Charles Darwin and “Deep Time”

Today in London we will visit the Natural History Museum. Often called a “cathedral of nature” the museum is home to many of the specimens collected by Charles Darwin. This will be our second experience with Darwin on the trip. The first was at Westminster Abbey where he is buried.

Darwin’s work would not have been possible without a keen sense of “deep time,”an understanding of time on a multi-million year scale. Deep time is difficult for most people to grasp because it can’t be experienced directly. Functionally, the difference between a thousand and a billion years is meaningless to any individual. Yet, the difference is profound in evolutionary terms. To demonstrate, consider that a thousand seconds a just over 16 minutes. A billion seconds is over 30 years.

Darwin’s keen understanding of the ramifications of deep time coupled with his dedication and brilliant insight yielded an idea that has been the guiding principle of the life sciences ever since. In my Evolutionary Psychology course, I try to impress upon students an understanding of deep time. Modern humans have been around for only about 200,000 years. Many of the behaviors in which we engage have been shaped by evolution over this time and by the time before in our evolving ancestors.

Darwin himself saw the potential for evolutionary theory to make an impact on Psychology:
“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
― Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859

Unfortunately, it took Psychology a long time (over 200 years) to finally begin recognizing what Darwin clearly saw. Today, Evolutionary Psychology is a rapidly growing multi-disciplinary field. However, not unlike Darwin’s original ideas on evolution, it was initially met with scorn and even ridicule. As recently as 1997 Cognitive Psychologist lamented that in the Psychological Sciences

“Evolution is said to be irrelevant, sinful, or fit only for speculation over a beer at the end of the day.”
― Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997

That Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey is a bit of a surprise given how his ideas challenged the current views of the Anglican Church at the time. Darwin himself expected to be buried at St. Mary’s in Downe. However, through the efforts of Sir Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin), some members of Parliament, and the public a petition was made to the Dean of the Abbey to lay Darwin to rest at Westminster. It was immediately accepted. The simple inscription on Darwin’s grave belies his enormous contributions:

Our trip to London revolves around the theme of “Time and Space.” However, in the human experience, time and space are inexorably intertwined with knowledge, relationships, beliefs, and ideas. Our xperiences in London have brought these themes front and center for me. One can hardly visit Westminster and not consider that our time on earth is limited. Nor can one visit Stonehenge and ignore the beliefs and ideas of those who created it. Exchanging perspectives and ideas with such an interdisciplinary group of colleagues over dinner or at a pub is an experience that enriches the time that we share here and will enhance our time going forward.

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On to Greenwich

A Thames River trip today to the Royal Observatory. Time and space intertwine as we will stand on the Prime Meridian.

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Poets’ Corner

So Pam asked me yesterday if Westminster Abbey was haunted.  As far as I know, we only have one instance of a ghostly manifestation and that’s Elizabeth I who was probably peeved that she’d been buried in the same tomb with her “problematic” sister. But there are cultural hauntings. Poets’ Corner (the honored graveyard of writers in the South Transept) has been haunted by the absence of Shakespeare for over four hundred years. The poet William Basse suggested that his bones be translated from Stratford in 1622. Didn’t happen. They built a statue to the Bard in 1740 hoping to exorcize the ghost. Still, he troubled the space. When they buried the great Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, in 1779, it almost seemed as if they had buried Shakespeare himself, but the playwright’s presence persisted. And so he appears as a nocturnal spirit in a nineteenth-century piece of technology with two others (Scott and Byron) who had also been buried elsewhere.




In 1991, Laurence Olivier’s ashes were buried in the Abbey and an earlier commemorative service had suggested to Marjorie Garber that it was “as if it were the death of Shakespeare himself—only this time, much more satisfyingly with a body.” This would be the final burial in Poet’s Corner. Perhaps now the custodians of the Corner had finally laid his shade to rest . . . and yet they still hear the same question that has haunted them for so long. Where is Shakespeare?

