I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Milky Way. On a warm late August night in 2009, my wife and I stretched out on a campground table at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah to see the cloudy stretch of our home galaxy arc across the night sky. I had never been in a place dark enough to see the stellar display. I lived in central New Jersey my entire life, where light pollution blocked out all but the very brightest stars. But here, far from the suburban sprawl I was accustomed to, I could giddily gaze at a simple circumstance of the universe we live in and wonder about all that starlight.
I had come to the national park for the fossils. Dinosaur fanatic that I am, I couldn’t step foot in Utah without taking a direct route to one of the most glorious Jurassic bonebeds of all time, where a chaotic jumble of giant bones conjures up visions of life and death 150 million years ago. The quarry wall was closed for repairs, and so I happily settled to see a Brigham Young University excavation of a geologically-younger long-necked herbivore that would later be named Abydosaurus.
Such magnificent, long-lost creatures kept stomping through my imagination as I stared at the Milky Way. I’ve never been drawn into astronomy or physics, but I recalled that even light takes time to travel. There was no way to be sure, but maybe some of the ancient lights I was looking at originally left their incomprehensibly distant stars when Abydosaurus and the monument’s other dinosaurs still walked the Earth. Seeing the illuminated points scattered over the park’s gorgeously-exposed geologic formations – the rocks little more than inky outlines in the dark – I felt like a time traveler standing between Earth and sky. There are few moments in my life when I have been as overtaken by sheer wonder and joy at the universe we live in.
Yet, despite how enraptured I felt by Deep Time, the horror novelist Stephen King thinks that I was missing out on the true wonder of existence. That’s because I’m an atheist, and, on NPR’s Fresh Air, King delivered this condescending quote about those who don’t see divinity in nature:
If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design.
I really don’t care about Stephen King’s views on the existence or non-existence of deities. That’s very, very far down on my list of issues worth worrying about. But King’s quote represents a snobbish and pervasive belief that those who see no evidence of gods are somehow impoverished in their lives. Creationists have been peddling this arrogant argument for quite some time – that without a god, the universe is purposeless and we are trapped in a nihilistic march towards oblivion.
I don’t feel that lack of hope or fascination. I’m not crippled by the sense of emptiness King and others presume I must feel.
We live in an indifferent universe. There is no destiny or plan, and Nature was not created for our benefit. Yet we’re still here. Our lineage goes back billions of years to the last common ancestor of all life on Earth, giving us traits in common with ever single living organism, and our ancestors have been fortunate enough to persist through the five worst global catastrophes of all time. At so many points in the past – whether minor in scale or as devastating as an asteroid striking the planet – history could have turned out quite differently, creating circumstances that would have prevented our evolution. We’ll never know all those alternatives. All we know is what has actually transpired.
To repeat a line from my book Written in Stone, we are creatures of time and chance. How wonderful is that? Out of all the innumerable possibilities in the history of life on Earth, a string of circumstances billions of years long transpired in such a way as to allow the origin of our species (and also accounts for the loss of all our human relatives along the way). And this unintended state of nature makes a humble bee pollinating a flower, a sunrise, the division of a cell, the jagged outline of a mountain in twilight, the petrified record of the dinosaurs, and everything else in existence all the more spectacular. (Paleontology and natural history are what I love most; we all admire different aspects of nature.) None of that was ordained to exist, and yet evolution and other ongoing natural processes have nonetheless generated phenomena which are not only beautiful, but comprehensible to us.
There is no need for the supernatural to invoke or appreciate wonder. And rather than reducing nature to equations and graphs, I truly believe that science – our ability to actually understand why bees pollinate flowers, why mountains rise, and how remnants of ancient life became locked in stone – makes the world all the more exquisite by not only giving us clues, but new questions to ask.
The closing paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection are some of the most reprinted words in all of science. So much so that they’ve become a little worn and cliche when plopped down into seemingly every book about evolution in existence. But no matter how many times you’ve read the lines, take a breath and really read Darwin’s conclusion over again:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Even as the specter of death hung over his “entangled bank”, Darwin was still in exuberant awe over such a simple natural process that could account for so much of what we find beautiful about life. Understanding the origin of such diverse and disparate organisms only makes our world feel more magnificent. I dare Stephen King to write a more beautiful tribute to nature.