Who am I?
A sense of identity is a major problem for our young people. Questions arise such as: Who am I? Where am I going? Where am I in relation to my family? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of human dignity, love and community? Have I an important, unique role to play. The New Story as told by Berry will offer some answers to these vital questions. The New Story assures us that each person makes a unique contribution to the universe by the development and creative use of his/her gifts and talents.
Modern western society has emphasised the rights of the individual. John Stuart Mills wrote in On Liberty (1869) over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. This individualism is very much in place today. Many young people learn to place themselves and their own needs before the needs of others; they do not know the meaning of the word “no”. They each have their own mobile phone, T.V and computer in their bedroom. Materially they are self-reliant while they are slaves to the logos e.g. Nike, Levi. This attitude of individualism is affecting family life.
One of the problems with our present culture is that the fundamental story, which gives meaning to individual human life, is not accepted by society at large any more. The creation story in Genesis Chapter 1, tells how the world was made in seven consecutive (Gen 1: 2-4a) days. The chapter tells how humankind arrived on the scene (Gen 1:26-31). This account of how our world came to be is no longer adequate or effective in the light of modern science.
We need a modern comprehensive myth or story to account for the emergence of the world and our place and role in it. The New Story that has been developed by Berry in the light of modern scientific knowledge has provided us with a credible and acceptable story. This story is the context within which all other stories of origin find their fulfilment. The Genesis account elaborates a religious and moral view, it does not give us a historical or scientific account of the origins of the universe, planet Earth or our own unique habitat.
The old story is not functioning today nor has the new story captured our imagination so we are living in a time of transition. As Berry says we are at present between stories. Our young are the in-between generation. It is a matter of urgency that we provide them with the new story. It is critically important to grasp the present opportunity to integrate the scientific, the religious and the moral and give our human story a spiritual foundation.
At the beginning of the 21st century we are beginning to see the Earth in its context of the Universe. Because of space travel, we have been able to stand apart from the Earth and see it, at least in photographs, as a whole. We have become used to a new picture of the Earth, as a single, beautiful, blue-green planet shared by all living creatures. Astronauts have noted that this picture makes it absolutely clear that our earth is the common home for all creatures, including humans and that traditional tribal or national wars over any part of the earth seem pointless when one views the whole earth from spaces. We also see that this blue-green planet is alive. It is also a vivid image suggesting that the Earth is one biological community and that the systems of the planet are all interconnected. As we contemplate this new image and begin to understand how it emerged through countless transformations since energy, light and time burst forth from the fireball, we ought to be filled with a new sense of awe and wonder.
This new understanding of the formation of our universe and our earth must now become the largest possible context for our global, national and individual lives. It must become the foundation of all meaning. This story or myth attempts to answer the ultimate questions which humankind have always posed and wrestled with since Homo sapiens emerged on the planet. From where do we come? Where are we now? What are we to do? How are we to live our lives today? What is our destiny? What does the future hold for us? We know that here have been multiple stories of origin throughout human history. All these are important, but none are as crucial and comprehensive as the New Story.
For the past two millennia those who are heirs to the biblical and European heritage have structured their lives, at least from the perspective of cosmology, on origins story found in the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis often refracted through the prism of Greek philosophy. The difficulty with the Genesis story is that theologians and religious people often viewed it not just from a theological perspective, but sometimes claimed that it had a historical and scientific truth also. These claims were scrutinised and gradually dismissed with the rise of modern science in the 17th century. In the 17th century Archbishop Ussher of Armagh (Church of Ireland) calculated that, based on the biblical account the world began on October 24, 4004 B.C.. But when the Scottish farmer, businessman and first geologist James Hutton (1726-78) used geological categories to date the Earth he found that the biblical account was totally wide of the mark. According to him if the natural processes at work today –flowing rivers, rain, tidal action, volcanoes and earthquakes – have been operating since the beginning of time, then he concluded that it took millions of years to form the earth.
A generation later, between 1830 and 1833 Charles Lyell published three volumes entitled The Principles of Geology. Lyell believed that the processes which formed the earth did not take place in an instant through catastrophes but were very slow indeed. At the heart of his theory called uniformitarianism was the belief that “the present is the key to the past.” 
Lyell’s book which ran to twelve editions had a profound effect on the intellectual climate of the day especially in England. Charles Darwin brought the book with him on the Beagle and wrote that it ‘altered the tone of one’s mind’. Lyell introduced geological units like Pleistocene (most recent), Pliocene (more recent) Miocene (moderately recently) and Oligocene (but a little recently). Today geological time is divided into four great eras: Precambrian, Palaezoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic.
The Genesis account implied that all the life forms we find on the planet were there from the beginning in the form we find them today and that they were created by God directly. This belief began to crumble a little when the French botanist George Buffon (1707-85) raised serious questions about the historicity of the Genesis. In his Histoire Naturelle he argued that new species had developed over time. He also set about trying to ascertain the true age of the world through experimenting with heat loss. From a rather crude experiment he deduced that the earth began somewhere between 75,000 and 168,000 years ago. This brought him into conflict with the Church authorities of the day. They accused him of undermining the Biblical account and threatened to excommunicate him unless he recanted. This he duly did but when the controversy had died down he continued to promote his opinion in subsequent publications.
The Swedish scientist Karl Linnaeus is responsible for another major milestone in biological studies. He devised the basic principles for classifying animals and plants. Before him classifications were often whimsical and even bizarre. He argued that the natural world should be classified according to physical attributes of the plant or animal. The first edition of his book Systema Naturae was published in 1737. It was a very slim volume merely fourteen pages long but it was very important as it established the foundations for all later studies in biology and botany. During the following years the book grew in length until it reached 2,300 pages published in three volumes. Linneaus brought simplicity, order and consistency to the task of classifying the living world. Life was divided into species, genera and classes. His classification has a binomial arrangement. Humans are known as homo sapiens.
Charles Darwin (1809-82) revolutionised biology and many other areas of knowledge with the publication of the On The Origin of Species in 1859. When Darwin set out on the Beagle (1831 – 1836) he believed, like most other scientists of his day, that species were immutable. In the Galapagos chain of islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Darwin found similar but distinct flora and fauna on adjacent islands. These raised the question for Darwin whether closely related life-forms had developed from a common ancestor rather than through separate creations by God. But it took more than 20 years for his ideas about evolution and what facilitated it to develop. He published these ideas about evolution through natural selection in On the Origin of Species. Instantly it became one of the most famous books of the 19th century and is still read today. Understandably the book created a huge amount of controversy in the scientific and religious worlds. Many people were appalled at the suggestion that all creatures, including humans, had evolved from a primeval common ancestor and that more recent times humans were related to the Apes. At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford on June 30, 1869 opponents and supporters of Darwin gathered to discuss his theory. The evolutionists were represented by Thomas Henry Huxley and the opponents were represented by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford. Tempers ran high and the meeting broke up in disarray. But the genie of evolution was out of the bottle, as it were, and nothing could rebottle it again, though in 2005 the battle against evolution is still being fought in education boards in the southern states of the United States.
As we have seen from the 17th century onwards a rift grew between science, and religion as the cosmological bases of religion belief was challenged. Religion unfortunately abandoned the quest for a new cosmology which might be sensitive to the new discoveries in science at the very moment when scientific discoveries in the area of physics, chemistry and botany were giving rise to powerful, transformative technologies. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that many religious traditions, including Catholicism, began to reconnect with the scientific world and attempt to develop a new, more credible cosmology.
This is the context in which we must view the work of Thomas Berry. He is an American Passionist Priest, a theologian or geologian, as he prefers to call himself. Building on the work of Teilhard de Chardin he helped to articulate a more comprehensive story of creation. In both, The Dream of the Earth, and, The Universe Story (which he wrote with the scientist Brian Swimme) he uses insights of astronomers, physicists, biologists, cultural anthropologists, historians and religious scholars like Mircea Eliade to tell of the emergent Universe. In these books he charts out the extraordinary unbroken sequence of events from the initial flaring forth to the beauty, fruitfulness and diversity of life on this blue-green planet. Everything that is now present in our universe and more particularly on earth has emerged through these unbroken series of transformations. Everything is connected to everything else. Humans, for example, have emerged from the rocks and the flowers.
It is crucial that the Biblical account of creation which emerged from a more static understanding of the universe is now interpreted within this more (dynamic and evolutionary) understanding of the universe. This does not mean that the biblical tradition and myths from other religions and cultures do not have a deep insight into the nature of life (and the way humans ought to relate to each other, to the earth and to God). They do, but now they must be understood within the context of an evolving universe and earth.
The Origin moment in the great flaring forth
Some 13.7 billion years ago, in a great flash the universe flared forth into being. The British astronomer Fred Hoyle facetiously called this singularity the Big Bang in a radio broadcast in 1952. It is important to remember that it was not like a conventional or nuclear explosion but rather a sudden expansion on an extraordinary scale. Everything in the universe is rooted in the extraordinary generativity of that first moment when primordial energy blazed with an intensity never to be equalled again. Metaphorically we can speak of a fertile vacuum or the all-nourishing abyss which gave rise to everything that was to follow for the next 13.7 billion years. The original fireball billowed out from the tiniest pinprick of energy. It created a sequence of irreversible transformations which is the story of the universe, the earth, the human community and my story.
