Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Principle of Least Astonishment: Deep Time and Human Time

"People look upon the natural world as if all motions
of the past had set the stage for us and were now frozen
. . . To imagine that turmoil is in the past and
somehow we are now in a more stable time
seems to be a psychological need. Leonardo Seeber
. . .referred to it as the principle of least astonishment.
As we have seen, the time we are in
is just as active as the past. "
--Eldrige Moores, Tectonist;
from "Assembling California",
in Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee

Years ago, before I studied biology in graduate school, I graduated with a degree in Geology with Honors from a stable university on the continental craton. Although I ended up in a different field, my knowledge of geology has made the history of North America come alive for me in my travels across the continent over the course of the past 30 years.

Photo: Unconformity between the Tertiary volcanics of the Datil-Mogollon Volcanic field and the underlying Mesaverde shales and sandstones. The lavas were extruded during Eocene-Oligocene time (beginning approximately 28 mya). This unconformity is exposed in the wall of the Zuni Plateau north of the Zuni Salt Lake, Catron County, NM.

Browsing in the trade books section of the university bookstore one day during my senior undergraduate year, a title caught my eye: In Suspect Terrain, by John McPhee. A reproduction of a painting of the Delaware Water Gap graced the cover. It was a book of essays about geology and the plate tectonics revolution from the perspective of the USGS's conondont specialist at the time, Anita Harris.

The title caught my eye, because Skip Nelson, our structural professor, had been discussing with us the concept of "suspect terranes", pieces of the geology of a region that have a different geology from the adjacent country rock, and the origins of which are suspected to be from elsewhere on earth. In those early days of the theory of Plate Tectonics, little was known about suspect terranes, and it was hard to see how such terranes fit into the theory. Much arm-waving--the speculations of scientists scratching their heads together--became stories,and then hypotheses that had a decent chance of being tested as the both the science and the technology that supported it advanced over the years. But at that time it was still arm-waving and stories.

Of course I had to buy the book. And in rooting around a bit more in the same section, I ended up buying McPhee's first book on the subject, Basin and Range, as well.

I had gone into geology in 1979, after hearing about plate tectonics from my English professor at a small private liberal arts college. A transfer to the state university was required once my passion was ignited and my interests revealed. (That English professor saw that I was less than passionate about the liberal arts, and being somewhat of a curmudgeon, Dr. Pierson had written on one my papers: 'Does college bore you?' I was a little hurt at the time, because the truth hurts when one is trying to make the best of a bad college decision, but I was grateful to him later). The early '80's, as the revolutionary theory of Plate Tectonics was maturing in the field, was an exciting time to be thinking about geology and earth history, and I was captivated.

As I went through the spring semester of my senior year, with field trips to Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio, I was also reading about the rise of the Basin and Range, the possible docking of micro-terranes on eastern North America, and the problem of overgeneralizing from theory without benefit of working field experience with the actual rocks. Reading McPhee and my texts in historical geology, stratigraphy, sedimentology, and structural geology became an obsession that took precedence over everything else. (I got a "C" in communications--required to "round out the degree"--which did not even upset me as it otherwise might have done).

Later, as a young mother chasing after a very energetic two-year old, I discovered McPhee's third book in the series, Rising from the Plains, about the Grand Old Man of Rocky Mountain Geology, David Love, whom I had met briefly during a field camp a few years earlier. Although my later interests and experiences, as well as the need to support my children by myself, took me in other directions, I maintained my interest in Geology. Recently, I found McPhee's Annals of the Former World, which contains the three original books about Geology,with updates and two new books, one on the geological origins of California, and one on the pre-Cambrian rocks that underly the sediments of the stable craton of North America.

Our move to the Ragamuffin Ranch, where the geology of the Colorado Plateau stands out in the Datil-Mogollon Volcanics, caused me to want to pick up Annals for a second time, and as with every really good book one re-reads, I noticed certain parts anew. In this case, I was thinking about the problem of dogmatism in science, encouraged both by scientists whose funding is politically motivated, and by non-scientists who confuse initial arm-waving with a testable hypothesis, and who take it to be the same as truth handed down from Sinai. "The science is settled," says one of the latter about one such arm-waving idea. But the science is rarely settled so early in the life of an idea.

