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Evolving Systems: January 2010 Core Group Meeting

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

January, 2010 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion


Deep Time and the Earth Sciences

Background (Arlo):

Deep time is a concept that every geologist must grapple with in both research and teaching.  The difference between the millions and billions of years of geologic evolution, as opposed to the centuries and millennia of human civilization is to say the least mind-bending.  I have been thinking about geology in a significant way for nearly two decades and I still have trouble with the concept.  In almost every way, change that occurs on our planet is incredibly slow, yet changes within our own cultures and lives changes almost daily.  These differences in rate-process make it extremely difficult to talk in effective terms about the link between the human experience and our home planet – Mother Earth. Climate change, evolution, natural disasters, resource management – all of these incredibly important components of the human experience are fundamentally rooted in the Earth Sciences, yet to adequately explain the link between these two systems is often tenuous at best.
I will introduce and give some historical context for the concept of Deep Time through the perspective of the Earth sciences.  I will also explore some of my own personal thoughts on what it means to be a passenger on a ship that is over 4.5 billion years old – that is a lot of zeros (4,500,000,000 years - billions, 1,642,500,000,000 days - trillions, 2,365,200,000,000,000 hours - quadrillion, or 141,912,000,000,000,000 seconds– quintillion).

Some relevant readings:

Gee, Henry, 1999. In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life, Free Press, New York, 272 p.
Hazen, Robert M., 2001. Life's Rocky Start.   Scientific American; April 2001, Vol. 284 Issue 4, p76, 10 p.
Knoll, Andrew, 2003. Life on a young planet, Princeton University Press, 304 p.
McPhee, John, 1982. Basin and Range, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 216 p.
Valley, John W., 2005. A Cool Early Earth? Scientific American; October 2005, Vol. 293 Issue 4, p58, 8p.
Witze, Alexandra, 2006. The start of the world as we know it, Nature, Vol. 442, 128-131.

A meeting summary (Anne)
Arlo began his talk with a series of metaphors--the skin of the Eiffel Tower, the tip of the king's fingernail, the last moment of a year's calender--all functioning as reference frames intended to evoke the tiny portion of the earth's history in which humans have been present, and to represent the fundamental difficulty of trying to shift our thinking to a scale of time that is inconceivable: orders of magnitude larger than the one in which we "insignificant egomaniacs" operate on a daily basis. Arlo emphasized his difficulty, throughout, in thinking simultaneously about deep time and his own lived experience of time: his ability to grasp, but not fathom, what constitutes the difference. There is for him a "disconnect," an inability to "think in parallel" about scales that are so different.

He set the stage for this shift in scale by tracing the cumulative historical work of Nicolas Steno on "solid bodies within solids," of George Cuvier on catastrophism and extinction, of James Hutton on uniformitarianism, and of Charles Lyell on progressism
--culminating in the construction of "geologic columns" representing the successive ages of the earth. He also shared images of rock formations in the Grand Canyon, on Sitka Point in Scotland, and of zircon (the oldest known piece of material on earth) in Australia, to help us comprehend our place in what John McFee, in the 1970s, first called "deep time." We looked also @ images of Mt. Everest and Iowa, of the solar system and universe; we viewed maps ("ephemeral shots of the earth") of the long history of the amalgamation and collision of continents, the result of random motion of scattered small masses (short version: density drives continent emergence; scum floats).

We came to understand how very difficult it is to "get back to the early earth"; there are huge gaps in the record. Where does scientific rigor lie, for the geologist who has to speculate about what happened in the enormous time span that separates one strata of data from another?  If not witnessed, can such changes be said to be "real"? There is "no way of testing"; "no one can go back and look." What is observable now are just correlative observations of stages in the geological record; there is no evidence of causation. Fossils are unique; we create a story to connect them with one another, and so concoct a progression. "This is not true science," Arlo said. (Or, several of us pushed back, does our definition of "what science is" need to change?)  The belief system of Jehovah's Witnesses was also evoked here: imagining an entity alive for the whole time, seeing it all. Perhaps God "thinks in geological time," and is "a witness to all that has happened." This would be a "reason for creating God": to absorb these time scales.

