Monday, February 20, 2012

In the Beginning (Evolution Weekend; February 19, 2012)

It matters what story you tell. In the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures there are, what most contemporary scholars think of as 2 creation stories. In the first one you will recall that God said “let there be light” and there was light. And God said that it was good. My Hebrew scripture teacher in seminary points out that this is an amazing way for the Jewish and Christian sacred texts to begin- with God calling the world into being with words. It gives power to the idea that those holy scriptures are important, that words are important, that words have the power to create and to shape. The second creation story in the bible is the one where God shapes Adam out of the dirt, forms Eve from Adam’s rib, and tells them to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 NRSV).

Now I come from a religious tradition that does not approach the scriptures as the literal word of God; I believe they are filled with poetry and symbol and metaphor. The stories found in the Judeo-Christian scriptures are ancient stories told person to person and occasionally edited and written down by different traditions of religious scholars. These stories have power because they are part of our shared meta-narrative. It doesn’t bother me that in the bible the whole of creation takes only seven days, when science currently estimates it took roughly 13.7 billion years. Here’s what does bother me -- that as a culture we have used this creation story as an excuse to fill the earth and subdue it. Creation stories have power. They tell us where we came from, and what role we have in this universe.

As a culture we have tended to separate the “science and how things work” part of our lives from the “religion and what does it all mean” part of our lives. So even someone who goes into a lab on Monday morning and works all week with hard data might still be living by a creation story that tells us that we are the pinnacle of creation, that it was all created just for us to fill and subdue. What if we didn’t leave science in the lab on Sunday, but brought it to church with us? Brought it right into the heart of the stories we tell one another to make meaning of our shared existence?

Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist, and Tomas Berry a Catholic priest and cultural historian took on the daunting task of getting the story that science tells out of our laboratories and graduate level astrophysics classrooms, and into our hearts. They believe that we need a story that is compatible with the latest scientific truths that we can know by heart and tell our children when they ask at bedtime “where did we come from?” Says Swimme, “Every child should be told; you come out of the energy that gave birth to the universe. Its story is your story; its beginnings are your beginnings.” Swimme and Berry first attempted the daunting task of turning science into poetry and story in their ground breaking book the Universe Story and their work has spread. There is now a whole movement of storytellers who are telling stories about who we are and where we came from based on the science of evolution, the evolution of not only species but of the whole universe. Story tellers like Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd have dedicated their lives to telling and retelling the “great story” --the story of the universe. I propose that as UUs, as a people who believe in the power of science to shine a light on life, each of us needs to learn and tell this story. When I say “Adam and eve” a whole flood of stories and images come to our minds, everyone from the great painters of the Italian renaissance to the Simpsons. But when I say “the big bang” or “the Devonian extinction” my mind flashes back to some cramming I did late night before a science exam.

So today I want to tell you a few stories about who we are and where we came from that are rooted in science. This particular way of telling our story comes from Swimme and Berry in their “The Universe Story” and also from Starhawk in her book “The Earth Path.”

The first thing we were, was one. The beginning of our story, and indeed of all that is was the flaring forth from a singularity. As we heard in our children’s story this morning, all the energy that ever was and ever will be came into existence in an area smaller than the point of a pin, although that’s not really the right way of talking about it, since space and time were contained within that tiny singularity. The first thing that ever happened in this universe was emergence, birth, the unfolding and expanding of space. The foundational forces of our universe were a balance of expansion with the gravitational force which maintains a cohesion that allowed a balanced and sustainable unfolding.

The growing universe was in the beginning and to this day continues to be shaped by density waves which are amplifications of the subtle fundamental vibrations or aftershocks from the flaring forth. Within that first fraction of a second after that flaring forth photons were no longer able to leap into and out of being. The cooling universe entered a new level of stability as Neutrons and protons were able to bond and form lasting relationships. Clouds of all these newly formed particles and elements were shaped by the density waves and the first primal stars appear -- formed from cohesion of the first elements helium and hydrogen. When those primal stars died as supernovas releasing all those elements and energy, their death allowed second and third generation stars to come into being for the next 4 billion years. Even as the universe expanded and expanded, the gravitational force drew elements together to form galaxies and stars. Clouds of elements came together into billions of spiral galaxies, one of which what is now the Milky Way Galaxy. It was the death of the supernova Tiamat about 4.6 billion years ago that released nutrients that formed our own sun and planets, as she had, in turn, been born from the death of other stars.

4.45 billion years ago the planets of our solar system were formed from collections of granules and gasses drawn together into 10 bands around our sun. And these bands in turn were drawn together to form planets. Our own bodies are made up, just as our planet is from Carbon, Oxygen and other elements that were ejected around that dying star Tiamat as it collapsed.

