On its web site, the BBC showed a picture of the “Oldest Human Ancestor.” It didn’t look like any of my relatives or my wife’s either. In a black and white photo taken through a microscope it resembled the central figure Edvard Munch’s painting: “The Scream” with what look like two eyes and a mouth that’s wide open. It’s tiny — only a millimeter, or .039 inches. Scientists claim it was “covered with a thin, relatively flexible skin and muscles, leading the researchers to conclude that it moved by contracting its muscles and got around by wriggling.”
Some of my relatives behave that way. Scientists also observed that, “It’s most striking feature is its large mouth, relative to the rest of its body.” That’s another feature sometimes pointed out in members of my family. The kicker, however, was this: “The researchers were unable to find any evidence that the animal had an anus, which suggests that it consumed food and excreted from the same orifice.” Almost everyone has relatives like that. Skeptical that such a tiny creature could be our common ancestor, that helped me consider it.
Artist's rendering of Saccorhytus
The creature is called Saccorhytus and it lived 540 million years ago in the Cambrian period, probably between two grains of sand on the sea floor in what is now China. It was a dull life. I would have had fun with this story if I were still teaching the “Beginnings” unit with which I used to start the school year every September. Students learned about the two prevailing concepts most Americans believed about our origins: creation and evolution.
We compared and contrasted them. They were similar in the order of events: Creation began with sea life, then other creatures, and lastly, humans -- which is what evolutionists contend. However, day four of creation is when stars and other heavenly bodies were made which is after life appeared, and that’s different from Big Bang/Darwinism. Time periods were vastly different too. Also, creation lent some meaning to it all, but not Big Bang/Darwinism.
Ex Nihilo sculpture at the National Cathedral Washington DC
Sometimes, students debated formally. The creationist side always contended there was no explanation in the Big Bang theory about how the exploding object got there, whereas the Judeo/Christian/Muslim creation story claimed God created the universe “ex nihilo” or “out of nothing.” Neither did Darwin explain what was at the beginning of the march of evolution. In his recent book Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe describes a conversation had Darwin with students:
The students had the sort of naive, unbridled, free-floating curiosity most youths unfortunately rein in far too early in life. They wanted to know some small but fundamental details about the moment Evolution got underway and how exactly, physically, it started up — and from what?
That’s what I loved about teaching my eighth graders. They still had that, but back to Wolfe:
Darwin had apparently never thought of it quite that way before. Long pause… and finally, ‘Ohhh,’ he said, ‘probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.’ One student… wanted to know where the cells came from. Who or what put them in the pool? An exasperated Darwin said, in effect, “Well I don’t know. Isn’t it enough that I’ve brought you man and all the animals and plants in the world’
…Darwinism avoided the question of how the world developed ex nihilo. Darwin often thought about it, but it made his head hurt. The world was just… here.
My students reviewed the Scopes Monkey Trial about banning lessons on evolution last century, and secular objections to lessons on Intelligent Design more recently. Always, they asked my opinion, but I deferred until the end when I told them mine was a blend of both.
It was all controversial. Almost very time a new principal arrived, which was about every two to five years, he or she would approach me before classes started and ask that I stop teaching my Beginnings unit. Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t like that I taught about evolution, while secularists disdained lessons on creation. Both sides lobbied each new principal to get me to scrap it. I resisted, pointing out that I circled back to this dualistic understanding among Americans of how everything started and the way those beliefs influenced their views on other issues.
They still do. In these contentious times, creationists tend to cluster in flyover country and Darwinists on the coasts. Creationists are red. Darwinists are blue. Creationists are generally pro-life, Darwinists pro-choice. Creationists anticipate an afterlife. Many Darwinists doubt there’s any such thing and their number grows. We and Saccorhytus live, die, and go back to earth. A refrain from a 1969 song by Peggy Lee went:
Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing