“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”
-W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)
In his 1997 book “Full House,” the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould discussed the idea of progress in evolution. He noted that Darwin went back and forth over the idea, at times arguing that natural selection had the power to refine organisms and “tend to progress toward perfection” and at other times writing that “after long reflection, I cannot avoid the conviction that no innate tendency to progressive development exists” (p. 137 and 141).
Gould himself acknowledged that it certainly seems like life has progressed over the billions of years it has existed on earth:
“And yet, undeniably (even for such curmudgeons as me), a basic fact of the history of life – the basic fact, one might well say – seems to cry out for progress as the central trend and defining feature of life’s history. The first fossil evidence of life, from rocks some 3.5 billion years in age, consists only of bacteria, the simplest forms that could be preserved in the geological record. Now we have oak trees, praying mantises, hippopotamuses, and people. How could anyone deny that such a history displays progress above anything else?” (p. 145)
Appropriately, I’m writing this in the middle of Hurricane Irene.
.A couple of days ago, NPR posted this quote on death by Steve Jobs.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”
Direct ancestor/ descendants holding hands (my sons and I)
Digging a bit deeper, I was able to find that the quote came from a commencement speech Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005, about a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By now, most people probably know that Mr. Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple last week, and there has been speculation that this may tie into his past health issues. Such a close encounter with mortality would likely make any person pause and reflect on the big picture, and why it is that we ultimately share the same destination. I empathize deeply with Mr. Jobs, Christopher Hitchens, the people of Somalia and, well, everyone, since we must all one day confront the fact that our time here is finite. Death is the ultimate equalizer.