Sample Nonfiction

*All names have been changed or omitted for personal use as a portfolio sample

 

Imagine yourself, for a moment, in the vast emptiness of space, witness to the beginning. Which beginning, you might ask? For even with our advanced understanding, we have relatively little in the way of a definitive answer as to how the universe was formed, how our planet was formed, and how our ancient human ancestors came to reside here. Step back into the vision for a moment. The universe around you is swarming with nothingness. Imagine yourself falling inward. Now you can see that there is something in the nothingness. As you hurtle through space, you see infinite galaxies spreading away into infinite distances. Zoom closer and, suddenly, order is brought to the chaos. Swirling masses in each galaxy orbit their own central object. Now, you are swept into one of these countless galaxies. You speed through the swirling masses and find that they are perfect orbs, orbiting in a perfectly synchronized pattern. Pick one of these orbs, the one that looks most familiar to you, and come closer. Narrow your focus on the atmosphere of Earth and penetrate the outer layers, watch as the vast expanses of ocean, desert, and tropics unfold before you. Although you started this journey in the depths of a fathomless universe, now you see the expanse before you as almost too vast to comprehend. Speed forward, see that organisms walk the earth; observe the cities, villages, and empires they have constructed. Where did it all come from? How did it get here? You were not here to see it happen. You came into the picture after the fact. Was the universe, the planet, the people that walk upon it caused by some divinely orchestrated event? Or was it chance that brought us here?

            You, no doubt, have your own conviction about how the formation of the earth transpired. But most likely, you prescribe to one of two schools of thought: you bow either to science or religion. As human knowledge has evolved, so has scientific understanding of the world. As our body of scientific knowledge has grown, the chasm between religious belief and scientific pursuit has grown ever wider. We can see this evidenced in our everyday lives. One generally either believes in creationism or evolution. Rarely have the two schools of thought joined forces to try to answer life’s most perplexing mysteries.

            According to recent Gallup polls, 46% of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. According to these “young earth” creationists, God quite literally formed the earth and populated it with life in a matter of six days. Numerous attempts to reach the date of creation using the Genesis genealogies for reference, have pinned the creation of mankind to a point in time 6,000 years ago. Science, however, through advances in paleoanthropological, paleontological, archaeological, genealogical, and migration studies, has shown us that it is no longer reasonable to accept this “young earth” creationism as fact. Science has placed the earth’s formation at 4.5 billion B.C., with the earliest known hominid fossils, found in Aramis, Ethiopia, dating back to 4.4 million B.C. Science shows us how, over millions of years, these early hominids evolved into many species of early humans who then migrated, interacted, and bred with one another until a single species evolved to create you and I. Religion has taught us that the earth was a void, a wasteland, before God created man. Yet science has uncovered proof that dinosaurs roamed the earth long before men did, and has given us evidence that life in the form of microorganisms existed even farther back.

How then, does one reconcile the bible’s teachings with modern scientific understanding? The problem is not in the Bible itself but in religious teaching that perpetuates the myth that human beings have been on this earth less than 6,000 years and, even then, only in concentrated areas upon the earth. The Bible mainly describes civilized life in the early Middle East and Asia Minor. However, science teaches us that there were people in other parts of the world long before Jesus’ time, and that they were advanced enough to conquer their environments, create settlements, and produce art.

             All of this life clearly occurred long before the young earth creationists believe it did. So, who do we believe? Scientific evidence has prompted theologians to revise their interpretation of the Bible and reconstruct their arguments in favor of that text. Now, much evidence exists to suggest that the young earth creationists have based their teachings on a literal and possibly inaccurate interpretation of the bible. Yet it will likely be a long time before these reinterpretations translate into a form of religious teaching that integrates science and religion in a way that both enlightens and informs. What we can learn from this is that there are too many variables in the possible translations of the Bible to make it a cohesive source for dating the formation of the earth and the origin of human life.

            Now, let’s explore one of the other major inconsistencies that religion teaches us. In Sunday school, you were taught about the existence of a heavenly place undercut with depravity: Eden. You were taught about the migration of Abraham and his offspring through Israel and Egypt. If you were to spin the globe, and put out your finger at random to stop its spin, chances are you would not be pointing to a place where any biblical events took place. The events of the Bible almost exclusively take place on a very small portion of this great earth. While the events of the bible were being enacted in those regions, do you imagine that there was nothing occurring on the wide lands of the rest of Earth’s continents? If so, you have been taught a form of young earth creationism. Science has taught us that, 6,000 years ago, mankind was fully engaged in building complex civilizations. Earth’s vast oceans were teeming with irrepressible life. Yet the bible teaches us a form of exclusionary thought that proves detrimental to a cohesive understanding of how humanity actually formed and thrived on this planet.

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            Let us go now to the Gona River in East Africa, where, in 1992, a team of archaeologists from Rutgers University cut three excavation sites into the rich earth beside the long scar of the Gona River. Led by Sileshi Semaw and John W. Harris, the team excavated for over two years before they unearthed a find that would shatter all previous records indicating when our ancient human ancestors began using tools. During their dig, the archaeologists toiling there, under the hot African sun, came upon a layer of volcanic ash. They continued to mine through this strata until they came across several sharp stone flakes preserved beneath it. They also found corresponding stones that bore gouges from where the ancient stone flakes had been repeatedly hammered, indicating that these shards were, in fact, a primitive form of tools.

