdonald
    April 11, 2006

    . It is interesting to me that scientists, who make there boast in being open minded in their discipline of science, yet when their materialistic world-view is threatened by scientific data, they become very unscientific. In most sciences, if there are glaring problems with the scientific model, then the scientist will search out explanations, change the model. Interestingly, with macro-evolution, which has immense problems with evidence, because evolution deals with origins and therefore world-view, and because they are commited to their materialistic world view, their model will never change. This is really amazing considering that these scientists, who esteem rationality, base their life on the most irrational proposition, that everything that exists, all the way to the infinite complexity of living organisms, all evolved by chance. This breaks the most basic laws of science (entropy

  35. #35 HBNayr
    April 12, 2006

    “This is really amazing considering that these scientists, who esteem rationality, base their life on the most irrational proposition, that everything that exists, all the way to the infinite complexity of living organisms, all evolved by chance.”

    Natural SELECTION. Selection. The very opposite of chance. The genetic drift that allows adaptation is random, and genetic changes do not anticipate a species’ needs, but those most fit for the environment are most likely able to send their genetic code to the following generations.

    Evolution is a feedback process. Life is able to (not quite perfectly) replicate its structure and function, and the organism with those traits more efficient at survival and therefore at opportunities for reproduction are more likely to leave offspring.

    “This [macroevolution] breaks the most basic laws of science (entropy)”

    Entropy (total disorder) will always increase in a closed system (a system in which the total amount of energy is the same and no energy is being added). But Earth, upon which life as we know it has arisen and evolved, is not a closed system. The entire biological process is powered by the sun.

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/thermo/entropy.html

    Science is a wonderful thing. The process of discovery invites everyone to question its findings. But it does require a curious sort of vigilance. Questioning everything presented to you is important, but so is a thorough understanding of logic and observation. Perhaps most important is a lifetime worth of thirst for knowledge and learning.

    Dr. Myers, this essay is amazing. So eloquent and simple, yet so very powerful. I felt the thrill I remember from so long ago, the first time I read Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”. I want to gush, but I don’t want to babble (more), so let me just say thank you.

    Thank you.

    -Ryan!

  36. #36 The Ridger
    April 15, 2006

    This is beautiful. Number 80 pointed me at it (I’ve been slowly working my way backward through your blog) and I’m grateful to both of you.

  37. #37 Gabriel Kent
    April 17, 2006

    Well put. Very clear.

    Thank you for this effort.

    >||;)

  38. #38 Bob Dog
    April 21, 2006

    The bile – oops, bible – is but a tiny fragment of human history *IF* it has any veracity? What an adroit analogy.

    In the same vein, one could liken the bi(b)le to the fleeting existence of an insect. Or perhaps a fairy, since it is a load of fairy tales.

  39. #39 MTran
    September 23, 2007

    Let me join in the applause: well done, PZ!

  40. #40 MTran
    September 23, 2007

    Meliors, I am trying to make sense of your “quibble” regarding the “age” or time span “covered” by the Bible. Your statement regarding 5000 years of time would give a range from roughly 4000 BCE to 700 BCE.

    It would be helpful if you could name who these serious Bible scholars are, because I’m looking at a book written by a very serious Bible scholar (R.E. Friedman) who is giving an early date of Bbilical history beginning at roughly 1200 BCE, which is within a reasonable range when compared to dates contemplated by other serious Bible scholars.

    Clearly, an ancient oral tradition could have been reduced to writing long after that tradition began, and the Old Testament seems to have incorporated a number of still more ancient tales from surrounding cultures. But you seem to be asserting something different from that.

    Regardless of your quibble, the scope of (pre)history set out by PZ shows fairly clearly that differences of a few thousand years are dwarfed by the vast time scales he describes. And those time scales are similarly dwarfed when compared to the length of time during which life has evolved on Earth, not to mention the inconceivable lengths of time that are used in estimating cosmological events.

  41. #41 MTran
    September 23, 2007

    Hey, how the heck did I land on this page from a year or more ago? It’s a great post by PZ but, sheesh, I just clicked my usual Pharyngula bookmark and ended up here!

    Ah, the mysteries of my browser bookmarks…

  42. #42 llewelly
    September 23, 2007

    MTran, were you abducted by aliens again?

