A quick talk through the eons

Discussing evolution past the point of exhaustion.

Peter Warland

No dinosaur nor trilobite was hurt, damaged or even disturbed during the writing of this column.

My neighbour, Jeff, caught me napping on the lawn the other day. I wasn’t supposed to be standing there napping; I was supposed to be getting indoors, dumping my day-pack and getting out of my boots, but I must have switched off. Jeff had been recounting in detail the story of his recent stay in the U.S.A. and I must have lost interest in the day.

We happy-go-lucky and daft old men who think that they can still climb mountains are prone to drifting off but, eventually, I’d slipped indoors and, discarding all the gear in a heap, had just examined my poor, battered old feet when the front door bell rang. Muttering obscenities, I crawled upstairs and there was Aldous, the neighbour from across the way. He wanted me to explain all about the theory of evolution. I rubbed my weary eyes and said, “You want the short version or the full lecture.”

Refreshing myself from the fridge, I waded into battle. “It’s not a theory, Al,” I explained, collapsing on to the lower stair, “It’s a fact; it really happened and still is.” I was wondering what a shower and an early night would feel like.

“Bet you sprayed your lawn with weed-killer, right? Bet you didn’t get all the dandelions. The ones that didn’t die were already immune to the weed-killer so they survived and will produce seeds that will also grow into plants that that are immune. That’s evolution for you.”

I could see that Aldous was tiring but I didn’t offer him a seat. My legs were starting to stiffen up.

“But what about the dinosaurs?” said Aldous. “Aren’t we descended from them?”

Here we go, I thought, wondering if I might actually die and become extinct myself, right there on the lower stairs.

“Okay! Bet the wife tries to keep the kitchen counters clean, using some disinfectant. Well, it doesn’t work, see. Some of the bugs are already immune to the stuff and they’ll go on raising families of bugs that are immune and take over the place.”

Aldous didn’t believe any old bug could beat his wife when it came to competing in the kitchen, but he was tiring, just the way my students did in days of yore. “What about Adam and Eve?” he asked, coming back to life.

“All people, all over the world have stories their ancestors made up about how humans came into being, Al. The Old Testament is just one version. But life on this earth of ours began millions of years ago and started with some water, some sunlight and an algae-like life starting and spreading.”

But my neighbour was anxious to get on to the dinosaur bit. He’d apparently seen all three Jurassic Park films.

“Some of those early life-forms survived but most of them became extinct. That seems to be one of the rules of nature: extinction; survival is rare.” I could feel myself becoming extinct right there.

“D’you know that kangaroos are left-handed?” said Al suddenly, trying to stay one up on me. “I seen that on TV.”

“They live in the southern hemisphere,” I improvised, “Everything’s left-handed down there and, besides, they never made it to Noah’s Ark.” I heaved myself to my feet and edged towards the door, backing up Aldous. “Anyway, if you dig down through layers of sedimentary rock you’ll find the fossils of extinct creatures and, the deeper you go, the older they’ll be. Millions of years old, most of them.”

“You reckon I’ve got Tyrannosaurus Rex in my yard? My cousin over in Alberta found one. His wife reckoned it was the bones of their old dog, but he’s pretty excited,” said Al.

“One of them’ll probably end up in that fancy Royal Tyrrell museum,” I said, then closed the front door firmly.

To almost quote a vaguely familiar adage: Immediately you are born you begin to die; explaining evolution to your neighbour when you are pooped accelerates the process exponentially.