Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study


Timed Out: Evolving To Extinction

Timed Out: Evolving To Extinction

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This event, chaired by Prof Veronica Strang, brought together a panel of leading thinkers to discuss the intellectual, practical and ethical issues raised by humankind's effects on evolutionary time.

We live in an age acutely conscious of time: its passing and acceleration, its measurement and regulation, its evolutionary dynamic, its future promise, its own timing. Through this consciousness seems to run a thread of compulsion - a compulsion to master the clockwork of time, understand its rhythms, put it to most efficient use, direct its flow, grasp its provenance. Time has taken on the property of a thing or process that can be grasped and made to work in certain ways. But what exactly is time, and does it have the properties we think it has? What meanings of time have come to prevail in our age, and how do they shape human endeavour, being and aspiration? How does the arrow of time fly, and how has its flight been tracked in the past? Is it possible to imagine a future organised without clock-time as anything other than as a train that is either on track or derailed?

In classical physics, Euclidean space is distinct from a constant and universal time. In modern relativistic concepts of space-time, the passage of time depends on the perception of the observer: space, time and matter are intrinsically coupled. One can conceive of space-times with more than one temporal dimension, where effect can precede cause or time can travel backwards. Can these other space-times exist? Do they exist? What are the implications if they do?

As a first step, and fittingly for an interdisciplinary IAS, this theme could be approached by examining meanings of time and their applications in different disciplines, with a view to understanding the implications of such difference, including what might follow from recovering lost meanings or learning from other disciplines. One might wish to examine, for example, the punctuation of individual disciplines through their history by ideas of time as linear, progressive, durational, recursive, elliptical, or epochal, and assess how these punctuations have informed human practice and organisation. Looking across the disciplines, how might the humanities and the sciences (or their subsets) look if understandings of time as rhythm and performed were opened up to and by readings of time as continuous, preformed, emergent? In turn, how might such a comparative sensibility help us to evaluate the move in the social sciences and humanities towards acknowledging multiple temporalities, the play between ordered and lived time, the end of the epochal, the function of the imagination, the role of aesthetic patterning?

These historicised and comparative disciplinary openings may help to place the temporal orientations of our age in perspective, perhaps also new offer new guides to action; placing clock-time in the company of biological, affective, inhabited or cosmological time-scales, displacing our contemporary urge to master time with an art of living with multiple rhythms of time, developing new technologies to measure and perhaps also integrate these diverse rhythms, learning to moderate time as both finitude and infinity, passed and to come, within reach and always elusive. Might it be possible - indeed of worth - to rethink the future and our place in it by changing what we mean by and expect from time?

This is a theme for scientists and social scientists, scholars in the arts and humanities, historians, theorists and practitioners, artists, and policymakers, politicians and opinion formers.