The Miracle - The Modern Story of Creation
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The Miracle - The Modern Story of Creation
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Ernie Stokely, August 3, 2008

Preface and Disclaimer

Much of the material presented here is from Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s book, The Universe Story.(1) In places I have quoted or nearly quoted sentences from Swimme’s book without using quotation marks. Another Brian, Brian Greene, has written a book on string theory (2) that I found interesting but so complicated its contribution to my understanding of my world was increased only incrementally. There are a number of books on Einstein’s theories, but I have not included them in the references. A third book by Casare Emiliani (3), a text for a college undergraduate course, is an excellent reference for understanding the cosmology and geology of the developing earth. Finally, the story I will paraphrase as told by Swimme and Berry stirs the spirit and calls us out of self-centeredness. No writer has spoken to “creation spirituality” more powerfully than Matthew Fox (4).

Today,we speak of The Miracle, not “a” miracle, or the “greatest” miracle, but The Miracle".

Our Heritage

Let us begin with a story from our own heritage. Try for a moment to shut out all that you know, all that is around you. Take yourself back to a time and a place where there is no science, no mathematics, no technology other than bronze implements, a time when even writing is in its infancy.

Imagine yourself 3,000 years ago, sitting around a campfire somewhere in what is now southern Israel. The heavens above blaze with stars and constellations, all with names and stories attached to them. Have you seen the skies out West on a cold, clear winter night? The heavens around our campfire are even brighter, and the Milky Way, our own galaxy, seems so near one could almost reach up and pluck the stars right out of the sky.

All eyes in the circle around the campfire turn to the elder, who is about to once again recite the story we already know by heart. We all nod as he tells the old story once again.

Creation“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness Night. And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” The story goes on. The elder continues the story that chronicles the creation of life on earth, and the creation of man and woman. [1]

We all look to the bright night sky and are at the same time puzzled, yet comforted, by this story of how everything, including us, came to be. We have memorized this story since we were young children and were allowed to sit around the fire with the adults.

It was about 500 years later that this story was recorded as written history by an unknown writer and passed by way of the Hebrew tradition to become the creation myth for the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. There are so many creation myths, each different for the different human cultures. Common creation motifs include the fractionation of the things of the world from a primordial chaos; the separation of the mother and father gods; land emerging from an infinite and timeless ocean; and creation out of nothing.


The New Story

Now let us return to the 21st century, a time when we live in a world of science. This story is based on what we know today. Surely, the story will change as we learn more. It is unlikely, however, that large pieces of this basic understanding of cosmology will be rewritten in the future. Although large and significant segments of mankind today still reject the Age of Enlightenment in favor of ancient myths, the world of everyone around this table this morning is a world steeped in education and scientific understanding. Is it time for us to celebrate a new creation story for our time? Let us assume the table we are all sitting around is our 21st century campfire. Join me as we explore the wonder and the miracle of creation told in 21st century terms.

In the beginning of the universe we live in, as far as we know today, there was nothing. There was no void, no vacuum … there was not even space and time! About 15 billion years ago, all the energy and matter that would ever exist in our universe erupted as a single quantum – a singular gift – existence. In a singular event, there was a rapid expansion of unimaginable power and heat that gave birth to the universe we live in today.

In the beginning there was no time, so there can be no talk of observing the event. Further, there was no space, so there was no “outside” to this cataclysmic explosion of energy, no way to imagine being outside it and observing what it looked like. In the first second all the fundamental particles that form every atom in each of our bodies, every particle of matter in this room, every star in every galaxy in our universe, everything … was formed from the immense energy and expansion. In those first few brand-new seconds of this thing we know and take for granted called “time”, particles appeared and vanished though a process physicists call “annihilation,” vanished from the universe forever into the darkness of cosmic evolution never to appear again. By the time this process was complete, only one billionth of the original matter in the universe remained. This tiny sliver of the primordial universe managed to slide through this eye of the needle near the beginning of time and thus entered a new state of being. In those first few seconds of the birth of our universe, the laws of physics that we know today became permanent. As far as we know, they have not changed with time and do not change in other parts of our universe.

Several hundred thousand years passed and the fireball cooled enough that hydrogen and helium could form the very first atoms. At that early time there was no oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, gold, silicon, or the any of the other heavier atoms that make up our periodic chart today. The universe had cooled and become dark, transformed into a trillion clouds of the only two atoms in that early universe, hydrogen and helium.

