Where We Stand
By Aidan Ring
Gifts from the Natural Word | This edition’s research contribution explores humanity’s relationship with rock, the substance from which most of the planet is made. It was written by Aidan Ring. Aidan is our interim newsletter co-ordinator and a much valued eeai volunteer.
‘Why are we here? Where do we come from? These are the most enduring of questions’ intones Professor Brian Cox at the beginning of an episode of Wonders of the Universe, one of my favourite documentaries of all time (Wonders of the Universe, 2011). Such questions have dominated the human experience for all of human history; as we gaze up at the stars, we cannot help but wonder at them and wonder about them. This insatiable curiosity has manifested itself in reams of literature and whole disciplines like Cosmology and Astrophysics. However, before you can look up at the night sky, you have to be standing somewhere. Indeed, the question of why we are here presupposes a knowledge of where, and what, is meant by ‘here’ and how it is possible for any of us to be here at all. To those of you who are quick to point out that we are on Planet Earth, I ask what is Planet Earth? What I want to explore are the most basic physical features of this beautiful planet we call home, how these features support us in every sense of the word and, most crucially, how it relates to our story.
When you strip everything back, in its most basic form this planet is a massive sphere of rock, 8 billion years old and 1 trillion cubic kilometres in volume. The Earth is a terrestrial planet, meaning that rock is its primary constituent material. Moreover, it is this rock which has given us life. As such, examining its inner workings offers us vital clues to the Earth’s history and how we came to be. Geologists know more about this than anybody else. The story is written in the rocks. In places where they are visible, looking through the Earth’s strata is like entering a time machine. Massive craters in the Earth’s surface hint at vastly different realities that previously beset our planet. Deposits of different minerals in the strata of the rock at different times tell us all kinds of things about Earth’s history.
Slightly more anthropocentric are archaeologists. These are the people whose job it is to unearth artefacts, soil samples and other evidence of human activity from past aeons. In the annals of Archaeology and Anthropology, there is perhaps no discovery more exciting and thought-provoking than the range of drawings done by our ancient ancestors on cave walls. Today, we have discovered such cave drawings in every continent except Antarctica, making them a global meme which united thousands of our ancestors over time and space in a common pursuit, even if they did not know it (Ehrenreich, 2019). Such drawings have much to tell us. For one thing, we humans have, historically, not been anywhere near the top of the food chain. They also speak to us of the ingenuity and cooperation these people displayed; it took wooden scaffolding to reach cave ceilings and complex chemistry to create the ochre used to paint them. These images also, more than anything else, help us to relate to our ancient ancestors by offering a window into their psyche. They were also artists and they too wished to leave a mark and be remembered.
Yet a particularly interesting feature of many of these paintings is the absence of human faces. The absence of faces was not due to lack of skill; many animals are represented in astonishing detail. However, humans take a definite secondary role in the stories written on these cave walls, being shown as small, weak, faceless silhouettes. It seems that the artists simply did not find it as important to depict themselves or their faces as they found it to depict the world around them. This thinking stands in stark contrast to the endemic narcissism that pervades modern society with the age of social media, selfies and constant advertising which exploits people’s insecurities. Halpern, Valenzuela & Katz (2016) have identified a self-reinforcing cycle to this whereby narcissist individuals take ‘selfies’ (photographs of oneself) and post them on social media more frequently over time. Simultaneously, an increase in selfie production raises subsequent levels of narcissism. It seems that our ancestors did not take themselves nearly that seriously and so avoided putting an emphasis on the human face as they, perhaps, had a better understanding of their relative significance than many of us. They knew that they occupied a place no higher than the middle rung on their food chain. As Ehrenreich (2019) asserts, ‘They knew they were meat, and they also seemed to know that they knew they were meat – meat that could think. And that, if you think about it long enough, is almost funny.’
For information about people from eras predating recorded history, we depend almost entirely on archaeological discoveries of buried artefacts and of signs of human settlement to fill in the gaps. The stories buried underground, if one cares to look, inform us about our past habits, the areas we congregated, the patterns of migration that shaped our past and, by extension, our present. The specific items themselves provide information about what era of history they came from and, thus, how advanced humans were at those times. The Stone Age lasted about 3.4 million years, ending only around 4,000BC. During it, we used the rock of the Earth itself to make rudimentary tools, such as weapons, pottery and stone slabs for cooking on known as quern-stones. However, our relationship with rocks extended beyond the purely practical. Megalithic monuments (famous examples of which include Stonehenge and Newgrange) played a key part in cultural and religious rituals by honouring the dead, marking sacred sights and representing myths and legends. There are many examples of megaliths being carved with patterns, being moulded into anthropomorphic shapes and of the use of rocks of different geographical origins in the same sight (Scarre, 2009). This all indicates the intention of marking the significance of these places… and of these rocks.
In other cultures, pre-existing rock formations are woven into a narrative of mythology. For example, the stones that litter the countryside of central Madagascar are, according to local lore, the remnants of an ancient battle between the Earth and the sky (Kus & Raharijoana, 1998). Special attention is paid to these rocks, their forms and colours. In modern times, rock is still just as inspiring as ever. Jagged mountain peaks, gnarled coastal cliffs and even the plethora of brightly coloured rocks on beaches and riverbeds the world over have inspired artists, explorers and scientists of all kinds. After visiting the renowned Altamira cave before being routed from Spain in 1934, Pablo Picasso was alleged to have said that ‘Beyond Altamira, all is decadence.’ Human beings have always related to rock in some way, a relationship which was sometimes subtle but always powerful. It is no wonder, then, that this relationship provokes our imaginations so fiercely, making the inanimate become animate and helping rocks to become symbolically charged. Why else would human beings build monuments by dragging enormous rocks weighing over 2o tonnes across hundreds of miles or risk their lives summiting the highest mountains on Earth?
