The new DOC NYC documentary film festival just ended, and it began last week with a bang, featuring distinguished filmmaker Werner Herzog’s new 3-D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The haunting and remarkable 32,000-year-old drawings filmed deep in a cave that remained undisturbed for tens of thousands of years and in which, since its discovery less than a decade ago, fewer people have walked than have walked on the moon, call out across the eons to us. They challenge our modern sensibilities, and our very notion of what it means to be human.
These are treasures of antiquity that celebrate the long and circuitous development of our modern human spirit from early stirrings in primitive hominids. All of us should celebrate these revelations, so it is disquieting to ponder amidst the cultural delights New York was home to over recent days that instead of basking in the beauty and wonder that these stories unveil, the majority of Americans instead would prefer to believe that none of this rich tapestry ever actually happened.
Rendered in charcoal in ancient times when an Ice Age permeated all of what is now Europe and Neandertals still walked the earth, the paintings are at the same time remarkably modern, reminiscent of Picasso or Weber. Another fact staggers the imagination. Dating of the charcoal suggests that the paintings were added to over a period of 5,000 years—far exceeding the span between the age of the ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations and the modern era, in fact over a period whose length coincides with what many people choose to believe is the age of the universe.
In poll after poll, concentrations ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent of Americans continue to believe that humans have existed in their present form unchanged, as created by God less than 10,000 years ago.
Richard Dawkins has noted that confusing 10,000 years with the actual age of the Universe (13.7 billion years) is like confusing the distance across the United States with the distance spanned by a meter stick. Such colossal innumeracy and scientific illiteracy is indeed worrisome, but I would argue that the saddest aspect of such scientific ignorance is that it demeans the human sense of wonder that thinking about the universe should provoke.
Reality trumps fiction every time. The actual story of our human struggle from near extinction in what is now Ethiopia to the southern tip of Africa—through hundreds of thousands of years of slow and fascinating development, from the first inklings of cognition to the development of sophisticated tools and symbolic representations of reality, from language to the forgotten dreams of our ancestors who drew images of the animals they hunted on the dark inner walls of a cave in what is now the French countryside—is both inspiring and magical.
Just think of the intellectual poverty suffered by those who miss the rich cultural and intellectual opportunities afforded by witnessing our past when they decide the real story of our development must be replaced by an abbreviated and redundant myth. It is a disservice to the spirit of adventure and curiosity that we should nurture in our children to rob them of the opportunity to be inspired by nature, and for some of them, to go on to make profound new discoveries.
There is poetry in the real world and it diminishes the human spirit to deny it or reject it. What goes for evolution is true for the Big Bang, which left a beautiful and rich pattern on the sky that we observe with our many telescopes, each galaxy or cluster providing a clue to a cosmic puzzle that we are still trying to unravel to decode the secrets of our own cosmic origins.
The same can be said for the new wave of climate change deniers who are steadfastly refusing to consider not only the data on current climate change, but the historical record of our amazing past from Antarctic ice sheets going back almost 500,000 years.
Albert Einstein once said, "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious...It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Watching Herzog’s film made me wonder what will be the legacy we leave for any future generations living 32,000 years in the future? Will we provide evidence of the peaks of modern minds that could produce the art of Rodin and Picasso, or will those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand hold ultimate sway, leading us back into a dark age of ignorance, fear, and with it, violence, in our dreams of greatness will be destroyed and forgotten?
We owe it to ourselves and our children to celebrate the richness and mystery of being human in all its aspects, from the biological creatures we are, to the social and cognitive wonders that have made it possible for a creative and imaginative species to be caught across the ages in the lens of a creative artist who helps force us to reconsider our own place in the cosmos.
About the Author: Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist, directs the Origins Project at Arizona State University, which will hold a major festival celebrating Science and Culture in April 2011.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.