The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:13 pm

The Immense Journey
by Loren Eiseley
© 1946, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1956, 1957, by Loren Eiseley




Table of Contents:

Editor's Preface
TIME Reading Program Introduction
The Slit
The Flow of the River
The Great Deeps
The Snout
How Flowers Changed the World
The Real Secret of Piltdown
The Maze
The Dream Animal
Man of the Future
Little Men and Flying Saucers
The Judgment of the Birds
The Bird and the Machine
The Secret of Life
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:14 pm

Editor's Preface

The fences of the imagination are buckling under the pressure brought against them by the facts and theories of modern science, but few scientists have the writer's imagination that is needed to describe the deepest meaning of their seeming miracles. Loren Corey Eiseley labors under no such limitation. As a distinguished anthropologist he has a full measure of academic rewards for genuine accomplishment. Yet many of his peers have accomplished as much and left the plain reader no wiser. What Eiseley has done in scores of articles and three books is to make the ideas and findings of his special fields not only radiantly comprehensible but almost spiritually meaningful to readers whose knowledge of science is slight.

The Immense Journey is a striking instance of his rare talent. Anthropology may be broadly defined as the study of man and his works, past and present. But The Immense Journey involves not only anthropology but also archeology, paleontology, biology, geology and chemistry. Obviously such an interrelationship is difficult to sustain for either the scientist or the writer. Yet the experts find Eiseley's guidance impeccably accurate, while the common reader receives from him a rare insight into the long and wondrous tale of the evolution of life.

Eiseley is a modest man who has responded with a thoughtful humility to the honors that have been showered upon his books. When The Immense Journey was published in 1957, it was praised as being "beautifully written" and "a delightful journey, full of beautiful images and fascinating ideas." One reviewer felt "like going out into the street and buttonholing passers-by into sharing his pleasure."

Eiseley's two other books earned him the same kind of considered applause. For Darwin's Century, a lucidly panoramic account of the development of the concept of evolution, he won the first Phi Beta Kappa Science Prize for 1959's best book on science. In 1961 The Firmament of Time earned for him the Pierre Lecomte du Nouy American Foundation Award for the best book tending to reconcile science and religion. It also brought him the coveted John Burroughs Medal, which goes to a popular book on natural science blending accuracy, originality and good writing.

A man who spends his life handling the bones, and fossils of his ancestors is bound to reflect on the ultimate significance of life. In dealing with this hazardous subject, Eiseley neither avoids the big questions nor offers glib reassurance for the apprehensive. He is first a scientist who has mastered as much as man knows about the life process through the ages measured by geology. But he is also a man of feeling who values life and the deepest feelings and instincts of his fellow creatures. He is by no means distressed, as were the proper Victorians of Darwin's day, to know that he is descended from a species of ape and before that from forms of life that make the ape seem sophisticated, On the contrary: "Think of the way we came and be a little proud." Above all, his massive knowledge of the evolution of life has left him neither blase nor inclined to express himself with perfunctory expertise. From beginning to end, The Immense Journey is suffused with what he has called his own "owl-eyed wonder."

As Eiseley begins his account of the mysterious and immense journey of life on the planet, he is wedged in a deep sandstone crack on the edge of a western prairie where he is on a fossil hunt, "Staring straight out at me, as I slid farther and deeper into the green twilight, was a skull ... It was not, of course, human. I was deep, deep below the time of man in a remote age near the beginning of the reign of mammals. I squatted on my heels in the narrow ravine, and we stared a little blankly at each other, the skull and I." Right there the sense of wonder begins, and the thought comes that "I would never again excavate a fossil under conditions which led to so vivid an impression that I was already one myself." And to the wonder is linked the knowledge that succinctly gives the answer to those who expect of science the key to the riddle of existence: "The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age," Here, indeed, begins "the final illumination that sometimes comes to a man when he is no longer careful of his pride."

Eiseley is a big, broad-shouldered Nebraskan whose English and German ancestors homesteaded on the plains before statehood. The family had its ups and downs, and young Loren's father, a hardware salesman, "was at one time a wandering actor. Loren still remembers him walking about the house declaiming his Shakespearean lines. The Immense Journey is dedicated to this man "who lies in the grass of the prairie frontier but is not forgotten by his son."

As a boy Eiseley became fascinated by the mammoth bones he saw on a visit to the University of Nebraska and soon set up a museum of his own discoveries. He went on to become preeminent in his field, head of the department of anthropology and provost of the University of Pennsylvania. But there was another side to the man. In his younger days he wrote and published verse, and in The Immense Journey it is the scientist with poetic insight who accounts for the reader's uncommon pleasure. The little incidents of his daily experience are what touch off his writing. A bird poised upside down to drink from a faucet brings on an essay. Much of The Immense Journey emerges from what might seem the trivia of his scientific expeditions. One of the most moving chapters recounts the capture of a hawk which he was supposed to give to a museum but which instead he somewhat uneasily (but not guiltily) turned loose to celebrate freedom with its mate.