As earth formed and cooled, Aries, our first living ancestor emerged in the lightning storms and turbulent chemical interactions of earth’s oceans about 4 billion years ago. Many of this first generation of living cells, prokaryotes, became extinct quite quickly, but others are the ancestors of, for example, the bacteria alive today, because they carried within them DNA, the capacity to remember and pass on the blueprint of life. A mutation in one could be passed on for generations into the future. As they mutated they helped ensure the survival of life on earth. Because as the earth became less turbulent, the heavy mineral compounds which littered our seas and atmosphere provided a feast for our first ancestors feasted were not produced as quickly as the abundant new life could consume them. But life adapted to meet this shortage. Those early single celled organisms mutated to be able to eat the waste of their cousins, and others to eat the compounds from the decaying bodies of other life forms when they died.

But even so, they were eating and reproducing at a rate faster than the earth could produce new compounds. This would have lead to a great extinction, if it were not for Promethio, an ancestor who evolved the ability to photosynthesize 3.9 million years ago, (100 million years after life appeared on earth) to capture photons from the sun and turn them into energy. Some call it the most amazing technological advance in the history of life itself and this advance was made, say Swimme and Berry “Without a brain, without eyes, without hands, without blueprints, without foresight, without reflective consciousness.” (P. 90) and they were, moreover, though their DNA, able to remember and share this technological breakthrough.
All through this time, as the earth was giving birth to the first life, those life forms were changing the earth by what they took in and what they gave off. These earliest ancestors lived in a world where the oceans were brown and the atmosphere “a brownish orange” made mostly of nitrogen and carbon dioxide and methane (2.5 billion years ago).

For example, all those volcanoes threw off great amounts of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and therefore beings who could transform that Carbon dioxide into their living bodies would flourish. And whereas an atmosphere rich with carbon dioxide helps the earth to maintain heat, with all those little single celled organisms turning Carbon Dioxide into life, the whole temperature of the earth declined, creating the first major ice age about 2.3 billion years ago.

The earliest cells consumed hydrogen, which had been plentiful and air, and which had sustained life for so long. Soon, however, hydrogen was over-consumed by a growing single-celled population. Some mutated into blue-green bacteria and were able to take hydrogen from the seas, sending flinging out a toxic gas into the land and sea and air, fundamentally altering the balance of our biosphere. That toxic gas was called Oxygen, which was like poison to these early beings, breaking down fragile membranes. As the oxygen content became higher and higher, at first those cells who lived in water could survive, but soon oxygen penetrated every part of our biosphere and there was a great catastrophic extinction.

But then life mutated. A Cyano-bacterium we can call Prospero drew prosperity out of catastrophe 2 billion years ago , inventing respiration; the ability to use oxygen for fuel, using it for a kind of controlled combustion, giving it many times more energy than its ancestors. Because there was so much oxygen it prospered. This helped stabilize the balance of oxygen on the planet, but even so the atmosphere approached 21% oxygen, the level at which spontaneous combustion happens.. Imagine -- the early earth had only half a percent of oxygen, and now had 21%! Like the balance between the forces of outward propulusion and gravity whose miraculous balance allows our universe to exist, a special balance of the gasses on our planet allows life as we know it to exist.

But this cycle of mass extinction and innovation continued. The Cambrian extinctions 570 million years ago saw the loss of 80-90 percent of species, yet in the aftermath of that extinction the Eukaryotic cell was born about 2 billion years ago, a cell with a nucleus, like the cells in our own bodies. Our earliest multi-celled ancestors - jelly fish, flat worms - filled the planet 2 billion years ago after the most vast glacial extinction earth has ever seen. Then life invented the shell, giving birth to life forms like trilobites, clams, and snails 550 million years ago, and vertebrates 510 million years ago. The cycle continued as 440 million years ago the Ordovician catastrophe was followed by the evolution of insects and fish with lungs. 370 million years ago the Devonian catastrophe was followed by a novel mutation where Lycopods developed wood cells, becoming the first plants who could defy gravity and stand upright on land and vertebrates came ashore in response to.

The Permian-Triasic episode [245 million years ago] was the greatest of all extinctions. It erased 75-95% of all species living on earth, especially those in the tropics. Coral reefs were wiped out in their place there was only a void for millions of years. This time the earth was very slow to repopulate, in part because that vast treasure trove of memory, the DNA of all those extinct species was gone forever. The great continent Pangea had drifted over the south pole creating a colder drier climate. In a life affirming response, the egg came into being, a less vulnerable way of reproducing evolved first in reptiles, who could migrate further inland now that they didn’t have to reproduce in water. Land animals evolved a way to retain their body heat in a cold climate) – the warm blooded reptiles that we believe were ancestors of the mammals like us to follow. As the Dinosaurs appeared these were the first era of animals to care for their young- to stay with the young after they hatched, and mammals who could nourish young outside the womb.