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Sacred and Secular Space

Time alters when you are a group of eight: it takes longer to get your food at a restaurant, but waiting in line seems to take less time when you’re chatting with colleagues about things like how long it takes to wait in line and how many clocks there are in the area of Westminster Abbey (a lot). We began day one at what many might call the apex of sacred and secular London: Westminster Abbey.  If the word “secular” comes from the Latin meaning “of a time or age,” then Westminster, with its many surrounding clocks, is indeed secularity.  And its perhaps most famous interior spaces mark locations of the profane–graves of kings and queens from 1066 into the 1950’s–along with the graves of such writers and actors as Chaucer, Dickens, and Laurence Olivier.  And the cathedral charts the secularity of religion, beginning as it did as a Catholic church, then becoming Protestant with the English reformation in the sixteenth-century.  At the same time, we were reminded, once an hour, that this is a space of prayer, as an announcement came over the loudspeaker about upcoming services, while also asking all of us for a minute of prayer each hour–the first time we were asked to pray for someone we know who is in need, the second time for inner peace in a hectic world.  And yes, we spent a lot of time at the Abbey–close to three hours.

Tom gave a short lecture and tour of Westminster Abbey, which confirmed that visual evidence is not always trustworthy.  But I believe he is posting about that.

Group members noted that Westminster Abbey was cluttered.  Monica commented that it was a strong contrast to St. Peter’s in Rome, which was designed purposefully for large crowds and well thought-through spaces.  Westminster Abbey, in contrast, looks more like history = grandma’s attic, as tombs and monuments seem strewn hither and yon wherever space can be found, and you can find yourself looking at a 20th century monument right above a sixteenth-century one–probably a more accurate rendering than St. Peter’s about the way that history operates.

Space constricted in the claustrophobia of the smaller chapels finally opened up blissfully, as I exited into the less-used exit of Westminster Close.

If we never made it to the crypt of Westminster Abbey, we made it to the crypt of the nearby St. John’s church for a quite secular and lovely lunch at the Footstool restaurant to compare and contrast our experiences.



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Altered Time and Liminal Space, or upon Arriving at Heathrow Airport

As John Neuhoff’s readings for the Hales Group reminded us, our apprehension of time changes depending on our pscyhological state. Jet lag and the claustrophobic space of airlines can add to the subjectivity of time.  But, despite the usual mishaps, the flight went well (there was even leg room in Economy–but, yes, the touch screens in American Airlines are awful), and we managed the usual rats-in-a-maze experience of being swept along seemingly endless, bland, meandering  corridors of Heathrow Airport before becoming stranded at the exit, as we fruitlessly searched for the van driver who was taking us to our hotel.  Thanks to Tom’s background in linguistics, he figured out that the sign reading “Mr. Tam Frefe” was in fact an alias for “Ms. Pam Frese,” and we finally made it to the hotel, commenting on how “Frefe,” in the Middle Ages would indeed have meant “Frese.”


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What’s Future Is Prologue

The Museum of London worked poems into its displays. Two I particularly enjoyed. One argued that the present will be viewed as the past, with an emphasis on the human form. We act cognizant of the eyes from a distant future. This adds a simultaneity to time; we gaze at the past, and know that the future gazes at us.

Behavior altered by awareness of a judging future became especially evident while I sipped a coffee outside the Westminster Abbey, people watching massive crowds from all over the world. What struck me was how odd a pose for a photograph looks. The artificial gestures, held longer than is natural, do not belong in the present where they exist.

The monuments, too, act for the future. Statues adorn the graves of the abbey’s wealthiest, some in author-photo poses and profound gazes. Most, however, were in resting positions with hands in the Western mudra: clasped in prayer. Statues instantiate personhood, and while most in the abbey are the likeness of who lay below, some were of saints and angels. John and I wondered about a trend. Who do we make statues of? How does the subject matter change? In antiquity, they were idols of deities. Then efforts became busts of political figures. Walking along the streets of London, most statues are of military leaders erected after the great wars. Current work for sculptors seems to be immortalizing sports heroes in halls of fame.

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What’s Past Is Prologue

The Museum of London worked poems into its displays. Two I particularly enjoyed. One argued that the past is in every aspect of the modern world, especially in buildings. The author emphasized structures as the past shaping the present. Path dependency appears in many disciplines by highlighting how important influences on an eventual outcome can be exerted by temporally remote events, even chance elements. The effect is captured nicely by Tolstoy: “The very action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history.”

Buildings, then, are not subtle about their influence. Roman walls shaped the city of London. How appropriate it was that a Church from the eleventh century sat next to the museum, where services continue to this day. How many people has it caused to walk those streets and sit in those confines over the course of a thousand years?