In modern times, while we may not recognise it, we are still completely dependent upon the rock of the Earth for, literally, every physical thing we use, eat or consume in any way. We use concrete in the creation of everything from roads to buildings, we inhabit cities which could not exist without the chemicals extracted from the Earth used in the making of cement. Pencils for writing and communicating are made of graphite which is a naturally occurring form of carbon. We use diamonds to tip drills for a range of purposes from dentistry to construction.
Even more fundamentally, around 25% of the Earth’s land mass is covered in soil which we rely on for all of our food. Without soil, we would not exist and neither would any of the other plants and animals of the ecosystems in which we evolved and on which we still depend. Soil is generated by the erosion of rock particles over time and its interaction with the hydrological cycle. This is another of the gifts which is bestowed upon us by the floating mass of rock we live on, no strings attached. There are some ecosystems which can thrive without sunlight or fresh water such as sulfuric acid caves and deep sea hydrothermal vents. However, there is not a single species of plant or animal whose lives would be possible without rock. Indeed, there are some species of bacteria, algae and funghi, known as Endoliths, which actually inhabit rocks and feed by extracting minerals from them.
Venturing even deeper into the intrinsic value of our home, we note that human beings have been able to evolve here only under very specific physical parameters; a rock of the Earth’s particular mass and density produces a gravitational strength of 1G at the Earth’s surface. Where we stand is on this rock. The only reason we can is because this rock produces gravity of the perfect strength for us to survive and thrive. Gravity keeps us bound to our home and stops us from drifting off into the unknown. It has been such an integral feature of our reality for such a long time that, humans have even developed a specialised sensory capacity for perceiving gravity, known as Somatic Graviception (Mittelstaedt, 1996). This sensory capacity involves the mixing of input from multiple organs including the eyes, the spine, the muscles and the fluid in our joints. In fact, gravity is such a strong and fully immersive aspect of the human experience that our bodies and brains have become entirely dependent on it for a vast range of physiological abilities ranging from time and space related judgments to body orientation and motor movements (Jörges and López-Moliner, 2017). And it’s all because of the ground beneath us. It has only been within the past 100 years that we have managed to move beyond the bounds of gravity and out into our solar system. But even in space, astronauts adapt very slowly to gravitational differences and experience measurable changes in cognition. And we still need a launchpad.
The Earth is that launchpad, not just for our spacecraft but also for our dreams and ambitions. It has given us all of the material we need to build spacecrafts and has kept our species alive long enough to develop the intelligence and imagination necessary to venture into outer space. And seen from the outside, this rock effects us in a different way. The Overview Effect is the term given to the cognitive shift reported by many astronauts when they have looked back upon this rock from space. The experience is characterised by feelings of awe, transcendence and deep identification with the human race in its entirety as well as its fragility (Yaden et al., 2016). Astronauts, unlike our early cave-drawing human ancestors, can perceive how delicate and isolated this one glorious rock is and are humbled by that. However, like our cave-dwelling ancestors, they are gifted a sense of place and relative significance within their particular circumstances. Both parties share the experience, on vastly different scales, of seeing the Earth for what it is, inside and out, in all of its stark, sublime beauty; a rock.
The Earth is teeming with life, full of vibrant biodiversity and impossibly complex relationships but it is also fragile and totally unique. Cosmologically speaking, a habitable planet which supports intelligent life is rarer than a diamond in the ground and biologically speaking, it is more precious than all of the diamonds in the world together. Whether you’re a rock-climber or a geologist, or simply a gardener or a hiker, get out there and lay your hands upon this rock and feel the connection to the billions of square kilometres of rock that make it up. Simply the act of doing so is something many people rarely do but this rock, regardless of whether it is buried under a layer of concrete or is obscured by smog, is silently, constantly, holding us all. There is something very beautiful about the way that it interacts with us, simultaneously holding us up to gaze at the universe while also gently keeping us from drifting upwards to be swallowed by it. It supports us all, every living thing. It is the only thing that ever has and, for everything living on Earth today, is the only thing that ever will.
Ehrenreich, B. (2019). The Humanoid Stain. The Baffler Magazine, [online] (No. 48). Available at: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-humanoid-stain-ehrenreich [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].
Halpern, D., Valenzuela, S. and Katz, J. (2016). “Selfie-ists” or “Narci-selfiers”?: A cross-lagged panel analysis of selfie taking and narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 97, pp.98-101.
Jörges, B. and López-Moliner, J. (2017). Gravity as a Strong Prior: Implications for Perception and Action. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11.
Kus, S. and Raharijaona, V. (1998). Between Earth and Sky There Are Only a Few Large Boulders: Sovereignty and Monumentality in Central Madagascar. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 17(1), pp.53-79.
Scarre, C. (2009). Stones with character : animism, agency and megalithic monuments., in Materialitas: working stone, carving identity. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 9-18.
Wonders of the Universe. (2011). [film] Directed by C. Holt, S. Cooter and M. Lachmann. United Kingdom: BBC.
Yaden, D., Iwry, J., Slack, K., Eichstaedt, J., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G. and Newberg, A. (2016). The overview effect: Awe and self-transcendent experience in space flight. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3(1), pp.1-11.