            Being present for these discoveries, it is easy to put yourself in the place and time when the tools themselves were created. You can almost see the group of early hominids, with prominent brows and thick bones, likely sitting beside a flowing river where it divided their lush landscape. The group, walking on two feet, stayed close to the river, which provided an accessible food source. They traversed its shores. As long as the river was present, they had a source of life as sure as the blood that flowed through their veins. This was a monumental time in human evolution, however, for this group—and others like them, over thousands of years—had developed the ability to recognize that they could manipulate their environment in order to survive. They sat down, gathered rocks and—in a heretofore unrealized leap of human thought and imagination—chipped methodically away at those rocks to break off sharp fragments that they could then use in other ways. Perhaps they only used them to create divots in other materials. Perhaps they didn’t yet realize the significance of what they held in their hands. They didn’t use these tools to kill their food or create intricate artwork in stones. They had not gotten so far as that. But they did demonstrate a capability that would continue to evolve over subsequent generations. And when it came time for these tool-makers to relinquish themselves to the earth once more, they left evidence of this great accomplishment behind them.   

            Subsequent scientific dating of the volcanic ash found above these unearthed tools were able to trace that layer back to just under 2.5 million years ago. The strata underneath the tools was dated at 2.6 million years ago, meaning that these ancient tools, at approximately 2.5 million years old, were the oldest ever discovered and presumed used by early hominid species. Hominids are considered the first branch of the human species after the human species broke away from the chimpanzee species. These tools were called Oldowan, named for the site where similar tools were discovered in the 1930’s. Similar Oldowan tools have since been discovered in other areas of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya.

The site of the first discovery of Oldowan tools was the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, some twenty-five years earlier. Although the tools in the Gona River region are the oldest examples on record, those found in the Olduvai Gorge by Louis and Mary Leakey had the added significance of being discovered in correlation with early hominid fossils, providing us with a link between the tribe who used the tool and the tool itself.  With paleoanthropology being a sub-discipline of anthropology that focuses mainly on human origins, the Leakey’s paleoanthropological discovery was significant as well for giving us the oldest known hominid fossil at that time.

The discovery happened in this way. Louis Leakey was ill with a headache and fever that was on the verge of threatening the entire expedition. Mary Leakey, his wife, was prepared to vacate the site with her husband if he did not rest and recover. As he rested, Mary returned to the excavation site in the Olduvai Gorge. Similar to the dry riverbed of the Gona River, the Olduvai Gorge site was once the location of a prehistoric lake. In the absence of water, the walls of the gorge revealed layer upon layer of ancient strata, rich in archaeological and paleoanthropological significance. Still, Mary was unprepared for what she would find that day. What she found were the fossilized parts of a hominid skeleton. In the days that followed, Louis recovered from his illness and the additional pieces of the puzzle were put together. The skull that the Leakey’s had pieced together turned out to belong to a hominid species heretofore undiscovered. Utilizing archaeological dating techniques, the Leakey’s estimated that this early hominid lived 1.75 million years ago.  

Since the Leakey’s landmark discovery, science has given us newer—and older—evidence of human life. Before our tool-making ancestors ever walked the river that would come to be known as the Gona, our species split from the chimpanzee species. The earliest hominids have been traced back to this time. One of the things that make us distinctly human is the ability to walk on two feet. In the wilds of the ancient African continent, a creature roamed the earth who would come to be known, millions of years later, as Ardi. Ardi climbed trees using her arms and legs. She spent time in the trees, searching for food. Perhaps she would sleep there, among others of her kind. There was forest all around, and much to explore. Just as easily as Ardi made her way up the tree, she would make her way down. But, once there, she did something that none of her earlier ancestors had ever done before. She and her kind walked on two feet. She used her hands not as a function of locomotion, but as a discovery tool. She would grab at the leaves, pick up rocks, and manipulate her food as she ate, never knowing that her lush home would someday become a desert, or that her remains, once consigned to the earth, would not remain there forever.

“Ardi,” the fond nickname for Ardipithecus ramidus, was discovered in the Afar desert of Ethiopia, not far from where “Lucy” was discovered in 1974. Lucy, at 3.2 million years of age, was the oldest known fossil of what was then believed to be the first species of hominid that walked on two feet. Lucy was a descendant, it turns out, of the same species that Ardi came from, and lived in much the same way that Ardi did, with the exception that she spent less time in the trees and more time on the ground. At the same time that Lucy was discovered, Mary Leaky came into the picture again, discovering a set of hominid footprints perfectly preserved in ash in Laetoli, Tanzania, just south of the Olduvai Gorge. This meant that another of Ardi’s descendants went for a walk one day, across the prehistoric landscape—where one day his own descendants would sit chipping away at rocks to create primitive tools—never realizing that the imprint of his footsteps would remain long after he and so many thousands of generations of his species, had ceased to exist. The footprints were dated to 3.6 million years ago. Lucy and the Laetoli footprints taught us that the evolutionary shift to walking on two feet occurred long before the hominid species underwent an increase in brain size that allowed for the creation of tools. Ardi taught us that bipedalism actually occurred as far back as 4.4 million years ago.

While these monumental discoveries were being made, the rest of the world was still in church, absorbing the information that nothing but a universal void existed before Adam. Yet here we have clearly established that human life began on this planet at least 4.4 million years ago. This does not even take into account the fact that life thrived on our planet long before the evolution of humanity. Dinosaurs lived for 135 million years before they became extinct 66 million years ago. Life is by no means a spontaneous or singular occurrence on our planet. A fossil record indicates that life in the form of microorganisms existed 2.7 billion years ago, and possibly as many as 3.5 billion years ago.