Tag Archives: Dawn Of Life

Teeth, Spikes, And The Nature Of Thinking

Wiwaxia Flandrin

Predatory threats and defensive responses is a central theme in the Dawn Of Life exhibit at the ROM.  The spiny-backed mollusc, Wiwaxia (above left), is an example of how a peace-loving algae-eater was able to protect itself from hungry predators.  As I view these fossils and the brilliant reconstructions in the Gallery, I reflect on my own carbon unit.  Although I am living a half-billion years later than Wiwaxia, I understand that similar predatory and defensive mechanisms are available to me today – deeply buried, but there nevertheless.

This has led to many deeper reflections about the complexities and mysteries of the human organism.  Thinking Through The Body by Richard Shusterman is proving to be a very helpful guide.  (Young Man By The Sea, by Hipplolyte Flandrin, above right, is featured on the book’s cover.)  Being in touch with the human body opens many doors that remain closed to mere intellectual inquiry.

At one point, Shusterman suggests that our ability to pay conscious attention to what is happening is a uniquely human survival tool – more powerful than sharp teeth and prickly spines:

As human consciousness evolved to help us survive in an ever-changing world, our attention has become habituated to – and requires – change.

Of course, humans also have the capacity to concentrate attention on activity that has nothing to do with their current physical environment.  And on this topic, Wiwaxia is silent.


The Scale Of Life

Burgess Shale

Burgess Shale, Yoho National Park

Some readers may be wondering why I am writing all these posts about the Burgess Shale and the dawn of life. (Link to earlier posts.) What does this have do do with liminality and mental health? Shouldn’t I just stick to my topic?

Well, here’s the short answer: Life is the most precious thing we have on Earth.  Physicist Neil Turok put it this way:

The size of the living cell is the geometric mean of these two fundamental lengths: Planck [really short] and Hubble [really long].  This is the scale of life, the realm we inhabit, and is the scale of maximum complexity in the universe.

This is not the typical language of the physicist, and he challenges us to think differently.  Our normal, ingrained patterns of linear thought are simply not adequate.  What is this scale of life? How do I “measure” these beautiful creatures?  And what about me and you?

Let’s keep asking these questions – we’ll all be better off as a result.

Turtle Island and The Dawn Of Life

'Turtle Island' by David Parson

‘Turtle Island’ by David Parson

The more points we can collect on the starburst of cultural and evolutionary trajectories, the better we can understand ourselves and the environment that supports us.  

– Mark Engstrom, Deputy Director, Collections & Research, ROM

The Royal Ontario Museum has a mission to connect the study of nature with the arts and world cultures.  I am pursuing this theme here, with the help of the humble turtle.

Turtle Island is an Iroquois creation story.  It tells how a great tree was uprooted in the Sky World, and describes what followed when a pregnant woman fell through the hole.  (The story is posted in an exhibit at the ROM, and I have reproduced the text at the end of this post.)

Like many other creation stories, this one suggests that human beings were created from the outside, by centripetal forces.  The human spirit does not arise out of a natural process, but only arrives when the ground has been prepared, so to speak.  It is interesting to compare this with our modern scientific conception – that human beings evolve from inside nature, in a centrifugal process.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the proposed space for the ROM’s new Dawn Of Life Gallery is directly above tbe Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples.  Lots of opportunities for dialogue and new insights!

Iroquois Creation Story (in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples)

Countless generations ago there existed beings who inhabited the Sky World. One day a great tree was uprooted in this world, creating a hole through which a pregnant woman fell. As she fell, the woman’s descent was broken by a flock of water fowl, who then placed her on the back of a great sea turtle. The water animals retrieved some earth from the bottom of the sea and placed it on the turtle’s back. As the woman walked about, the earth began to grow, forming Turtle Island.

In time the woman gave birth to a daughter. When the daughter reached womanhood, a spirit placed two arrows across her abdomen and she became pregnant with twins. The mother died during childbirth, and the twins argued incessantly as they grew to be young men. One twin created things of beauty, while the other twin created mischief. Eventually the twins fought, and the victorious brother turned to a final task. He formed a figure from the earth and gave it life. This being was the first of our people. – Iroquois Creation Story, posted at the ROM


Figuring Out How To Survive

ROM Survival PostThus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This passage from Charles Darwin is featured prominently in the Dawn Of Life Preview Gallery.  Elsewhere, I found this elegant phrase by ROM Senior Curator Jean-Bernard Caron:

Anomalocaris and similar hunters would have played a key role in this initial evolutionary arms race, with prey evolving protective structures in response to predatory threats.

It would be fun to circulate these passages to a group of English literature students, and ask them to analyze the writing style and use of metaphor.  Some very rich possibilities here – but I digress.

