A Story of Cosmic Evolution

Based on a service delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder on Sunday, 2003-05-11, with on-going revisions.

Since the beginnings of human awareness, we have pondered the great mystery of our origins. How did we come to be? We have sought answers to the most profound questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? How should that affect what we do? Drawn to that which lies beyond our understanding, we have looked upward into the heavens, inward into the smallest particles, and deep into our own hearts, minds, and souls to find the answers to these questions.

Today's story tells of many eras of evolution. Evolution of elements, of galaxies, of stars, of planets, of life and of culture. This is not the only great story. This one is an attempt to bring the work of scientists around the world to bear on our ongoing spiritual search for understanding.

Mystery generates wonder and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate.

Today we take a glimpse at the beauty of the Story and something of its deep mystery. It is the story of the universe, the story of life on Earth, the story of you and me.

Low and mysterious voice from offstage:
Long ago, just as now, there is Great Mystery - the source of Curiosity, Wonder and Awe.

  1. Somehow, 13.7 billion years ago, out of the Great Mystery, the cosmos flares forth as a blaze of inconceivable brilliance.
    (A flash of light and burst of sound fill the room.)
    Some call it the Big Bang or the Great Radiance. Space and time, shadows and light, and everything we know comes to be. From the void comes the spark and the light. As the universe is born, it is unbelievably hot and dense, and everything expands outward.
  2. Within a fraction of a second, the temperature has dropped enough for tiny protons and neutrons to form, followed shortly by electrons. The building blocks of matter as we know it have come to be. But this everyday stuff is only about 4 percent of what makes up the universe. For every pound of atoms there is six times as much other stuff, known as "Dark Matter", which can only be seen indirectly. And there is more - much more.
  3. The universe grows and cools further. Within minutes, it is cool enough for the nuclei of the first three elements to form: Hydrogen, Helium and a bit of Lithium.
  4. 380,000 years after the Great Radiance, the nuclei and electrons combine to form the first atoms, including the hydrogen that makes up much of our bodies. For the first time, you can see across long distances. In fact, we can still see the light that has been traveling since that time. It makes up the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This is a very faint but all-pervasive glow. Because it comes from everywhere, it actually out-shines all the stars and galaxies. But these days you need a microwave antenna to see it.
    The age of Matter begins.
  5. For billions of years, even while the universe as a whole expands, local clumps of Dark Matter and gas are pulled together by gravity into Galaxies, setting the stage for the evolution of nebulae and stars. The galaxies dance with each other in clusters, and galactic collisions lead to exotic new patterns of development.
  6. Stars are born, live, and die. Some stars even formed before the first galaxies, just a few hundred million years after the Great Radiance. All stars make Helium. Heavy stars also make carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and other elements of life. A few are heavy enough to explode as supernovas, generating even more exotic elements.
  7. The galaxies have been moving apart at slower and slower speeds because of gravity. But strangely, around nine billion years after the beginning, this era of cosmic deceleration comes to an end. Unknown forces start to overcome gravity enough that galaxies gradually start accelerating - moving apart faster and faster. The cause remains mysterious, going by the name Dark Energy. Is it really Quintessence? The Cosmological Constant? Phantom Energy? Whatever it is, it now makes up about three-fourths of the universe, and it keeps increasing!
  8. As time passes, our ancestor stars are born nearby and forge the elements our bodies are made of. Yes: our ancestors include massive ancient stars. Stars are part of our genealogy. Medium-heavy stars liberate lots of that fertile element Nitrogen while they are huge red giants. The heaviest stars end their lives in amazing explosions called supernovas. Some of the dust and gas that is liberated is swept up into our star. We call it the Sun.
  9. 5 billion years ago, our Solar System forms from great clouds of gas and the remains of the ancestor stars. The sun and a great disk of matter emerge--all the planets, asteroids and comets of our solar system.

    The story of this blue-and-white pearl of a planet starts with the Great Bombardment of dust, rocks, comets and meteorites! Just 50 million years after Earth origionally forms, the Moon is born when Earth is hit by a mars-sized body. The impact also causes Earth to tilt to the side, giving rise to the seasons of the year. Over hundreds of millions of years, Earth cools and forms a thin rocky crust. The crust thickens as cracks and exuberant volcanoes expel hotly agitated deep Earth magma to the surface.

    As steam condenses above Earth, the miracle of rain and weather cycles begin. The first rains fall, then torrential rains fall on, and on, and on until rivers run over the land and gather into great seas.

  10. Soon after Earth cools off, Life emerges! Biological Evolution accelerates the rate of change. The rich chemical brew brings forth proteins, DNA and invisibly small creatures like bacteria. The first living cells!
  11. Cells soon invent photosynthesis - a way to capture energy from the sun which they then use to create new sources of food from water and simple minerals. In the process, however, they give off oxygen, a deadly corrosive gas. It eventually piles up in the atmosphere and leads to their decline. But new oxygen loving cells emerge.
  12. Billions of years ago - Cells, which originally reproduce asexually, somehow stumble upon sex. This complex process turns out to be so useful for adapting to new environments, dealing with change, or getting rid of bad mutations, that it becomes the most common way to reproduce. Originally there is probably only one gender, but later two genders become the norm.
  13. Individual bacteria evolve ways to communicate with each other using chemical messages. Some cooperate and specialize within giant cell cooperatives. Within one coop, some creatures make food while others invent tiny electric motors that move the colony into sunlight, where others capture the energy of the sun. The individual parts become less independent but more secure as inseparable parts of the new wholes. These types of organisms are like all plants and animals today. Cooperatives!
  14. 550 million years ago - The diversity of life is enhanced in the Cambrian Explosion, as organisms quickly develop a multitude of body shapes.
  15. 500 million years ago - Trilobites have eyes with lenses made of crystals. In a sense, Earth is able to see herself!