In response to Arlo's presentation, our discussion circled first around the question of whether all human motivations mightn't vanish, when seen from a geological perspective:  "On this time scale, nothing I do matters." In a tectonic, or even an evolutionary, framework, "nothing I do has an effect." Alternatively, might such an understanding give us a distanced perspective, make us less angry, more indifferent to petty human concerns, even bring us to ecstasy? Most biological evolution took place against a background of continual change. What difference might it have made, if that background were instead stable?  Right now patterns continue to emerge, which are undetectable unless seen over longer spans.

Some of us thought that we could indeed think simultaneously in different scales, and usefully fuse them; others of us thought that a "sense of nothing happening" (over eons of earth's history) was an artifact of the way we differentiate using our own time scales: "nothing was waiting, but lots was happening." Sometimes we need both scales to make sense of things. We also thought together about a possible distinction between "formalistic," mathematical time and time experienced. Are we perhaps using the same word to describe two very different things?  Can time exist only "formally," until experienced and used as part of one's life?  "Formal time" and "time defined by events" may actually be two separate concepts, the latter marking time, which records change, in accord with human rates; the former...? Can we conceive of time in a way "that sees past time"? Mention was also made of the Yucca Mountain project, a system designed for nuclear waste, that tries to project methods of communication into the deep time of the future, vaster than we can process.

Thinking together about whether this story might be told "scientifically," or only in narrative, we thought "narrative implies time," whereas story is not time dependent. Is it necessary to use narrative to approach such a tale? Might we only be able to conceptualize deep time via metaphor? How else might we "imagine a time before imagining"?  "What use" can we make of deep time? Can it be made conceivable to us by story? Is that the only way to understand it? Do we need non-linear ways to conceptualize such a process?

Several of us speculated that "filling in the interim" of what is not known, a process that is "necessarily never smooth," exists on all scales. Understanding what is going on in another's mind, or interpreting a poem--how do such gaps between what we know and what we don't differ from those presented by the phenomenon of deep time?

Continuing discussion (below)



bolshin's picture

Deep Time, History, Literature, Art, etc.

First of all, many thanks to Arlo, who did a great job! In retrospect, I feel that my presentation was quite lame... I also have to add that I've always been into "deep time", and am writing a book on the subject of transmission of knowledge over human-scale deep time, which means tens of thousands of years, rather than millions of years. On a related note, Bharath notes that the "distinction between deep time and the ordinary time of our everyday experiences is not a recent discovery". This is quite true, and actually plays a part in the graduate seminar on landscape that I teach. I give the students a number of classical-period writings by authors who clearly understood that the Earth had a long geological history. For example:

  • Hippolytus (an early Christian writer) in his Refutation of All Heresies, citing Xenophanes (ca. 580 - 478 B.C.):

Xenophanes thinks that a mixture of the earth with the sea is taking place, and that the earth in the course of time is being dissolved by the moisture; he states that he the following proofs: in the interior parts of the land and in mountains are found shells, and he says that in the stone-quarries at Syracuse were found imprints of a fish and of sea-weed, and in Paros the imprint of an anchovy in the depth of the stone, and in Melite… flat outlines of all and sundry sea-creatures. And he says that this came about when everything was "mudded" long ago, and that the imprint was fixed dry in the mud; all mankind is destroyed whenever the earth is brought down into the sea and has become mud, and then begins the process of birth all over again.


