Following my reflections last week on Jeremy Lent’s ideas about connections, I found myself musing about beginnings and endings – my own, life on Earth and the universe – and the connections they imply. I thought about and partly wrote this column while sitting under the great trees in Heritage Grove in Francis-King Park, feeling both connected to and in awe of nature.
In a narrow sense I began, as we all did, with the fusion of an ovum and a sperm. But I am descended from a very long line of Homo sapiens, going back some 135,000 years to the so-called “genetic Adam and Eve,” from whom it seems we are all descended.
According to the National Human Genome Project Research Institute in the United States, I share 99.9 per cent of my DNA with every other human being on Earth. In other words, what connects us, genetically speaking, is one thousand times greater than what makes us distinct. So much for the idiocies of racism.
But we are also connected to all other life forms – we share 99 per cent of our DNA with chimps and bonobos and 98 per cent with gorillas. Going further afield, we share 84 per cent of our DNA with dogs and 60 per cent with the chickens we eat. We even share 60 per cent of our DNA with fruit flies, 50 per cent with bananas, 26 per cent with yeast and 15 per cent with mustard grass.
Once, on a walk in the East African savannah with park rangers, as we came across the bones of various prey animals, I suddenly realized that the soil I was walking on and the plant and animal life it supported was made up of the decomposed and recycled bones of all those animals — and the plants around them — dating back over millions of years.
Plants, of course, are the base of the food chain, but they also produce the oxygen we all need to survive. Moreover, every time we breathe, we are breathing in a few atoms of nitrogen, oxygen or carbon that all the people who came before us breathed, millennia ago.
And every time we eat, we are probably eating atoms that once made up the bodies of previous generations of humans — and for that matter, of dinosaurs! In short, we are all deeply connected to and entirely dependent upon the great web of life that sustains us in so many ways.
I have an abiding faith that nature — life — will go on, with or more likely without us. Life has continued through five previous great extinctions and will doubtless survive the sixth that we are creating – although we may not.
Another profound experience of connection with nature came when, as a 15-year-old lying down in a dark spot at night and gazing up at the stars, I suddenly became aware of — and overwhelmed by — the immensity of the universe. I don’t pretend to comprehend the immense scale of the universe, or to understand the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy and the origins of the universe in the Big Bang, never mind what came before, if there was a before, and what will happen to it at the end — if there is one. I won’t be around, nor will humans, nor even the Earth or solar system, so it doesn’t really matter, except as something to be curious about.
This leads, of course, to the ultimate connection: As Carl Sagan (and many others before him, it turns out) observed, we are all star stuff. I am hugely comforted by this idea, that the atoms of which I and everything I see around me are composed were forged in the heart of collapsing and dying stars and then exploded out into the universe to make — among other things — us.
I find comfort in all this because it puts into perspective our own small ways, our own small lives, our own small struggles. I am not going to stop doing what I do in my own small way, nor am I going to give up hope, but it is wonderful how much comfort and how many interesting thoughts come from walking in the woods or contemplating the night sky.
© Trevor Hancock, 2020