Gee Whiz–and more

27 Mar


Every so often, I get hit hard by the Gee Whiz. What’s the Gee Whiz? It’s some awareness that the world around me simply defies my understanding, blows apart my previous ways looking at things. In a piece of current slang, we say “It blows my mind!” Blows out some older ways of seeing things and blows in the new. Blowing one’s mind is a pretty violent image–it has to be. That slang is used so often, however, that it’s old hat; the blowing is no longer explosive dynamite, but more a gentle breeze. The name of my blog puts it another way: lift the screen to see what I may not have seen before.

Two mind-blowing items came together for me in the past weeks, in conversation and emailing with friends. Thanks to God, I have some pretty terrific conversation partners. It was with them–not from TV or in scholarly tomes–that our talk ranged into mind-blowing realms.

Number One–Interstellar. Seldom has there been so much in the news about the discovery of new planets, some of it stemming from the space probe Kepler. With the discovery of planets, there come careful studies of the factors that would allow life to flourish. Millions of these new planets in our universe seem to have shown up in recent probes. A new field of science–astrobiology–is emerging in response to these discoveries. Many questions arise, demanding attention: Is there actually life on any of these planets? Is it intelligent life? Is it sentient life? Sentience is a hot word these days. It goes beyond intelligence, including awareness of oneself as an individual with a past and a future, as well as the ability to behave as such a person. The decades ahead will unfold answers to these questions.

These are not new thoughts or questions. They are “Star Trek” ideas, circulating for millennia– in some respects these are shadowy areas; we wonder whether creatures on other planets would be like us and whether we can communicate with them. For those of us who believe in God, “What does God have in mind for these other worlds?” “What does it all have to do with us?”

Old or new, the idea of other worlds among the billions of stars in our universe stretches–even blows–our minds.

Number Two–Interspecies. For a year or more, the research of Svante Paabo (at Germany’s Max Planck Institute) on the genetic intermixing of Neanderthals and Modern Humans (sometimes called Cro-Magnon) has captured headlines. DNA taken from bones found in a Siberian cave indicates such intermixing. It is estimated that perhaps five per cent of the human genome of non-Africans is Neanderthal. That is the equivalent of having a Neanderthal as a great-great-great grandparent.

A bit of pre-history is in order here. Neanderthals arrived in Asia and Europe about 150,000 years earlier than Modern Humans, who migrated from Africa. Paabo’s hypothesis is that about 50,000 years ago, a group of moderns left Africa and interbred with Neanderthals in the Middle East. Since they had lived in the area, a significantly longer time, Neanderthals were more fully adapted to their environment than the Moderns, including their immune systems that were adapted to resist disease. One of the most significant aspects of our intermixing is that the five percent DNA we share with Neanderthals includes immune system material–very important material that definitely could make pre-historical moderns more viable than we otherwise would have been.

In other words, what we inherited from the Neanderthals is fundamental to our continued existence up to this moment.

My initial response to all this was “Gee whiz!” But there is more to it–it prods us to deeper reflection. First all, all of this is about us, about who we are as human beings, about who we are as children of God. We are part of the life that may also exist on hundreds of other planets; the nurturing of our species that brought us to where we are today includes sharing the very Iife-stuff of species that came before us–including Neanderthals.

These reflections raise the question, “Who Am I?”, from quite a different angle than I did in my blog with that title a month ago. For me, they add immeasurable mystery to the human story. And since I believe that God created me, that mystery is deepened–Why did God do it this way? Why life on hundreds of planets–how are they all connected?Why through our evolutionary companions, the Neanderthals–and many other predecessors in the chain of evolution?

That prefix, “inter,” says a lot. The dictionary says it can mean “among,” ” between,” or “together.” As humans, we are the creatures of inter, creatures of among, between, and together. Among the stars, together with other species. We were not solitary in our beginnings, nor are we such in our everyday living. This all adds wonder to Psalm 138, as I contemplate that God knitted together every part of me, watched every bone take shape. This is not my grandma’s knitting!

I will let it go at this for the moment: the wonder, the mystery of it all–just in being human! In the words of Psalm 8, “what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”

Phil Hefner (c)


2 Responses to “Gee Whiz–and more”

  1. Tom Ford March 28, 2014 at 2:56 am #

    Very stimulating! Thanks! Have you had your DNA tested to see your ancestral origins?

  2. philnevahefner March 28, 2014 at 2:58 am #

    If I were 40 years younger, I think I might! How about you, Tom?

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