  • Strabo Strabo (ca. 63 B.C. - ca. 25 A. D.) in his Geography:

Eratosthenes says further that this question in particular has presented a problem: how does it come about that large quantities of mussel-shells, oyster-shells, scallop-shells, and also salt-marshes are found in many places in the interior at a distance of two thousand or three thousand stadia [an ancient unit of measure] from the sea — for instance (to quote Eratosthenes) in the neighborhood of the temple of Ammon and along the road, three thousand stadia in length, that leads to it? At that place, he says, there is a large deposit of oyster-shells, and many beds of salt are still to be found there… [H]e praises the opinion of Xanthus, who says that… he himself had often seen, in many places, stones in the shape of a bivalve, shells of the pecten order, impressions of scallop-shells, and a salt-marsh, and therefore was persuaded that these plains were once sea… Now one may admit that a great part of the continents was once covered by water for certain periods and was then left bare again; and in the same way one may admit also that the whole surface of the earth now submerged is uneven, at the bottom of the sea, just as we might admit, of course that the part of the earth above water, on which we live, is subject to all the changes mentioned by Eratosthenes himself.


and finally...


  • Herodotus (ca. 484 - ca.425 B.C.) in his Histories:

[2.11.1] Now in Arabia, not far from Egypt, there is a gulf extending inland from the sea… whose length and width are such as I shall show: [2.11.2] in length, from its inner end out to the wide sea, it is a forty days' voyage for a ship rowed by oars; and in breadth, it is half a day's voyage at the widest. Every day the tides ebb and flow in it. [2.11.3] I believe that where Egypt is now, there was once another such gulf; this extended from the northern sea towards Aethiopia, and the other, the Arabian gulf of which I shall speak, extended from the south towards Syria; the ends of these gulfs penetrated into the country near each other, and but a little space of land separated them. [2.11.4] Now, if the Nile inclined to direct its current into this Arabian gulf, why should the latter not be silted up by it inside of twenty thousand years? In fact, I expect that it would be silted up inside of ten thousand years. Is it to be doubted, then, that in the ages before my birth a gulf even much greater than this should have been silted up by a river so great and so busy? [2.12.1] As for Egypt, then, I credit those who say it, and myself very much believe it to be the case; for I have seen that Egypt projects into the sea beyond the neighboring land, and shells are exposed to view on the mountains, and things are coated with salt, so that even the pyramids show it, and the only sandy mountain in Egypt is that which is above Memphis; [2.12.2] besides, Egypt is like neither the neighboring land of Arabia nor Libya, not even like Syria (for Syrians inhabit the seaboard of Arabia); it is a land of black and crumbling earth, as if it were alluvial deposit carried down the river from Aethiopia; [2.12.3] but we know that the soil of Libya is redder and somewhat sandy, and Arabia and Syria are lands of clay and stones.


In terms of human deep time, I noted the Atlantis story, which is just one of many where different cultures (in this case Egyptians and Greeks) debate how long their cultural memories are. Fiction deals with this theme as well, projecting communication across deep time and its challenges in a number of books, e.g., "A Canticle for Leibowitz" (a science fiction "must"). In terms of vastness generally, of which Anne gave a great visual example, one can also consider some of the works of Borges, e.g., "The Library of Babel", and "Funes the Memorius". In terms of our group discussion, I think that a key point made by Arlo and the group was how small human existence is in terms of scale compared to geological time. What can we take from this? Could one build a whole new school of philosophy, or even a religion on that fact? It would be interesting (OK, at least for me!) to think about? Also, since our general theme in the group is emergence, I think a further discussion of this idea of deep time and emergence is intriguing. Grobstein and I have debated about emergence for a while, with me saying that there is no way you can have emergence just arising out of randomness. But it would be worth considering if somehow just having a hell of a lot of time -- millions of years -- allows even the most "dormant" or disorganized or random of systems to give rise to pattern. Could time somehow actually be a (very, very subtle) force?


More later...

