Picture awakening to the most beautiful morning as the sun shines through your window in a spread of dust speckled beams. Perhaps the long winter has just passed. You open your window, and the smells of tender green leaves, vivid blooms, and springtime’s organic warmth stirs something deep and instinctive within you. A seasonal onrush of energy awakens your senses, and you feel like a child again, eager to soak your bare feet in the glistening due of the grass. Once outside, you find yourself immersed in the morning’s crescendo of birdsong and insect buzzing and all of biology’s many other instruments attuned to the great symphony of nature. You feel that you comprise one of the melodies of that magnificent opus, that your awareness of its beauty is one its most beautiful notes. The brutal harmony of this ceaseless song may sometimes impose terrible suffering, but times like this, you realize, are occasions for the living to rejoice, and you among them can’t help but wonder at its beauty.
The closer we look at life’s spectacular diversity, the more compelled we become to ponder its origins. From the time when our greatest grandparents sheltered around fire within a cave or under a canopy of hides, nature’s awesome interconnectedness has stirred in us a yearning to know: where did all of the plants and animals come from? Where did we come from? Our ancestors built entire cultures upon the foundations of their proposed answers. Traditions of explanation surely extend back thousands of generations; primeval vignettes re-enacted from mother to daughter, father to son, cave paintings of haunting beauty showing human and herd merging on the plains. One millennium to the next these symbols of wisdom-seeking provided a salve to our gnawing need to comprehend the apparent order of nature. Many of these mythological tributaries dried up and disappeared long ago, while others coalesced into the major religions of civilization, whose sacred books carried on with the work of attempting to satisfy people’s yearning for answers. And yet, many still yearned. When holy teachings failed to align with experience of the natural world, men and women might risk their very lives to pursue new knowledge of life’s history as they persisted in wondering: Where did all of the plants and animals come from? Where did we come from? Like the beating heart of a titan, these questions were born again and again in each new generation of curious minds. But as long as we lacked the power to travel or even talk to people more than a few hundred miles from the place of our birth, the natural world to which we could bear witness was mostly confined to a single town, coastline, or farm. We wrestled against our tight limits of knowledge for centuries like blinkered beasts, restricted to seeing only that which arbitrarily fell within our periphery. Beyond this, we had little more than rumors and scriptures by which to judge our world. Of life’s unknown marvels beyond the horizon, we could only dream.
Only in the modern age did we manage to make a habit of traveling across hemispheres to interpret the global patterns of life’s diversity. Only in the modern age did we forge an international web of correspondence, a great republic of letters, to rally even the farthest flung investigators’ insights on the earth’s geological and biological past. Only in the modern age did we devise the tools to recognize the atomic and molecular signatures of nearly 4 billion years of history that trace the lineage of all creatures that have ever lived to a sea of single-celled bacteria. These and the many other advantages of modernity have enabled us at long last to behold the sublime bloom of a spring morning with a far grander understanding of its splendor than anything our ancestors could have imagined. Yet, were it not for the instinct of wonder we inherited from them, the triumph of life finally coming to know its true origins – arguably the greatest scientific achievement of all time – may never have occurred at all. But after so many wisdom traditions through the ages had presented so many different accounts of where we came from, how did we ultimately establish an explanation whose evidence overwhelms all the others? How did that ancient instinct of wonder finally lead us to the discovery that, from so simple a beginning, life’s endless forms most beautiful have been and are being evolved?
I give you the theory of evolution, and how it began.