The Boulder and the Mountain Range

It strikes me that our ways of learning about the world are more entangled in assumptions about what makes the world work than we often acknowledge. If we zoom out as far as possible, take in the entire landscape, hills and valleys, rivers and oceans, we find that we are perceiving the results of thousands or millions of years; the causal processes that made a mountain or a lake or an island are of a certain kind. At some level of abstraction, we can say that they are historically contingent and even accidental; we can imagine that the geological hotspot that created the Hawaiian Islands could have appeared somewhere else or not at all, or that the seafloor spreading that made the Atlantic Ocean and interaction of plates that made the Rocky Mountains could have happened at a different longitude or along a different arc around the Earth. But they did happen when and where they did, and to a large extent the processes that resulted from them are gradual, cumulative, and largely deterministic.


At the other extreme, our close attention to an individual portion of the surface of the Earth is to be swallowed up by randomness rather than order. To stand on the slope of an individual mountain, unless you turn away from it and face towards others, is to lose the idea of “mountain” altogether. The glaciation that produced the boulder next to us might be part of a grand and gradual story, but the boulder itself- why it is here and not ten or thirty or three thousand meters away, why it is one shade of grey instead of another- is generally unexplainable, the result of contingent events lost in the many winters of time. True, the boulder has clues to its formation: like a demon of the ancient world, the fires of its construction are embedded in the size and structure of the crystals and dots of its surface and interior, its shape and size informative about the particular agents that weathered and molded it over time. But it is entire unto itself, it arrived here and not there, is shaped like this and not that, time and chance hath happened this way and not that for reasons known unto themselves.

A living thing, an animal, a human is not a boulder; we resist entropy in ways unfamiliar to the silent rocks and contain within us the plans for our future development, our birth and growth and decay and death, while the single rock tells us usually only about its past. Perhaps the whole mountainside, the structure of the range as a whole, its place among the sliding tectonic plates, will tell us about its future, where and how it will change. We are perhaps the reverse; the broadest generalizations about why one people are in one place rather than another, about the broadest patterns of culture and language and genes, tell us little about the future, other than that patterns generally persist. As an individual, we contain the markers of our past, of our personal memory and perhaps even more of the collective past that shaped culture, language, genes, that shapes us and who we will be, that palimpsest of the wanderings of our forebearers over the mottled and wrinkled surface of the Earth.


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