On the subject of catastrophes, I watched Catastrophe, presented by Tony Robinson the other night. Despite the literally earth-shattering subject matter (a giant asteroid that hit the earth, resulting in the moon and life on earth) and the impressively vivid graphics there is something exceedingly boring about these programmes.

The presenters were full of gushing descriptions of the scale of what happened: one patch of fossilized something or other was (IIRC) four billion years old! Tidal waves eight miles high! (Maybe it was less than that, I dunno) And – if it wasn’t for all this, there would never have been life on earth!! OMFG!!!

Big deal. They were also talking about how generally violent the earth was way back then. But how could you have violence if there were no humans about? A wind is violent only in so far as it violates something that relates to human experience. But if there are no humans about, nothing is violent. The same applies to catastrophes. They only exist in human terms. If there are no humans around to apply the terms, there are no catastrophes.

And then they were talking about the mile high tides (or maybe mile long amino acid chains, I was falling asleep at this stage). But miles didn’t exist back then, because humans didn’t exist. I know you could argue that if humans had been there, then they would have recognised the tides as being miles high. But my point is that it is simply inconceivable for humans to have been there, because all this turbulence was a precondition for the generation of human life and by extension the concept of miles. Yeah, so maybe you can develop some sort of time machine that permits you to go back and say ‘verily, them tidal waves were miles high’. But why bother? The fact that they were miles high was of no consequence whatsoever to the people there at the time because there were no people there at the time.

I know that I’m engaging in some rather sloppy argumentation here. I guess it’s just a symptom of the fact that I find inquiry into the origins of the world so boring. So there was a load of matter around, a few million years of crash bang wallop, and then stone the crows, here comes homo sapiens. Then at some stage in the future, crash bang wallop, bye bye moustaches and angle grinders.

Part of it, I guess, is a bitterness at how many people engage in talk about the ‘sheer wonder’ of the universe and its infinite complexity. This is the sort of crack Dawkins gets up to in substitution of religion. For me, the fact that it is infinitely complex renders it uniformly boring.

Suppose the human species ends, as it probably will. No doubt worlds will continue to collide, and there will be plenty of big tidal waves about the place. Do people think about this and say ‘imagine the massive catastrophes there’s gonna be when we’re not around any more’? Of course not. The same principle of classification should apply to whatever happened before we were around.

3 Responses to “Catastrophe”

  1. 1 lolarusa November 27, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    People like to think about how many miles hight the tidal waves were and how high the speed of the wind was just for fun. It’s just interesting and entertaining to imagine ourselves there, in the distant past or the distant future, and to try to picture the scale of things.

    Guess I’m stating the obvious. But do you think it’s wrong?

  2. 2 Hugh Green November 28, 2008 at 7:56 am

    Do I think it’s wrong? Would I have written several paragraphs denouncing it if I thought it was right?

    I reserve the right not to be reasonable about this in any way. But in mitigation, it was more the cumulative effect of all the hyperbole that really got to me.

  3. 3 lolarusa December 2, 2008 at 6:00 am

    You know what’s worse than purple prose descriptions of the primordial earth? Cheesy paintings of it:

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November 2008

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