Millions of Miles from Darwin

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H. Bruce Rinker
H. Bruce Rinker

Early this morning (Wednesday, 12 November 2014), we all heard the news that the European Space Agency’s Philae probe landed on a comet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth: a big and, until recently, a highly improbable step for human civilization. One science fiction writer responded to the breaking news, “This is science fiction made real.”

What a grand moment for science and technology! Whether the probe will be fully functional remains to be seen, but the fact that we landed a washing-machine-size laboratory on an ephemeral target so far away is an undeniable feat of ingenuity.

The reach of humanity, once confined to a local scale, has now extended into many orders of magnitude – from subatomic to cosmic – via our technological creations.

On 24 November 2014, we will celebrate the 155th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: arguably the most significant book of the last two centuries. His volume provided the theoretical framework for today’s ever-advancing theory of evolution of life on Earth. Despite the trifling, but sometimes raucous and mostly uninformed, detractors along the way, On the Origin of Species has stood the test of time as the only viable explanation for the changes over time in the planet’s ancient lineage of biodiversity.

In a way, the Philae probe seems millions of miles from Darwin’s studies. Yet evolution on Earth is but a subset of change for evolution in the cosmos. On our planet, we are confident about life’s 3.6 billion year history. The universe at-large is close to 13.8 billion years old. Philae’s comet is likely a leftover from the gas, dust, ice, and rocks that initially formed our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. If life on Earth is the “kid” in our story, then the planet and the comet are the “teenagers” (the former slightly younger than the latter), and the universe is the “old man.” Nonetheless, they’re all the products on evolution on some measureable and explicable scale.

For our species, the message is clear. We are a part of, not apart from, an ancient creation story. That’s lesson #1. Lesson #2 (we are kin to all living things whether dandelion, earthworm, or chimpanzee) and Lesson #3 (we have no prescribed dominion over creation except perhaps in the capacity of stewardship) ought to be the articles of our species’ “Declaration of Dependence” to ensure our sustainable relevance in the decades and centuries ahead.

As a scientist, I am baffled by those who deny the wonder of evolution, whether on the cosmic or planetary scale, along with the worrisome trends of human-accelerated climate change, the specter of human overpopulation, and the horror of extinctions across the face of the planet. Such denials are the products of low-mindedness (sometimes swirling in a quagmire of political or economic gain) cast in a fabricated black-and-white world. But the world is NOT black-and-white … and the universe is overwhelmingly grand.

One of my favorite quotes about such matters is from the British evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane: “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Yes, Philae seems millions of miles from Earth and all the living grandeur of our home turf. Yet its remote location and its streams of scientific data provide a consistent message that we’re linked organically without privilege to an ever-evolving cosmos. It’s time that we embrace that heritage with dignity, accountability, and not a little humility.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer
[email protected]