Anne Dalke's picture

Some new kinds of story depicting devices

A Haverford colleague just led me yesterday to an exhibit just opened @ the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. Called Running the Numbers, it features a series of photographic prints by Chris Jordan that attempt to portray staggering statistics through intricately detailed large-scale panels. I haven't yet been to see the exhibit, but I did spend some time with my friend's book of the photographs. My experience was one of being astonished by the beauty of the image, then led in closer, closer, closer until I realized w/ horror that what I was seeing close-up was, oh, a representation of the 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags used in the US every hour.

This seems to me a great-and-awful representation of what Mark describes below: first, his evocation of some kinds of new (within the past century) storytelling devices in the arts, which give us a glimpsing consciousness of what little we can perceive of the larger context. And, even more explicitly, an attempt to portray his second astonishing idea that "if there is no consciousness to measure [time] then perhaps it is not measurable because it has no phenomenal properties." It seems to me that what Chris Jordan is doing is trying to make both measureable and comprehensible that which we find immeasurable and incomprehensible: numbers in the millions, billions, even trillions.

Just to give you a taste of the experience, here is a 3x zoom of the print called "Paper Bags, 2007." My experience was one of seeing first something beautifully evocative--a forest, perhaps, of birch trees? And then...oof!

I'd be interested to know what you see. And if you'd like to see more, go to Chris Jordan: Photographic Arts.










Anne Dalke's picture


My question now to Mark (and Wai chee?) is what might be
(might there be?) comparable literary or theatrical forms?
That could portray BOTH particularity and vastness....?

Bharath Vallabha's picture

Embracing Deep Time

It was wonderful last week to spend time thinking together about deep time. And to see pictures which made deep time so immediate and palpable! It was very humbling.

I didn’t know many of the scientific facts which Arlo presented, and it was exciting to see how miniscule human life is in the context of the vastness of the universe. But even though I didn’t know the scientific facts, what I was feeling when I was contemplating deep time seemed familiar to me. It was a familiar feeling of seeing myself as not the center of the universe—of seeing that though I affect the universe and the universe affects me, the latter is much greater than the former, and that I am for the most part like a leaf riding the waves in an ocean. In some contexts this sense of being pushed around can seem oppresive and one wants to take control of one’s life and be assertive. But in some other contexts (what maybe we can call deep contexts), seeing oneself against the background of the vastness of the universe is actually uplifting, empowering and even soothing. It is the kind of feeling which makes one laugh at the false presumption of one’s importance and grandeur implicit in being vain or even feeling stressed, and which makes one blissful at the thought of being just the smallest fraction of the infinite.

These thoughts make me think of the relation between Arlo’s presentation and our discussion in the prior meeting about heaven and reason. At some points it seemed to me that Arlo was saying that until the rise of geology in the last couple of centuries, human beings didn’t have the concept of deep time, and that people thought of the world as only being a few thousand years old. I am not sure if this is true. Some very ancient religions have explicitely endorsed the idea of the world being billions of years old; Hinduism is a case in point. Also, even if someone a thousand years ago thought that the earth was only a few thousand years old, that doesn’t mean that she didn’t have the concept of deep time. This is because people in the distant past didn’t identify the earth’s time line or even that of the physical universe with the time line of the universe as a whole. For them there was a distinction between the sacred and the profane, to use Mircea Eliade’s terms. That is, a distinction between time which we can fathom in our everyday life, and a time which is beyond time, which is so vast and so expansive that we cannot possibly comprehend it. This is the time which applies to God or gods.

I would say therefore that the distinction between deep time and the ordinary time of our everyday experiences is not a recent discovery. The distinction is implicit even in a primordial, religious way of thinking of the world. I would say that this distinction between deep time and everyday time is actually implicit in the very structure of human consciousness. This leads to a thought which I wasn’t expecting and which I have enjoyed contemplating since our meeting. Namely, the kind of transcendence one can experience in spirituality of embracing sacred time is not different from the kind of transcendence one can experience through a scientific analysis of the world. Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all if one is religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, artistic or anything else, as long as one is embracing deep time in whatever ways one is leading one’s life.