This model of the universe captured by the image flaring forth was first developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the Russian scientist, Aleksandr Friedmann (1888 – 1925) and the Belgian priest scientist George LeMaitre (1894 – 1966). They postulated that the universe began much smaller and much hotter. It began with a ‘singularity’ no bigger than the centre of an atom. The flaring forth produced temperatures of up to trillions of degrees. Within 10 –43 of a second after the Big Bang the minute universe began to expand in size from smaller than an atom to more than a kilometre. Written down that figure is one million, trillion, trillionths of a second – very small indeed! The initial explosion, under intense heat of 10 trillion degrees, sent proto-matter exploding outwards in all directions. At this point in time one cannot tell the difference between the four basic physical forces of nature of the universe– electromagnetism, strong nuclear and weak nuclear force and gravity. It was not until 1930 that the two later forces – the strong nuclear and weak nuclear force – were discovered
Scientists through their theories and probes have given us a fairly good idea of the sequencing involved in the emergence of the universe. As it expanded in all directions time and space are created. Time also began simultaneously with the birth of the universe. In this sense the fireball was not an event in time or space. It in fact gave birth to both. At 10 –35 seconds, the temperature was = 10 –27 K. Now we have three forces at work – gravity, strong nuclear force and the electro-weak force. At this juncture the basic building blocks for atoms are being produced – quarks and leptons. (quarks make up protons and neutrons; leptons make up electrons and neutrinos).
To understand how matter was created one has to look at Einstein’s equation E = mc2. This law tells us that a certain amount of matter creates a certain amount of energy and conversely that a certain amount of energy will create a certain amount of matter. At this point in time the universe was incredibly hot and full of radiation. There was so much energy that it created particles (matter) and anti-particles (anti-matter). When matter and anti-matter come in contact they are both destroyed and their masses are converted back into energy.
So how did the universe come into being when matter and anti-matter should annihilate each other? Scientists believe that during the production of particles there was a slight excess of matter produced and from that surplus all the matter in the universe has emerged.
At the time 10-4 …The temperature of the early universe was = 10 12. As the Universe cools down, the energy from radiation decreases and particles of low mass can be made. At 3 minutes the temperature = 10 9 K. Now the universe was like the interior of a star. Protons are combined to fashion the helium nuclei. This transformation determines the chemical composition of the Universe. Three minutes after the flaring forth the atomic elements of (hydrogen and helium) have been produced.
At about 400,000 years the temperature of the Universe was 3000 K. Until now the Universe is dominated by radiation. If matter wanted to develop in permanent form radiation would simple rip it apart. In other words the Universe was still too hot to form real atoms. However as we saw the building blocks for atoms – protons, electrons, neutrons, helium nuclei – had been formed. By 400,000 years radiation had weakened and the Universe had cooled so atoms could begin to form. This gave rise to the atoms of hydrogen and helium. The Universe ends up being 75% Hydrogen and 25% helium. This is close to what it is today. With the emergence of matter mass and gravity became important.
Now the four forces of the Universe are in play – gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. We may ask why four? We are not sure but we know that they were the result of the process that preceding processes. This has led to the situation that the initial singularity of the universe now appeared as four different activities. In this transitional phase as it were the fundamental architecture of the universe’s interactions were set for all time. Gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force would apply in every part of the universe and act in the same way. As we will see the relative strength of each one of these will be crucially important in shaping our universe, solar system, life and conscious life on our planet.
Is there any empirical evidence to support the above sequencing? In fact scientists have found that there are still traces of the original radiation. In 1965 two astronomers – Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson – were attempting to measure radio wave. They were annoyed to find that radiation was coming from all directions so they could not conduct their specific experiment. They believed that radiation ought to come from an object which was giving off radio light. As a result they thought the radio-telescope was faulty so the took it apart and checked every part of it. At the same time two physicists at Princeton University were trying to find the radiation which they believed was left over from the great flaring forth at the dawn of the universe. Eventually these two insights came together. The background radiation which was annoying the astronomers was, in fact, the energy left over from the initial flaring forth which had cooled to a temperature of around 3K. This radiation is now often called Cosmic Background Radiation. This empirical evidence is one of the best ‘proofs’ of the Big Bang. There were a few other problems namely that This Cosmic Background Radiation was not constant everywhere. The reason for this is that matter in the universe is not uniform. We know that it is clustered together in chunks and it is less dense in other places. This is in line with our understanding that matter is often found together in large clumps which we call galaxies. Empirical measurements taken from a satellite in 1989 confirmed this finding.
In the 1930s the astronomer Edwin Hubble analysed data from distant supernova they found that galaxies are accelerating after from each other. This was a revolutionary idea. The implication for cosmology are clear that the universe was expanding or contracting. It seemed that some mysterious force is acting against gravity as the universe expanded.
The world of physics changed dramatically in 1905 with the publication of papers by an employee of the Swiss patent office call Albert Einstein. His paper on the “Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” was one of the most important scientific papers ever published. It did not contain the famous equation E = mc2 which is universally associated with Einstein’s name. The equation showed that mass and energy have an equivalence. Mass and energy are two forms of the same thing. Energy is liberated matter and matter is energy waiting to happen. This theory helped physicists understand how radiation really worked. How, for example, a small quantity of uranium could throw out a constant stream of high level radiation without melting away. The formula also made it clear that the speed of light was a constant.
Einstein continued to think about problems in physics, especially, gravity. In 1917 he published his paper entitled “Cosmological Considerations on the General Theory of Relativity”. It posited that neither space nor time were absolute but relative both to the observer and the thing being observed. Such considerations do not really impinge on our everyday life, where time and space seem absolute. In terms of the universe, however, – light, gravity and the universe itself – this theory makes a huge difference and was a major leap forward on the insights of Newtonian physics.
How Old Is Our Universe
The above theories helped to give new legs to the old debate about the age of the Universe. Some scientists thought it was only 8 billion years old while others considered it might be 20 billion years old. In 2003 a team of scientists from NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, using a new satellite based technology, estimated that the universe was 13.7 billion years old give or take a hundred million years.
Cosmic Moments of Grace
In his writings Thomas Berry speaks about cosmic moments of grace, by which he means events which are crucial to the development of a universe which supports life and intelligent life, often happen at almost zero possibility. For example the relative strength of the four forces of nature are critical to the development of the universe, the earth, life on earth and the emergence of humanity. If the rate of expansion one second after the flaring forth had been smaller than even one part in a hundred thousand million, million the Universe would have collapsed before it reached its present size. If the explosion had been more violent the gases produced – hydrogen and helium – would move apart so fast that there would have been no local density/differences and, therefore, no first generation stars would have formed.
If gravity had been weaker the gases which collected together would not have produced sufficient heat to ignite the nuclear fusion which powers the stars. If gravity was stronger then the gases would have collapsed into a black hole. Without supernova stars there would have been no heavier elements like carbon and, therefore, life could not emerge. If the strength of the strong and weak nuclear force greater or lesser the universe as we know it would not exist. If it was greater hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe would be much rarer and stars like the sun would not exist. If it had been weaker hydrogen would not burn and no heavy elements would emerge from the dying supernova explosions. The remarkable fine turning in the universe which gives rise to carbon and later life and humankind suggests two possibilities – a multiverses or a divine creator.
The anthropic principle is another example of a cosmic moment of grace – this time for biological life. According to John Polkinghorne this is based on a collection of scientific insights which indicate that the possibility of the evolution of a carbon-based life depended on a very delicate balance among the basic forces of nature and, possibly, also on very specified initial circumstances of the universe.
What is particularly striking in the emergence of the universe is the lack of repetition in its development. Fireball gave rise to the galactic phase and the first generation of stars. The hydrogen/ helium percentage of gases in the universe only takes place once. Later some of these give rise to solar systems and planets, each different from the rest. The oceans only arise once. We find these crucial moments in a universe of unending diversity.
The Galactic Phase: 10 – 13.7 billion years ago.
The first star did not appear from possibly 100 million years after the flaring forth. Then clouds of the hydrogen gas that had cooled down clustered together and, under the force of gravity, heated up again, thus giving rise to the first gigantic stars and galaxies. This formation of the first stars and proto-galaxies began the process of cosmic evolution.  There are billions of galaxies and billions of stars within galaxies. The creation of a galaxy was a stupendous activity. Nuclear reactions started up in the interior of these of these first generations of stars. The largest of these stars are called supernova. The normal supernova is about 20 larger than our Sun. Most stars die after their hydrogen has been exhausted with little enough fuss. When a supernova ‘dies’ the explosion releases the energy of a hundred billion suns. This process is known as nucleosynthesis. As supernovas collapse they spewing out the heavier elements like carbon and iron. Carbon is the chemical basis of life. To produce it there needs to be this ‘nuclear resonance’ which involves the fusion of three helium atoms. So the carbon atoms in every living cell like the cells in our bodies have once been part of distant stars and probably other creatures before they became part of us.
