Nothing gets you feeling more insignificant than reading a few books about natural history and evolution. Started off with Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould, am almost finished with Crucible of Creation by Simon Conway Morris, and have started moving on to Rare Earth by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee. The charm of Wonderful Life is that Gould is such a good writer. He’s amusing and entertaining and makes me feel like it’s not such a big deal that we may have never existed at all. Basically, shrug it off and go get a latte.
Conway Morris is a bit drier (and has taken me longer to get through). He apparently used to agree with Gould, then changed his thinking a bit and wrote his book in response. He claims that something man-like would have eventually arisen out of the evolutionary muck of the Burgess Shale. Which would be comforting if I hadn’t read Evolution by Stephen Baxter a few years ago. Another cheerful little book. I like the worlds he describes in the past the best–big flying things and clever dinosaurs with tools. The speculation about the future bummed me out and was a little creepy. Did not like the rodents herding the elephant-human things. Basically, yes, man would have eventually showed up to the party, had a great time and a couple of stiff drinks, thrown a barstool and made an ass of himself, but then he would have left out the backdoor all sloppy and drunk and no one would care or notice that he’s gone. Which is slightly depressing. Being the self-centered creature I am, I like thinking that consciousness and intelligence was the end-all purpose of evolution. It seems fitting that we are the only species that is actually aware of where we came from and can write books and argue about it. It’s a little trippy to think about. All those silly prokaryotes swimming around for billions of years haven’t had nearly the fun we have. They may have the staying power, but they’re the wallflowers at the party. Worse. They didn’t even bother getting dressed up.
But I know that’s not the way it is. This is not the age of mammals, it’s the age of insects. They outnumber us and are far less fragile. And seem less prone to self-destruction. And it seems fairly certain that rodents will one day rule the world. I know that intelligence is just a little blip in our DNA and doesn’t mean much of anything when faced with atmospheric changes or exploding suns or meteors. Blah, blah, blah. (Although I do hope that Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis are around to save us from the meteors. I mean, honestly. You’re telling me that a species who can create theatrical genius like Armageddon can’t survive a little earth-changing volcanic eruption? It seems unreasonable.)
The point is that it’s hard to write when faced with our inevitable destruction. Absurd, I know. It’s not like it’s imminent. And the whole process of writing is one of those life-affirming, immortality-establishing things. But what does it matter when the rodent-herders rule the world and won’t even appreciate my bons mots?
It’s enough to make me want to go get a latte–with extra foam.