The story of the evolution of life on Earth is actually quite humbling. Going as far back in time as is possible, to about 4.5 billion years ago, at Earth’s inception, we find that crises have always been a central part of the history of creation. From a distance, we see that cycles of transformation have always existed, even well before humanity appeared. An organic pattern seems to take us through necessary challenges and crises actually designed to ensure that this process of transformation is ever-advancing.
Thomas Berry identifies four parts to the sacred story of the universe: the galactic story, the Earth story, the story of life, and the human story. It is helpful to keep these four stories in mind as we take a walk through time, from the very beginning, as this shows us that the entire human story makes up just 1% of the history of life on Earth. The previous 99% of Earth’s history is characterized by crises, as well, even worse than what humanity has known. Yet pre-human history is a cause for celebrating the diversity and continuity of life, and a cause for hope.
Imagining the history of life on Earth, in geologic scale, as a one-mile long timeline (1760 yards), it would be beyond the halfway mark before the eukaryote cell, which will eventually come to make up our bodies, even begins to evolve.
At the 1660 yard mark, well beyond ¾ of the way through the walk, the greatest mass extinction in Earth’s history takes place. 95% of life on Earth disappears, but life picks itself up and continues on, adding even greater diversity. Only then do giant reptiles appear. With only 25 yards to go, a second major extinction occurs; the toxicity stored in the Earth’s crust explodes to extinguish 75% of life, including dinosaurs, but setting the stage for the appearance of mammals.
With less than an inch to go, homo sapiens finally appear, and with us, the beginning of abstract thought, symbols, language, stories, writing, culture, and the evolution of consciousness. After a few millennia of hunting and gathering, farming, mercantilism, and industrialism, at .0006 of an inch to go in our walk, we split the atom, and introduce a threat unprecedented over the entire mile.
This story of the evolution of life on Earth tells us some important things:
- The entire mile of existence is fraught with a series of fits and starts, near-endings, only to be followed by another beginning. The Earth has seen endless repetitions of muddles and resolutions, with and without us.
- Change and evolution, basic to existence, even on its largest scales, goes from simplicity and uniformity to increasing complexity and differentiation. Yet this differentiation is democratic, equal, and universal.
- Equality throughout creation makes it clear that a strong underlying unity pervades the universe. Everywhere we look, the same physical laws are at work, the same physical constants apply.
- Though human consciousness is unique in all the realms of creation, what the human mind became capable of (reflection, awareness of self and others, and the language to communicate these inner musings) was only because of the many advances that had already been made at previous levels of existence.
The idea of an evolutionary universe, therefore, becomes much clearer with this walk through the farthest reaches of time. As Brian Swimme put it, “Our ancestry stretches back through the life forms and into the stars, back into the beginnings of the primeval fireball. This universe is a single multiform energetic unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence and life.” Indeed, the story of the universe is a sweeping scientific, mythic, and mystical story, and our history has prepared us for our future. But where is the story that will carry us into our desired future?