For most my life, I’ve thought of my heritage as coming from a single tradition: Mormonism. That’s my people, who I am—part of a pioneer story.
It’s like this: Six generations ago, my ancestor William Ogden joined the LDS Church in Lancashire, England and immigrated to Richfield, Utah. On my Layton side, Samuel Leighton joined the LDS Church seven generations ago in Bedfordshire, England and then immigrated to Kaysville, Utah, where his grandson Charles became a polygamist. (I descended from Elizabeth Bowler, his first wife.)
But what about my line before all this?
As far as I can find, my Ogden ancestors lived in Lancashire through at least 1506 and my Layton ancestors lived in Bedfordshire through at least 1589.
So I know this much: My ancestors were living as non-Mormons in Lancashire and Bedfordshire for longer than we’ve been Mormons living in Utah. These non-Mormons are my ancestors too, and their collective lives and stories are just as real. Without them, I wouldn’t exist.
The same is true of my heritage extending before Lancashire as well. I don’t know the details, but I can imagine what it was like for my first ancestor who experienced the bustle of civilization somewhere a few thousand years ago—crowded streets and a marketplace. I can imagine my first ancestor to fear a king. The first to hold a coin.
And 10,000 years ago—the first to start a farm, the first to stay in one place their whole life, near a river that irrigates their crops. The first to worry whether a dry season would mean no harvest. The first to domesticate sheep, goats, pigs, cows, and, before that, wolves.
And a thousand generations in the past: 50,000, 100,000 years. The first to hold a statue of a fertility goddess in their hands, the first to say a prayer or perform a ritual for rain. The first to draw animals in caves, to make jewelry, to use blades and bones for tools. The first to bury their dead. The first to believe in gods.
And back through the more than roughly 200,000–300,000 years of human history, before our pre-human ancestors evolved into homo sapiens.
How can we understand all this? I made a visual below to explore the scale of it all. Each circle in the image represents 200 years, going left to right, row by row, through time.
This is our human heritage.
Why stop there?
We can go back more than one million years ago to imagine being our first ancestor to cook with fire. The first, perhaps, to look at the stars and wonder what secrets they keep. The first to use a stone tool to cut or to kill.
And we can go back five million years to be among the first primates to regularly walk on two legs, allowing us to travel tremendous distances over our lifetime, to never see the place we grew up again.
We can keep going, 20 million years to be among the first great apes who’s slightly distinct, slightly more human, than the other animals we see every day. The first to separate from the other tribes, to form a group that collaborates with more just a bit more efficiency than the rest.
And on to 65 million years. The first primates, the first mammals with forward-facing eyes on the front of their skull and a domed cranium to protect our relatively large brain.
Go 150 million years. Be among the first mammalian reptiles, with hints of fur, sweat glands, and jaw joints—darting around forest floors, searching for insects.
Then 500 million years. Imagine our first amphibian ancestors, the first to live a majority of life on land. And go beyond that, even. Be a fish with bony appendages, squirming in the sea.
Go back a billion years and more. Be our first ancestor with lungs, the first with a jaw, the first with a backbone.
Go a billion years before that. Be the first eyeless, few-celled organism, darting around in water.
And on to 3 or 4 billion years or more. Be the first a single-celled life form.
Go back and for billions of years be water and be rock and be heat.
What do you feel when you sit with all this—really sit with it, instead of just scanning it as though it’s a bunch of gee-whiz facts?
Personally, I’m bewildered. I can’t fully comprehend that my ancestral line consisted of being a fish for more than 100x longer than it has consisted of being a human.
But my bewilderment doesn’t give me permission to disregard the reality of it all. As Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” I have to learn to integrate reality, to let it shape my identity and worldview rather than the other way around. And this practice, in my experience, leads to a renewed sense of direction and purpose.
Here are few takeaways for me, personally:
I am many.
Yes, my lineage is Mormon. And my lineage is part of the Church of England before that — and likely Catholic or pagan before that, and so on. I am all these identities, and at some level they’re all still alive in me. I don’t have to disregard any of them.
