Ah, the joys of brewing beer and the conversations they start. An old roommate of mine and I were working on our Summertime Scotch Ale when we got on the topic of geological time. We both majored in evolutionary biology, and he’s actually going to be a doctor in the field someday in the near future (though I refuse to call him Doctor, ever), and tend to get really aggravated with general evolutionary misconceptions. He brought up a really good point; people don’t seem to realize exactly how long 4.5 billion years is, and how much change can occur in such a long period of time.
My favorite episode of Doctor Who sums up exactly why time can be confusing. From the Doctor himself, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint—it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly…time-y-wimey…stuff.” This is true when you consider things like relativity, metaphysics and even physics to some extent (at least as true as a sci-fi TV show geared towards teenagers in Britain can be). However, it’s patently false when looking at human history and the history of life.
I took a course in paleontology last year. My professor was probably the smartest and bravest person I met at school. We all worry about looking forward in time, what things will be like and how technology will change our everyday interaction, but we rarely look back. I realized why during that class; it’s just as difficult as looking forward. Paleontologists piece together Earth history, all 4.5 billion years of it, based on evolutionary sign posts from tiktaalik to Lucy (the first land-dwelling creature and the oldest australopithecine discovered, respectively).
What have we learned from these 4.5 billion years? Lots of things, brilliant things that have changed the way we see our world. Still, scientists and paleontologists alike have a hard time delivering their messages. Really brilliant ideas are met with skepticism and thoughtless quips like, “You mean to tell me my uncle was a monkey?” No sir, that’s not possible and shows no understanding of evolutionary time, and here’s why.
While some subscribe to the Doctor’s version of time, which seems tough without the TARDIS, evolutionary history is in fact, linear. It’s best viewed in clades, to understand how species grow and change over time. Darwin demonstrated this back when it wasn’t cool:
Clades have become much more sophisticated, and each fossil we find expands them and our understanding of evolutionary history. What makes comments about everyone’s crazy monkey-uncle is twofold. First, a monkey is not an ape. Monkeys have tails and apes only live in Africa, that’s really only the beginning of their differences. Second, homo sapiens are not related to monkeys, we all share a common ancestor. At some point in evolutionary history our ancestor, an animal that can’t even be considered ape-like yet, split off and followed its own evolutionary route.
Evolution can occur for various reasons: reproductive and geographic isolation, mutation or as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in his novel Galapagos, just because. To say we’re related to monkeys ignores everything that makes us human. Sure, we have a long history, but we know very little about the last common ancestor we shared. Consider this, the first form of home sapiens, homo gautengensis first appeared on Earth over two million years ago! That’s only a small fraction of Earth’s total history. Homo sapiens have been around about 200,000 years.
Like time, this could just keep going and going and going. So I’ll stop. If you need me, I’ll be in my TARDIS sipping some Schlitz in the future.
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