No body knows how many stars there are. In the Milky Way – our galaxy – it is estimated that there are between 100 billion and 400 billion. The Milky Way is only one among the forty billion galaxies that exist and many are bigger than ours. We do not know whether there is life or intelligent life out their. Given the number of stars and planetary systems it is possible that there are other intelligent beings in the Universe. But to date we have not found any trace of intelligent life out there.
To return to the power of a supernova explosion; if such a rare event happened 500 light years from our solar system it would destroy everything on this planet. Twice in recorded history in 1054 and 1604 humans could see with their naked eye such an explosion light up the skies.
The World of the Atom
In moving from supernovas to atoms were are moving from the largest to some of the smallest entities in the universe. Atoms are extremely tiny. Half a million could hide behind a human hair. Ernest Rutherford discovered in the first decade of the 20th century that atoms were mostly empty space with a dense nucleus at the centre. It gradually became clear that atoms are made up of three different kinds of elementary particles: protons which have positive electrical charge; electrons which have a negative electrical charge and neutrons which have no charge at all. The protons and neutrons are packed into the nucleus while the electrons spin around outside.
The nucleus of an atom is tiny, one millionth of a billionth of the full volume of the atom. It is, however, extraordinarily dense as it contains almost all the atom’s mass. It is the number of protons give which give atoms their chemical identity. Hydrogen the lightest atom has one proton while helium has two. When you add another proton you get a new element.
Atoms are also very abundant, with approximately 100 different types of atoms in the world. Eventually, these atoms will give rise to molecular structures. One atom of hydrogen and two atoms of oxygen form a molecule of water. Initially it was thought that once physics discovered the atom it would turn out to be the smallest particle of matter, would be dense and that would end the quest which started with scientists like Isaac Newton, in the 17th century, to find the atom. This, of course, didn’t happen.
As scientists peered deeper into the micro-level of creation they discovered some extraordinary phenomena. For example, an electron, or any quantum event can sometimes behave as a wave and sometimes as a particle but never as both. For almost two decades physicists could not understand why electrons sometimes behaved like a particle and sometimes like a wave. In 1926 the German physicist Werner Heisenberg offered a solution to resolve this problem. It became known as the Uncertainity Principle. This states that the electron is a particle that can be described in terms of waves. Some would prefer to call it the indeterminancy principle because it argues that while we can know the path which an electron takes as it move through a space or we can know where it is at a given time we cannot know both. The reason is that an attempt to measure one feature will unavoidably disturb the other no matter how sophisticated our measuring tools are. One implication of the theory according to Dennis Overbye is that an electron does not exist until it is known.
This strangeness of atomic structures is further reinforced by Wolfgang Pauli’s Exclusion Principle which he developed in 1926. This postulates that a certain pair of subatomic particles can continue to ‘know’ what the other is doing even when separated by a huge distance. Particles have a quality known as spin and, according to quantum theory, the moment you determine the spin of one particle, the sister particle, no matter how distant away, will immediately begin spinning in the opposite direction and at the same rate.
This is an extraordinary claim that a particle can instantaneously influence another at a huge distance because it implies that something can travel faster than the speed of light. Many scientists, including Einstein, found this theory unbelievable. It also made clear that no single set of physical laws can explain the universe. Given the present state of our knowledge we can claim that at the very minute level the quantum mechanics seems to makes sense of the world while at the macro-level relativity works.
Both relativity and quantum theory tell us that there is a significant relationship between the observer and what is observed. Bohr’s principle of complementarity which explains the wave/particle duality in matter leads to the suggestion that fundamentally ‘relationships’ at the heart of matter. For example, quarks are never found as simple monads. They exist only in triplets. So at the basic building blocks of reality now discovered by science matter can only exist in a relational context. All of this leads to the conclusion that the universe is unpredictable, open and everything exists in relational contexts. Later Systems Theory will confirm this and tells us that all reality is relational.
When we reflect on the creativity that is inherent in the universe, we are overwhelmed by it’s seemingly effortlessness. In the galactic phase it is interesting that galaxies exist about 20 million miles from each other. In case we think we can become space tourists it is well to remember that space is enormous. The average distance between stars is about thirty million years. Even though light travels so fast it takes years for the light from a star to reach earth.
Formation of Solar System: 5 billion years ago.
Our mother star in the Milky Way, exploded and scattered her stardust into space. In so doing they send out massive heat flinging off bits of themselves which eventually form our solar system. In the formation of new stars the old ones die, sacrificing themselves in order to create the new. We have some examples from later on, both in the plant and animal world, demonstrating this destructive and creative element.
Our sun is a star with enormous complexity. It emerged out of the creativity of so many former beings. The elements of the pre-solar cloud from which it emerged, had been created by former supernova stars and by the primordial fireball. A giant swirl of gas and dust some 24 billion kilometres across began to attract other matter. Gradually, though the action of gravity, this ball began to bond together and ignite and give rise to a nuclear reaction. At this moment in time 4 million tons of hydrogen are transformed into helium each second. This energy fires almost every organic activity on planet earth. By itself the sun holds 99.9% of the matter in the solar system.
Earth: 4.5 billion years ago.
When the sun had been formed some of the residue of elements swirling about the sun gave rise eventually to Mercury, Venus, Earth and the other planets. We are gradually learning more and more about how the earth was formed, not only by investigating our solar system but, by pointing our sophisticated telescopes at the Orion Nebula where young stars are being born now. In May 2005 astronomers pointed an x-ray telescope called Chandra in the direction of the Orion Nebula to study 1,400 young stars which are found there. These stars are surrounded by discs from which planets will condense and form. They have found that stars form from clouds of cosmic dust and from the leftovers of larger clusters which spin around the young star. Some of these clusters are known as planetismals. Gradually these planetismals grow bigger and bigger and take on a particular shape.
It took over 10 million years from the time the dust grains began to coalesce to reach the point where the proto-planet measured 200 kilometres across. It is estimated that it took about 200 million years in all for the Earth to form. Right through that period it was bombarded with cosmic debris and it was still molten. Huge x-ray flares like the ones the astronomers have observed in Orion have helped to keep the planets apart.
There seems to be some extraordinary plan here. What happened on the earth did not happen on any other planet that we know of. Earth has a finely balanced ratio between gravitational and electromagnetic forces. On Mars, for example, which is a smaller planet the gravitational pull was less. Gravity won out and froze Mars in time.
The earth is neither too big or nor too small; it is not too warm or too cold for life to emerge and survive on it. The precise location of the earth in relation to the sun is also hugely important. It makes it possible to maintain an optimal temperature for the emergence of complex molecules, and hence of life. If it were closer everything would have burned; if further everything would be frozen. Earth is 93 million miles from the sun and light travels from it at the rate of 186,000 miles a second. Our Sun too is the right size. If it had been much bigger it would have burned out in 10 million instead of 10 billion years. It takes about 8 minutes for energy from the Sun to reach the earth.
About 4.4 billion years ago a large object, possibly the size of Mars, crashed into the earth and dislocated a huge amount of matter which went on to form the moon. Within a very short period of time the displaced material reassembled itself into a sphere and began to circle the earth. Our moon has a steadying influence on the Earth. Its gravitational pull keeps the earth spinning at the right speed. It also keeps it spinning at the right angle. This stability over long periods of time is vital in the development of life on earth. It is also very important in terms of movement within the ocean and tides. This too contributed to the original emergence of life in the oceans and, 3 billion years later, to the fact that life colonised tidal areas and eventually moved inland to every nook and cranny of the planet.
Over a period of time the ‘infant’ earth acquired an atmosphere mostly made up of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane and sulfur. It was not like the current oxygen-free atmosphere but was dominated by carbon dioxide and methane. The carbon began to give rise to a green house effect. This was very important for the ‘infant’ planet because the luminosity of sun was much less then than it is today. Without this greenhouse gas the earth might have remained a frozen planet, inhospitable for life. It is estimated that the greenhouse effect adds 40 degrees C to our average global temperature. If, however, there had been a runaway greenhouse effect the earth could have ended up with a temperature similar to that on the surface of Venus which is 450C. On Earth carbon dioxide is absorbed by our ocean where it forms carbonate minerals. Over millions of years this has been deposited as rock. As the average global temperature warms the oceans may be as efficient in absorbing carbon dioxide.
For about 500 million years the young earth was continually bombarded with meteorites and other cosmic debris. These visitors brought material which would eventually become the water that fills our oceans and the elements which are necessary for life. Initially the earth was a cauldron of gaseous material. It cooled gradually and formed the atmosphere, oceans and land mass. Lighter elements came to the top and heavier elements like nickel and iron sank. At the deep core the earth is solid. This core is surrounded by an outer fluid zone which, in turn, is covered by the mantle. This thick layer of molten rock is often 2800 kilometres deep. The upper mantle and the solid outer crust are called the lithosphere. This is roughly between 35 and 40 kilometres deep beneath the land mass. It can be reduced to around 6 kilometres in the deep ocean for example in the Pacific Deep off the east coast of the Philippines.