Eiseley is a great humanist among scientists, and this is what has given his books their special impact in an intensely scientific day. All his immense learning and research have failed to leach out his awareness of the beauty and wonder of life. As Joseph Wood Krutch, another passionate humanist and writer on natural history, remarks in his introduction to this special edition, Eiseley insists "that the mystery still exists." The wonders of the machine neither comfort nor too greatly impress him. A mechanical mouse that can reach its cheese faster and more accurately than a real one leaves him cold. "A mouse harvesting seeds on an autumn thistle is to me a fine sight and more complicated ...." And there is a growing air among the "computer people," he observes with characteristic wryness, that seems to imply: "We'll fix these computers one of these days where all you boys will be obsolete."

Eiseley is concerned less about man conquering nature than about nature, in the form of God, conquering the human heart. As he has written elsewhere: "whether we speak of a God come down to earth or a man inspired toward God and betrayed upon a cross, the dream was great, and shook the world like a storm. I believe in Christ in every man who dies to contribute to a life beyond his life. I believe in Christ in all who defend the individual from the iron boot of the extending collective state .... I have been accused of woolly-mindedness for entertaining even hope for man. I can only respond that in the dim morning shadows of humanity, the inarticulate creature who first hesitantly formed the words for pity and love must have received similar guffaws around a fire. Yet some men listened, for the words survive."

Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:14 pm

Time Reading Program Introduction

The immense journey with which this remarkable book deals is the most tremendous and the most mysterious that has ever been made. It began, no one knows how and no one knows how long ago, when something called Life first appeared on this globe. It has been proceeding for so many millions of years that the human mind cannot conceive such a stretch of time. But its direction has always been, in some sense, upward as well as onward.

What presumably began as some barely living jelly much like the protoplasm which still fills the cells of our bodies is now Man the Maker and Man the Thinker. Because something we call Mind has emerged from that merely mechanical ability to react, which is the most primitive characteristic of life, Man has taken control of his own destiny, to at least some limited extent, instead of leaving it in the hands of whatever mysterious power first created life. He can send capsules containing incredible instruments, and even other men, far out into the measureless space which surrounds the globe to which he was once confined. What is much more remarkable and perhaps more fateful is that he can also wonder and speculate about his origins, his destiny and the meaning of his existence.

Moreover, as Loren Eiseley suggests, we have no way of even guessing how much longer the journey may last. We think of ourselves as the climax of evolution, but we may be hardly more than its beginning. Perhaps the journey will soon end, as some pessimists suggest, in universal death. But perhaps it will continue for even longer than it has already lasted. The emergence of Mind, relatively recently, may be the first step in the development of creatures who will look back upon us as primitive organisms.

Nothing is more characteristic of man than the brevity of his earthly existence, and his passionate desire both to know the past and to guess at the future is an attempt to escape from this limitation. The desire led 19th Century evolutionists to accept various theories which no competent biologists today believe. (An example: the assumption that a missing link between the animate and the inanimate had been found on the sea bottom.) It also leads us to indulge in fantasies about the Man of the Future. Such speculation usually is limited to a picture of men much like ourselves equipped with a few new gadgets. Yet the experimentation indulged in by living creatures did not stop billions of years ago. It is still going on. Life is not satisfied now that self-satisfied man has been achieved. It is still producing "lower forms" engaged upon their own widely varied experiments. And since it seems to have been only an accident that one special form of organism reached what we like to think of as the summit represented by man, it is by no means impossible that some other organization, as lowly as man's remotest ancestors once were, may someday achieve an equally spectacular success.

The story of evolution has been told many times, but it has seldom been viewed as Loren Eiseley views it. He takes more or less for granted the established external facts such as the fossil evidence which records (despite a good many important gaps) the step-by-step emergence of increasingly complex organic forms. His chief interest is in the questions which most 19th and too many 20th Century scientists refuse to ask, questions which concern the ultimate meaning of those facts. Darwin and his immediate followers were content to say, "This is what happened," to reduce it all to mechanics and chemistry and to assume that they had not only explained everything but actually explained it away. Professor Eiseley is one of the increasing number of contemporary scientists who insist that the mystery still exists, and that there is more to evolution than was dreamed of in the 19th Century's refusal to philosophize. Moreover, he makes us feel that unless we too realize this we are in danger of ceasing to be truly human.

This is not, of course, to doubt that the evolutionary process was a real one. That evolution took place is as certain as circumstantial evidence can make anything. But both the Darwinians and most of the Neo-Darwinians go far beyond that. They insist that it was all mechanistically determined and that purposefulness and meaning are nowhere to be found in the process. This is what Dr. Eiseley refuses to believe. They try to explain everything by the mechanistic concept of "adaption." He sees instead what he prefers to call "a reaching out"--something which suggests direction, purpose, an end in view. This end in view is not mere survival but a fuller and fuller realization of the potentialities of life and mind. To grant this--and it certainly makes the whole process more credible--is to make man, and everything which preceded him and accompanies him, not a machine but something unique.

In another of his books, The Firmament of Time, Dr. Eiseley has stated what this means so clearly that a few sentences should be quoted:

"Into this world of the machine ... a ghost has come, a ghost whose step must have been as light and imperceptible as the first scurry of a mouse in Cheops' tomb .... 'It is carbon,' says one, as the music fades within his ear. 'It is done with the amino acids,' contributes another. 'It rots and ebbs into the ground,' growls a realist, 'It began in the mud,' criticizes a dreamer. 'It endures pain,' cries a sufferer. 'It is evil,' sighs a man of many disillusionments."

