Geologic Time is on display in the Grand Canyon. Does it depress you or fill you with awe to realize that your life's span is, at best, shown by the red line on the right?
Instead of making a long post and giving everybody a week to chew and comment, I'm offering a brief post. After I get some feedback from readers, I'll make another post—and so on throughout the week. The topic for the week is my Babel’s Dawn book, subtitled a natural history of the origins of speech.
I’m making progress and have a first draft of Part One, which begins six million years ago with the last common ancestor of chimpanzees, humans and bonobos and ends a little bit less than 2 million years ago when (probably) the first words were spoken. Four million years in about 25,000 words works out to 160 years per word. Obviously the year-by-year approach is impossible. The standard solution to this challenge is to write abstractly, discussing theory rather than what happened. But concrete stories are easier to follow and give meaning to otherwise fuzzy ideas, so I prefer to tell stories. In some ways the book of Babel’s Dawn will be quite the saga, covering hundreds of thousands of generations.
Any storyteller knows the basic solution to this approach: take specific periods, say 9 or 10 of them, and tell their stories. That’s my method. What was the situation like 6 million years ago? What was it like 4.5 million years ago? I’m an experienced storyteller, and I think I’m doing a good job, but I’m noticing a problem and I could use some advice about: deep time.
Deep time is geologic time, eons and eons. We are all familiar with tales from geology that say things like “ a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs 75 million years ago.” We nod and go on our merry way. It’s as numbing and abstract as Carl Sagan’s reference to “billions and billions” of stars. Presenting deep time in a saga, however, starts to give these spans some meaning. You read about what the human lineage was like 3.2 million years ago, then 3 million, then 2.7 million years back and these enormous spans of time begin to take on shape, especially when you realize that tens of thousands of generations came and went during those years.
My worry is that forcing readers to think concretely about deep time and thousands of generations will have the side effect of making people realize how short their own life span is and how it will be buried under endless layers of more time. Is that a depressing thought? An awe inspiring recognition? Or a neutral fact?
What are your own reactions to concrete expression of deep time and the enormous number of generations that come and go? Does it scare you? Excite you? Can anybody think of some examples of how other literature has faced the issue of geologic time versus our brief span of remembered time?