We now know that the earth’s crust is not like an orange skin continuous right around the planet but is made up of different sections called plates. The first person to develop a theory on the movement of plates was the amateur geologist Charles Hapgood. Looking at a map of the world he noticed that South America seemed to fit nicely into Africa. His theory of plate tectonics was dismissed by geologists and other scientists of the time, including Albert Einstein. It is only since the 1960s that it is now accepted that the crust of the earth is composed of between 8 an 12 large plates and 20. We know that the crust and the outer mantle float on top of a layer of soft rocks. This convection process is central the movement of the plates which form the crust. This guarantees the continuous formation and destruction of the mantle and constant tectonic and geothermal activity. Mountains, like the Rockies and Himalayas, are formed when plates clash into each other. Molten rock continues to spew out through fissures between the plates like the great Atlantic ridge. This continues to push Europe and Africa further apart from North and South America. Eventually the Atlantic Ocean will become larger than the Pacific ocean is at present. Many assume that the continuous movement of tectonic plates has had an effect on the development of organic life on earth. The sealing of the isthmus of Panama around 5 million years ago is believed to have had an impact on the climate of Africa and forced ape-like creatures to leave the forest and dwell more and more in savannah lands. As we will see these creatures are our fore-bearers.
But movements at the edge of tectonic plates can also cause great damage and human suffering as happened on the east coast of Japan in March 2011 when an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale was followed by a tsunami which killed at least 15,000 people. Plate movement off the coast of Ache in Indonesia on December 26th 2004 gave rise to massive tsunami that claimed the lives of 300,000 people around the Indian Oceans and destroyed human dwellings and property to the tune of billions of dollars.
Unfortunately we know very little about the interior state of our planet. We have calculated that the distance from the surface of the earth to its core is about 6,370 kilometres. Until the beginning of the 20th century scientists believed that the earth was solid right through to its core. The first person to challenge this thesis was the Irish geologist R.D. Oldham. While doing research in geologically active area of Guatemala in 1906 he found that certain shock waves penetrated deep into the earth and then bounced of at an angle. From these experiments he concluded that the earth had a core. Some years later another scientist Andrija Mohorovicic discovered the boundary between the crust of the earth and the mantle. Efforts have been made by both the U.S. and Russia to drill through the earth’s crust to reach the mantle but they have ended in failure. The best scientific evidence at the moment has calculated that the crust of the earth is about 40 kilometres deep. Below that is the upper mantle which is found from 40 to 400 miles below the surface. An area called the transition zone runs from 400 to 650 kilometres down. Below that is the lower mantle from 650 to 2,700 kilometres. This is a huge area responsible for 82% percent of the Earth’ volume and 65% of its mass. From 2,700 to 2,890 kilometres is an area known as the ‘D’ layer. The core is composed of two sections. The outer core is found from 2,890 to 5,150 kilometres. This area is still fluid and is considered to be the seat of magnetism. It is interesting the both the moon and Mars which are solid through and through do not have magnetism. The Earth’s magnetic field reverses every half a million years or so and this can affect biological life.
The inner core is located between 5,150 to 6,370 kilometres down. The pressure there is estimated to be enormous roughly 3 million times that which is found at the surface. This accounts for the fact that it is solid. It is also very hot down there. Scientists estimate that the temperature ranges between 4,000 and 7,000 degrees Celsius. This is the same temperature as the surface of the sun.
For generations people wondered how old the world is. In 1953 Clair Patterson, a geology researcher first at the University of Chicago and later at the California Institute of Technology, estimated that the earth was 4.550 million years old.
Emergence of the Ocean: 4.45 billion years ago.
Under pressure from gravity and decaying radioactive material the interior began to heat up. It boiled day and night for a billion of years giving off huge quantities of water. Eventually as it cooled down and water vapour condensed and became the vast ocean. The oceans have a very special place in the story of the universe. To us the oceans may seem ordinary but we can truly appreciate their significance when we view them as the universe unfolding itself in a new way. As far as we know running water is found nowhere else in the Universe. Water vapour or ice may have been found on other planets but only on our planet have the oceans been created and maintained for four billion years.
In Ireland our climate is moderated significantly by the Gulf Stream. It is estimated that the heat it brings to Europe in a single day, warming Ireland and Britain, is the equivalent of the world’s output of coal for 10 years. The Atlantic is also saltier and there more dense than the Pacific. This means that the dense water sinks and thus keeps the Gulf Stream circulating. Scientist fear that with the melting of the Greenland glaciers thus reducing the salinity of the water this may have an effect on the Gulf Stream.
Furthermore, the oceans are the womb of life. The origin of life remains a mystery. It appears that gradually more complex elements emerged in the oceans, including amino acids and, finally, proteins. Proteins are extraordinary and, by all the laws of probability, should not exist. In order to make a protein you must assemble amino acids in a particular order like the way we need the proper sequence of alphabet letters to spell a word correctly. As Bill Bryson writes, To spell ‘collagen’, the name of a particular protein, you need to arrange 8 letters in the right order. To make collage, you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence. But – and here’s an obvious but crucial point – you don’t make it. It makes itself, spontaneously, without direction, and this is where the unlikelihoods come in. The odds in favour of getting this to happen are almost nil. The human body contains about one million proteins. The steps from amino acids to DNA, to self replicating organisms are all massive. This is why with all the hype about genetic engineering and cloning scientists still have very little understanding of how life emerged. It is important to remember that at the moment when the Earth gave birth to life it was a very different place from what it is today. For a start, the atmosphere had very little oxygen. It was full of vapours from hydrochloric and sulphuric acid. There was no ozone layer to protect complex life-forms and the sun was much dimmer than it is today.
We know that life emerged in the oceans about 3.8 billion years ago which is quite early in the history of the planet. It appears that it emerged only once in the primeval ocean but that initial spark had enormous possibilities for the future. Every one of the millions of species that have walked the earth, swam in the oceans, or flew in the sky owes since then owe their existence to the first simple cells that emerged in the ocean. As we have seen above the creation of the oceans was itself a stupendous feat yet in recent decades we treated rivers, lakes and the oceans abominably. We treat them as sewers into which we pour our human, animal, industrial and even nuclear waste.
Emergence of life: 4 billion years ago.
Life emerged when the Earth was being bombarded by multiple lightening storms. A prokaryote is an organism whose cell lacks organelles and a nucleus. These prokaryotic cells are the basic building blocks of life. They reproduced asexually by dividing and creating exact copies of themselves. These bacteria can live forever if the environmental conditions remain right.
For almost 2 billion years bacteria were the only form of life on earth. During the first billion years the blue-green algae learned how to ‘fixed’ hydrogen from the oceans and release oxygen into Earth’s carbon dominated atmosphere. This was the beginning of photosynthesis. Gradually oxygen began to saturate the land, atmosphere and the seas. In the anaerobic world ( lacking oxygen) oxygen is toxic so this new development created problems for the living world..
In time a new, more complex form of life emerged. These were cells which had organelles (little tools in Greek) and also possessed a nucleus. The scientist Lynn Margulis believes that eukaryotic cells developed from bacteria either capturing or being invaded by other bacteria and entering into a mutually beneficial arrangement. The captive bacterium became a mitochondrion. In this way oxygen is now turned into a source of energy which drives most biochemical reactions in living organisms. Oxygen provides the energy a cell needs to move and divide. The mitochondria contain specific genes. Though these gene have a different DNA from the rest of the cell the mitochondria co-operate with the nucleus so that all the activities of the cell are tightly co-ordinated.
These new entities are called eukaryotic cells. They emerged about 2.2 million years ago of the result of the merger of different prokaryotic cells. These are nucleated cells which contain a large number of oxygen using sub-cellular units called organelles. In time the eukaryotic cells became much bigger than their prokaryotic older cousins. This whole process was a major spurt to the evolutionary process. By now life had created two kinds of living organisms – one like plants that exhale oxygen and other that uses oxygen as a source of energy. In human cells, for example, there might be as many as a thousand mitochondria. They are the power source of cells.
In the plant world a similar process operated. The plastid Chloroplast contains chlorophyll which enabled plants to develop the ability to photosynthesise. In this way creatures on the earth could eat the sun. Plant photosynthesis involved taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere combined with hydrogen, in the presence of sunlight, to form sugars and once again release oxygen.
The typical cell has an outer wall or membrane, a nucleus where resides the necessary genetic information to keep the organism going. The space between, as it were, is filled with cytoplasm. One may think of cells as simple structures since trillions are found in many complex organisms. Cells are in fact extremely complex. They extract energy from nutrients, build structures, get rid of waste, keep enemies at bay, send and receive messages and continually make repairs. As Bill Bryson writes: To build the most basic yeast cell, for example, you would have to miniaturize about the same number of components as are found in a Boeing 777 jetliner and fit them into a sphere just 5 microns across; then somehow you would have to persuade the sphere to reproduce. And, of course, the human cell is much more complex. The human cell should be regarded with wonder and we ought to be very grateful to them because everything that happens in our bodies happens because of them. All the chemical processes that animate cells – the co-operative efforts of nucleotides, the transcription of DNA into RNA – evolved just once and have stayed pretty well fixed ever since across the whole of nature.
