All life forms — humans, animals, plants, even viruses — find a way to adapt in response to the ecosystems they call home. On average, most species exist on earth for between two and 10 million years. In view of Earth's mind-bending 4.6 billion-year history, that's really not a very long, at all. It's this kind of deep thinking about deep time, and the interconnected story of evolution, that’s Rhonda Rosenberg has thought about for years.
Rosenberg, an FIU research associate professor who is a part of the AIDS Prevention Program in the Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, moved to Miami three decades ago from Manhattan with her husband, poet-scholar David Rosenberg. It opened up a whole new world of the origins of life — through South Florida's tropical gardens, ecosystems, species and the scientists who studied them.
It proved to be fertile encouragement, sparking a collaboration of husband and wife that has resulted in The Eden Revelation: An Evolutionary Novel. The story begins with an archeologist who is digging in the Middle East and discovers an ancient scroll and then unearths many questions about evolution and time. One of the main goals of the book, Rosenberg says, was to make the often invisible-to-us world of evolution visible.
Now, Rosenberg shares some of the real-world inspiration behind the novel and how uniting science with the humanities provides a springboard for thinking about deep time and awakening new perspectives on our own place in evolutionary time.
The Garden of Eden has been used as a setting in literature before — like in John Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Divine Comedy. But those don’t necessarily explore the idea of time, like in this novel. So, why use Eden as a setting?
We wanted to bring together the deep time of both evolutionary and cultural history — the origin of origin stories, you might say. The Garden of Eden is a big one and a part of our understanding of ancient history. However, people don’t always know it has an antecedent or “original” that preceded it. The story didn’t just materialize. The writers [of many of the stories of what we know as the Hebrew Bible] had libraries (archives) and scrolls to reference. In this case, there was a scroll that was the antecedent, and the writer of the Garden of Eden story drew from that to write the great art that became the beginning of the Bible.
At the same time, the Garden of Eden story made us start thinking about the origins of our own species. Who came before or preceded us? Think of Lucy — the 3.2-million-year-old fossil skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, a precursor to Homo sapiens and one of our ancestors. I’ve had the chance to see her species’ footprints. And it’s very moving. But you don’t get a sense of the ecosystem these beings walked out of.
We wanted to try and give the ecosystem we — Homo sapiens — came from a sort of “voice.” Literally. And it has much to say in this novel!
You mention Lucy. Her species are estimated to have lived 700,000 years (which is more than twice as long as humans have been on earth!) It raises a point about evolution and extinction. How do you think we understand the evolutionary process — or perhaps fail to?
What people know maybe comes from catch phrases. “Survival of the fittest” as an idea can be a band aid for not really knowing about it.
What evolution wants is as much creativity as possible.
But we must remember that it’s all happening under constraints. In this case, evolution happens in response to an ecosystem. But the problem is there’s a lot we cannot see even aboveground in an ecosystem. And the human mind tends to have trouble with what it cannot see.
Sometimes it takes immersing yourself in an ecosystem to really see the complexity of it.
I had the firsthand experience to see what an ecosystem is after moving to Miami. Before I started my academic career in public health, I had the opportunity to work on a cultural education project on Everglades restoration with the National Tropical Botanical Garden and its Miami outpost (The Kampong). During that time, I went on a slough walk. Basically, you decide your tennis shoes and pants are things you’re going to get rid of afterward because you’re wading through the sawgrass.
Our guide led us to an alligator hole that was really an alligator home. I discovered while this might look like a hole to us, it was this microecosystem where species we don’t even notice, that are invisible to us, live and lead lives of their own.
How does this relate to your work studying HIV? After all, we cannot “see” a virus without a microscope.
Just like there’s many species that took a long time to discover and name, there’s millions more viruses floating in the air all the time, most of which are not harmful to us We haven’t discovered all of them. It’s like they are in a more rapid version of the overall drama of evolution — one very different from the one we’re in. You can’t even grasp that without getting into deep time.
HIV is a retrovirus. But you might really call it a master of evolution.
What’s surprised me over the years is most people don’t know HIV is something that’s evolved. It’s not their fault. A lot of this information has not filtered down to the public. A lot of interventions have allowed participants to walk away without really knowing that HIV is a virus and can evolve. Scientists have known for a while now that it existed at least in the early 1900s. But scientific advancements have pushed its origin in humans back even further. Its ancestors existed before — millions of years ago. HIV did not become a pandemic until conditions changed — the expansion and human populations and encroachment of ecosystems.
If unsuppressed, HIV basically converts the human body into a suitable microecosystem for itself. So, to not think of HIV as a species is to not understand the reason for the challenges of our scientific achievements.
Has this changed how you and your collaborators approach HIV prevention and treatment research?
Yes, because even with all the advances — both antiretroviral therapy (ART) and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for people at risk of getting HIV — there’s still a great deal of mistrust across different communities. We also saw this during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Such mistrust has long preceded that pandemic.
Communication, history and cultural issues are at the center of it, as they’ve always been in public health. Of the problems often neglected is an emotional one, the lack of an imaginative connection to feeling of the kind that art expresses. That’s why I had to devote so much of myself to the novel we call a revelation.
My scientific work has addressed this by focusing on translational HIV prevention. The AIDS Prevention Program specializes in adapting evidence based interventions in a culturally expressive and responsive way.
Recently, I was a part of a grant project to do a PrEP study on women of color in South Florida. We had listening feedback sessions to understand some of the reasons they didn’t know about it, weren’t using it or distrusted it completely. From that, we developed different information videos targeted to different groups — but we couldn’t have done any of the work without the collaboration and support of the community. It was true participatory research.
You mention COVID-19. Is it also a “master of evolution”?
During the pandemic, we had the chance to experience what viruses do naturally: evolve and change. Our world is its ecosystem. It was responding to its ecosystem and evolving in micro-ecosystems like the human immune system. That’s where the variants come in.
It’s hard to imagine how ancient the coronaviruses are. Deep time was going on — and maybe we didn’t think about that. Maybe we didn’t realize for the first time in our history as a species we were a witness of what was really going on. With the 1918 pandemic, we have newspaper articles that show us people didn’t know it was a virus. They didn’t know what they were dealing with. It wasn’t discovered until later. There wasn’t a means to study it. So, with SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, we had the chance to understand our history as it was unfolding, almost in real time, and to quickly determine it was from a family of viruses, coronaviruses very well-known to us.
Why use the novel as a format to express some of these complicated themes and ideas?
As a novel, the book better captures the discombobulation that comes from trying to wrap your mind around some of these things. Especially the biggest one: That an ecosystem is an evolutionary creative system.
That’s really what motivated us to go for the creative form of the novel. In the book's epigraph, we quote renowned biologist E.O. Wilson: "The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities."
We wanted to let people have the experience of the unfolding of natural evolution, but also dramatize the anxiety of our time as we grapple with timeless questions including how to live, how to think scientifically, and especially whether human evolution is still possible.
I hope readers come away with a sense, even the beginning of a sense, of species consciousness. By that, I mean an awareness of being in deep time. When art and science come together, people get the chance to actually feel and think about things like that.
Okay, one more question. Since you spent time at Fairchild, did you ask the researchers there what the fruit mentioned in the Garden of Eden story might have been?
Fairchild looked into this! They came up with the fruit from the Hyphaene palm as one possible candidate that would have existed and been around at the time the story was being written.
So, wait. Is this why you have palm trees on the book?
Yes! But also because the Garden of Eden was a tropical ecosystem.
But that’s a different palm species. It's a Borassus palm couple in Fairchild Tropical Garden. They and the photograph are special to us.