  43. #43 MTran
    September 23, 2007

    MTran, were you abducted by aliens again?
    Posted by: llewelly

    Hey, may be, llewelly! I don’t actually recall the abduction, but memory loss is proof of abduction, isn’t it?

    More likely, my nerve damaged fingers hit a random link or my new assistant (another rescued kitten) hit the enter key a few times as he walked along the keyboard.

  44. #44 KingM
    December 11, 2007

    Great post. Someone linked to it on a board of religious skeptics that I visit. I wish I could print this up for my religiously conservative family and have them read it. Read it with the same thought they give to the bible (and, in their case, the Book of Mormon).

    But of course, they have their world view already. It cannot be altered.

  45. #45 Karen
    July 2, 2008

    “…So much was gone, so much lost, and that’s the fate of all of us–all it takes is a few generations for all personal memory to fade away, and all that’s left is abstractions…When I hold the femur of a man dead 50 years, I can feel the sorrow of a life lost to me; how much more reverence should we feel for these bones of a person from a world gone 3.2 million years?…those few scraps we do have must stand in proxy for such a burden of history…”

    PZ, this was fantastic. Looking forward to the expansion.

  46. #46 Chigurh
    July 2, 2008

    This always seriously bothered me as child…why was every non christian condemned? Did everyone not born into Judo-Christianity go to hell? Even children? What about before the old testament? In places before missionaries ever arrived? How many people never had a chance?

    The sincerity and empathy behind this post only seems to further remind me how utterly cruel and pompous religion really is..the arrogance of a few to speak for, judge, and condemn everyone else in the entire species ever. It’s disgusting. It’s hypocritical. It’s ethically bankrupt and it has zero integrity.

    I realize that, as a sociological mechanism, religion and coercive suppression by the few was (and is) an inevitable product of the mechanisms guiding human evolution and culture. Yet, it is sooo reassuring to know that the ever flexible absolute morality of our past can now be discarded in favor of rationality, equality, and honesty. Your post PZ illuminates what will be perhaps atheism’s greatest contribution to humanity: humility. No theist has ever been so respectful to their opponents. You’re a true ambassador.

  47. #47 ILYa GotFRYd
    July 3, 2008

    Excellent read. Translation is very good. I actually didn’t read the authorship at first so I though I was reading a work by some Russian PhD. Lovely perspective, thank you for that.

  48. #48 Santiago
    July 13, 2008

    “I am not a religious person by any means (that is a bit of an understatement)”

    Methinks that, should this be posted today, this entire sentence would be a case example of redundancy. Amazing what distance less than 2 years can be, or not.

  49. #49 Scott D.
    July 13, 2008

    This spring I picked up several fossils while helping with a research project on a coal mine in Southwest Virginia.

    100 feet beneath a ridge, that was once a valley, that was once coastal swamp, some 300+ million years ago, there grew a forest no mammal ever saw. Now I hold some beautifully preserved remains from some of those plants, and I marvel at it all.

    150,000+ bibles would be needed to chronicle that history. Yet, so many have the audacity to claim that their tiny book holds the “Truth.”

    That’s why I laugh at creationist.

  50. #50 deang
    July 14, 2008

    I’ve always thought it would also be enlightening to represent the Bible spatially/geographically, as representing the cultures of one very limited geographical area in a planet filled at the time with hundreds of thousands of widely varying people and cultures, all with equally valid and interesting lifeways, most of which we unfortunately know little or nothing about. Looked at that way, the south Asian people represented by the Bible would seem but a speck on the vast map of the era’s cultures.

  51. #51 Qwerty
    August 12, 2008

    Ahhh, the briefness of life and of recorded history.

    “Out, Out, brief candle”

    Lady MacBeth from the Scottish play by Shakespeare.

  52. #52 Nikki
    August 13, 2008

    I’ve read this blog for a while, but never came across this post before, and so never felt the need to comment before. All of your writing is good, and fun to read. This post is great, and thought-provoking, and everything a blog should be.

  53. #53 John Bunyan
    November 20, 2008

    Im relativly new to Pharyngula and making my way through the previous posts. This one takes the biscuit though for sheer humility and deep insight. Great Post. Like many posters here, I am firmly in the atheist camp and really lap up the arguments and articles on biology. Probably learned more reading this blog than what I learned in school.

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