Time Trouble

I often wonder why some people are so resistant to Darwinism. The idea, once grasped, would seem to have everything going for it: it is elegant and simple, but despite its simplicity has amazing depth and explanatory power. It has been abundantly confirmed by a diverse and mutually supporting body of evidence, and provides a sturdy framework for our understanding of all life on Earth.

Nevertheless, the fact of Darwinian evolution is flatly rejected by a majority (!) of Americans. One obvious reason for this is the persistence of fundamentalist Biblical literalism in our country, with its insistence upon the Old Testament creation story. But the acceptance of such folklore as fact is abetted by another, quite natural difficulty: people have, generally, absolutely no concept of deep time.

It seems quite natural to assume that our earliest human ancestors were concerned only with matters that took place on a local scale, both of time and space; it seems unlikely that an Ice Age cave-dweller would have had any idea of the size or age of the world, and it would have been reasonable enough for him to imagine that the vault of the heavens was just out of reach. The Biblical mythos fits well with this parochial notion of scale: God created the heavens and the Earth in six days, and put man, conveniently, in charge of the whole shebang. But one result of the progress of science has been a steady erosion of this swaddling coziness, and its incremental replacement with a bigger and bigger world, in which we are less and less the point. First came the sphericity and immensity of the Earth itself, then its displacement from the center of the solar system, then the gathering evidence that the motions of the natural world were governed not by the supporting finger of God, but by constant and mathematically explicable laws. Even the life-giving Sun was found to be nothing particularly special, but a rather average star among billions in the Milky Way, and then the Galaxy itself was shown to be only one of an uncountable multitude of similar far-flung islands, strewn throughout an inconceivably vast and mostly empty Universe.

Meanwhile, even our vaunted race, cast in the very image of God Almighty, was revealed to be the direct descendant not only of some sort of apes, but of reptiles, of fish, of horrid creeping things that dwelt in the ancient muck. It takes some readjustment to see such a view as ennobling.

Common to all of this, of course, is a steady demotion in scale: the bigger the world is, the smaller we are. And the backdrop against which we are measured has expanded not only in space but in time. We are designed to operate at smallish timescales – we need to react to our surroundings quickly enough to catch prey, and to avoid becoming prey ourselves, and it is only with some difficulty that we can imagine durations that are much longer than our own brief lives. If a process is too fast, or too slow, we simply don’t see it. And the scale at which evolution works is so many orders of magnitude greater than any of the movements we are designed to respond to that it becomes very difficult to grasp.

Mark Twain once made the point by saying that if the age of the world — known now to be about 4.5 billion years — were to be represented by the height of the Eiffel Tower, then the time that modern humans have existed would be roughly comparable to the thickness of the layer of paint at its pinnacle. He then points out that it would take a certain lack of perspective to imagine that the whole structure exists just to hold up that coat of paint. But when people insist — and there are still shockingly many who do — that the Earth is less than ten thousand years old, and was created explicity for the comfort and support of Man, this is exactly what they are doing.

Most of you will be familiar with Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover, in which he offers a view of the world from the Manhattanite’s perspective. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

I imagine that our customary view of Time could be represented by a similar picture — but in the foreground, instead of Ninth Avenue, might be This Morning. Just across the river would be Last Week, with The Sixties in the middle distance, The Revolutionary War at the farther shore, and Two Billion Years Ago off near the horizon.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    Have you seen this? Good article, but the comment thread that follows it is extremely depressing. Willful ignorance abounds. It often reminds me of how certain students will put more effort into avoiding class than into actually doing the required work. Many of the objections to evolutionary theory are extraordinarily complex.


    Posted December 12, 2006 at 2:31 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    “Extremely depressing” indeed, if unsurprising. If this website were more visible, I’m sure I’d have had some of those comments myself by now.

    Few things are as intractable as willful ignorance.

    Posted December 12, 2006 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  3. Andrew says

    Malcolm – Nice post, I had not heard the Mark Twain quote. I also like the comparison of our sense of time to the Steinberg cover.

    Kevin – I am struck by your characterization of the objections to evolution as being complex. Many are made to look complex but are not. The arguments are convoluted but the underlying reasoning (or lack there of) is quite simplistic. This is what makes the willful ignorance so frustrating. There is really nothing of substance to the objections.


    Posted December 14, 2006 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew, and thanks, as always, for reading and commenting.

    I don’t know if Kevin will spot your response, it having been a few days. Maybe I’ll tip him off…

    Posted December 14, 2006 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  5. edward ocham says

    Londoners have a similar view of the world. But isn’t it true? I travelled across the mid-West once, and most of it looked like the surface of the moon. What actually happens there? Endless repetition of the same elements. Similarly, for long periods of the universe nothing happens. Some large cloud of gas hangs about for a few billion years, then parts of it condense. You can represent the key features of this in a few seconds. The fact it actually took 3 billion years is neither here nor there. Similarly the dinosaurs – lasted 200 million years, but it began with crocodiles, and ended with crocodiles. Grass, by contrast, is very modern (hence the mid West).

    There is not in fact much that really happens beyond the length of the King’s Road (or 9th street, whatever).

    Posted December 23, 2006 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hello Edward, and thanks for visiting. May I presume that you are the same Ockham who comments so astutely at Dr. Vallicella’s salon?

    As is the point of the post, it is all a matter of perspective. Your assessment of the Mesozoic might, perhaps, gloss over some rather interesting intermediate developments. If you had your eye exclusively on the crocodilian line, you could well have overlooked the rise and fall of the sibling branch that included the dinosaurs themselves (and led to the birds), but it would have been much more difficult to ignore, say, a nearby Brachiosaurus or a T. rex in the moment, rather than at a remove of many millions of years. It is rather like suggesting that if one starts at sea level, takes a stroll up Everest, then returns to sea level, that one hasn’t really done anything — which is true in a narrow totting-up-the-energies physical sense, but misses out some salient aspects of the experience. There has actually been quite a lot of interesting business transacted on the surface of the Earth over the last billion years or so.

    This stands in contrast to your other point, though, about the clouds of gas: the things we find interesting have to do with complexity, and the emergence and workings thereof — and a slowly condensing gas cloud, like large stretches of the Midwest, offers a good deal less of that than, say, King’s Road or Manhattan’s West Side.

    Posted December 23, 2006 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  7. edward ocham says

    Yes, edward ocham = ocham.

    Posted December 24, 2006 at 10:51 am | Permalink