To this should be added a few sentences from the present volume:

"If the day comes when the slime of the laboratory for the first time crawls under man's direction, we shall have great need of humbleness. It will be difficult for us to believe, in our pride of achievement, that the secret of life has slipped through our fingers and eludes us still. We will list all the chemicals and the reactions. The men who have become gods will pose austerely before the popping flash bulbs of news photographers, and there will be few to consider--so deep is the mind-set of an age--whether the desire to link life to matter may not have blinded us to the more remarkable characteristics of both ....

"I do not think, if someone finally twists the key successfully in the tiniest and most humble house of life, that many of these questions will be answered, or that the dark forces which create lights in the deep sea and living batteries in the waters of tropical swamps, or the dread cycles of parasites, or the most noble workings of the human brain, will be much if at all revealed. Rather, I would say, that if 'dead' matter had reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful, powers and may not impossibly be, as Hardy has suggested, 'But one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind.' "

Some of the best books of science addressed to the general reader have been written by trained men dealing with subjects a little aside from their specialty. Because they are trained in one science they are competent in dealing with scientific facts. Because they are not, for the moment, functioning as specialists they are freer to deal imaginatively, and even speculatively, with the subject.

This book is a case in point. By profession Dr. Eiseley is a well-known anthropologist. Anthropology comes into his book, but primarily it is the immense journey of evolution with which Dr. Eiseley is concerned. The oft-told story is told here, not only from a fresh point of view, but with unusual eloquence and imagination. The essential facts are there (including some puzzling ones which the usual accounts prefer to omit), but the stress is on the wonderful paradox of man trying to grasp something that must elude him just because he is himself a part of it.

It is often said today that "what we need are more facts." Actually we already have more facts than we know how to interpret or how to use wisely. What we need most is the wisdom which facts ought to generate but often, unfortunately, do not. Anyone who wants to know not merely the so-called facts of evolution but what they may mean concerning himself, the universe in which he lives and the future which stretches before him could not do better than to read Eiseley's account of this most immense of all journeys.

Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:14 pm

The Slit

Some lands are flat and grass-covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time. Some are torn, ravaged and convulsed like the features of profane old age. Rocks are wrenched up and exposed to view; black pits receive the sun but give back no light.

It was to such a land I rode, but I rode to it across a sunlit, timeless prairie over which nothing passed but antelope or a wandering bird. On the verge where that prairie halted before a great wall of naked sandstone and clay, I came upon the Slit. A narrow crack worn by some descending torrent had begun secretly, far back in the prairie grass, and worked itself deeper and deeper into the fine sandstone that led by devious channels into the broken waste beyond. I rode back along the crack to a spot where I could descend into it, dismounted and left my horse to graze.

The crack was only about body-width and, as I worked my way downward, the light turned dark and green from the overhanging grass. Above me the sky became a narrow slit of distant blue, and the sandstone was cool to my hands on either side. The Slit was a little sinister-like an open grave, assuming the dead were enabled to take one last look--for over me the sky seemed already as far off as some future century I would never see.

I ignored the sky, then, and began to concentrate on the sandstone walls that had led me into this place. It was tight and tricky work, but that cut was a perfect cross section through perhaps ten million years of time. I hoped to find at least a bone, but I was not quite prepared for the sight I finally came upon. Staring straight out at me, as I slid farther and deeper into the green twilight, was a skull embedded in the solid sandstone. I had come at just the proper moment when it was fully to be seen, the white bone gleaming there in a kind of ashen splendor, water worn, and about to be ground away in the next long torrent.

It was not, of course, human. I was deep, deep below the time of man in a remote age near the beginning of the reign of mammals. I squatted on my heels in the narrow ravine, and we stared a little blankly at each other, the skull and I. There were marks of generalized primitiveness in that low, pinched brain case and grinning jaw that marked it as lying far back along those converging roads where, as I shall have occasion to establish elsewhere, cat and man and weasel must leap into a single shape.

It was the face of a creature who had spent his days following his nose, who was led by instinct rather than memory, and whose power of choice was very small. Though he was not a man, nor a direct human ancestor, there was yet about him, even in the bone, some trace of that low, snuffling world out of which our forebears had so recently emerged. The skull lay tilted in such a manner that it stared, sightless, up at me as though I, too, were already caught a few feet above him in the strata and, in my turn, were staring upward at that strip of sky which the ages were carrying farther away from me beneath the tumbling debris of falling mountains. The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?

I restrained a panicky impulse to hurry upward after that receding sky that was outlined above the Slit. Probably, I thought, as I patiently began the task of chiseling into the stone around the skull, I would never again excavate a fossil under conditions which led to so vivid an impression that I was already one myself. The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.

As I tapped and chiseled there in the foundations of the world, I had ample time to consider the cunning manipulability of the human fingers. Experimentally I crooked one of the long slender bones. It might have been silica, I thought, or aluminum, or iron--the cells would have made it possible. But no, it is calcium, carbonate of lime. Why? Only because of its history. Elements more numerous than calcium in the earth's crust could have been used to build the skeleton. Our history is the reason--we came from the water. It was there the cells took the lime habit, and they kept it after we came ashore.

It is not a bad symbol of that long wandering, I thought again--the human hand that has been fin and scaly reptile foot and furry paw. If a stone should fall (I cocked an eye at the leaning shelf above my head and waited, fatalistically) let the bones lie here with their message, for those who might decipher it, if they come down late among us from the stars.