So these buildings affect the society that grows around them, but as times change so must they. The iconic red telephone booths throughout London have been repurposed to wifi hotspots. The Westminster Abbey, too, has changed its role over time. Originally intended to be a royal burial house, the site has moved through royal coronations to cathedral services to tourism. But even graves are impermanent, as Tom explained, for some monuments are cut out to make room for others. This act of changing a building’s function over time led Jeremy to point out an interesting phenomenon in religious studies: spiritual tourism. The intersection of tourism and religion repurposes the underlying structure. In the Abbey, plaques commemorating the dead are side by side plaques detailing which number tourists should hit play on their audio guides.

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How To Change the Past

The Museum of London details its past, which of course included Roman origins. As the past influences us, what if we could influence the past? Suppose you could gift the ancient Romans one book; what would have the greatest impact? I expected our group to answer that question the same as I would: a precise book of science – of physics or germ theory. Instead, everyone gave answers that surprised me by how far outside this line of thinking they were. Give them the work of Aristotle, which wasn’t rediscovered by Europe until the 12th Century. Give them Ancient Cities, a book to learn historicity and the separation of myth. Give them works on political theory and the role of state and society. Imagine what would happen if you gave them a modern version of the Bible or another religious text. The greatest impact is of course a loaded question. But the variety of answers, all of which would have incredible influence, all motivated by our different disciplines, enforced the value of a variety of perspectives.

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Thinking About Our Universe

Our adventures in other times and spaces:

Our exciting trip to London and the surrounding area stems from our year long participation in a reading group sponsored by the Hales Fund established in honor of Stan Hales when he retired as our College President.  Our topic for the group last year was “Time and Space” and we began our readings with Stephen Hawking’s book A Briefer History of Time (2005).  John Lindner’s significant contributions to our reading group on the physics of space and time will be sorely missed on this adventure.

Hawking introduces his history of time with a series of questions that may be answered using our “powerful mental tools such as mathematics and the scientific method, and technological tools like computers and telescopes” (p. 4).  Our trip explores some of the questions posed by Hawking:  “[W]hat do we really know about the universe, and how do we know it?  Where did the universe come from?  Where is it going?  Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?  What is the nature of time?  Will it ever come to an end?  Can we go backward in time?” (Pp. 4 & 5).

We begin our sojourn at the Museum of London to explore how contemporary curators have envisioned London of the past.  We visit the Royal Observatory where we will stand on the Greenwich Meridian Line and visit the museum that explains one perspective on the history of time and astronomy.  We will follow Tom Pendergast to Westminster Abbey, founded in 1245, to learn about his research in his new book, Poetical Dust: Poets’ Corner and the Making of Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press).   We will explore Roman ruins in London and Bath; meet with an archaeologist who specializes in the study of the Neolithic British Isles and the archaeology of death and burial; and visit the Chiselhurst Caves, man-made spaces credited to Druids and Romans.  We will even take a Jack the Ripper tour with “Ripper Vision” a portable projector that flashes images of the past onto the buildings of the present as we wind through the back streets haunted by the infamous killer. 

And for me, the heart of our trip into other times and spaces will be our visit to Stonehenge, a prehistoric UNESCO site dating from @3,000 BC.  Hawking wrote that “[a]ncient people tried hard to understand the universe, but they hadn’t yet developed our mathematics and science” (p. 4).  I am not so sure about that, Stephen.  Or perhaps our mathematics and science are not the only tools with which we can understand our world.  Gerald Hawkins (Stonehenge Decoded 1988) first introduced me to this megalithic structure through his argument that Stonehenge was an astronomical observatory designed to predict eclipses, among other cosmic phenomena.  Burials and other henges close by have been discovered since Hawkins wrote his book.  And the continued worship by Druids at this site make it an important link between time, space, and an understanding of our cosmos. 

The trips associated with the Hales reading groups are amazing in part because of the disciplinary perspectives offered by the members of the groups who travel together.  This group of scholars traveling to London promises to teach me a great deal; new knowledge that I can bring back to share with my students and that I can weave into my own research interests.  I can’t wait!




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Off to London!

The 2017 Hales group departs for London on August 6th. You can keep up with our adventures here and also follow us on twitter for up to the minute posts @Halesgroup2017.

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