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March 4, 2016 at 12:40 pm #8941Mike MunsilParticipant
I’m in process of researching to further develop and enhance this old article of mine on Deep Time. Please comment and suggest areas to improve and deepen. Thanks! Mike
Let’s look into Deep Time
October 31, 2011
What is Deep Time? According to various sources, Deep Time can best be described as Geologic Time. Hmm. That didn’t mean very much to me the first time I heard it, and I am not going to fall into the trap of defining a term just by calling it something else. So, I’m going to define Deep Time as “time enough that what may now appear improbable, becomes possible, likely or even expected.”
Think about it this way, if you give enough monkeys typewriters and if they type for long enough, eventually one of them will write something significant. Sure, that sounds improbable, but given enough time, anything’s possible!
Enough time, that’s what Deep Time is. Time enough to see change occur and to realize that change does not stop when we do. Time enough to let all the myriad impossibilities of this life and every other become true. Time enough to set aside the blinders of revealed truth and look into the face of the universe and recognize what is there.
Humankind has inferred the existence of Deep Time for millennia.
The Greek writer Xenophanes (570 BC–480 BC) wrote of how inland marine fossils were evidence that massive periodic flooding had wiped out mankind several times in the past, but never wrote of land formation or shifting seashores.
The ancient Greek Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC) wrote in his Meteorology of how the earth had the potential for physical change, including the belief that all rivers and seas at one time did not exist where they were, and were dry.
Du Yu (222–285) a Chinese Jin Dynasty officer, believed that the land of hills would eventually be leveled into valleys and valleys would gradually rise to form hills.
The Daoist alchemist Ge Hong (284–364) wrote of the legendary immortal Ma Gu; in a written dialogue by Ge, Ma Gu described how what was once the Eastern Sea (i.e. East China Sea) had transformed into solid land where mulberry trees grew, and would one day be filled with mountains and dry, dusty lands.
The later Persian Muslim scholar Abū Rayhān al- Bīrūnī (973–1048) hypothesized that India was once covered by the Indian Ocean while observing rock formations at the mouths of rivers.
Ibn Sīnā (973–1037) (you may know him as Avicenna) wrote on Earth sciences in his Book of Healing, in which he developed the concept of uniformitarianism and law of superposition in geology. While discussing the formation of mountains, he explained: “Either they are the effects of upheavals of the crust of the earth, such as might occur during a violent earthquake, or they are the effect of water, which, cutting itself a new route, has denuded the valleys, the strata being of different kinds, some soft, some hard… It would require a long period of time for all such changes to be accomplished, during which the mountains themselves might be somewhat diminished in size.”
It was Shen Kuo (around the year 1080) who formulated a hypothesis about the process of land formation (geomorphology) based upon several observations as evidence. This included his observation of fossil shells in a geological stratum of a mountain hundreds of miles from the ocean. He inferred that the land was reshaped and formed by erosion of the mountains, uplift, and the deposition of silt, after observing strange natural erosions of the Taihang Mountains and the Yandang Mountain near Wenzhou. He hypothesized that, with the inundation of silt, the land of the continent must have been formed over an enormous span of time.
In Europe, the modern scientific concept was developed in the 1700s by Scottish geologistJames Hutton (1726–1797).
Hutton’s words, “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,” were in stark contrast to the prevailing interpretation of the Genesis creation story, which held that the Earth has existed for only a few thousand years.
An understanding of geologic history and the concomitant history of life requires a comprehension of time which initially may be more than disconcerting. As mathematician John Playfair, one of Hutton’s friends and colleagues in the Scottish Enlightenment, later remarked upon seeing the strata of the angular unconformity at Siccar Point with Hutton and James Hall in June 1788, “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”
So, what IS that abyss of time? John McPhee, (one of my most favorite authors) explained it using the following, “Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.”
That is fine, as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.
Deep Time is that understanding of time that allows the mind to escape our social constraints and more clearly see the workings of this and other worlds as they are or may be. Without the concept of Deep Time as Hutton understood it, Darwin could not have understood that small changes could accumulate over time, resulting in divergence within life and ongoing change.
“The Times They Are A Changing”. Without our understanding of Deep Time and the resulting freedom from dogma, our modern world simply would not exist. We would not run franticly in place, often despairing of keeping up. Nor would we have access to the brilliant imaginings of women and men freed from dogmatic decay.
I am ‘minded of Robert Heinlein’s perception of time in his Lazarus Long novels. Heinlein tells those of us with the ability to love that which is outside our own skins, Deep Time is “Time Enough For Love”.
We are brought full circle. It was the observation of change coupled with the understanding that change continues even when we do not, that allows us to understand that the Wheel rolls on and ever on, and where it goes, we do not know.
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