As the universe continued to expand, the space between the clouds increased, but the clouds remained intact because of the mutual attraction of the atoms in each cloud (in just this past year we have learned that mysterious “dark matter” likely played a role in this attraction). The clouds swirled and attracted one another, slowly but inevitably forming dense structures that eventually burst into nuclear flame. These were the first stars. At this point, we are one billion years from the singular springing forth of our universe.

Let us pause for a second and consider what is happening. The laws of physics governing the interaction of matter (we know today as the weak force, the strong force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity) that were established in the first seconds after the formation of the universe are peculiarly perfect for creating the universe we know today. If the expansion rate had been slightly slower, the entire universe would have imploded, perhaps starting the process of expansion all over again. But, there would be no stars formed, no planets, no earth, and no life. If the expansion rate had been only slightly faster, the galactic clouds would have failed to form, and again, there would be no stars, no planets, and no world as we know it today. The expansion rate appears to have been just right.

As an aside, consider that we don’t know how many of these creation-of-the-universe experiments have taken place. Is ours the first? Or, is ours just one of many throughout eternity, one that worked to provide the right ingredients for the formation of the universe we observe and evolved in? We just don’t know.

Hubble Deep Field ImageAs the chaos of swirling, galactic gas clouds continued, a wondrous process began. Stars began to burn the hydrogen in a nuclear fission process. As the hydrogen was burned up, the stars turned to the burning of helium. In the intense heat and pressure at the core of the star, heavier elements like iron, silicon, etc., were formed through nuclear fusion. As some of these stars burned out, they were large enough they became a supernova. Under the incredibly intense pressure of its collapsing core, a supernova explodes and spews out into space its burned out contents … the iron, silicon, sulfur, and lead … all of the heavier elements needed to form new heavenly bodies.

All of this debris from an exploding supernova, the mother star, soars into space as the dying star sheds her corpse to provide the raw materials for new forms, new planets, new moons, new solar systems, and the eventual development of life itself. Because of the physical laws of the universe, these bodies are all bonded to one another in a cosmic waltz, each following the spacetime laws that we have understood for a scant 100 years, thanks to Albert Einstein. Our Earth dances around the Sun in a whirling, predictable path that is governed by the same physical laws that were laid down one second after the beginning of the expansion of the universe. While it seems accidental that Earth became the biophysical planet in our solar system, it is almost certain that somewhere in the vast universe there would be planets like Earth that harbor life. When given the chance, the universe will organize itself into complex and persistent patterns of activity. Earth was the chance the solar system got. Earth became the gateway into a new and thrilling epoch of the universe story.

milky way infrared imageBrian Swimme gives a name to our progenitor supernova, calling her “Tiamat”, the name for the Babylonian goddess of primordial chaos. When Tiamat, our mother star, exploded 4.6 billion years ago, she birthed the Earth’s solar system with her debris. About 4.5 billion years ago our Sun, a modest star in the Milky Way[3] galaxy, sprang to life. 4.45 billion years ago our earth was formed, bringing forth an atmosphere, oceans, and continents. Everything in our bodies and all matter on the earth is nothing more than reformed star dust from our mother, Tiamat. Our universe repeats this beautiful process over and over. It disseminates matter in a seemingly chaotic fashion, and then reforms the matter in a self-organizing way to create new entities. These are in turn eventually broken down and the process begins all over again. (2)

Such developments are recognized by some now as part of a process of “emergence”, the mysterious process that seems to come into play at every scale from the quantum to the cosmic. New creations emerge from the tiny parts, and each larger creation has properties not evident in any of the parts. For example, water has marvelous properties not seen in either hydrogen or oxygen. Snow flakes have properties not seen in water, etc. Some would say that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” or other put it this way: “Something else from nothing but.” Every part of the universe is permeated with self-organizing, emergent dynamics in latent form. Brian Swimme says, “These ordering patterns hide until the material structures and free energy of the region reach that particular complexity and intensity capable of drawing such patterns forth.” We will hear more from the concept called “emergence” in the coming years.


Life

Cesare Emiliani, in his text, Planet Earth: Cosmology, Geology, and the Evolution of Life and Environment, says in his chapter on the origin of life:

“People are awed by life. Some call it “unique”. Many call it “a miracle”. All are puzzled and bewildered by it. Indeed, there is excellent cause for bewilderment – life, as we know it today, is the end product of 15 billion years of cosmic and terrestrial evolution and therefore is utterly complex. We see a fantastic machine with billions of moving parts, a machine that has been fine-tuned by nature to the utmost degree – and we are bewildered. I hope, however, that this book will convince you that, far from being a miracle, life is a necessary and inevitable consequence of the way the world originated and evolved. Indeed, the origin and evolution of life on Earth were foregone conclusions right from the beginning, given the mass, the chemical composition, and the physical and astronomical parameters of our planet.”

Primoidial EarthOne blazing hot day on earth 4 billion years ago, after trillions of failed chemical experiments, in the rich soup of water and gases on primordial Earth[4], warmed by the sun and receiving energy from a violent lightning storm and from chemical interchanges, something utterly remarkable happened. The self-organizing powers of the processes on Earth came together to create the first life, an early replicating molecule that would be modified and shaped by evolutionary processes to eventually become the first prokaryotic (non-nucleated) cell (these were likely primitive viruses). Earth would never be the same again.

The process called mutation played an indispensible role in the development of life. One of the many life forms that appeared around 4 billion years ago was a cell that somehow discovered how to convert photons of light from the sun into energy. Capturing solar energy zipping into the cell at the speed of light, the cell was able to invent the biochemical machinery to convert nitrogen in the air into proteins for feeding itself. Modern-day animals (including humans) have still not mastered the trick of converting nitrogen in the air into the proteins required for their existence. We still rely on plants for this job. All mammalian food chains have plants at the bottom. Early plants flowered forth with many different forms, each tossed out into the great adventure to see what might come of them. They all entered existence.

An aside: The complexity of modern plants (they have over two times the number of genes as humans) continues to challenge the understanding of 21st century science.

Blue-green AlgaeNow, the evolutionary processes then took a turn. Early blue-green bacteria satisfied their hydrogen needs from the waters of the oceans[5]. They cleaved a water molecule to produce hydrogen, releasing the oxygen into the atmosphere. Oxygen, one of the most reactive elements, transformed the primordial atmosphere, and disrupted the environment for the earliest life forms that had developed in the early atmosphere of ammonia, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide. In the next two billion years, the first cells either developed defense mechanisms against oxygen, learned to exploit it, or they became extinct, becoming a distant footnote in the relentless evolutionary course of life on Earth.

Ozone built up in the upper atmosphere, filtering out the most energetic rays from the Sun. Once again, the self-organizing patterns of creation played out their wondrous influences, and symbiotic cell life evolved. Interconnected life forms appeared and flourished in the shallow oceans, now protected from the killing ultraviolet rays of the Sun. The rhythms of life of these creatures had evolved to enmesh with each other as they shared the environment, each taking resources unneeded by the other, each providing an element to the environment required by the other.

About 1 billion years ago a cell invented sexual reproduction, a major step forward in the creation of new life forms. Sexual reproduction ensured that both mating cells will possess the advanced and defining characteristics of the lineage. This powerful preservation of lines of creativity led to the emergence of the multicellular organism, another major step toward the evolution of higher forms of life. Only 700 million years ago, the first multicellular animal appeared. (1)

AfarensisNow we are almost 14 billion years from the springing forth, almost to our modern times. Dinosaurs flourished about 235 million years ago, and it was only 216 million years ago that the very first mammal appeared. Our recent ancestors, the monkeys, appeared 36 million years ago. The first humans, homo habilis, using stone tools, appeared about 2.6 million years ago[6]. Early forms of our species, homo sapiens, appeared a scant 200,000 years ago. Our language appeared about 40,000 years ago, and 18,000 years ago we left cave paintings in Europe.

We tamed dogs 10,000 years ago; tamed cattle 8,800 years ago, Sumeria in Mesopotamia arose about 7,000 years ago, and we settled Europe 5,000 years ago. About 3,000 years ago civilizations were arising along the Indus, Nile, and Tigris-Euphrates valleys, the time of our narrative creation story recited at the beginning of our time together this morning.


The New “Ecozoic” Age

Coal ashSince the beginning of human civilization, which was extremely recent in geological terms (only about 3,500 years ago), the impact of homo sapiens on our planet has been stunning. Hundreds of millions of years have elapsed during the evolution of the world we know today … the plants, animals, and the land and waterscape of our modern earth. Yet, in this scant 3,500 years, forests have been consumed, water and the air polluted[7], and now the climate is being modified with uncertain future consequences. Modern man has not understood the 21st century creation story. We have lived as if the earth were an inexhaustible resource to be consumed without end. Man does not see himself as an integrated and connected creature to all of the other animals and ecological systems on the planet. In the developed societies our technologies, the fruits of our large cerebral cortex, have focused on the production of material goods, instruments for higher and higher levels of consumption, and devices and systems for human pleasure and comfort. We find less developed societies emulating the more prosperous ones, exacerbating the damage to the planet. Our planet and its environment have paid the price. On the other hand, our social systems, still young and developing, reflect the greed of our species and the immaturity of our ability to design Iraqi Boysustainable social structures or even for our tribes to live together in harmony. In many ways these systems are broken, reflecting our near-sighted desire for power, material goods, comfort, and our primitive paranoia and fear of those outside our tribe[8]. As a species, we have yet to respond to the call for a more comprehensive understanding of our place in the order of the universe and a more thoughtful design for our population growth and our life styles.