Above me the great crack seemed to lengthen.

Perhaps there is no meaning in it at all, the thought went on inside me, save that of journey itself, so far as men can see. It has altered with the chances of life, and the chances brought us here; but it was a good journey --long, perhaps--but a good journey under a pleasant sun. Do not look for the purpose. Think of the way we came and be a little proud. Think of this hand--the utter pain of its first venture on the pebbly shore.

Or consider its later wanderings.

I ceased my tappings around the sand-filled sockets of the skull and wedged myself into a crevice for a smoke. As I tamped a load of tobacco into my pipe, I thought of a town across the valley that I used sometimes to visit, a town whose little inhabitants never welcomed me. No sign points to it and I rarely go there any more. Few people know about it and fewer still know that in a sense we, or rather some of the creatures to whom we are related, were driven out of it once, long ago. I used to park my car on a hill and sit silently observant, listening to the talk ringing out from neighbor to neighbor, seeing the inhabitants drowsing in their doorways, taking it all in with nostalgia --the sage smell on the wind, the sunlight without time, the village without destiny. We can look, but we can never go back. It is prairie-dog town.

"Whirl is king," said Aristophanes, and never since life began was Whirl more truly king than eighty million years ago in the dawn of the Age of Mammals. It would come as a shock to those who believe firmly that the scroll of the future is fixed and the roads determined in advance, to observe the teetering balance of earth's history through the age of the Paleocene. The passing of the reptiles had left a hundred uninhabited life zones and a scrambling variety of newly radiating forms. Unheard-of species of giant ground birds threatened for a moment to dominate the earthly scene. Two separate orders of life contended at slightly different intervals for the pleasant grasslands-- for the seeds and the sleepy burrows in the sun.

Sometimes, sitting there in the mountain sunshine above prairie-dog town, I could imagine the attraction of that open world after the fern forest damp or the croaking gloom of carboniferous swamps. There by a tree root I could almost make him out, that shabby little Paleocene rat, eternal tramp and world wanderer, father of all mankind. He ruffled his coat in the sun and hopped forward for a seed. It was to be a long time before he would be seen on the grass again, but he was trying to make up his mind. For good or ill there was to be one more chance,but that chance was fifty million years away.

Here in the Paleocene occurred the first great radiation of the placental mammals, and among them were the earliest primates--the zoological order to which man himself belongs. Today, with a few unimportant exceptions, the primates are all arboreal in habit except man. For this reason we have tended to visualize all of our remote relatives as tree dwellers. Recent discoveries, however, have begun to alter this one-sided picture. Before the rise of the true rodents, the highly successful order to which present- day prairie dogs and chipmunks belong, the environment which they occupy had remained peculiarly open to exploitation. Into this zone crowded a varied assemblage of our early relatives.

"In habitat," comments one scholar, "many of these early primates may be thought of as the rats of the Paleocene. With the later appearance of true rodents, the primate habitat was markedly restricted." The bone hunters, in other words, have succeeded in demonstrating that numerous primates reveal a remarkable development of rodent-like characteristics in the teeth and skull during this early period of mammalian evolution. The movement is progressive and distributed in several different groups. One form, although that of a true primate, shows similarities to the modern kangaroo rat, which is, of course, a rodent. There is little doubt that it was a burrower.

It is this evidence of a lost chapter in the history of our kind that I used to remember on the sunny slope above prairie-dog town, and that enables me to say in a somewhat figurative fashion that we were driven out of it once ages ago. We are not, except very remotely as mammals, related to prairie dogs. Nevertheless, through several million years of Paleocene time, the primate order, instead of being confined to trees, was experimenting to some extent with the same grassland burrowing life that the rodents later perfected. The success of these burrowers crowded the primates out of this environment and forced them back into the domain of the branches. As a result, many primates, by that time highly specialized for a ground life, became extinct.

In the restricted world of the trees, a "refuge area," as the zoologist would say, the others lingered on in diminished numbers. Our ancient relatives, it appeared, were beaten in their attempt to expand upon the ground; they were dying out in the temperate zone, and their significance as a widespread and diversified group was fading. The shabby pseudo-rat I had seen ruffling his coat to dry after the night damps of the reptile age, had ascended again into the green twilight of the rain forest. The chatterers with the ever-growing teeth were his masters. The sunlight and the grass belonged to them.

It is conceivable that except for the invasion of the rodents, the primate line might even have abandoned the trees. We might be there on the grass, you and I, barking in the high-plains sunlight. It is true we came back in fifty million years with the cunning hands and the eyes that the tree world gave us, but was it victory? Once more in memory I saw the high blue evening fall sleepily upon that village, and once more swung the car to leave, lifting, as I always did, a figurative lantern to some ambiguous crossroads sign within my brain. The pointing arms were nameless and nameless were the distances to which they pointed. One took one's choice.

I ceased my daydreaming then, squeezed myself out of the crevice, shook out my pipe, and started chipping once more, the taps sounding along the inward-leaning walls of the Slit like the echo of many footsteps ascending and descending. I had come a long way down since morning; I had projected myself across a dimension I was not fitted to traverse in the flesh. In the end I collected my tools and climbed painfully up through the colossal debris of ages. When I put my hands on the surface of the crack I looked all about carefully in a sudden anxiety that it might not be a grazing horse that I would see.