Again, my question is, who AM i, and where do i COME from?  I know that I have lots of predatory and defensive resources, but does that define me?  I don’t think so.  Could it be that these verbs – AM, COME – have a different source?  Jus’ thinkin’…


A Forebear Of Mine?


Reconstruction of Hallucigenia, ROM Collection

When we speak of genealogy, we are usually thinking of parents and grandparents, and perhaps we also feel a mysterious connection to tales about our ancestors in more  ancient times.  It’s not an exact science, but we can begin to see that many of our  traits and behaviours are inherited, and not unique to us.

The Dawn Of Life Preview Exhibit at the ROM gives us the opportunity to see a 500-million-year horizon – a mind-boggling exploration! Suddenly, our genealogy project seems very daunting.  What do these strange, wriggly things have to do with us???

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:  Biologists tell us that the first living organisms appeared on the Earth about four billion years ago and began to evolve very slowly.  Organisms normally inherited their physical characteristics from their parents, but when mutations occurred, new characteristics, and ultimately new species, arose.  At a certain point (we can’t say exactly when,) organisms appeared that contained all the basic genetic material found in organisms today.  In other words, all living things can be traced back to a single lifeform – to a universal common ancestor (UCA).  

Biologists consider the “gene” to be the molecular unit of heredity. They describe a genetic “code,” or set of rules, that govern biological evolution.  They classify and organize all lifeforms in a hierarchical chart, based on differences in their genetic code.  When life is modeled in this way, it creates a branching, tree-like pattern called a phylogeny. The UCA is at the root of the tree, and all the current species are like leaves on the tips of branches.

A Poster in the Biodiversity Gallery provides a good summary:

This [phylogenic] tree depicts major life forms, based on their evolutionary relationships.  The earliest life forms lived four billion years ago.  If each species living today were represented by a leaf, there would be more than two million leaves.  Only one would represent humans.

Hmmm…This line of thought is a helpful foundation perhaps, but does it really explain who we ARE, and where we  COME from?  I think I need to work with this a bit more…

(Thanks to Michael Foisey for his helpful comments on my original text.)


Bends In The Timescale


The World According To Sempé – Cover image

I have always taken more interest in cultural themes and steered away from science.  However, it strikes me that culture so easily separates people, while science can connect people, regardless of their personal or professional background.  For this reason, I have been making regular visits to the ROM’s Life Galleries, and have started to write about my experiences.  

The first concept I needed to come to terms with was the geological time scale (GTS).  Here is the Wikipedia definition:

The geological time scale is a system of chronological dating that relates geological strata (stratigraphy) to time, and is used by geologists, paleontologists, and other Earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships of events that have occurred during Earth’s history.

The length of the GTS is calculated with remarkable precision: 4.543 billion “years.” Scientists know that the GTS is a useful abstraction – not an absolute accounting.  (After all, the “earth-year” is a relative term, and even if it had an absolute value, we could never prove that this value was a constant over billions of years.)  Although this device is useful for scientists, it does not preclude the use of alternative devices. Consider, for instance, the poetry of William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

Imagine the effect of posting this poem alongside the GTS at the opening of an exhibit. Perhaps this would be seen as unscientific. In practice, however, I think it would stimulate a much higher level of engagement.  No longer a finished concept, the GTS becomes a structure for further inquiry and exploration.

The Dawn of Life Preview Gallery is a great place to practice.  It contains many stunning specimens, models and 3D animations of lifeforms from the Burgess Shale – truly inspiring!  And I can grasp conceptually how today’s lifeforms (including my own!) are directly related to these ancient creatures.  It becomes a more visceral experience when I contemplate the statement:  ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  I suddenly realize that my own organism went through the same embryonic phases as did these creatures:  the past is present!

The geological time scale is a very useful tool, but it does not tell the whole story.


The brooding Waptia (above left) is one of the fascinating specimens in the Dawn of Life Preview Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum.  I have been visiting this gallery regularly since it opened, and highly recommend it.  It is a staggering experience to see physical evidence of a brooding mother existing half a billion years ago.

In order to deepen my understanding of this topic, I have been studying alternative storylines about the origin of  life, many of which can be found in other galleries at the ROM itself.  (In fact, the central mission of the ROM is demonstrating the linkages between Nature and Culture.)  So I was really happy to hear about the Spirit Dreaming event with the Talisker Players. (See image, above right) This program features artistic renderings of creation myths,  inspired by indigenous people from around the world.  I plan to attend on Wednesday evening – maybe I’ll see you there!

To conclude this post, here are quotes from the scientist Neil Turok, and the artist William Blake:

The size of the living cell is the geometric mean of these two fundamental lengths: Planck and Hubble.  This is the scale of life, the realm we inhabit, and is the scale of maximum complexity in the universe.
– Neil Turok

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Infinity in an hour…
– William Blake, 
Opening lines from Auguries of Innocence