The Beginning of the Era of Co-operation
3.5 billion years ago in shallow seas cyan bacteria began to cling to together and form visible structures which are called stromatolites from the Greek word for mattress. These have been observed in fossil remains but in 1961 a community of stromatolites was discovered at Shark Bay on the north west coast of Australia. This was the first communion experience. Another significant breakthrough for life was the emergence of nervous system and brain in a worm species.
About 1.3 billion years ago single cells gathered together and committed themselves to each other. In the more complex processes this enhanced the venture of life. An increase in size gives selective advantage. The Darwinian view of evolution viewed conflict ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ as the primary driving force of evolution. In more recent times Lynn Margulis has developed a theory called serial endosymbiosis. She believes that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that cooperation is a more fundamental principle of evolution. She insists that we must stress not merely difference and identity but complimentarity and solidarity.
The diversity and cooperation was further expanded by the invention of meiotic sex, about one billion years ago. This meant that two different genetic beings could unite to form a totally new being. Their offspring inherit one set of chromosomes from each parent. This rich genetic heritage enhances their chance of survival in different environments. These genes forms strands called chromosomes within the nucleus of cells. These chromosomes are long strands of DNA. This is a chemical compound made up of nitrogen, sugar and phosphates. The genetic code or information for the development of any organism is found within the DNA. Colin Tudge tells us that sex provides; instant variation in the offspring, which reduces the chances of epidemic disease; in the longer term, through constant recombinations of genes, it greatly enhances the possibilities of evolution.
Death arrived in tandem with sexuality. Death eliminates life forms and kept the decks, as it were, clear for new developments. Eukaryotic life forms also invented heterotrophy about 800 million years ago. This allowed life to feed on life so the first community of life or ecosystem emerged. The predatory – prey relationships helps to keep life sturdy. Predators picked off the least healthy members among their prey species. Some organisms began to live in colonies, using chemical messages to communicate with each other. This ability to communicate became useful as it enhance co-operation, especially in division of labour among different cells. Some cells specialise in making food, others break down food, and still others specialise in sexual reproduction of the organism as a whole. So life on earth discovers community. Here we can speak of co-evolution which we see in the pattern which has developed between flower, insects and birds.
The Emergence of Plants
Plants evolved from green algae. They gradually came ashore from the ocean to dry land. To survive they had to bring with them their own water supply. This process of colonisation happened about 450 million years ago. One of the most important evolutionary events was the emergence of the wood cell. This had the ability to withstand the force of gravity. Very soon the global habitat was covered with giant fern trees and vast swamps.
There are about 250,000 varieties of plants. They include liverworts, mosses, horsetails, ferns, ginkgos, conifers and flowering plants. The first plants were unicellular algae. These are the ancestors of multicellular organisms where individual cells for different functions. One of the major transformations in the life of plants was the movement from water to the land. They need to bring the water with them and formed a waxy layer, the cuticle over most of their surface. In order to facilitate exchanging gases or breathing and to o regulate water loss plants developed stomata which means mouths. Plants cannot grow large unless they develop vascular systems to carry water and minerals from the ground to nourish the plant and the products of photosynthesis from the leaves down. The first fossils of non-algal plants come from about 430 million years ago.
There are about 11,000 species of ferns. These are the largest and most diverse group of non-flowering plants. Seed plants have played an important role in the plant kingdom; pollen is carried by the wind or birds or bees to the ovule where fertilisation takes place. Conifers are the largest group of gymnosperms with around 550 distinct species. The largest and tallest trees in the world are a conifer. This is the giant redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) can reach up to 117 metres or 350 feet. Conifers have been around at least from the late Carboniferous period which is 300 million years ago. Cones and the seeds they contain are one of the most important developments in the plant world.
Angiosperms or flowering plants first appear in fossil records about 130 million years ago. Today there are an estimated 235,000 species of flowering plants comprising rainforests, deciduous forests and all the world’s grasslands. This means that there range in size is enormous from the redwood to plants that are less than a millimetre across like some of the duckweeds.
A number of features are associated with angiosperms. The first feature is the flower. First of all they are flowers which are pollinated by wind insects or birds. The second feature is the ovule which is enclosed within layers of tissue. Fertilisation takes place through the pollen tube. Flowering species have been very successful in the past 50 million years and today comprise about 90% of all plant species. This is partly because angiosperms produce very robust seeds which can survive for a long time. In this way they have a slight reproductive advantage over gymnosperms. Angiosperms are designed to be dispersed in a variety of ways using water, wind, birds or animals.
Flowering species have brought colour and beauty to the universe. Another marvellous achievement was the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between flowers, insects and birds. Insects visited the flowers for nectar and in the process transferred pollen from flower to flower fertilizing the flowers they were feeding off. As the flowering world expanded so too did the insect world because different shapes and colours of flowers attract different insects. Birds and emerging mammals fed off these flowers and flourished.
Fungi are also very important in the story of life. They come in many forms – moulds, mushrooms, mildews, and yeast to name just a few. Almost all land plants today have a symbiotic fungi in their root system. Without fungi primeval forests would not have existed. There would be no yogurt, cheese or beer. On the negative side there would be no potato plight or Dutch elm disease. 70 thousand species have been identified but many feel that the number could be close to 2 million. Fungi as it happens are classed separately from both plants and animals. They do not have either chloroplast or a digestive system and they get their nutrients by directly absorbing chemicals. About 13,000 species of fungi form close association with green algae to form lichens.
Palaeozoic Era: 600 – 245 million years ago
During this period the first soft-bodied animals evolved in the oceans e.g. jellyfish. One of the greatest inventions of this era was the development of a hard shell using the minerals, phosphorus and calcium. Fossils found at the Ediacaran Hills in the Flanders Range north of Adelaide have interested experts who believe that they are the forerunners of all life forms found today on the planet.
Trilobites appeared quite suddenly about 540 million years ago in the Cambian period. They were complex creatures with limbs, gills, nervous systems and probing antennae. During this period many life forms appeared. Life had remained relatively simple since it emerged 3.8 billion years ago until the Cambrian period. Then in a period of extraordinary innovation and experimentation life created all the basic body parts that are still around today. Much of what we know about this period comes from fossil remains found at Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies. There we find the first creature with a primitive back bone called Pikaia gracilens. This is the ancestor of all vertebrates. The backbone also protected the earliest nervous system and helped develop sensory organs.
At the other end of the palaeozoic era the greatest plant creativity was the gymnosperms (conifers), naked seed organisms. These trees did not require water to bring male and female gametes together. As these had now mastered both the challenges of gravity and aridity, they spread across the continents to give rise to the first forests.
The animals follow suit in mastering dry land. Insects evolve with almost weightless bodies thus enabling them to take to the air. These were the first flying animals. The first amphibians emerged about 370 million years ago. They have small, primitive lungs and breath through their skin. These faced the challenge of how to survive without constant access to water. Evolution solved this with the appearance of reptiles which had water tight skin and laid water-tight eggs.
Insects are among some of the most remarkable creatures in our world. About one fifth of all known animals are beetles. They exist in every ecosystem except in the open seas. Insects are wonderful plant pollinators. Though they were around before the era of the flowering species (angiosperms) appeared many insects co-evolved with their host in extraordinary ways. Most insects developed wings which gives them evolutionary advantage over those lacking the ability to fly. Insects also developed co-operative skills which will be important for many other species.
Mesozoic Era 235 – 67 million years ago
In the change over from the Palaeozoic to the Mesozoic Era two things emerged that altered the character of terrestrial animal life. The first was the development, in reptiles, of an amniotic egg, i.e. a membranous fluid-filled sac which was water tight and which protected the developing embryo. This meant that the animals were now free of bodies of water for mating purposes and were able to roam far and wide inland. There are about 6500 different kinds of reptiles. Some of the better known are crocodiles, alligators, turtles, lizards, dinosaurs and snakes.
The second thing to emerge was parental care. Dinosaurs emerge during this period, some over 40 metres in height. These developed behaviour previously unknown in the reptilian world, that of parental care. Some of them carefully bury their eggs but the most crucial new development is that they stay with the young after they hatch and nurture them towards independence. Reptiles dominated the planet for over 200 million years which is much longer than homo sapiens has been around.
The first mammals appeared in the late Triassic period about 210 million years ago. In the intervening period the educated guess is that there has been 100 mammalian species for everyone species which exists today. The number today is 4,300 though new species of mammals are being discovered as I write. According to the Guardian, 20 new species including a species of ox and deer have been discovered in a patch of forest in Vietnam in the past 20 years. In nearby Laos a new species of striped rabbit has been discovered. Between 1937 and 1994, 16 species of mammals have been discovered. These include 6 species of whales.
Mammals are warm blooded creatures that evolved from reptiles and carried their young within their own bodies. These creatures have various distinctions. The baleen whale is the largest animal to have ever existed on the planet, though many people might mistakenly believe that this distinction belongs to some dinosaur. The cheetah is the fastest animal that has ever lived and no animals in the history of life have had the stamina of either horses or dogs. Mammals occupy the top rung of the food chain in almost every environment on the planet. Mammals inhabit every part of the world – forests, seas, deserts, the arctic regions and temperate zones. Some are herbivores or plant eating while others are carnivores or flesh-eating. There are a wide variety of mammals from whales to bats, monkeys, cattle and horses. When mammals came on the scene they developed emotional sensitivity, a new capacity within the their nervous systems for feeling the universe. By 40 million years ago the order of mammals was complete. Most of these creatures lived in groups and developed elaborate rules of social behaviour.