He had not visibly changed, however, and I mounted in some slight trepidation and rode off, having a memory for a camp--if I had gotten a foot in the right era--which should lie somewhere over to the west. I did not, however, escape totally from that brief imprisonment.

Perhaps the Slit, with its exposed bones and its far-off vanishing sky, has come to stand symbolically in my mind for a dimension denied to man, the dimension of time. Like the wisteria on the garden wall he is rooted in his particular century. Out of it--forward or backward--he cannot run. As he stands on his circumscribed pinpoint of time, his sight for the past is growing longer, and even the shadowy outlines of the galactic future are growing clearer, though his own fate he cannot yet see. Along the dimension of time, man, like the rooted vine in space, may never pass in person. Considering the innumerable devices by which the mindless root has evaded the limitations of its own stability, however, it may well be that man himself is slowly achieving powers over a new dimension--a dimension capable of presenting him with a wisdom he has barely begun to discern.

Through how many dimensions and how many media will life have to pass? Down how many roads among the stars must man propel himself in search of the final secret? The journey is difficult, immense, at times impossible, yet that will not deter some of us from attempting it. We cannot know all that has happened in the past, or the reason for all of these events, any more than we can with surety discern what lies ahead. We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all that we hunger to know.

The reader who would pursue such a journey with me is warned that the essays in this book have not been brought together as a guide but are offered rather as a somewhat unconventional record of the prowlings of one mind which has sought to explore, to understand, and to enjoy the miracles of this world, both in and out of science. It is, without doubt, an inconsistent record in many ways, compounded of fear and hope, for it has grown out of the seasonal jottings of a man preoccupied with time. It involves, I see now as I come to put it together, the four ancient elements of the Greeks: mud and the fire within it we call life, vast waters, and something--space, air, the intangible substance of hope which at the last proves unanalyzable by science, yet out of which the human dream is made.

Forward and backward I have gone, and for me it has been an immense journey. Those who accompany me need not look for science in the usual sense, though I have done all in my power to avoid errors in fact. I have given the record of what one man thought as he pursued research and pressed his hands against the confining walls of scientific method in his time. It is not, I must confess at the outset, an account of discovery so much as a confession of ignorance and of the final illumination that sometimes comes to a man when he is no longer careful of his pride. In the last three chapters of the book I have tried to put down such miracles as can be evoked from common earth. But men see differently. I can at best report only from my own wilderness. The important thing is that each man possess such a wilderness and that he consider what marvels are to be observed there.

Finally, I do not pretend to have set down, in Baconian terms, a true, or even a consistent model of the universe. I can only say that here is a bit of my personal universe, the universe traversed in a long and uncompleted journey. If my record, like those of the sixteenth-century voyagers, is confused by strange beasts or monstrous thoughts or sights of abortive men, these are no more than my eyes saw or my mind conceived. On the world island we are all cast-aways, so that what is seen by one may often be dark or obscure to another.
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:14 pm

The Flow of the River

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Its least stir even, as now in a rain pond on a flat roof opposite my office, is enough to bring me searching to the window. A wind ripple may be translating itself into life. I have a constant feeling that some time I may witness that momentous miracle on a city roof, see life veritably and suddenly boiling out of a heap of rusted pipes and old television aerials. I marvel at how suddenly a water beetle has come and is submarining there in a spatter of green algae. Thin vapors, rust, wet tar and sun are an alembic remarkably like the mind; they throw off odorous shadows that threaten to take real shape when no one is looking.

Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort. The mind has sunk away into its beginnings among old roots and the obscure tricklings and movings that stir inanimate things. Like the charmed fairy circle into which a man once stepped, and upon emergence learned that a whole century had passed in a single night, one can never quite define this secret; but it has something to do, I am sure, with common water. Its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future; it moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of air. It can assume forms of exquisite perfection in a snowflake, or strip the living to a single shining bone cast up by the sea.

Many years ago, in the course of some scientific investigations in a remote western county, I experienced, by chance, precisely the sort of curious absorption by water-- the extension of shape by osmosis--at which I have been hinting. You have probably never experienced in yourself the meandering roots of a whole watershed or felt your outstretched fingers touching, by some kind of clairvoyant extension, the brooks of snow-line glaciers at the same time that you were flowing toward the Gulf over the eroded debris of worn-down mountains. A poet, MacKnight Black, has spoken of being "limbed. ..with waters gripping pole and pole." He had the idea, all right, and it is obvious that these sensations are not unique, but they are hard to come by; and the sort of extension of the senses that people will accept when they put their ear against a sea shell, they will smile at in the confessions of a bookish professor. What makes it worse is the fact that because of a traumatic experience in childhood, I am not a swimmer, and am inclined to be timid before any large body of water. Perhaps it was just this, in a way, that contributed to my experience.

As it leaves the Rockies and moves downward over the high plains towards the Missouri, the Platte River is a curious stream. In the spring floods, on occasion, it can be a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges. Normally, however, it is a rambling, dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed. Quicksands and shifting islands haunt its waters. Over it the prairie suns beat mercilessly throughout the summer. The Platte, "a mile wide and an inch deep," is a refuge for any heat-weary pilgrim along its shores. This is particularly true on the high plains before its long march by the cities begins.