This means, in part, that I can take in timeless insights from the world’s wisdom traditions (including Buddhism, Stoicism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Sufism, and many others). They’re all part of the human story, and I’m either connected by a direct descendent or a cousin to them all.
I am one.
Since I was once an ape, a primitive mammal, a fish, and a single-celled organism, everything is a relative. I must therefore treat all life with reverence, even as I consume an animal or a plant to survive. I must also oppose practices that torture animals in mass factories, poison the planet, fill the oceans with plastic, and so on. To do otherwise is an act of self harm.
I can’t be confined by fundamentalism.
I’ve written elsewhere about the split between the LDS prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, who opposed the theory of evolution, and famed LDS scientist Henry Eyring, who embraced it.
Obviously, I agree with Eyring. And I think it’s worth being clear-eyed about the implications of evolution, since an understanding of the theory erases the fundamentalist ideas that humans have been around for 6,000 years, that Adam and Eve were literally the first people on Earth, that Jesus lived in “the meridian (middle) of time,” and so on.
In my opinion, this erasure is desperately needed, as I see the rise of corrosive conspiracy theories that overlap with a Christian apocalyptic worldview, including Qanon. We must reject the theory of conspiracy in favor of the theory of evolution and honor a more expansive worldview that brings a healthy sense of unity with our brothers and sisters around the world instead of small-minded paranoia.
I belong to a rapidly evolving species.
We’re an evolving species. It’s part of our purpose, to evolve.
And we’re evolving faster than ever.
To illustrate: A team of U.S. anthropologists studied four distinct ethnic groups: Han Chinese, Africa’s Yoruba tribe, Japanese, and Utah Mormons. What they found was that 7% of the human genome has shifted dramatically over the past 10,000 years. According to Henry Harpending, a University of Utah anthropologist who worked on the study, this means that “we’re more different from people 5,000 years ago than they were from Neanderthals.” The researchers added that if we’d always evolved at this pace, “genetic differences between people and chimpanzees would be 160 times greater than they are.”
But genetic evolution is only part of it. We’re also taking technological leaps with every generation, at a pace unlike anything previously seen in our history.
Think of it this way: Before 100 years ago, no one talked about technological progress in terms of decades. People in 1270 didn’t marvel at how rapidly technology had progressed since 1260. The difference was barely noticeable. But today we look at the state of certain technologies — self-driving cars, virtual reality, augmented reality — and marvel at how quickly they’ve evolved in just 10 years.
And we’re on the cusp of another leap with the invention of devices that link human brains to the internet, something that will become a reality far sooner than the general public realizes with neurotech companies such as Kernel, led by Provo-native Brian Johnson (who sold his company Braintree to PayPal for $800 million), and Neuralink, led by Elon Musk.
This technology from Kernel and Neuralink aims to enable humans to instantly download information to our brains and process copious amounts of information at speeds now only available to computers.
As I’ve written elsewhere, we are becoming as the gods. But what sort of gods? If we’re not extremely careful as a species, we risk creating technology that gives us god-like powers only to use it to destroy ourselves and the planet.
I have a debt to the future.
The poet T.S. Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Today we could add, based on what I often see in my social media feeds, “Where is the information we have lost in misinformation?”
To stay on the road we’re on—a road filled with an unhealthy fixation on monetary growth at all costs—will starve humanity. Our current systems are unsustainable and ultimately destructive. They must be changed at the root.
It’s our responsibility, then, to help the next generation take science, wisdom, and compassion seriously, to be deeply aware of the timeless virtues that will serve as a foundation in our species being able to thrive alongside all other living things. I’m exploring what one type of sustainable model might look like in a side project with a group of friends, and I’m on the lookout for any other ways we can best help future generations thrive with this relatively new understanding of where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going. It will take a worldwide communal effort.
In the end, we owe so much to the lives of those who came before us. Their lives compel us to help those yet to come.