Post-Platform Reflection: Claude Bernard’s “From Eternity to Here”

Claude Bernard did a beautiful job presenting the Cosmic Calendar, in which the history of the universe is imagined as a single year, and we see that humanity is so young that homo sapiens only evolved on the last day of the cosmic year. All of human culture only happened in the last few minutes of the last hour. It was wonderfully appropriate to have this Platform Address on December 31.

I love the Cosmic Calendar. I remember seeing it on the TV show Cosmos, both the original version with Carl Sagan and the recent version with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It’s of course fascinating to know the history of . . . everything, but even more, the Cosmic Calendar provides the ultimate perspective on ethical progress, or the seeming lack thereof. I referred to the calendar in my Platform Address “Bending the Arc of History Toward Justice” a few years ago as a major source of hope for humanists.

Many today are in despair at the state of ethics and politics; many fear we are going backward. I find it helpful to remember in this time of political ugliness that our ancestors literally crawled from the slime only a few “days” ago. And only a few breaths ago in cosmic time, US politics used to be far uglier! In the 1800 election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Adams’ surrogates wrote that a Jefferson victory would result in “dwellings in flames . . . female chastity violated . . . children writhing on the pike.” In the election of 1828, John Adams was publicly accused of sex-trafficking—of selling his wife’s maid to a Russian Czar. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates are now famous for being substantive, versus the sound-bite television debates of today. But they were also full of base insults: Douglas called Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman.” We don’t even understand those insults today, but they were bad. Imagine if people back then had had Twitter. The fact that so many people today are so upset by the schoolyard tweets of the current President is actually a sign of ethical evolution. The #metoo movement is overthrowing millennia of culture. We feel it’s long overdue, or about damn time, but on the cosmic timeline humanity is also still like a bunch of toddlers working out how to be together.

We can imagine ourselves living in the last milliseconds of the first year of the Cosmic Calendar. Or we can think of ourselves as beginning the first milliseconds of the second year, with another 3.8 billion years to go before the next “New Year’s Eve.” It took billions of years for life to evolve, let alone humans. It only makes sense that it’s going to take us a while to abandon ways that kept us alive for millennia but that most people now wish to leave behind, such as xenophobia and rule by violence. We are still ethically evolving. And I believe, like the expansion of the universe itself, our ethical evolution is accelerating and unstoppable.