The reason that I came upon it when I did, breaking through a willow thicket and stumbling out through ankle-deep water to a dune in the shade, is of no concern to this narrative. On various purposes of science I have ranged over a good bit of that country on foot, and I know the kinds of bones that come gurgling up through the gravel pumps, and the arrowheads of shining chalcedony that occasionally spill out of water-loosened sand. On that day, however, the sight of sky and willows and the weaving net of water murmuring a little in the shallows on its way to the Gulf stirred me, parched as I was with miles of walking, with a new idea: I was going to float. I was going to undergo a tremendous adventure.

The notion came to me, I suppose, by degrees. I had shed my clothes and was floundering pleasantly in a hole among some reeds when a great desire to stretch out and go with this gently insistent water began to pluck at me. Now to this bronzed, bold, modern generation, the struggle I waged with timidity while standing there in knee-deep water can only seem farcical; yet actually for me it was not so. A near-drowning accident in childhood had scarred my reactions; in addition to the fact that I was a nonswimmer, this "inch-deep river" was treacherrous with holes and quicksands. Death was not precisely infrequent along its wandering and illusory channels. Like all broad wastes of this kind, where neither water nor land quite prevails, its thickets were lonely and untraversed. A man in trouble would cry out in vain.

I thought of all this, standing quietly in the water, feeling the sand shifting away under my toes. Then I lay back in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off. The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent. It was then that I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea. I was streaming over ancient sea beds thrust aloft where giant reptiles had once sported; I was wearing down the face of time and trundling cloud-wreathed ranges into oblivion. I touched my margins with the delicacy of a crayfish's antennae, and felt great fishes glide about their work.

I drifted by stranded timber cut by beaver in mountain fastnesses; I slid over shallows that had buried the broken axles of prairie schooners and the mired bones of mammoth. I was streaming alive through the hot and working ferment of the sun, or oozing secretively through shady thickets. I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water, the slimy jellies that under the enormous magnification of the sun writhe and whip upward as great barbeled fish mouths, or sink indistinctly back into the murk out of which they arose. Turtle and fish and the pinpoint chirpings of individual frogs are all watery projections, concentrations--as man himself is a concentration--of that indescribable and liquid brew which is compounded in varying proportions of salt and sun and time. It has appearances, but at its heart lies water, and as I was finally edged gently against a sand bar and dropped like any log, I tottered as I rose. I knew once more the body's revolt against emergence into the harsh and unsupporting air, its reluctance to break contact with that mother element which still, at this late point in time, shelters and brings into being nine tenths of everything alive.

As for men, those myriad little detached ponds with their own swarming corpuscular life, what were: they but a way that water has of going about beyond the reach of rivers? I, too, was a microcosm of pouring rivulets and floating driftwood gnawed by the mysterious animalcules of my own creation. I was three fourths water, rising and subsiding according to the hollow knocking in my veins: a minute pulse like the eternal pulse that lifts Himalayas and which, in the following systole, will carry them away.

Thoreau, peering at the emerald pickerel in Walden Pond, called them "animalized water" in one of his moments of strange insight. If he had been possessed of the geological knowledge so laboriously accumulated since his time, he might have gone further and amusedly detected in the planetary rumblings and eructations which so delighted him in the gross habits of certain frogs, signs of that dark interior stress which has reared sea bottoms up to mountainous heights. He might have developed an acute inner ear for the sound of the surf on Cretaceous beaches where now the wheat of Kansas rolls. In any case, he would have seen, as the long trail of life was unfolded by the fossil hunters, that his animalized water had changed its shapes eon by eon to the beating of the earth's dark millennial heart. In the swamps of the low continents, the amphibians had flourished and had their day; and as the long skyward swing--the isostatic response of the crust--had come about, the era of the cooling grasslands and mammalian life had come into being.

A few winters ago, clothed heavily against the weather, I wandered several miles along one of the tributaries of that same Platte I had floated down years before. The land was stark and ice-locked. The rivulets were frozen, and over the marshlands the willow thickets made such an array of vertical lines against the snow that tramping through them produced strange optical illusions and dizziness. On the edge of a frozen backwater, I stopped and rubbed my eyes. At my feet a raw prairie wind had swept the ice clean of snow. A peculiar green object caught my eye; there was no mistaking it.

Staring up at me with all his barbels spread pathetically, frozen solidly in the wind-ruffled ice, was a huge familiar face. It was one of those catfish of the twisting channels, those dwellers in the yellow murk, who had been about me and beneath me on the day of my great voyage. Whatever sunny dream had kept him paddling there while the mercury plummeted downward and that Cheshire smile froze slowly, it would be hard to say. Or perhaps he was trapped in a blocked channel and had simply kept swimming until the ice contracted around him. At any rate, there he would lie till the spring thaw.

At that moment I started to turn away, but something in the bleak, whiskered face reproached me, or perhaps it was the river calling to her children. I termed it science, however--a convenient rational phrase I reserve for such occasions--and decided that I would cut the fish out of the ice and take him home. I had no intention of eating him. I was merely struck by a sudden impulse to test the survival qualities of high-plains fishes, particularly fishes of this type who get themselves immured in oxygenless ponds or in cut-off oxbows buried in winter drifts. I blocked him out as gently as possible and dropped him, ice and all, into a collecting can in the car. Then we set out for home.

