My Million-Year-Old Back Yard

I like knowing the age of living things—not the age of the individual organism but of the lineage, of how long a plant or animal has been different from other lineages. The dates give me a glimpse of a Past that, like a god, generates and then consumes everything.

So here are the ages, youngest first, of the plants and animals in my suburban yard. Dates are approximate by millions or tens of millions of years!

The youngest creature in the yard is our dog, an animal that separated from its wolf-like ancestors about 40,000 years ago.

Next is me and my wife. Our species, Homo sapiens, separated from our Homo ancestors about 200,000 years ago. Before that, our genus, Homo, split off from the genus that chimps belong to about 7 million years ago. All our ancestors in our genus have died off and we are the only member left, a strange isolation. We are probably the only species in the yard in that situation.

The youngest plant is the grass, appearing about 40 million years ago among plants that adapted to a warming climate.

Back yardThe first squirrel fossil dates from 36 mya. Squirrels belong to a huge group of rodents with big, continually growing teeth. Chipmunks belong here too.

There’s a big oak tree in the yard. Although trees in general have been around for much longer, the oak was part of the spread of flowering plants, at very roughly 70 million years.

There’s a holly tree. The several hundred species of holly emerged about 80 million years ago.

Other flowering plants and trees come next. Their ancestors began diverging from plants without flowers around 240 mya, they were blooming 160 mya, and they became widespread and then dominant among plants during the 100 million years after that.

Insects originated about 600 million years ago, but the modern insects in the yard—flies, butterflies, wasps, bees, ants— co-evolved along with the flowering plants from 146 to 66 mya.

The birds are thought to have evolved from certain dinosaurs that grew feathers, about 180 million years ago.

The pine trees and cedars around the house are among the conifers that date back 300 million years when early trees began to live away from the water. They reproduce through exposed seeds (on pine cones) and pollen. Protected seeds, enclosed in nuts and fruits, came after.

Two other back-yard inhabitants go back that far: Ferns, not so different 350 million years ago, with their tiny, single-cell spores, another predecessor of the modern seed. And spiders, spinning their silk about 300 million years ago.

I realize as I finish writing this that hunting through Wikipedia for these dates has muddled my intentions somewhat. The “birth” of these species was more process than event, a long interweaving with their early kin. Constant, slow transition. The age of a rose depends on whether it’s viewed as a rose or a seed-bearing plant or a land plant.

Still, I savor majestic history here, the story of life.

Oliver Sacks and the Comforts of Metal

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of Awakenings (

Jovial Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of the film Awakenings

I was first aware of Oliver Sacks with the publication in 1985 of his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, descriptions of his mentally ill patients, cases as intriguing as the title. A few years later the movie Awakenings, based on a Sacks’ memoir, told the story of the kind, idealistic doctor, played by Robin Williams, who finds a drug to revive his catatonic patients at a hospital in the Bronx.

Now Sacks is writing for the New York Times about his current medical experience: he is dying of cancer. One of these wrenching and beautiful pieces is “My Periodic Table.” In it, Sacks touches on three portions of nature that affirm different sides of him.

“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.” With death approaching, “I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.” These include element 81, Thalium, a souvenir of last year’s 81st birthday; Lead, 82, for the birthday just celebrated; and Bismuth, 83. “I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having ‘83’ around.”

(Reading this touched off my own memory of how, as a boy, I tried with my father’s help to collect all 92 natural elements. In a display case on the wall over my bed I placed some sulfur and carbon from my chemistry set, small bottles of hydrogen, nitrogen and other gases that I had made, and bits of lead, iron, and other metals. Bringing together in my room all the building blocks of nature felt like a commanding achievement. I think the final display came to about 20 items.)

While Sacks finds consolation in the basic metals, he finds something unsettling in the stars. About viewing the starry sky one night, he writes that “It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience—and death.”

Lastly, when he “wanted to have a little fun” before beginning immunotherapy, he visited the lemur research center in North Carolina. “Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”

A lively ancestor, mortality among the stars, deathless birthday metals—a holy trinity of sorts, Sacks’ selection of sacred companions. We select from nature according to our joys and fears. The chemical elements mean little to me now, but weeds and insects pull me, as the age of life comforts and instructs me.

Self-Deception: Why We Fool Ourselves

Self-deception takes place when we know that a certain thing is the case but we convince ourselves that something else is true. We’re suddenly aware that we’ve deceived ourselves this way when, for example, a romantic relationship goes sour and we realize that we “knew all along there was an issue but I didn’t pay attention.” Or when we may believe in a religion, a political party or a profession for years only to find at some point that we have “finally come to our senses.” Sweepingly, too,we deceive ourselves about our superiority; most people believe that their qualities and abilities are above average.



Evolutionary psychologists look at such self-deception and ask, how did we get this way? What benefit did early humans derive from deceiving ourselves over the tens of thousands of years during which our brains took shape. The benefits must have been significant because the costs are obvious: fooling ourselves must have led our ancestors into making dangerous mistakes when they overestimated their physical prowess and underestimated the perils on the savannah.

The payoff seems to be found in our relationships with other people. We are and always have been obsessed with reading each other: who to trust, who to help, who to mate with, who is lying, what a person’s motives are, who is in cahoots with whom, who is faking an emotion, and what others are thinking about us. Underlying most of these calculations run the twin skills of deceiving others and detecting when others are trying to deceive us (as in “John looks unusually relaxed but I get the feeling that he’s about to ask me how his interview went.”) Such deception-plus-detection plays a large part in our social and conversational lives.

Psychologist Robert Trivers’ hypothesis is that we deceive ourselves because doing so makes us better at deceiving others. “Self deception evolves in the service of deception—the better to fool others.”* If you have convinced yourself that your child is extraordinary at the piano or that your fiancée is perfect, you will be able to talk on those subjects without stumbling over your words, looking flushed, or showing other signs of lying. And self-deception has an added advantage: it makes our dishonesty not only more convincing to others but also less stressful for us, since in fact, to us, it doesn’t feel like deception at all.

Trivers discusses organized religion as an example of large-scale self-deception. Here again there are benefits and costs. Among the benefits, members of a religious group cooperate with each other to a high degree. Their cooperation provides important survival benefits such as better health, mutual support, and social order. The benefits outweigh the costs of the believers’ self-deception, such as an inflated opinion of themselves, of their religion, and of the power of faith.

The evolutionary approach to understanding our psyches is not always pleasant. It’s discouraging to discover in ourselves hard-wiring that misleads us even as we are yearning to find reliable truths in our lives. But the organ that we are using to find those truths was built for very social and practical tasks, and deception and self-deception are two of its tools. We can’t easily avoid them.

* The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011, p. 4.