The humbling truth
Matthew Williams | Wednesday, January 25, 2017
The planet we inhabit began existing 4.6 billion years ago. It formed when heavy elements, produced in stars during the first 9 billion years of the universe, began to coalesce around our sun. Over the next 500 million years, this molten mass slowly settled into what we call the “Earth.”
Shortly after it became hospitable to life, our most primitive ancestors moved in. These were not the hairy bipedal hominid ancestors or the first tetrapods, they were the simplest of all cells. It was from their humble beginnings that everything we now call “living” would eventually evolve.
With each successive generation, life found a way to continue thriving. Some lineages kept the same strategy and others randomly discovered new ones. A minority amongst them began increasing in complexity, and by 500 million years ago, many of the animal phyla alive today were beginning to emerge.
The ancestors of all mammals evolved 150 million years ago. They were small and rather unimpressive by our standards, but this turned out to be for their advantage. As the dinosaurs rose to dominance on Earth, these early mammals lurked patiently in the shadows. After 85 million years of waiting, a mass extinction event finally cleared the stage.
When it did, mammals quickly stole the show by once again randomly radiating into many new forms. The primates were one of them, and eventually a part of the primate order pushed the limits of complexity further than ever. The result is us: the first branch from the tree of life with the ability to comprehend the whole thing.
To me, knowing that we are part of something this large is a reassuring truth. While humans are only a small part of the tree, I believe we are a ripening fruit hanging from its highest branch. We are supported by our biological family, but not bound to the tree in the same way that the rest of our earthly siblings are.
By this, I mean that we have an unprecedented opportunity to do things that the rest of life on Earth has never been able to. This is why we feel like we are from the earth but not of it; like we are destined for more. We want to be picked from the tree so-to-speak, and this is where I find faith comes in.
It exists because of our predicament. We have more control over what we’re doing than any other living thing, and we’re uncomfortably aware of this, but we don’t know what exactly we’re supposed to be doing. In trying to figure it out, humans have come up with many different theories, and we each place our faith in one of them to be right.
Some of them make us grow and some of them slowly consume us. Importantly, they are not permanent, and it is never too late to question our faith, whatever it may be in, and consider placing it elsewhere. It is through this act of consistently questioning that humanity continues to converge on the truth of our existence.
Whether or not we get there is up to us, which is why we also need humility. Isaac Newton once said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
We have a nice collection of seashells going, but we mustn’t forget that they are only a fraction of the whole ocean. At the same time, there is another aspect of humility that we need: the ability to be wrong. For this, I like to think that the opinions we carry around should be like Post-it notes, not tattoos. We can easily swap them out when we find something better.
Perhaps regaining this humility is the biggest challenge we have to work on this year. It seems like the promise of modernity has caused us to forget that the story of human history is full of many more wrong answers than right ones. This is why the history books never call somebody the best ever; they were the best of their time.
What I’m saying is that maybe individualist thinking has led us to place a little too much of our faith in the individual, in each rational mind to deduce the truth on its own. By doing this, we neglect the humbling fact that we ourselves and everything we know is only a small part of something much, much larger. We forget that everything we are is a product of what has come before us, and as a result our humility begins to degrade.
I think this may be why, in the most information-dense time in Earth’s history, we feel ourselves becoming more divided than united. We have grown so enthralled with our own collections of pebbles that we risk ignoring the ocean altogether. The result is an era of post-truth where every answer is as good as the next, regardless of how much truth it actually contains.
I am hopeful that renewing our humility will be a promising prescription for the truth, but even if I am wrong, I still think practicing humility is positive, because with it comes an overwhelming sense of wonder. This awe at life is an unavoidable side-effect of facing the truth. To do so is to gaze out to sea, to stand tall beside the tree of life, and while it is humbling, it is equally as astonishing.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.