Unfortunately, the first stages of what was to prove a remarkable resurrection escaped me. Cold and tired after a long drive, I deposited the can with its melting water and ice in the basement. The accompanying corpse I anticipated I would either dispose of or dissect on the following day. A hurried glance had revealed no signs of life.

To my astonishment, however, upon descending into the basement several hours later, I heard stirrings in the receptacle and peered in. The ice had melted. A vast pouting mouth ringed with sensitive feelers confronted me, and the creature's gills labored slowly. A thin stream of silver bubbles rose to the surface and popped. A fishy eye gazed up at me protestingly.

"A tank," it said. This was no Walden pickerel. This was a yellow-green, mud-grubbing, evil-tempered inhabitant of floods and droughts and cyclones. It was the selective product of the high continent and the waters that pour across it. It had outlasted prairie blizzards that left cattle standing frozen upright in the drifts.

"I'll get the tank," I said respectfully.

He lived with me all that winter, and his departure was totally in keeping with his sturdy, independent character. In the spring a migratory impulse or perhaps sheer boredom struck him. Maybe, in some little lost corner of his brain, he felt, far off, the pouring of the mountain waters through the sandy coverts of the Platte. Anyhow, something called to him, and he went. One night when no one was about, he simply jumped out of his tank. I found him dead on the floor next morning. He had made his gamble like a man--or, I should say, a fish. In the proper place it would not have been a fool's gamble. Fishes in the drying shallows of intermittent prairie streams who feel their confinement and have the impulse to leap while there is yet time may regain the main channel and survive. A million ancestral years had gone into that jump, I thought as I looked at him, a million years of climbing through prairie sunflowers and twining in and out through the pillared legs of drinking mammoth.

"Some of your close relatives have been experimenting with air breathing," I remarked, apropos of nothing, as I gathered him up. "Suppose we meet again up there in the cottonwoods in a million years or so."

I missed him a little as I said it. He had for me the kind of lost archaic glory that comes from the water brotherhood. We were both projections out of that timeless ferment and locked as well in some greater unity that lay incalculably beyond us. In many a fin and reptile foot I have seen myself passing by--some part of myself, that is, some part that lies unrealized in the momentary shape I inhabit. People have occasionally written me harsh letters and castigated me for a lack of faith in man when I have ventured to speak of this matter in print. They distrust, it would seem, all shapes and thoughts but their own. They would bring God into the compass of a shopkeeper's understanding and confine Him to those limits, lest He proceed to some unimaginable and shocking act--create perhaps, as a casual afterthought, a being more beautiful than man. As for me, I believe nature capable of this, and having been part of the flow of the river, I feel no envy--any more than the frog envies the reptile or an ancestral ape should envy man.

Every spring in the wet meadows and ditches I hear a little shrilling chorus which sounds for all the world like an endlessly reiterated "We're here, we're here, we're here," And so they are, as frogs, of course. Confident little fellows, I suspect that to some greater ear than ours, man's optimistic pronouncements about his role and destiny may make a similar little ringing sound that travels a small way out into the night. It is only its nearness that is offensive. From the heights of a mountain, or a marsh at evening, it blends, not too badly, with all the other sleepy voices that, in croaks or chirrups, are saying the same thing.

After a while the skilled listener can distinguish man's noise from the katydid's rhythmic assertion, allow for the offbeat of a rabbit's thumping, pick up the autumnal monotone of crickets, and find in all of them a grave pleasure without admitting any to a place of preeminence in his thoughts. It is when all these voices cease and the waters are still, when along the frozen river nothing cries, screams or howls, that the enormous mindlessness of space settles down upon the soul. Somewhere out in that waste of crushed ice and reflected stars, the black waters may be running, but they appear to be running without life toward a destiny in which the whole of space may br locked in some silvery winter of dispersed radiation.

It is then, when the wind comes straitly across the barren marshes and the snow rises and beats in endless waves against the traveler, that I remember best, by some trick of the imagination, my summer voyage on the river. I remember my green extensions, my catfish nuzzlings and minnow wrigglings, my gelatinous materializations out of the mother ooze. And as I walk on through the white smother, it is the magic of water that leaves me a final sign.

Men talk much of matter and energy, of the struggle for existence that molds the shape of life. These things exist, it is true; but more delicate, elusive, quicker than the fins in water, is that mysterious principle known as "organization," which leaves all other mysteries concerned with life stale and insignificant by comparison. For that without organization life does not persist is obvious. Yet this organization itself is not strictly the product of life, nor of selection. Like some dark and passing shadow within matter, it cups out the eyes' small windows or spaces the notes of a meadow lark's song in the interior of a mottled egg. That principle--I am beginning to suspect-- was there before the living in the deeps of water.

The temperature has risen. The little stinging needles have given way to huge flakes floating in like white leaves blown from some great tree in open space. In the car, switching on the lights, I examine one intricate crystal on my sleeve before it melts. No utilitarian philosophy explains a snow crystal, no doctrine of use or disuse. Water has merely leapt out of vapor and thin nothingness in the night sky to array itself in form. There is no logical reason for the existence of a snowflake any more than there is for evolution. It is an apparition from that mysterious shadow world beyond nature, that final world which contains--if anything contains--the explanation of men and catfish and green leaves.
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:15 pm

The Great Deeps

There is a night world that few men have entered and from whose greatest depths none have returned alive--the abyssal depths of the sea. Darwin's associates dreamed of its hovering and intangible shapes as possibly those of the lost Paleozoic world. The great naturalist himself pleaded with outbound voyagers: "Urge the use of the dredge in the tropics; how little or nothing we know of the limit of life downward in the hot seas."

