Viewing Humanity as the Beginning of an Era, not the End of One

When I was in high school, I learned in science class to view life on earth in relation to a clock.  I was taught that if we looked at all of the time that has passed since the formation of the earth, then humans could be seen as coming into the picture just moments before midnight.  The lesson went something like this, as borrowed from Professor Larry MacPhee at Northern Arizona University:

If geological time were displayed on a clock that began ticking the instant our planet was born, the first gene probably emerged in the predawn hours, before 5:00 am. Later that morning the first sun-fed photosynthetic cells appeared, followed that afternoon by cells that carry their genes inside a membrane-bound nucleus, and later that evening by the first of many multicellular organisms. The first modern human beings, members of Homo sapiens, would not arrive on the evolutionary scene until about the last 30 seconds of this long day, and all of recorded [human] history took place during the last tenth of the last second before the stroke of midnight.

As a kid I found this fascinating.  However, I think subconsciously this always made me think of the urgency associated with the end of that first day, as if the end of that first day was somehow the end of time – as if no one had invented a clock for the next day. 

Of course, there is no logic to that, but perhaps my impressions were based on other, more fatalistic things I had learned at an even younger age regarding how the end of the world comes when the clock strikes midnight – the proverbial “doomsday clock” professed by both scientists and religions alike. 

The doomsday clock predicts “how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction.”

Today, the doomsday clock sits at six minutes to midnight – giving a strong sense of our impending doom, even if it is not intended to suggest that the end of days is months or weeks away. 

The geologic clock and the doomsday clock are totally different things, but when you are young, the two seem perfectly consistent.  Under either scenario, it is as if – by design – mankind marks the end of an era, not the beginning of one. 

Sure, these clocks serve a useful purpose; it is important for everyone to appreciate the scale of geologic history and the challenges we face in our future. 

But what if instead we were taught to look at life and time very differently?  What if we considered time on the scale of the universe, and we recalibrated the geologic clock so that humans appeared on the scene within the first hour, not the end of the first day?  Or maybe we could set the clock to something like 8:00 a.m. to reflect the fact that we wanted to sleep in a bit.  Sure, billions of years are a long time to cram into the first part of any day.  But even with an 8 a.m. start time, that leaves many billion more years until midnight – plenty of time to get on with things without worrying about the end of time or life as we know it.  And, even then, when compared to all of eternity, that first day is really nothing.  Eternity is forever.  Chew on that.

No doubt, life itself is short.  And the earth is small.

But the end is nigh?

No.  This is just the beginning of what is certain to be a very long, crazy journey.

So, instead of worrying about the end of the world this Earth Day, try thinking about how new it all really is and how we might help each other to keep things going for a long time – even when things might seem bleak.

And no more doomsday clocks.  Instead, how about a simple acknowledgement that the vastness of the universe, in some shape or form, will continue for a really, really long time – with or without us.  None of us can change that.  And that’s o.k.  Because isn’t it amazing enough to know that we – and every other living thing we know of or have yet to discover on this small, round planet – can be a part of this remarkable journey for as long as is humanly possible.