Perhaps our large brain will grasp the real understanding of how to live fully and joyfully during our brief dance on earth, and that there are social systems less destructive than the ones we have now that can protect and even enhance this beautiful earth that has been placed in our trust. Or, perhaps it will not. Perhaps as our species passes into the darkness of the evolutionary process, as it sooner or later must, we will realize that we ourselves have hastened our own demise. Or, perhaps we will not. (3)

For me, the modern 21st century creation story I have shared today is far more powerful and awe-inspiring than the ancient myth I grew up knowing. It grounds me with the experience that I belong to the earth and to its ongoing evolution. It reminds me that evolution did not happen at some point in the past, but rather that evolution is happening now. It tells me that I am connected to all that is, all that is past, and all that is to come. I am connected to all of the integrated systems of the earth … the air, the water, the plants, and the animals. It pulls me out of my day-to-day existence … my worry about my health, my worries about my garden and my stock portfolio … to remind me that I am an integral part of life on this earth, a mammal with a large brain that gives me advantage over the other animals of the planet. Yet, I am sharply reminded that I came from the earth and the oceans, that the substance of my body will return there, and that in the meantime I have a responsibility to care for the part of the evolving universe I have been gifted to experience.

The creation and on-going evolution of the universe, the experience of my very existence, my awareness of being, is The Miracle. There can be no greater miracle.

In the words of my good friend, Phillip Huckaby, in his writing, Miracles or No?,

“Finally, I see miracles in another sense. I say this not for the sake of argument, but because it is my deepest held conviction, and I live by it. The fact that anything exists is a miracle. I don’t think we realize what it means that there is something instead of nothing. I am alive. I exist. You are alive. You exist. What an incredible reality! What a wonderful mystery! What a gift beyond explanation!”

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References:

  1. “The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos,” Brain Swimme and Thomas Berry, Harper, NY, NY, 1992.
  1. “The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory,” Brian R. Greene, ISBN 0-393-05858-1, 2003.
  1. “Planet Earth: Cosmology, Geology, and the Evolution of Life and Environment,” Cesare Emiliani, ISBN 0-521-40123-2, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1992.
  1. “Original Blessing,” Matthew Fox, ISBN 1-58542-067-0, Penguin Putnam, New York, 1983.
  1. Genomic factoids:
  • There are 3.2 billion “base pairs” in the human genome, yet there are over 4,000 known diseases that are caused by an error in a single base pair.
  • Housed along each chromosome is a selection of genes. The human genome contains about 20 000-25 000 genes, as do most mammals.
  • Plants have 40,000-50,000 genes, mice also have about 20,000 genes; in the nematode (C. elegans), the number is around 19 000; in yeast (S. cerevisiae) there are approximately 6,000 genes; and the microbe responsible for tuberculosis has around 4,000.
  • 97% of the human genome does not code for a protein and we are just now beginning the process of understanding the function of this part of the genome.
  • Between humans, our DNA differs by only 0.2 per cent, or 1 in 500 bases (letters). (This takes into account that human cells have two copies of the genome.)
  • Human DNA is 99.1 per cent identical to chimpanzees.
  1. Cosmic factoids:

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, a modest galaxy as galaxies go, is over 100,000 light years across. (Note 1-9-2009 Very recently releases data suggest that our Milky Way is in fact a large galaxy rather than a more modest one as was previously thought). That is the distance light would travel going at 186,000 miles per second in 100,000 years! In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are estimated to be over 400 billion stars. Yet, there are 125 billion galaxies in the observable universe. This means there are over 5,000 billion billion estimated stars in the observable universe, more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on the entire planet Earth!

3.   Restoring damage from the last 100 years

Brian Swimme has remarked that if we stopped our current damage to the ecosystem with its rapid extinction of species, it would take another 10 million years for the earth to replenish and evolve new species to replace those lost in the last 100 years. (see the interview with Brian Swimme at: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5414889156623608171



[3] Early picture of the Milky Way galaxy seen from the side: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way

[8] Picture of wounded boy from Iraqi War at Web site: http://www.chris-floyd.com/war/