Geology is by its nature a big-picture science, and one that depends a great deal on inference from what can be observed to how it got to be the way it is. Whereas much of science as practiced within the dominant paradigms of each scientific field today is deductive, the big-picture thinking about Geology is necessarily inductive. (Despite the turf wars about these two methods of discovery, both deductive and inductive thinking are necessary for a complete science). Further, Geology--by the nature of its subject matter--is primarily about TIME. Lots and lots of time. Or as geologists say it, "Deep Time". Time that is orders of magnitude greater than the span of a human life, or even the span of numerous human generations. The kind of time that geologists tend to discuss makes a million years appear as the blink of an eye, and the entire time of human existance on the earth is scarcely longer than that.

The disconnect between Deep Time and Human Time leads to some interesting human misconceptions about our power and place upon the planet. On the one hand, human beings are the first species upon the earth that have become self-referencing observers of the evolution of life on the planet. We are capable of thinking about and questioning the way life came to be here, and our place in that parade of "endless forms most beautiful". We can think about the meaning of our existence and we know the finite nature of our lives. All of this makes us important to ourselves, and perhaps, as an aspect of the universe that observes itself, we are important in the grand scheme of things.

But this disconnect between Deep Time and Human Time also leads to the idea that we are the culminating act of evolution: that our existence was the necessary end of a long chain of programmed events. It is rather like the paint on the Eiffel Tower believing that the tower was built for its own sake, as Mark Twain once remarked. Enter Seeber's Principle of Least Astonishment, which is the idea that all of what we see around us is the culmination, that now that human beings walk the earth, change should stop because evolution is finished. The continents are in their final place, the species that exist now shall exist forever, the climate that we have been born into shall not change. So we have written, and so shall it be done.

Evolution has no teleological direction. It is the response of organisms adapting to and failing to adapt to changing environments over time. This leads to changes in the gene frequencies within species, and that is evolution. If we were able to rewind and replay the course of the evolution of life upon the earth, there is no guarantee that the results would be the same as we now see; there are too variables along the way. Species that have the genetic wherewithal to meet and survive environmental change evolve. Those that do not become extinct.

And so it becomes somewhat amusing to watch as those who believe that they understand evolution, those that make fun of the Creationists and call them "neanderthals", are also those that have turned science into a political agenda and have begun an effort to "Stop Global Climate Change" by legislation. They have about as much chance of success as they do to "Re-Unite Gondwanaland!" (Both quotes can be found on bumperstickers.The first appears to be serious, and the second is geological tongue-in-cheek).

Even geologists get pulled up short by the disconnect between Deep Time and Human Time. And even though they predict that when the two kinds of time intersect, as they did during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the Tsunami of 2004, turmoil becomes inevitable, we still tend to think that the earth should behave itself and stay still beneath our feet. We tend to want the species that existed when we were born to be there when we are old, and glaciers should neither retreat nor advance so long as human beings live upon the earth. We think of disasters as a nasty interruption of "normal" rather than a "normal" feature of a dynamic planet.

Never mind that we owe our big brains to the last ice age. Never mind that climate has been changing upon the earth since before the oldest rocks we can find on the continents existed. And never mind that life on the planet has had an effect on its environment since the oxygen revolution.

From the perspective of Human Time, an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcanic eruption, are all potential disasters. And it makes sense to think of them as such. Human beings are meaning-making individuals, and we view events from the perspective of their meaning to us.
And that is necessary and--dare I say it?--normal to our evolutionary niche. And if we can predict and protect ourselves from disaster, this is a good thing for us. But when put into the perspective of Deep Time, such disasters, even ones on a extinction-level scale, are more grist for the mill of evolution--the change over time of life on earth.

The Principle of Least Astonishment may indeed by a psychological necessity for going about the daily business of living. And yet now and then, the view from the perspective of Deep Time creates for us the Most Astonishment, it creates wonder at the precious nature of our existence, birthed on the edge of the creative maelstrom and able to look into it and see the circumstances of our genesis. Wonderful life, indeed!


Brig Young said...

Nice imagery :)

For myself I can say I have a new tool for looking at human behavior. Least Astonishment is interesting in that it is a statement of mental and emotional inertia.. perhaps necessary for balancing our world model as it adjusts to meet changes in our reality. From discovering lies, to grieving over an earth quake or violent storm we need a damper to keep us from capsizing... Least Astonishment - Thanks for bringing that up.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks, Brig. Although it is not all mine. The Principle of Least Astonishment comes from Seeber.

And yes, I do think Least Astonishment is necessary. But like any defense, taken too far it can become a problem, as it has with the dogma of global warming.