Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar – his pedagogical compression of the history of the Universe into a 24-hour day – was the inspiration for Bill Bryson’s history of the Earth reduced to a single day. Bryson’s model is worth recalling here so as to underline that the Bible’s accounts of Creation are at best charming children’s stories which people have either naïvely believed to be true or have vainly tried to reconcile with proven scientific data. Sagan and Bryson have both shown us why divine Creation is not only a childish fantasy but a stretching of the imagination contradicted by both scientific evidence and common sense. Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, “Laudato Si”, hailed as a breakthrough appeal to protect our fragile environment, is explicitly based on belief in God as Creator.
I will leave you to check out the detail in Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (Doubleday, New York, 2003), p.297. I will content myself with just one (obvious) comment. Either you accept God in the fast-track : “Let there be light, and (BINGO !) there was light !” (Gen.1:3), and His messing about with mud to make a man on the spot (Gen.2:7), or you take seriously the scientific data behind the “day” of our planet’s history. In the model of 4.5 million years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day, life began very early, about 4:00 am, with the rise of the first, simple single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.
Theologians and Popes have tried valiantly to reconcile traditional doctrine with Darwin and Mendel’s data, the former establishing the fact of evolution and the latter explaining how it works. In its revised godological explanation, the Church has God deciding to set the whole process in motion – He made the Big Bang happen 13.8 billion years ago – and presumably determining in advance the moment for the appearance of microbes, the first sea plants, the first jellyfish, trilobites and later the first land creatures. Evolution, in current Catholic dogma, is simply God’s tool, and further evidence of His power, wisdom and, no doubt, divine … patience. Amazingly, the faithful are ready to swallow this, along with anything else Rome decides to decree.
Bryson’s book is not only a mine of information but a unique collection of scientific insights and historical anecdotes expressed with a pedagogy and a style of writing the rest of us can only admire and envy. The following sampling will, I hope, inspire you to read his eminently readable masterpiece :
1. Jack Haldane was the genius son of the brilliant scientist John Scott Haldane. “At the age of three, he was overheard demanding peevishly of his father : ‘But is it oxyhaemoglobin or carboxyhaemoglobin ?’ “. He went on to become the world’s expert on depression chambers for submariners and divers. (p.215)
2. “If you shrank the Earth to the size of a standard desktop globe, (our atmosphere) would be only about the thickness of a couple of coats of varnish.” (p.225)
3. “The simple amoeba, just one cell big and without any ambitions but to exist, contains 400 million bits of genetic information in its DNA – enough, as Carl Sagan noted, to fill 80 books of 500 pages.” (p.265)
4. We “have a herd of about one trillion bacteria grazing on (our) fleshy plains … Our digestive system alone is host to more than 100 trillion microbes, of at least 400 types.” (p.266)
5. “It is a natural human impulse to think of evolution as a long chain of improvements, of a never-ending advance towards largeness and complexity – in a word, towards us. We flatter ourselves. Most of the real diversity in evolution has been small-scale. We large things are just flukes – an interesting side-branch. Of the twenty-three main divisions of life, only three – plants, animals and fungi – are large enough to be seen by the human eye, and even they contain species that are microscopic. Indeed … if you totalled up all the biomass of the planet – every living thing, plants included – microbes would account for at least 80% of all there is, perhaps more. The world belongs to the very small – and it has done for a very long time.” (p.274)
6. “99.99% of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us. For complex organisms, the average life-span is only about four million years – roughly about where we are now.” (p.302). (I leave you to draw your own conclusions about “Intelligent Design” from this history of life which is one primarily of … extinction !)
7. “Life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point… Life, in short, just wants to be.” (p.297)
Believe the Bible if you wish. I’ll back Bryson.