Some times mammals are characterised as – placental and non placental mammals – but this is not accurate. All mammals feed their young by way of the placenta. Those classified as Metaheria like marsupials give birth to their young at a very early stage of development which means that many but not all of them carry the young in a front pouch and continue to feed them there. The second group are called Eutheria. These produce their young at the more advanced stage. Often times like in terms of the foals the young can be alert and active from birth but other species like in the case of homo sapiens need to nourish their young for a longer period. All except one of the 282 extant species of marsupials live in Australia, New Guinea or South America.
For almost 100 million years mammals and dinosaurs existed together on the planet but the dinosaurs were masters as only a few species of mammals reached the size of a polecat. Mammals really arrived during the cenozoic period after the dinosaurs had been eliminated. One factor which helped them survive, in a subordinate role, during the era of the dinosaur and flourish there after is the fact that mammals are warm blooded creatures. The can burn energy just to keep themselves warm. The development of a single bone structure for the lower jaw; and an ability to move the lower jaw up and down and sideways and a new teeth pattern help mammals to process food more thoroughly. Female mammals also produce milk and suckle their young.
About the middle 150 million years ago birds appeared. Like mammals birds are warm-blooded creatures. They also have feathers which may have evolved from reptilian scales. Birds’ bodies have evolved in a way that maximises their ability to fly. This includes a light, compact sternum which acts as the anchor for the powerful muscles necessary for flight. The bones of many smaller birds appear almost weightless. Feathers are important for flying but they also help insulate the body and provide the birds with an important display mechanism for attracting mates. This reaches its dizzying heights in the case of the peacock. Focusing on sexual charm may seem flippant to us until we realise that passing on ones genes is the most important activity for every creature.
It would appear that birds are descendants of the dinosaurs but, the once near certitude about this has given away is recent years to a more guarded approach. They laid eggs, hatched them themselves and reared the young. They came in all their variety of forms, colours, songs and mating rituals.
It is important to emphasize that life did not continue to evolve in a straight line pattern as it were. An estimated 99.9 per cent of the life forms that have ever existed are now extinct. The extinctions which are a normal part of evolution are known as the background rate of extinction. However, we now know from the fossil records that there has been five moments of mass extinction of species in the past 600 million years. In the late Ordovician period between 450 and 440 million years ago, many of the dominate species of the time became extinct. These included trilobites, brachipods, corals and graptolites. Though we do not know for sure what caused this mass extinction, many scientists now believe that it was due to global glaciation. During the late Devonian period, between 375 and 360 million years ago an extinction spasm took place that wiped out half the species living at the time. Armoured fish known as ostracoderms disappeared as well as other marine species. At the end of the Permian period 252 million years ago almost 80 per cent of the species of the planet were destroyed. For a time it was believed that this extinction was caused by a large object crashing into the earth. Today geologists argue that it was a result of the massive clouds of gases, including carbon dioxide which emanated for more than 500,000 years from what are called the Siberian Traps. This extinction event gave rise to the dinosaurs who dominated the planet for the next 135 million years until they too succumbed to an extinction event.
We are familiar with mass extinction event known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary event which took place about 65 million years ago, the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. It seems that a large meteor crashed in the planet at Chicxulub on Mexico’s Yuctan peninsula. The impact of the meteor threw up huge quantities of dust darkening the earth and interfering with photosynthesis. As a result of this cosmic accident dinosaurs’ habitat was destroyed.
Looked at from the universe perspective the four or five mass extinction events appear like a pruning rather than sterilizing event. The demise of the dinosaurs opened up a space for mammals to develop. These mammals flourished during the Cenozoic era and later branched out into primate and hominid forms.
At the beginning of the 21st century we are witnessing another great extinction spasm. In November 29th 2000 David Attenborough on a BBC nature programme (entitled The State of the Planet) stated that if we continue destroying the habitat of other creatures as we have been doing in recent decades half the species on the planet will be extinct within the next 50 to a 100. This is a horrendous thought and yet little is being done to stop this haemorrhage of life. Biologists like Edward Wilson, author of The Diversity of Life (1993) Penguin) point out that this present extinction is not caused by cosmic or climatic conditions but by one species – Homo sapiens. Looked at even from a selfish perspective, humankind needs this diversity of species for our food, medical and other requirements. Finally, and most chilling of all the contemporary extinction spasm is not another pruning of life which we give birth to a new era of biological creativity. Unfortunately it is a great sterilizing for which future generation will curse this waste and destructive generation.
In the context of this sixth great extinction spasm, protecting species is one of the great tasks for humanity today. Conservationist can draw strength from the example of brave and far seeing scientists at the Institute founded by the Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov to preserve seeds and genetic diversity. During the Nazis siege of Leningrad which began in 1942 and lasted for nine hundred days, more than half a million people in the city starved to death. Among them were numerous scientists at the Vavilov Institute who chose to die rather than eat the rice and other precious seeds which were stored at the Institute. It is said that they reassured each other with the words, “when all the world is in the flames of war, we will keep this collection for the future of the people.”
Ireland through the aeons
Seventy million years ago the continents begin to rise and the land area which is now in the midlands and south of Ireland is again submerged. Sixty million years ago the sea levels recede and there is much volcanic activity in what is called the North channel. Lava flows from volcanoes covered what is now north east Ireland and Western Scotland. The result can be seen today at the Giants Causeway in Antrim and Fingal’s Cave on the west coast of Scotland. The climate was warm and vegetation included monkey puzzles, cypress and Giant Redwoods.
Cenozoic Era: 55 million years ago it started
Over the course of the next fifty five million years Earth greets rodents, whales, monkeys, horses, cats and dogs, apes, grazing animals, elephants, camels, pigs, baboons primates and the first humans. It was the age of flowers, primates and hominids.
Primates evolved from mammals about 55 million years ago. Over the next 50 million years they diversified into lemurs, tarsiers, gibbons, orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, apes and eventually hominids. There are about 200 species of primates. Primates are notable for their intelligence, their manual dexterity and binocular vision. They evolved in forests and spend much of their lives in trees. The five grasping digits on both their hands and feet makes it possible for them to move through trees with ease. They range in size from small tree shrews to large 440 pound gorillas. Recent studies in genetics published in the online journal PLoS Genetics indicates that all primates are probably descended from a common shrew-like ancestor which lived 85 million years ago.
New species of primates are still being discovered. The Guardian newspaper reported on May 20th 2005 that a new species of African monkey, the highland mangabey (Lophocebus kipunji) had been discovered by a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist. This primate lives on the flanks of Mount Rungwe in Tanzania at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Unfortunately the population levels, at 1,000 individuals, are very small which raises questions about the long-term viability of this primate.
Mammals tend to have larger brains relative to their size than other animals and limbs with five toes and five fingers. They are also well co-ordinated with great dexterity of limbs and mobile shoulders married to a depth of vision. Their ability to judge distances accurately and their grip made them very successful in a forests and woodlands environment.
The Emergence of Humans
Seven million years ago a new species broke off from the chimpanzee line. They are called Australopithecines. They were bipedal and emerged in Africa. One of these named ‘Lucy’ was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. She was quite diminutive, just three and a half feet tall and with a brain capacity of 400-500 cubic centimeters. She is the first in the line of Australopithecus. It seemed that these creatures left the forests because the rise of the Isthmus of Panama produced a major change in climate patterns. Warm currents from the Pacific could no longer flow across the Atlantic so dense jungle gave away to less dense forests and late open Savannah land. It now appears that australopithecines did not use tools though tools were being used by other hominid groups that lived with them in Africa at the time.
One group that did use tools was homo habilis and like the australopithecines they were bipedal. Their brain capacity at 700 milliletres was much smaller than contemporary humans which is 1450 millilitres. These people were hunters and meat eaters. The ability of humans to walk upright frees the hands to manipulated objects including weapons. Free hands led the way to tool making which, in turn can be used to kill a prey at a distant. Humans and occasionally chimps are the only creatures that can maim or kill at a distance. The increasingly dexterous use of hands ‘encourage’ greater brain capacity and greater intelligence. This increased humans’ ability to out maneuver other creatures and capture them for food.
Others prefer the sexual selection answer to the question why humans developed larger brains? Like the male peacock that hopes to attract the attention of female with its feathery display, intelligent humans, with the most wit and ingenuity, were more attractive to females.
The direct lineage between early hominid creatures and homo sapiens is hotly disputed today. Some suggest that Australopithecus africanus which was discovered in South Africa by Raymound Dart in 1925 is a direct ancestor of homo sapiens. Homo Habilis which was discovered by Louis Leakey, John Napier and Phillip Tobias in 1964, knew how to make crude tools.
