I take the long view on life, the really long view that a geological perspective provides. Most of us think of history in terms of hundreds of years, or maybe thousands of years. But what about a million years? 10 million years? 100 million years? Now we’re talking about enough time to really get something done – yet 100 million years is still only a small fraction of the earth’s history. Thinking in terms of many millions of years is the realm of deep time.
With deep time, mountains are built up and worn down by the same slow, relentless processes that are occurring today. Oceans grow and contract while the continents that we call “rock solid” are slowly dragged around by the earth’s viscous interior. If the seemingly solid surface of the earth can undergo dramatic changes with enough time, what about the living things that inhabit the thin veneer that is the earth’s biosphere. Deep time is one of the keys that unlocked the possibilities in Darwin’s mind when he recognized variation within species and the process of natural selection. These everyday biological processes, when played out through deep time, have immense power to create the magnificent diversity of past and present life on earth.
Does deep time imply that our existence is insignificant or purpose-less? Is deep time a frighteningly dark abyss? Not at all! How wonderful to grasp the fullness and magnitude of the organisms and ongoing biological processes around us. I find that there is beauty and solace in understanding that there is an interconnectedness to the tapestry of living things on Earth. Depending on how far back in deep time you want to start your own story we can all proudly consider ourselves as living members of human kind, of primates, of mammals, of reptiles, of bony fish, and so on through the tree of life. The enlightenment gained from contemplating and grasping deep time provides connectivity to everything, being a part of a long history, seeing the whole, not just the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’.
Understanding deep time is germane to understanding our place on earth from a biological, ecological and philosophical perspective. I will joyfully place myself among the myriad of living things on earth and embrace and respect our shared history. I think many people would do the same, if they took the time to think about it.