Mazzuca: The meek have already inherited the earth (column)
Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.
Do you know how you got here? No, not here in the Vail Valley, but here: One of the 7.6 billion inhabitants of planet Earth? Even more importantly, are you aware that we are recipients of an extraordinarily series of random and almost impossibly fortunate events?
Scientists believe of the millions of species that have inhabited the Earth, perhaps 99.99 percent are now extinct. Still not feeling fortunate to be here? OK, let’s trace our evolution from primordial globules to being upright sentient human beings.
At various periods during the last 4 billion years, we have abhorred oxygen, then thrived on it, we’ve grown fins, limbs, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as small as a mouse and a thousand other things. As author Bill Bryson writes in his opus “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” the tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary imperatives and we might be licking algae from cave walls.
For us to be here at this exact moment meant that every one of our billions of forbearers on both sides, over billions years, had to be attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce and blessed so that they weren’t eaten, drowned, squashed, fatally wounded, starved, stuck fast or otherwise deflected from their life’s quest.
Still not convinced? Most Earth scientists agree the dinosaurs were wiped out approximately 65 million years ago when an asteroid roughly 6 miles wide hit Earth near what is now Chicxulub in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
The impact left a crater approximately 110 miles in diameter and unleashed mega-tsunamis, planet-wide wildfires and kicked up enough dust and debris to block the sun, causing a period of global cooling that altered the climate to a point that an estimated three-quarters of the species living on the Earth at the time went extinct.
Recently, I came across an old Popular Science magazine. In it was an article speculating that had the Chicxulub asteroid arrived just 30 seconds later and landed in the ocean instead of land, the dinosaurs might still rule planet earth.
After I finished reading the piece, I thought to myself, “Wow, a 30-second differential out of a 4 billion year history, now that’s an infinitesimally small margin.” But once I got my arms around just how close a call that was (more or less), my immediate inclination was to ask myself, “OK, but what if …?”
To answer that hypothetical, I engaged in what is known as counterfactual history, a form of historiography that attempts to answer “what if” questions, i.e., the notion of speculating on what might have happened if certain circumstances had been different.
It can be argued that had the asteroid arrived just 30 seconds later and struck the ocean instead of a landmass, it wouldn’t have killed off all the dinosaurs. (Although I suspect a few physicists might argue that regardless of where that asteroid hit, the outcome would be the same.) But just for the fun of it, let’s assume the asteroid’s major impact didn’t raise zillions of tons of smoke and ash and instead was greeted with a really big splash and the dinosaurs survived — what might the Earth look like today?
Assuming there were no other major extinction-like events during the last 65 million years, in all likelihood these giants would be living right here in Happy Valley.
Now think about this for a moment; scientists know some small, rodent-sized mammals co-existed with the dinosaurs, but because they couldn’t compete for food sources, they were forced into fringe ecological niches — so could that have been our destiny? While not the most pleasant of thoughts, it’s what might have been, ugh.
Counterfactual speculation is fun, but the bottom line is we’re here and Tyrannosaurus Rex isn’t, which means it was the small and the meek that actually did inherit the Earth.
To be continued …
Quote of the day: “By all means, marry; if you find a good wife, you’ll become happy — if not, you’ll become a philosopher.” — Socrates
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes biweekly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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