Anne Dalke's picture

The play (and productivity) of just-so storytelling

Also, as a present to Arlo, I wanted to pass on the link to an article Liz just shared w/ me, from January 8, 2010 Chronicle Review of The Chronicle of Higher Education, about the value of informed speculation. Called "How the Scientist Got His Ideas," it urges scientists to "stop running from 'just-so story' as an epithet and start embracing its merits," to recognize what a good way it offers "to joust, mentally, with the world": science

"nearly always begins as...such a story...emerging from curiosity, questioning, and uncertainty. It then progresses to reasoned conjecture...and validation...or...further refinement....Throughout, the enterprise is steeped in wonder....just-so story is simply a story, a tentative, speculative answer to a question, and, as such a clarification of one's thinking, ideally a goad to further thought, and, not incidentally, a necessary preliminary to obtaining the kind of additional information that helps answer a question...when the narrative is is no longer a just-so story, but science...."

The nicest bit about the essay, really, is its characterization of scientists as "among the most playful of people, constantly trying out various 'mind games' on the natural world"--as well its attempt to just plain "free up" everyone to play at being human in this way. What I love about all this is the interpretative quality, so long/often seen as the province of humanists alone.


Anne Dalke's picture

Space: Definite, Finite...?

In the context of "deep time"--which Arlo presented as unmeasurable, unimaginable--I was struck most by his nearly off-hand comment that, since "the earth's size is finite," continents that leave "have to come back," so that the movement of landforms "have their own pulse." In his narrative, time may have been infinite, but space was definite: bounded, constricting, determinative. I'm trying now to get my head around a possible correlation, in this story, between the expansiveness of time and the limitations of space. What Alice says below about the spaces opened up by poetry echoes here: bounded, finite, but infinite.

Liz and I are planning to talk, when we meet next in February, about a perspective on the world that seems congruent w/ the human-minimizing view Arlo just shared.  When she and I went to Atlanta together in November, to speak @ the Conference of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, we learned about "object-orientated ontology" (OOO), which tries to think about the world NOT from a human perspective, but rather re-oriented from the point of view of non-human objects. Stay tuned....

mlord's picture

OOO yeah.

 Something that surfaced briefly a few times during our last discussion was the notion that there are more complex kinds of narratives than the ones many scientists consider when they reject "story" and "narrative" as mechanisms by means of which we can apprehend some aspects of our experience of the world. I'm glad to have an acquaintance with the OOO, in part because it gives one name to the kind of time that I clamored for below, but also because, I think, it registers a connection between a new story in science and some kinds of new (within the past century) storytelling devices in the arts. The big sweep of Thinking that stretched from early mythmaking through Modernism seems to have been founded on Man as the center of our Understanding (with a significant pivot when we came to know that Man was not the Center of the Universe, but our Understanding was still from the point of view of being humans.


What's emerging in consciousness, perhaps, is an impulse towards an understanding of the universe as able to exist separate or independent of us. Language as, one the one hand, and amazing tool but, on the other, an obstacle. Ourselves as, yes of course, the center of our Existential drama, but also: ourselves as Other, as temporary, as stewards of a mere moment more than Princes of dominions. This new consciousness cannot, in my flickerish experience of it, replace the old knowing, but it doubles it; it cast a shadow that casts a pall on our notions of Permanence. An apprehension of deep time, of an objective understanding of our place in the Flow of It All, provides a glimpsing consciousness of what little we can perceive of the larger context.


I remember when I was studying Buddhism, we were given a book called WHAT THE BUDDHA TAUGHT (which was largely useless, at least to me). But on its paper back, heading a paragraph of description was this sentence: "The vastness of Buddhism is surprisingly immense." Inside its front cover, after the title page, was a leaf which was also so inscribed: "The vastness of Buddhism is surprisingly immense." And, turning to the first page of chapter one, a student was greeted with this first sentence: "The vastness of Buddhism is surprisingly immense." I never got past that sentence. 

mlord's picture

time and consciousness

Thanks, Arlo, for a swell presentation.  