Placental mammals emerged in the wake of another devastation 114 million years ago [Aptian extinction] Earth grew cold. The mammals who could carry their young inside them- who could experience pregnancy and birth as mammals to day experience it, theses animals had an edge because their young started life outside the womb more developmentally advanced than the young of reptiles and dinosaurs. Many of the animals who now keep us company on this earth came into being: horses, rabbits, bats, whales, primates, lions, flowering plants and songbirds.

But then Antarctica split of from Australia, opening up a passage for currents of cold air, and the first ice began to form in the sea around Antarctica, an the temperature of the whole planet became colder.

The primates and other mammals had began to flourish in a vacuum left by a devastating extinction 67 million years ago which eliminated the dinosaurs and 70% of life on earth. This mass extinction may be the most famous. It is called the Cretaceous-Tertiary event [or K/T boundary] because it created such a clear boundaries between the era of the dinosaurs, and the eras without them the followed. This mass extinction eliminated the diversity of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, mollusks, fauna. There is some debate about what caused the extinction, but whether we believe it was caused by a great asteroid hitting the earth, a time of great volcanic activity, or the movement of tectonic plates, whether the extinction was dramatic and swift or happened over millions of years, we know that the climate changed drastically and could no longer support the old life forms, like the dinosaurs. Twice more the wealth of life and diversity of species swelled and died back, caused by environmental catastrophe caused by major shifts in the earth’s climate.

4 million years ago the first hominids were distinguishing themselves from other primates with a larger brain size and upright posture, though our ancestors still spent a lot of time in the trees. 3.3 million years ago the current ice ages began. 2.6 million years ago the Homo Habilis was the first hominid to make an abundance of stone tools. We can tell that Homo Habilis were hunters because the kind of tools they made -- developed for hunting and cutting apart their food. These were the first of our close relatives. 1 million years ago earth saw the peak of Mammals on our earth. Then during the following ice age many of the large many of the large animals such as the mammoths, the saber tooth tigers, and the mastodons as the glaciers advanced further and further south, shrinking the habitat and food supply for both animal and plant life. About 30,000 years ago the Neanderthals hit an evolutionary dead end. When the glaciers retreated, it was the smaller animals that took their place- the white tailed deer, wood mice and migrating birds; the abrupt climate changed began the most recent period of mass extinction. From that time, about 11,500 years ago, to this day we are part of the most recent mass extinction- including huge reduction in the other “mega fauna” that is- animals larger than ourselves such as elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceros. In fact hundreds and thousands of species have become extinct in our time; many scientists believe this to be from our own human actions- hunting and destroying habitat for perhaps hundreds of thousands of species, particularly in dramatically diverse communities like the rainforest.

As we once again alter the delicate balance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere we risk another dramatic unbalancing of life on our planet- the 6th great extinction. As we look back over billions of years of our story, it may remind us with trepidation of the great extinction when our atmosphere was unbalanced so many billion years ago, or it may remind us of the triumph of Prospero, who turned toxic waste into the stuff of life. This story of extinction and adaptation is a sometimes tragic story, but it is also a story of hope. Hope for life on our planet and for life itself. Life finds a way.

It seems it may be up to we Homo Sapiens to make a change, a breakthrough on the level of respiring oxygen or turning light into energy to restore a new balance to our biosphere. Say Swimme and Berry “While the human cannot make a blade of grass, there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless it is accepted, protected and fostered by the human.” (p. 247)

One thing that has been true of Unitarians since we called ourselves by that name is a value of science and reason. And Science has given us a new story of who we are and where we come from.

We live in the eon of geologic time in which all 5 kingdoms of life have blossomed on earth. We live in a time of war, of competition for resources, of technological achievement. We live in a time of massive species extinction and changes to our biosphere.

A story that helps us understand our place in the order of things must be a big story, a story that reminds us both that we are new- coming as we do after 13 billion years after the first flaring forth, and 4 billion years after the first life appeared on this earth. Our human history is just the latest chapter in a long, long story. The Universe Story also shows us that we are deeply intertwined with all that is. We were there in the very first moments and there in the dramatic end story of the supernova Tiamat, in the triumph of Arius, of Prospero. The story of their tragedies and successes is our story as well. Let us call on all those billions of years of wisdom and memory lest we miss whatever part of the story that will help us shape a bright future for our selves and our biosphere. The collected wisdom in our culture, in our bodies, in our DNA, in our ecosystem is a remarkable inheritance.

Who better than a faith that values science and reason to appreciate such wisdom? Who better than a faith which affirms we are all on the same path, to heed that wisdom in shaping a just and vibrant future. Who better than this very community to be students and teachers of this, our whole story? Who better than the Universalists and the Unitarians to remember that in the beginning all was one?

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