We really don't need a god to see the miraculous in our existence. Image credit: Ben Gilliland (with a little help from Michelangelo)
Which is the more impressive: a man who has become the CEO of a global company when, (a) His powerful dad created the company for him and installed him at the top, or, (b) he worked his way up from nothing after years of struggle? Obviously the answer is b.
So why are so many people more impressed by the idea that mankind was created by a god and installed at the head of Earth corp than the idea that we started from nothing and worked our way to where we are?
Why do we need religion to see miracles in the world around us, or to find significance in our existence? Let’s set aside the religionist creation story and examine how we really got to where we are now.
Our journey starts a little before 13.7billion years ago (that’s 13,700,000,000 years). Somewhere in the infinite void, all the future potential of the universe is bound together in an area smaller than the smallest particle. All the matter and energy that will one day form the billions of galaxies, trillions of stars and countless worlds that occupy the universe is contained in this impossibly small point.
Then (for reasons still unknown) all this potential was released in colossal woosh and the universe was born. Initially, the universe was a roiling soup of super-heated plasma but somewhere in there is the matter and energy that will eventually become you (pretty miraculous wouldn’t you say?).
The Big Bang (not the actual one obviously... it's an artist's impression). Credit: Ben Gilliland
The universe cooled as it expanded and, as it did so, the first particles coalesced from the soup. All those particles were created in two varieties: matter and, its opposite, antimatter. Matter and antimatter really don’t get along and, when they meet, they obliterate each other completely. Now, here comes the second miracle – had matter and antimatter been made in equal measure, the universe would have ended there and then – in a chain reaction of destruction. But, for reasons we still don’t understand, matter slightly outnumbered antimatter. Matter won out and the universe (and you) continued to exist.
But the universe we live in today still wasn’t a foregone conclusion. As the universe expanded and matter spread out, it could have done so evenly (like water filling the bottom of a bucket). If it had been perfectly spread, it might have remained that way forever – stars and planets would never have formed and you and I would be just a cloud of unrealised potential.
Fortunately (or miraculously) the expanding universe didn’t become perfectly even and, in regions where matter was slightly more concentrated, gravity could start pulling particles together to form clouds of matter. Eventually, there was so much matter creating so much gravity that the clouds collapsed and, among the pressure and the heat, nuclear fusion began and the first stars were born.
After a few billion years of nuclear fusion in stars creating increasingly complex particles, galaxies forming and the universe still existing, one region of a galaxy called the Milky Way was ready to witness the next miracle.
About 4.5 billion years ago, around an unremarkable star, a planet had coalesced from a swirling disk of dust and ice. To start with it wasn’t much to look at – just a searingly hot ball of molten rock and sinking metals – but by complete fluke (or some miracle) it had formed at a near-perfect distance from its star. It wasn’t so close that it would remain oven-hot forever and not so distant that it would become a large novelty icecube. Life would stand a pretty good chance on a planet like that, but it would take one more miracle for that to occur.
The next miracle arrived in a form of a Mars-sized planet, which, just few million years after the formation of Earth, decided to smash into our infant planet.
A Mars-size planet smashes into Earth. Credit: NASA
You would be forgiven for thinking it was miraculous that this most violent of events didn’t destroy the Earth there and then, but the real miracle is what happened next.
The impact threw a vast mass of rocky material into space around the planet, which (after gravity, that great organiser of chaos, had got to work) formed our Moon.
Now the great miracle is revealed. The impact that created the Moon, knocked the Earth sideways on its axis, which meant that the Sun’s energy wasn’t focused on a single region. The gravitational presence of the Moon stabilised the Earth and stopped it wobbling erratically on that axis. This stabilised the Earth’s climate and prevented violent (potentially life-extinguishing) climactic swings – such as sudden, extreme ice ages).
The Moon’s creation had, by complete fluke (or miracle), turned the Earth into a perfect creche for life. But it wasn’t done yet.
As we all know, the Moon’s gravity tugs on the planet’s oceans – creating the tides that daily massage the world’s coastlines. According one theory, it may have been this very tidal action of exposing the coast repeatedly (and regularly) to the air and then submerging beneath water that actually caused life to evolve in the first place.
Here’s one final miracle for you. Whatever the mechanism that caused their evolution, among those first single-celled lifeforms were your ancestors. For you to be sitting here reading this today, there has been a unbroken chain of existence between you and that tiny, floating forebear. For 3.8billion years, every one of your ancestors – from single cell to snuffling mammal to walking ape – has survived long enough to breed and create the next generation.
Just think how unlikely that is. Over almost four billion years of mass extinctions, predation, disasters, disease, war and famine, not one of your ancestors died prematurely.
So, which is the more miraculous: your safe passage through 13.7billion years of turbulent history, or, that the universe and you are the result of a seven-day supernatural flat-pack building binge?