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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.