Greatest Story Ever Told
Shreeve is not talking about Jesus or Moses or anything else from the Bible. He's talking about the scientific effort to unravel our human past, using our genes like an archeologist uses a dig. Shreeve describes the story next. "It begins in Africa with a group of hunter-gatherers, perhaps just a few hundred strong. It ends some 200,000 years later with their six and a half billion descendants spread across the Earth, living in peace or at war, believing in a thousand different deities or none at all, their faces aglow in the light of campfires and computer screens."
Then Shreeve lists the questions the scientists hope to answer: "Who were those first modern people in Africa? What compelled a band of their descendants to leave their home continent as little as 50,000 years ago and expand into Eurasia? What routes did they take? Did they interbreed with earlier members of the human family along the way? When and how did humans first reach the Americas?"
And here, in my opinion is the fascinating part: Shreeve asks, "In sum: Where do we all come from? How did we get to where we are today?"
I consider these two of the important questions which religion has always tried to answer. Science has already discovered some tentative answers, suggesting humans first evolved in Africa and then migrated and spread gradually across Eurasia and from there to Australia and the Americas.
Fundamentalist Christians and Jews scoff at such talk. They believe they know the truth based on the Bible, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the part of the story prior to Abraham migrating to Canaan. They don't care how many bones are found, how old they are, how coherently these finds fit the broad strokes of the story Shreeve is summarizing. The don't care about corroborating evidence in our genes.
How sad that these people are closing their minds to revelation. They claim they have already found revelation and that it only happened in the dim and distant past and only to one group of people. If God reveals anything to us, it is through our minds and if God is a universal God, it will be available to each and every one of us. Using our minds, scientists worldwide are putting their heads together, digging, discussing, proving and disproving (sometimes dying), and after several hundred years of this, we have gone from one set of ideas about our place in the cosmos, to one that is so different that it is hard to find anything of the old world view left. Only the fundamentalists doggedly cling to their Bibles and ignore the voice of God speaking clearly in our midst.
If one cannot find a basis for a religious mindset in the world view of science, one is not really trying. How much more awe-inspiring a story could one want?
Consider that science now tells the following story about how we got here. It goes back much farther than what Shreeve is covering, although it includes that. In the beginning, there was light. Then some of that light coalesced into matter, hydrogen and helium, two simple units themselves constructed of a set of simpler units. This matter and energy moved (and still moves) through time evidencing a few simple patterns. Opposite charges attract. Like charges repel. All matter attracts. Plus a few more.
The hydrogen and helium combined to form stars. In the stars formed more matter, still made up of the same three units, but now numbering in the dozens, including iron, oxygen, and sodium. Then there was more light, as some of these stars exploded and created even more elements, throwing them out haphazardly, like a farmer scattering seeds this way and that.
More came together, this time, with stars and planets. On the planets, as things cooled, the elements began to come together in new ways, making more complex units: molecules. Some of these were very simple, like oxygen gas, just two oxygen atoms. Others, just slightly more complicated, like water, behave in radically different ways from oxygen gas. Water is the most amazing of these compounds. Oxygen will be important too.
With more time and a lot of mixing of chemicals, some planets had just the right amount of sun and water to allow every more complex compounds. Maybe only one planet in a hundred billion had the conditions essential for the start of life, but even so, there are so many that our history has surely been repeated with minor variations all over the cosmos, for we find that the most important and astonishing thing about this is that all of this works the same across the vast universe. Simple things combining and evolving into more complicated things, which in turn combine more and the levels of complexity begin to stack.
The start of life was probably very gradual, almost impossible to place the dividing line. Simple things interacted and ended up replicating the same pattern, multiplying it. From here the laws of evolution began to really kick in (see my entry defining evolution for more). This process happens without evidence of a conscious, willful planning or design—things are done, but there is no doer. Yet there is amazing creativity in the spectrum of life that has evolved from such humble beginnings.
Instead of everything being created more or less at once, everything has an ancestor and we can understand each plant and animal in terms of the lines leading back in time and space to this universal beginning. Somewhere in here, our ancestors began forming social groups, supporting each other, making things—some useful, some just interesting—all the while growing in awareness and in that awareness began the questions which religion and now science would try to answer.
And so it goes on up to the present. Note that you have a place in this story, no matter where you live in the world. No matter who your ancestors were, somewhere in the past, they coincide with my ancestors. Water is the same amazing substance the world over. And we all cry when we lose someone we greatly love.
That is the greatest story there is to tell. We should embrace it, write symphonies about it, dramatize it in our religious rituals, tell the story to our children and watch as they grow up and tell the story, perhaps slightly changed by that time, to their children. Does this story lack anything that we need to feel excited to be part of the cosmos, to want to lead lives that honor our amazing heritage? Perhaps, but that we will discuss later.