Present knowledge indicates that Homo Erectus is linked to homo habilis. They appeared about 1.8 million years ago in Kenya and had more ‘human’ features than ‘ape’-like features. A fully skeleton of a boy was found near Lake Turkana in Kenya in the 1980s. They were also tall as modern humans and the brain capacity ranged from 759 to 1259 millilitres. This species seems to be the first to hunt and to use fire. They creatures also migrated out of Africa to other parts of the world, possible 1.6 million years ago. They are found in Java as the Java Man and in China as the (Sinanthropus) or Chinese Man.
Some scientists feel that Homo Erectus is not the ancestor of humans but rather an evolutionary dead end, albeit a very successful one for over 200,000 years. They claim that the cousins, Homo ergaster, who remained at home in Africa has a better claims on being our direct ancestor. These emerge about 400,000 years ago in Africa. In Europe they are known as Homo Neanderthaensis (Neanderthals – from the valley in Germany where they were originally discovered). These creatures had large brains around 1740 millilitres which is more than contemporary humans. Anatomically they had receding chin and forehead, large brow ridges, big teeth and heavy bones with large muscles attached. They possessed tools but it seems they were stuck in a technological rut and did not create more efficient tools over a long period of time. One must assume that they used animal skin for clothes especially in the cooler climate. They also developed rituals and had concerns for the after life. Having developed the ability to manipulate fire the heart became a centre around which families and clans could meet, share experience and bond emotionally. They became extinct in Europe about 30,000 years ago. If modern humans arrived in Europe 40,000 years ago they must have lived along side Neanderthals for almost 10,000 years. It is still unclear what led to the extinction. Was it climate change and subsequent habit change or where they hunted to extinction by their younger and more agile cousins – homo sapiens? As yet, we do not know.
So it appears that our direct ancestors emerged out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. They had the ability to speak. Speech led to more cohesive social relations and also the development of symbolic language and art, as well as the capacity for song and dance. This group populated the planet within a relatively short period of time. Aboriginal people reached Australia over 60 thousand years ago and Europe over 40,000 years ago. Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe in the middle of the last ice-age which had begun about 100,000 years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. This means that all of human history has taken place within an interglacial period.
With the emergence of the human, a new faculty of understanding made its appearance. This mode of consciousness is characterized by its sense of wonder and celebration. It also has the ability to refashion and use parts of its exterior environment as instruments as a means of achieving its own ends. The story of the human is the story of the emergence and development of this self-awareness and its role within the universe drama.
Humans are beings that can look back on themselves and reflect on themselves in the present and plan for the future. As such they are a new mode of life on Earth. The arrival of human brought extraordinary changes to the earth community. Humans have been around only for 0.0001 percent of the history of the Earth – and yet we have contributed to massive changes for every other species.
Stages of Human Development
For most of his/her existence on the Earth homo sapiens has been a hunter and gatherer. This was the tribal age. It was a period of great creativity for humankind. A wide variety of languages, and social, political, moral and religious systems emerged during this springtime of human creativity. Tribal people created the world of myth, and they identified and shaped many of the archetypal structures of human consciousness which still guide our secular and religious life today. Among these are the myths of the great hero, the journey symbol, both within the human psyche and across the landscape of the world. There is also the symbol of sacred places and spaces. The main contours of the world of the spiritual realities were laid down during this period.
Most of the basic food sources which we still use today, especially cereals and root crops, were discovered during the tribal era. Today, scientist are beginning to appreciate the great store of knowledge and wisdom which tribal people have accumulated over millennia. This can be abused when bio-prospectors enter a tribal community and, with the help of member of that community, discovers a plant or animal which has medicinal properties. Patenting laws now allow the scientist to patent the gene or chemical without returning any benefit to the tribal community from where the knowledge came. This is called ‘biopiracy’.
The Beginnings of Agriculture.
Between 12 and 10 thousand years ago in the Neolithic period, new social structures appeared and new technologies including weaving and pottery. Agriculture began with the domestication of wheat and rice, also of sheep, pigs, cattle, horses and chickens. One of the major changes which humans have wrought on the planet was the turn to agriculture about 11,000 BC. This involved planting seeds and harvesting them and also domesticating animals. One major result of agriculture was the increase in population density as farmers lived in settled communities. Naturally, hunters and gatherers continued their way of life in tandem with agriculturalists.
Then, some five thousand years ago the Western civilization story began to unfold. It and many other cultures arose in river valleys – the Tigris/Euphrates the Indus and Ganges and the Yangtze. In Mesoamerica among the Mayan and Aztec it was somewhat different.
Classical religions began to emerge about 3000 years ago with the appearance of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. These religions have profoundly shaped human moral and religious consciousness. Through agriculture and new living patterns human began to shape the environment in an extensive way. This was the period when villages began. Towns and cities eventually arose out of these simple social structures.
During this period writing was invented. This helped solve numerous organisational challenges which far-flung cultures posed to political and commercial leaders. The written word also enabled societies to record their cherished myths, stories, poetry and liturgies. In the legal sphere it allowed leaders to promulgate laws and enabled scholars to plot the movement of the heavenly bodies. This in turn led to the development of the calendar. The refinement of the calendar was a milestone in human existence because it allowed individuals and societies to integrate themselves with the rhythms of nature. The first maps began to appear in this era. This facilitated movement of peoples, armies and merchants.
Another important legacy of this era was the development of abstract thought. This began in Greece in the 4th century B.C. but it continued right through the Roman times and the Middle Ages right up to our time.
Many, but not all of these civilizations, also invented the wheel. Even though urban life held many attractions until the beginning of the 20th century the vast majority of people lived in villages. This changed dramatically during the 20th century
This began about 300 years ago and was grounded in the scientific insights of people like Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton. That new scientific age gave rise to revolutionary technologies. As technologies became more sophisticated humans had greater power to transform the world of nature in extraordinary ways. Much of this transformation happened through pressure from the liberal capitalism economy system. The money that fuelled the first industrial revolution in Britain came from the colonies – Jamaica and India.
The first phase of the industrial revolution began in Britain. The source of energy was coal which was abundant and drove the steam revolution. Then Thomas Edison’s discoveries in electricity, and the discovery and use of oil in the later part of the 19th century, led to the electrical and petrochemical phase of the industrial age. Studies in physics at the turn of the 20th century finally led to the emergence of nuclear power both civilian and military. This era began with the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. Further revolutions in the 20th century involved the micro-chip and digital age.
On the biological side developments in genetics and biotechnology have led to the biotech era in agriculture and medicine. In To Care for the Earth I wrote; one cannot deny that some comforts and benefits of this age have helped ease the toil of life for many, the benefits have come at enormous cost. The industrial age has changed chemistry, geology and biology of planet Earth and affected every preceding phase of the story of the universe in an irreversible way.
An atlas produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) called Atlas for Population and Environment shows the extent to technology has transformed the world. Many of these changes are doing enormous damage to the fabric of the earth. Two-thirds of the world’s rivers have been damned for electricity and irrigation. The challenge of the 21st century is to develop technologies which work with the earth’s processes. We will also need to develop more appropriate metaphors. The clock was the dominant metaphor for the world of classical Newtonian mechanics. In the late 19th and 20th century where energy flows began to dominate every human endeavour, energy became an organising symbol.
The Story of the Universe always ends in a particular place. For me that is County Meath in Ireland. From about 100,000 BC to 10,000 much of Northern Europe was covered with ice. Many plants and animals retreated South to survive. Throughout this period Ireland was part of Europe and large animals like the woolly mammoth, reindeer, the giant Irish deer known as Irish Elk, the arctic fox and the brown bear roamed in areas of the country in the south which were not covered with ice. Ice age glaciers have shaped the mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes of Ireland in a very significance ways. This can be clearly seen on Mullagh Mor in the Burren.
As the ice melted the land bridge between Ireland and Britain began to disappear. But before that happened pine, elm, birch, wild boar, pine martens, red squirrels, stoats and wolves had crossed to Ireland. When the land bridge ceases somewhere between 10,000 and 6,000 B.C. animals were not able to cross to Ireland. This is why Ireland is much poorer in biodiversity than our nearest neighbour Britain.
Between circa 1300 BC and 400 BC the Celts spread over much of Europe. Their use of iron gave them an advantage over other people who had not yet become acquainted with iron weapons. They began arriving in Ireland about 400 B.C.
There were other people there before them, possibly as early as 7,500 BC. At that time Ireland was covered with dense forests, so the early settlements were around the coast and rivers and lakes. Agriculturalists arrived about 4,000 B.C. They began to cut the forest to grow crops and rear animals. They also brought pottery and weaving skills with them as well as their religious traditions. Much of it had to do with rituals around fertility and death performed in sacred places. In County Meath we see the legacy of these people in the culture of the people of the Boyne valley who built Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Differentiation, Interiority, Communion
Reflecting on the emergence of the universe, the earth, life on earth and the emergence of humans, Thomas Berry has enumerated three principles that he believes are at the heart of the unfolding of the universe from the beginning – differentiation, interiority and communion.
