The Commons: A Miracle That Should Unite Us All
Illustration Credit: Journey of Love by Tamara Adams
Here we are, profoundly amazed to find ourselves on a planet speeding 67 thousand miles per hour through vast regions of cold space, impossibly removed from any other known place of refuge. And what a thin shell is Earth’s air supply! The highest human settlement—La Rinconada in Peru—is a little over three miles above sea level, meaning that, if the eight-thousand-mile-wide Earth were an apple, its skin would be thicker than its habitable atmosphere. Yet we are here, living our lives, usually too busy to consider such things, perhaps even thinking life is normal. And notice I just mentioned “thinking,” as if it were, in the cosmic context, quite commonplace. Honestly, the idea that the chemicals that compose us could be so organized as to “think” is astounding! And we are doing so on what is essentially a large rock, tucked beneath a veil of clouds, so close to the edge of life’s limit.
The question of life’s existence has been the subject of speculation for time immemorial, and more explanations than we will ever know have been offered, all with great conviction. As is usual when questioning how things fit together and work, all answers have been wrong but one, and that one has only recently emerged, recent being within the last century or so, when enough information has accumulated for an informed analysis. Generations alive today are the first in history with the tools to comprehend how we and the rest of life, and even the planet itself and its star, became items in the cosmos.
No one had the faintest clue about such things until the ways of science were settled upon, and people began making sense of the world. A geologist in the early 1800s, for example, determined that our planet, then only recently recognized as such, was thousands of times older than previously believed. Following upon that realization and others, a couple of bright, curious, observant, independent-minded, world-traveling Englishmen puzzled out the basic way that nature gives rise to species, us included. No one living prior to that appeared to understand much of anything about how we and the rest of life came to be, and even today, most people remain ignorant, despite the massive, universal flow of corroboration during the 20th and 21st centuries. Today, mountains of evidence identify humankind as nature’s product.
One might suppose that such a discovery would cause anyone and everyone to take a look around, reassess the situation, and embrace the obvious. Instead, denial and even fierce indignation is the common response. People anxious about forsaking convictions held since childhood find it uncomfortable, even frightening, to imagine that their basic construct of reality has been a house of cards. Thus, in the current balance, most people adhere to fantastical explanations rather than accept the unembellished planet as their creator and their home.
In actuality, the planet needs no embellishment. Consider, for example, the average hummingbird—a spectacular creature whose sentience, economy of form, and aerial brilliance easily overshadow anything mankind has yet devised. A modern jet helicopter is wonderfully intricate and functional, but a hummingbird is self-possessed, self-assembling, and self-maintaining. Imagine the sophistication of the programming that directs the activities of a ruby-throated hummingbird, all neatly packaged in that tiny, finite brain! Forget my emphasis on people. How can there be ruby-throated hummingbirds?
The answer is that hummingbirds, like you and me, are bold implementations of digitally coded messages, passively written and edited by a suite of entirely natural processes over the vastness of time—the response of DNA sequencing to the demands of ecosystems. There are presently millions of such life forms whose programming has flowed in discrete rivulets of code from the same common ancestor. Yes, millions of finely tuned, interdependent species, evolving. And here we are, one of them, sending out spacecraft to explore other planets, probing the interrelationships of atoms, pondering the nature of subatomic particles, detecting the action of genes in the formation and orchestration of precisely interacting molecules within the makeup of living beings. We and hummingbirds and all the others are elegant creatures. On the larger scale, we are wisps in the fabric of nature, each of us a part of evolution’s splendid project.
One Among Millions of Miracles
Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico during their migrations, and there is fierce competition for food and space at both ends of their round-trip journey. The ready response of ruby-throats to such adversity is to seize territories upon arrival and vigorously defend them against trespassers. When it comes time for reproduction, the males entice females to accept them with aerial courtship displays that challenge mankind’s understanding of physics. Meanwhile, the females construct nests of fabulous design and durability from the materials at hand, then create and bring forth what are called charms of additional hummingbirds, all absurdly talented and capable. And did I mention that ruby-throated hummingbirds weigh just one-eighth of an ounce?
What you can do
If You Have a Minute…
Give thanks for the beautiful miracle that is you—and everything else.
If You Have an Hour…
Google your local hummingbirds for photos, sounds, and favorite foods. Decide what flowers to plant.
If You Have a Month…
Plot the migration pattern of your local hummingbirds as a pilgrimage route. Tag along and see what you learn.
If You Have One Hundred Dollars…
Work to protect endangered birds such as California Condors by giving to the Peregrine Fund. Peregrinefund.org
Grainger Hunt, PhD is a senior scientist at the Peregrine Fund.