    The first animals to evolve in the oceans are soft-bodied. Over time, these naked animals protect themselves with shells. Jaws, beaks, and skeletons follow suit.

  16. 460 million years ago - Leaving the water, animals such as worms and mollusks and crustaceans start breathing air, surviving weather, and raising themselves against gravity. Algae and fungi venture ashore as well. The first plants evolve as mosses. Insects evolve with nearly weightless bodies that permit them to take to the air as the first flying animals! Algae, fungi, insects!
  17. 395 million years ago - The first amphibian animals lumber onto land, trading in their gill slits for air-breathing lungs, transforming fins into stubby legs and continuing to return to the water to lay their eggs. Salamanders!
  18. 235 million years ago - Following the greatest mass extinction of all, comes the emergence of dinosaurs. For 170 million years these creatures flourish. Some dinosaurs, over 100 feet long, are social animals that often travel and hunt in groups. Some dinosaurs may have pioneered parental care, carefully burying their eggs and staying with the young after they hatch, nurturing them toward independence.
  19. 65 million years ago - An asteroid 6 miles in diameter hits the Yucatan peninsula. The resulting massive fires pump soot into the atmosphere, leading to a severe drop in temperature and another mass extinction. The dinosaurs are less able to cope with the cold than mammals, and they die off.
  20. Over the course of the next 60 million years Earth greets rodents, whales, monkeys, horses, cats and dogs, antelopes, gibbons, grazing animals, orangutans, gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, camels, bears, pigs, baboons and the first humans. The Age of Mammals!
  21. 200,000-40,000 years ago - Modern humans emerge. Language, oral traditions, art, trade, song, shamanic and goddess religions, and drumming become integral with human life.
  22. 11,000 years ago - Agriculture is invented and wild animals are domesticated. Humans are shaping the environment, selecting which species to nurture, changing the landscape, and hunting other animals, sometimes to extinction. Population densities begin to climb. Communicable diseases spread. Civilization emerges.
  23. 6000 years ago - Writing is invented, and the level of abstraction of thought increases. People pass along more information and evolve more complexity. Cultural evolution proceeds much more quickly than biological evolution. Soon (geologically speaking), Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and more religions emerge, spread and evolve. They sometimes foster deadly passions. Their sacred texts pass along insights and stories for the ages.

    A myriad of trends, events and inventions emerge. Exploration. Warring nations. Empire creation and destruction. The printing press. The scientific method. Colonization. Revolution.

  24. The spread of knowledge quickens. The Renaissance and the scientific method lead to insights, innovations and disruptions.

    Constitution. Election. Territorial Expansion. Industrialization. Rebellion. Emancipation. Mass production. Urbanization.

  25. Mass communication and Globalization bind the fate of the world together more tightly and urgently than ever.

    Telegraphs and Telephones. Mass Migrations. World conflagrations. Suffrage extension. Fission explosions. United Nations. Decolonization. Population explosion. Environmental degradation. Space exploration. Liberation. Lunar excursions. Computerization. Globalization. Internet expansion. Reunification. Dissolution. Union. Genetic manipulation.

  26. In the last few hundred years, our sense of our place in the universe and our story of history has dramatically changed. We learn our Sun is but one star within a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars. We see no limit at all to the number of galaxies that exist. We stumble upon the primordial light of the universe, the Cosmic Background Radiation. We learn that our geneaology includes the stars, and we expect that life exists on other planets.

    We learn that we have evolved, and that all life truly is our kin. We find, beneath the surface layers of our brain, a layer that is shared with all mammals, and an even more ancient layer that is shared with all reptiles. Over and over again we find ourselves linked to the interdependent web of all existence.

    We can now see Earth as Whole from space. Earth is complex enough to witness her own integral beauty.

This Story of the Universe is a sacred Story. We are learning much, and that is leading to more mysteries, and deeper ones. The Great Radiance, and the process of the evolution of elements, molecules, galaxies, stars, planets, life and culture, continues at this moment; in fact as this moment, and its destiny is our destiny.

About This Story

This story was first developed as a "Cosmic Walk" by Sister Miriam Therese McGillis based on the works of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. Ruth Rosenhek wrote an adaptation incorporating also the works and words of Elisabet Sahtouris, John Fowler and Lynn Margulis.

This version, by Neal McBurnett with much help from Rev. Jacqueline Ziegler, John Russell and Bob Davis, tries to balance the original emphasis on Earth and biological evolution with more cosmic and cultural evolution. It builds on the versions by Ruth Rosenhek, Paulita Bernuy and the Still Point Retreat Center; the cosmic evolution research of Eric J. Chaisson; and the timelines written and collected by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd at http://thegreatstory.org/ as well as the Universal History Translation Project.

This site is more up-to-date than the snapshot published in The Earth Literacy Companion, Vol. II, Issue 3, Summer Solstice / June, July, August 2003 as The Gospel of Evolution: The Great Radiance and Beyond. But that version includes other readings and elements of the UUCB service.

Other links:

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License: "share and share alike".

Neal McBurnett
Last modified: Thu Oct 5 22:39:50 MDT 2006