I was in a bad mood yesterday, until I saw a squirrel on a trash can. This is not the kind of thing that typically punctures my surliness. I generally don’t even like squirrels—one bit me when I was seven years old. But I liked this one, for some reason. He pranced about the top of one of those trash cans with a triangle roof and a swinging lid. He sniffed and tried to look inside. It was about 10:30 a.m., and the sun was heading toward its zenith. My foul humor started to melt away as I realized that I was witnessing a miracle.
People on both sides of the evolution/creation debate might be missing the point, and folks who mock the idea of intelligent design definitely don’t get it. I had my own eyes opened only recently, and only because my five-year-old son is nuts about astronomy.
I’m starting to sound like some of the people I used to work with in a psychiatric hospital, so let me string some of these loose associations together.
We can see a really long way into space now. Radiation, radio waves, and magnetic resonance paint a picture of things far, far away. Past the limits of our own galaxy, we can see galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Our far-reaching knowledge reveals a powerful truth: the universe is filled with beautiful garbage.
Gas, rock, and ice—that about sums up the contents of what lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere. We think there might be some water underneath some of the ice and rock. Volcanoes puke up lava once in a while, too. Most of the planets don’t even have what we would consider a surface; they’re gas giants with a molten-metal core. The stuff out there is pretty and moves in majestic symmetry, but it’s all junk. Most it even smells bad. Uranus really stinks—or at least it would if you entered its atmosphere and got a whiff of all that methane.
With the exception of Earth, everything we’ve found in the universe is too hot or too cold (or both) to be anything but gorgeous garbage. It’s interesting garbage that does cool stuff, but it doesn’t even get close to what happens here. What happens here is miraculous.
I could spend several thousand pages describing what went into getting that squirrel and that trash can together, but let’s just hit the highlights:
A ridiculously complex configuration of matter. A single living cell is more complex than anything we’ve found anywhere else in the universe. A squirrel has billions of ’em.
Perfect temperature. Move the earth or change our atmosphere just a little, and that’s the ball game: we’d either freeze or fry.
Water. We think there might be more out there, but we haven’t found anything close to what it takes for even the simplest life forms to thrive.
Lots o’ gray and white matter. To conceive, design, and build a trash can requires a tremendous amount of cognitive capacity. You need a brain that can handle working memory, abstraction, planning, and complex motor functioning, along with a host of other abilities. We can’t even find any simple life forms in the universe, much less one that can make a trash can.
My crankiness dissipated yesterday because of awe. Whether you are a young Earth creationist, an intelligent design fan, or Christopher Hitchens, you have no excuse not to be stricken with wonder. Something special happens on this planet. Contemplating the size of our solar system alone can make you feel tiny. Trying to wrap your head around galaxy clusters can make you dizzy. But a squirrel on a trash can makes all the difference. As far as we know, Earth and everything on it is unmatched throughout the universe. That should give us pause. It should fill us with wonder. Hopefully, that wonder will change us.
The improbability of our planet should be more than a case for something; it should do more than fuel a debate. Perhaps it can make us take everything more seriously. Obviously, it should make us better environmental stewards, but it can also help us see that the simplest things we do are miraculous. The fact that I’m writing something on a computer is a cosmic event. Since I do it all the time, I take it for granted, just like I usually take a squirrel on a trash can for granted. Yesterday, however, I remembered that I’m part of something special. It’s reason to rejoice. It’s a reason to embrace wonder in simplicity, and to remember that what happens here is miraculous, however you define it.