Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Deep Time: Its Meaning and Moral Implications

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Deep Time: Its Meaning and Moral Implications

Article excerpt


How possibly can the structure and quality of deep geologic time have any bearing on human morality as the title of this paper contends? After all, moral sentiments are embedded in human belief systems that on the whole are independent of the Earth's history. Even if moral sensibilities emanate from human nature (1) or from embodied minds (2), they are indisputably unrelated to the findings of those natural sciences that scrutinize landscapes and biota, such as paleontology, historical geology, geomorphology, evolutionary biology, ecology, and paleontology.

But is it that simple? Are the spontaneities of wild Nature irrelevant to human ideals? Do the prescriptive judgments of people actually rise above or lie beyond the accounts of the Earth's past and the workings of its ecosphere? Or is the ethical bearing of humans irrevocably rooted to the soil and biology of the deep past? After all, we are made of flesh and our "bodily sense of vulnerability to death" is shared by many non-human creatures, which our moral imagination and language fail to describe. (3) Responding to the normative query "What ought we to do?" depends on what the world and we are, and on how the world and we came to be. The latter claim relates moral appraisal to co-evolution, the former to ecological dynamics. Ecology is imbedded in evolution (4), and both are subsumed by the interminable duration of deep time. The implications of such temporal insights are clear. We, Homo sapiens, are a species of animal that is not in Nature, but of Nature, a species like all others with an ancestry that reaches back implausibly to the first spark of life on the Earth some 3.8 billion years ago. The prepositional distinction in the previous sentence is critical for conceptualizing our moral bearing intuitively within the context of deep time, as I elaborate in the next section of the paper. It leads us to inquire how moral philosophy can be naturalized by ascribing Homo sapiens' ethical deportment to the fullness of the Earth's deep evolutionary past. Being aware of the reality of our primordial roots, of our emergence from the ecological complexity of deep time is imperative for recognizing the wholeness of our biological nature, including an expansive morality "directed to all living things and perhaps too to the lifeless world that they inhabit." (5) No species can exist alone, independent of a biological community, meaning that moral systems based on a human-Nature dualism are not simply lacking substance, they are false. (6)

My intent in this paper is to (a) synthesize some nuances about deep time expressed as the evolutionary and ecological emergence of the Earth's biodiversity; (b) explain how our ecological associations are vital for intuitive moral evaluation and crucial for the long-term survival of our species; and (c) propose how an ethic based on radical hope when conjoined to deep time may help us not only assuage despair, but also flourish with values better adapted to our ecological existence.

The Nature of Deep Time

The Earth was created about 4.6 billion years ago as a chaotic system of gases and energy, from which emerged sequentially a solid crust of stone, broad seas, primordial life, and billions of years later the diverse biological splendor of today, including the grace of Homo sapiens. None of these elaborate materializations could have been predicted, although they are explicable in retrospect. This sweeping view of the Earth's history--its deep time--is "geology's most frightening fact," because all species including humans are "only an afterthought, a kind of cosmic accident." (7)

Earth scientists and evolutionary biologists know this to be true, and yet most people dismiss the deep past as something that happened long ago, a narrative of epic proportion that is now done with and irrelevant to 21st-century humans and their moral ideals. This myopic perspective on the present moment is understandable from an evolutionary standpoint, because survival of Homo sapiens necessitated a focus on the day-to-day procurement of food, shelter, and mates. …

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