Monday, August 22, 2005

Well put

Verlyn Klinkenborg has a nice piece on Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution:
The universe is perhaps 14 billion years old. Earth is some 4.5 billion years old. The oldest hominid fossils are between 6 million and 7 million years old. The oldest distinctly modern human fossils are about 160,000 years old.

The truth of these numbers has the same effect on me as watching the night sky in the high desert. It fills me with a sense of nonspecific immensity. I don't think I'm alone in this.

One of the most powerful limits to the human imagination is our inability to grasp, in a truly intuitive way, the depths of terrestrial and cosmological time. That inability is hardly surprising because our own lives are so very short in comparison. It's hard enough to come to terms with the brief scale of human history. But the difficulty of comprehending what time is on an evolutionary scale, I think, is a major impediment to understanding evolution.
I have no idea who Klinkenborg is. I like his writing, he seems smart and offers some rural balance to the often hyper-urban(e) editorial page at the Times, and his introduction to Cache Lake Country: Life in the North Woods by John J. Rowlands sold me on one of my favorite books ever.

This article is one of the better pieces I've seen trying to grasp the real issue behind creationism. It isn't about evolution, the Bible, or whether the flagellum could have functioned with fewer parts.

Creationism is in large part, driven by some people's inability to conceive of millions of years and millions of incremental changes. More people need to take a calculus class and really grasp the idea that you can have an infinite number of changes that are each infinitely small, and the result might be a fixed and finite change over a fixed and finite range, or it might be no change, or even infinite change. The idea that odd things happen when you combine colossal numbers of very tiny things is fundamental to calculus, and through it, to the statistics evolutionary biologists spend their days with, as do physicists, etc.

The man on the street (or woman) has no intuitive grasp for the power of large numbers to integrate small changes, let alone a clear concept of 100 million years. A long time ago is when Bill Clinton was president, or maybe Ford. It's a hard hurdle to clear, and not one we can clear if we're arguing about the details of modern evolutionary biology.

There's a mindset that you get into after you've studied these issues. That's what I'd tell frustrated stats students, and it's what creationists and much of the public lack. There's no appreciation for the scales at which biology operates.