Differentiation means that in the universe, to be is to be different. Nature has a bias for the newness and novelty and uses it for survival and development. The universe 13,7 billion years ago had nothing of the order of what it is today. From the beginning the universe expressed itself in unique patterns. We have seen regularly that every expression or articulation is unrepeatable and irreplaceable. This is true from the subatomic, or galactic phase. But it is also seen in the beauty of flowers, and trees, the flight of birds or the actions of humans. Each is unique and also a unique expression of the universe.
The second dynamic he speaks of is interiority or subjectivity. This points to the interior dimension of things, an inner depth and a special quality even of supposedly inanimate things. It also encompasses that power of self-expression. We know that this can continue in a particular entity even when it changes itself in response to environmental pressures. Writing in 1980 the systems analysts Erich Jantsch, highlights; the characteristic of living systems to continuously renew themselves and to regulate this process in such a way that the integrity of the structure is maintained.
The Greek word autopoiesis ( which literally means self-making) captures this ability of entities both to be themselves and, at the same time, be transformed. Each structure in the universe, however large or small, has its own unique identity, has clear boundaries between it and other entities and yet, almost paradoxically, is merged with its environment. It is important to keep this balance right. On the one hand we must stress individual uniqueness while at the same time affirming that our full meaning and destiny can only be fully achieved in the context of a complex of relationships. It is important to emphasise that remaining separate and different is an important requirement for genuine union and communion. We are not called to enter a union that ends in being dissolved into a common smudge.
Jantsch and other theorists have based their work on the insights of Illya Prigogine who won the Noble prize for chemistry in 1977. Prigogine’s work on dissipative structures showed that entropy is not the final word in the universe, and that dissipation does not always lead to the demise of a system. In fact, he observed that some chemicals can regenerate to a higher level of self-organization in response to environmental stimuli. In his study of chemical clocks he found that the random mix of molecules became co-ordinated at a certain point. For example, a murky grey solution would begin pulsating, first black then white. He concluded that, in chemical clocks all molecules act in total synchronization, changing their chemical identity simultaneously. Prigogine wrote; the amazing thing is that each molecule knows in some way that the other molecules will do at the same time, over relatively macroscopic distances. These experiments provide examples of the way in which molecules communicate… That is a property everyone always accepted in living systems, but in non-living systems it was quite unexpected.
In biology the basic living system is the bacterial cell. This is a living organism (self-organising system) which is self-bounded, self-generating and self-perpetuating. Life involves self-organisation, autonomy and the ability to adapt to the surrounding environment. But it also involves self-transcendence which is the openness to new levels of evolution and new forms of expressions. 
Margaret Wheatley, a management consultant, reflects on how Prigogine’s discovery is changing our traditional mechanistic view of matter. She wrote if the capacity to deal with information, to communicate, defines a system as conscious, then the world is rich in consciousness, extending to include even those things we have classified as inanimate. Consciousness occurs in systems that do not even have an identifiable brain.
This non-mechanistic way of viewing reality has enormous implications for education. Rather than viewing each item on the curriculum as a disparate element, unconnected with other subjects, the educational community will in the future have to focus on each particular element in the context of the whole story of the universe.
Furthermore, the understanding which Prigogine found in dissipative structures – that order can emerge from disorder – will help us to view knowledge and life itself as an open-end journey. Despite the chaos caused by the break down in social structures and cultural values that I referred to in the early part of this essay, this need not be the end of the story. A new higher order can emerge from the chaos of a system which is breaking down, if those involved can recognise the positive energies that are emerging and work with these to build a new social, spiritual and ecological order which is more appropriate to our time. The student will be helped to see that by developing his or her particular talents and aptitudes each person has a unique contribution to make to this new, unfolding order.
The ability to self-transcend which is found in all organisms but, especially in human beings, will also encourage us to remain open to all kinds of stimuli and information in their journey of self-discovery. It will enable us to recognise that the high points of human achievement are to be found in “the creative dynamics of the poet, the writer, the farmer, the educator, the scientist” and that this is something that we to can aspire to if we are open to all the elements of the world.
The third principle or dynamic is communion. “To be is to be related”. This is the basic law of cosmogenesis. Since everything is made from stardust there is a deep connectedness between everything. Nothing is itself without everything else. There is an inter-relatedness at the heart of quantum theory when matter/energy in the universe interact – all quantum particles continue to influence one another regardless of the universe’s massive expansion.
Community is also at the heart of life. A cell is a communion of organelles, a tissue is a communion cells, and a body is a communion of tissues. On the cosmic level, a galaxy is a communion of stars. At all these levels there is always a very clear distinction between union and fusion. For billions of cells and creatures in an ecosystem to behave in a coherent manner to produce a more complex, stable ecosystem means that cooperation is more important than independence.
The law of communion finds its most elementary expression in the law of gravitation whereby every physical being in the universe attracts and is attracted to every other physical being in the universe. Gravitation at this elementary level finds an ascending sequence of realizations through the variety of life forms and their modes of generation up to human affection in its most entrancing forms.
Love involves the establishment of complex of dynamic relationships, where the individual is perfected but not annihilated. In this interplay of love the whole community is also strengthened.
In writing this story one has to be selective. However it is important to remember that the potential for all future developments, those written about here, those merely hinted at and those yet to be identified, were there in the first spark of life.
Implications for Christianity
The potential for all subsequent life existed in the initial flaring forth. This is true of our Christian faith. We believe that the Cosmic Christ was present from the very beginning. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). In time the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. This historical Jesus became man, lived among us, died and rose again. He came to model for us the principles of differentiation, interiority and communion. He prized uniqueness, encouraged the inward journey and reached out to the marginalised of his society, lepers, Samaritans, the poor, prostitutes. His life was an example of compassion, mercy and justice rooted in equality. Through this equality he promoted the community of all peoples. Jesus grew up in a simple rural environment. He was in tune with the created world and the processes of nature. In his life and teaching he demonstrated an appreciation of the natural world which was rooted in his Father’s love for all creation. There is abundant evidence from his life that he did not wish to dominate or control either the natural world or his fellow human beings.
The Cosmic Christ is the same Jesus of Nazareth, the God-Man who lived on earth, only now he discloses himself to us under a new form and a new dimension. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb 13:8). As Leonardo Boff says; the Resurrection is a cosmic event when Christ leaves behind the limitations of space-time imposed at the incarnation and penetrates the whole Universe, giving an ultimate destiny to the whole Universe.
Finally, dynamic relationships are at the heart of everything including God. To be God means to be in relations and to create a dynamic community sharing life and love. Thus the Trinity can serve as a model for an integrated society. In God each person acts in consonance with its distinctive personality yet the activity is common to the Three Persons. This can become a model for a society of brothers and sisters where dialogue and consensus are the way they live together.
The Great Work
According to Thomas Berry in his book, The Great Work, humans are challenged is to carry out a transition from the period of human devastation of the planet to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually enhancing manner. Responding to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the Poor ought to be at the centre of Christian discipleship and Mission today.
 “Death on a Massive Scale,” NewScientist, 5 March, 2011, page iii.
 Bryson, Bill, 2003, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Doubleday, London, page 109.
 Bill Bryson, 2003, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Doubleday, London, page151.
 Hawking, Stephen, 1988, A Brief History of Time, Bamtham Books, page 34.
 McVoy, John 2005, Modern Scientific Thought and Leanardo Boff’s Theological Intution of Perichoresis; A Natural Resonance, Ph.D.Thesis, page 313.
 Polkinghorne, John, 1996, Science and Christian Belief, SPCK, London, page 195.
 Richard B. Larson and Volker Broom, “The First Stars in the Universe”, Scientific America, Special Edition, Vol. 14, no. 4, 2004, page 4.
 Idem, page 11.
 Ibid 126.
 Ibid, page 130.
 Tim Radford, “X-Rays reveal origins of Earth”, The Guardian, May 11, 2005, page 9.
 Bill Bryson, op. cit., page 191.
 Bill Bryson, op. cit., 254.
 Bill Bryson, op. cit., page 329.
 Bill Bryson, op.cit., page 368.
 L. Margulis, 1999, The Symbiotic Planet; A New Look at Evolution, Orion Books Ltd,. London, page 48.
 Colin Tudge, op. cit., page 551.
 Colin Tudge, op. cit., page 548.
 Colin Tudge. 2000. The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of All the CREATURES that have EVER LIVED, Oxford University Press, page 233.
 Tim Radford, “Monkeying aroun dDiscovery of new species bucks extinction trend”, The Guardian, May 20, 2005, page 2.
 Colin Tudge, op. cit., page 517.
 Michael J. Benton, “Massive Extinctions,” NewScientist. 5March 2011. Page i to vii.
 Sarah McFarland Taylor, 2007, Green Sister, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, page 218-19.
 Steve Connor, “It started with a shrew … study maps the primate family tree,” The Independent, March 18th 2011, page 11.
 Seán McDonagh, 1985, To Care For The Earth, Geoffrey Chapman, London. Page 92.
 Jantsch, Erich, 1980, The Self Organizing Universe, Pergamon Press, page 7
 Illya Prigogine May 1983, Omni, page 90).” (quoted in Wheatley, page 106.
 Wheatley, Margaret. 1992, Leadership and the New Science, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, San Francisco, page 106.).