GENESIS 1, a mythical account of the ‘creation’ of the world, is an impressive piece of work. We have a self-confident and authoritative God, unseen but heard, whose mere word, like a verbal snap of the fingers, creates order, structure and life, from what was originally chaotic, barren and inert. The six daily stages of this compelling process follow each other in a logically developing process, concluding with a ‘job well done’ seventh day of rest for the perspiring divinity. The culmination and crown of his creation is the human race, declared to be made in his very own image. It’s an imposing story of the most rapidly completed construction project of all time.
We now know, however, that the earth came into being 4.5 billion years ago, and that life made its first tentative appearance 3.85 billion years ago. Homo sapiens, otherwise known as human beings, seem to have appeared around 315,000 years ago. In other words, if the age of the Earth is pictured as one day, we humans are the ultimate johnny-come-lately’s, having the cheek to turn up at 24 minutes to midnight! As the ‘culmination and crown’ of the divinity’s creative efforts, we took an inordinately long time to make our appearance on stage.
We also now know that life has developed in accordance with an evolutionary process, based on random genetic mutation interacting with environmental selection, (although female mate-selection has lately begun to be factored into the equation). If, like the operating systems of our smartphones, the evolutionary process could be reset, and begun again ‘from scratch’, there’s no knowing what sort of living creature would then become the ‘crown and culmination’.
As it happens, if an asteroid hadn’t decided to bash into the Earth, the dinosaurs, who’d already been the leading lights for 165 million years, might still be the stars of the show. As things turned out, with the mega-monsters out of the way, numerous versions of hominids, then humans, eventually appeared, some contemporaneous with others, and with no 100% certainty that it would be us who would finally top the bill. Then again, we mustn’t forget that evolution is an ongoing process. There are no grounds for thinking it has stopped, so it would seem that we’d better make the most of our own ‘moment in the sun’, before it’s our turn to be shown the door.
All of this underlines the problem inherent in this ‘crown and culmination’ picture in Genesis 1. With our creatively complex brains, extensive knowledge and powerful technology we can consider ourselves ‘exceptional’. What we need to beware of, however, is the hubris of ‘exceptionalism’ – the belief that we’re categorically or essentially different from all other animals – that we’re the endpoint, the ultimate ‘kings of the castle’. Darwin and modern genetics should have put paid to that.
On the one hand, we should recall the fellow creatures who have far greater sight, hearing, sense of smell, speed and agility than we have. Bacteria produce oxygen, bees tell each other where the best flowers can be found, beavers construct dams, chimpanzees use stone tools as nut crackers. And the more we learn about microbial, plant and animal communication, the more we begin to realise there’s a rich wealth of skill and language all around us, to which we’re too often blind and deaf. We ought to treat our fellow animals, and indeed all life forms, with far greater thoughtfulness, care and respect than we do. They’re our brothers and sisters.
On the other hand, we ought to reflect on the fragility of our existence and continuance on this planetary speck of dust, with its ribbon-thin protective atmosphere which we’re increasingly adulterating with our greenhouse gases. And, even as I write this, a microscopically small evolving virus, dangerously mutating, is giving us a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are.