One of the most important themes of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is our responsibility to make each new year a better year; by consciously deciding to change our behavior to avoid future adversity. This applies to individuals, and also to societies and humanity in general. So why isn’t one of the Torah readings for Rosh HaShanah the Garden of Eden allegory in Genesis?
After all, would you prefer to live the world of the Garden of Eden, or in today’s world of pollution, warfare and approaching ecological disaster?
In the beginning, life on Earth consisted of microbes – various types of single-celled microorganisms who ruled the Earth for more than 3 billion years. Then some of these microorganisms discovered how to capture the energy in sunlight.
But, the photosynthetic process they developed had a toxic byproduct: oxygen. Oxygen was poisonous to most microbes that had evolved in the previously oxygen-free environment, making it the world’s first pollutant.
But for those microorganisms that developed methods for protecting themselves, oxygen served as a powerful new energy source. Among a number of other things, it gave them the added energy they needed to adopt multicellular forms. These multicellular forms called Ediacarans, arose about 600 million years ago.
In their heyday, Ediacarans spread throughout the planet. They were a largely immobile form of marine life shaped like discs and tubes, fronds and quilted mattresses. The majority were extremely passive, remaining attached in one spot for their entire lives. Many fed by absorbing chemicals from the water through their outer membranes, rather than actively gathering nutrients.
Paleontologists have coined the term “Garden of Ediacara” to convey the peace and tranquility that prevailed during this period. There was no predation, no warfare, no crime or sin of any type. But nothing lasts forever and after 60 million years, evolution gave birth to another major innovation: animals.
All animals share the characteristics that they can move spontaneously and independently, at least during some point in their lives, and sustain themselves by eating other organisms or what other organisms produce.
Animals burst onto the scene in a frenzy of diversification that paleontologists have labeled the Cambrian explosion, a 25-million-year period when most of the modern animal families – vertebrates, molluscs, arthropods, annelids, sponges and jellyfish – came into being.
“These new species were ‘ecological engineers’ who changed the environment in ways that made it more and more difficult for the Ediacarans to survive,” said Simon Darroch, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University in a paper “Biotic replacement and mass extinction of the Ediacara biota” published September 2, 2015 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Darroch and his collaborators concluded that “this study provides the first quantitative palaeoecological evidence to suggest that evolutionary innovation, ecosystem engineering and biological interactions may have ultimately caused the first mass extinction of complex life.”
So, the five previous mass extinctions were the results of Mother Nature’s unconscious acts. Today we face humanity’s conscious activities that are destabilizing life’s balance. Would you prefer to live the world of the Garden of Eden/Ediacara, or in today’s world?