When I used the phrase "parlor trick" to describe one aspect of perceiving deep time, I meant to follow up. What I am thinking about (and am not sure what I think about my thinking) is that when we ask ourselves to "imagine a time before imagining, a time before time" we are anthropomorphizing time. We are projecting our own experience of time onto a canvas that neither knows nor cares for our oohing and ahhing over it.


I do see the value of using deep time as a trope. Imagine if the way that we experience time (in seconds and minutes, as clocking in and clocking out and waiting for people to shut up already so we can have *our* say), imagine that experience stretched out across the broad expanse of the earth's history. It's helpful, to give us a better sense of stewardship, to give us some perspective--but only to the extent that it helps us see that this old earth was here long before us (and *something* was here long before it). This scale cannot be understood, of course, by its object. And a truer (less wrong?) perception of that big expanse--and the scales we use to measure it--need to include their own fictive natures. We can create an unreal scale to give us a sense of the sublime nature of time, but I wonder if what prevents Arlo (and me) from being comfortable with holding "deep time" close to our selves, is an intuitive sense of the unreality of the scale. And a sneaking suspicion that the minutes and second that we experience (in our middle-age) so anxiously are fundamentally different units of measure from the moment that life on earth moved from one-cell to two.


Paul tells us that the sound of a tree falling in a forest only exists when a brain is present to create sound out of the various and sundry phenomena of timber descending to a forest floor. I want to suggest that time functions the same way. If there is no consciousness to measure it then perhaps it is not measurable because it has no phenomenal properties. I don't know if I want to suggest that in a deep time context all units of time are subjective, or if it makes more sense to suggest that we invent some different units for time-in-the-universe.


Part of my Big Project, I think, which motivates this train of thought, is wanting to hold fast to an idea that the universe exists outside of and apart from our experience of it. Our language and our understanding of the universe as an extension of our experience sometimes help us to see the universe more clearly, but it just as often, I suspect, gets in our way. Part of the appeal, for me, of trying to think in the context of emerging systems is to get myself to be present in that emergent process: to be completely connected to the moment of the emergence of a way of thinking/seeing/being that benefits from a gathering insight but is not yet hampered by the limits of specific understanding.

alesnick's picture

continuing the conversation

I enjoyed yesterday's session and thank Arlo for it.  I came away with many images in my mind, including of the way you can use a book to represent rock.  I also appreciate the idea that the earth has its own pulse.  Also striking to me was the idea that geology has to go around the world -- a wrap-around science -- to find things representing different eras.  The chronological story is told via spatial movement and collaboration. 

A question I have for Arlo, and others, is: what do you think are the implications of deep time for teaching people of various ages about environmental stewardship, sustainability, and so on?  Since humans can't control these vast time and change flows, what warrant do/can/should we have for environmentalism?  Love of earth?  Love of living things we share it with now?

The other thing I am hoping to continue talking about is what a "deep time perspective" in and of our lifespan might be, or be like.  I was saying to Anne at the end of the session that, to me, reading -- interpreting, which Martha Nussbaum calls "hovering" (also interesting in spatial terms) -- a poem, sometimes across years and contexts feels like deep time in that it's slow, not linear and fundamentally associative rather than comprehensive - a kind of spiraling in, out, and around, rather than a surrounding -- that kind of wrap-around. 

In the "starting positions" section of this evolving systems site, I shared some of my poetry.  I thought today that one poem is connected to what I am wondering about.  Here's the ending of it:

O Ink-eyed child lost to sleep, it is not
just the wind. Your mother loves you, but the daily news
is bad. It wastes her strength
and distances --
from carver's hand, to bowl, to sea, to child --
are large, and unreconciled.

I guess what I am asking is how thinking about, or with, deep time is a way to make more imaginative space for unreconciled distances -- not to reconcile them, but to do something else useful, interesting, and possibly helpful?



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