Eyeless in Gondwanaland

Physicists are agog at the realization that we are able to see only 2% of the matter in the universe. That is not news, this business of not seeing what is around us. Just off the coast of New Zealand is the Kermadec Trench. That trench is 32,962 feet deep. It is as deep as the planes flying here are high. New Zealand lies at the top of the trench.

When we walk down Queen Street in Auckland, we are walking atop one of the world's tallest mountains. Our own stunted perspectives hide that startling fact. We are tuned by evolution to only a tiny portion of what is going on around us, like a radio that can only listen to one station.

Take Gondwanaland, the supercontinent from which most of today’s southern hemisphere descended. It formed over 500 million years ago. Over time it split up into chunks. A mere 80 millions years ago one of those chunks began its slow trek southwestward to what we now call New Zealand. Today it is traveling north again—at the phenomenal rate of an inch and a half a year. The Polynesian triangle is disappearing. Momentarily—at least in geological time—the triangle will be reduced to a straight line. All this frenetic geological activity is lost to us. Our perspectives are simply too limited.

Here is something else we cannot see. The average height of land throughout the world is 2,854 feet compared with the average depth of the sea, which is 7,273 feet. (I am indebted to Melanie Stiassny, Curator of Fish at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for opening my eyes to this startling fact.) By rights the earthen world is roughly 5,000 feet below the level of the sea world. Earth should be called Water, though given the present level of human interaction perhaps Fire is a better name than either.

It is astonishing to think that pushed back in time all the landmasses of the southern hemisphere would fit together like the pieces of a picture puzzle where the picture is Gondwanaland, the ancient mother that spawned them—South America, Africa, India, Australia, Antarctica and among the smallest of them, New Zealand.

We owe that vision to Alfred Wegener, the man who first propounded the notion of continental drift in 1915. His views were held to be absurd by the mainly North American geologists of the time. He couldn’t come up with a plausible engine to push the continents around. His visionary theory died aborning and wasn't resurrected until twenty years after his death. Being right is often not good enough. All you had to do was look at South America and Africa to see that, save for an intervening ocean, the continents were spooning one another.

Why didn’t his colleagues rally around him? Why didn’t they try to prove he was right instead of doing their level best to prove him wrong? There is always a vested interest in the status quo even in science. It enables those with power to stay in power. But it is also partly due to humankind’s reluctance to change. For some reason change threatens us. If things aren't the same tomorrow as they are today, then something is dreadfully amiss. Entrepreneurs have made fortunes on this principle. Think of hotel chains like the Holiday Inn. They sell sameness. People buy it. The current struggle between evolution and creationism is really about that. Creationists tout a theory without change. It is comforting. Evolution, the embodiment of change, couldn’t be more threatening.

Perhaps we know we are blind to the universe we live in. Perhaps that is what has made us so cautious.

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