Anything that has been supposedly dead for a hundred million years-- anything that no living eye has beheld except in the chalks of vanished geological epochs--is monstrous when you find it alive and pulsing in your hand. But this was the experience of Sir Charles Thomson, one of the first explorers of the North Atlantic sea bed. Few men in the years since have laid hands or eyes upon living denizens of the fossil kingdom, and this was an adventure no man could forget. The discovery influenced directly the formation of the world's largest oceanographic expedition and made Sir Charles its leader. Speaking of his find, long afterwards, he said: "It was like a little round red cake. And like a little round red cake, it began to pant there in my hand. Curious undulations were passing through it and I had to summon up all my resolution before handling the weird little monster."

Now to the ordinary man that little round red cake would have been a sea urchin, and whether it panted would have meant nothing at all except that it was alive. Nevertheless, the man in the street would have been wrong. The fact was monstrous and the little red sea urchin more startling still. Even the "panting" had significance. No living sea urchin had ever been observed in such a performance. The known forms were all too rigid. The undulations of this little beast were a sure sign of its relationship to a more leathery and flexible ancestral group.

As a living fossil it had been dredged out of the North Atlantic sea bed almost a solid mile below the surface. A mile today is not a great depth compared with the six-mile depression of the Tuscarora Deep, but in the sixties of the last century--Sir Charles Thomson's time--it was below the level at which life was generally supposed to exist. Anything below three hundred fathoms was Azoic, lifeless--so wrote Edward Forbes, the first great oceanographer of the eighteen forties. Like many pioneers he was destined to be proved wrong, yet looking back, it is possible to sympathize. The cold, the dark, the pressure of those unknown depths was frightening to contemplate. The human mind shied subconsciously away from the notion that even here sentient beings had groped their way down into the primeval slime of the sea floor. It was the world of the abyss, supposedly as lifeless as the earth's first midnight.

Today we know that the abyss is haunted. Through it drift luminous jack-o'-lantern faces with wolf-trap mouths and meager bodies, as though a head floating in that enormous darkness were more important than a body, which could almost be dispensed with in the lean economy of the night. It is a world of delicately groping yard-long antennae, or of great staring eyes that can pick up remote pinpoints of light and follow them through the restless luminescence of a firefly darkness. To Sir Charles Thomson, however, the abyss was more than haunted. It was the world of the past.

The fascination of lost worlds has long preoccupied humanity. It is inevitable that transitory man, student of the galaxies and computer of light-years, should entertain nostalgic yearnings for some island outside of time, some Avalon untouched by human loss. Even the scholar has not been averse to searching for the living past on islands or precipice-guarded plateaus. Jefferson repeated the story of a trapper who had heard the mammoth roaring in the Virginia woods; in 1823 a South American traveler imaginatively viewed through his spyglass mastodons grazing in remote Andean valleys.

Nevertheless when the explorers had penetrated the last woodland, gazed on the last new animal--something they had pretty well accomplished by the middle of the nineteenth century--the past had been nowhere found. Only the great waters remained, the planetary expanse that, since the days of Thorfinn the Skull Cleaver, has received and, on occasion, swallowed the restless sails of men. Its surface was known, but its depths remained unplumbed. The treasure of countless piracies, the dead of innumerable battles had gone down into the green gloom of the mermaids' kingdom. In return, men had had only the legendary glimpse of a white arm at evening or the voice of a siren singing from some isle that would be gone at daybreak. Later, as men's youthful imaginations faded, only the rumor of sea monsters--serpents or archaic water beasts--survived from the abyss.

From a belief that the great deeps were lifeless, scholars examining the growths on submarine cables and the scrapings brought up by newly devised dredges "began to visualize something like Conan Doyle's Lost World in reverse. By 1870 this conception had two aspects: first, a theory that the ocean depths were populated by the living marine fossils of past geological ages which had here escaped the disasters that had destroyed their kind in the shallow seas of the earlier world; second--and reflecting the materialistic philosophy which was beginning to arise under the stimulus of the Darwinian theory--a belief that widespread on the floor of the abyssal plain lay the "Urschleim," a protoplasmic half-living matter representing that transition between the living and the nonliving out of which more complex life had, in the course of time, developed. The abyss, in other words, was thought to contain not only the living record of the past, but the ultimate secret of life itself; Creation might still be in process. Sir Charles Thomson in one enthusiastic statement in his Depths of the Sea even ventured to maintain: "The [depth] range of the various groups in modern seas corresponds remarkably with their vertical range in ancient strata." Down at the bottom, of course, lay that living undifferentiated primordial ooze as deep in the sea as it lay deep in time.

As the number of deep-sea soundings increased, as men slowly grasped the antiquity of that dark, cold world that is called the abyssal plain, a new idea arose: the notion, as I have hinted, of a lost world in reverse, a midnight city of refuge in which the present mingled and lived on with the past. It was, of course, the world of the uttermost depths, the place without light since the beginning, and whose extent no continent above the waters could ever fill.

Of all the worlds of life the abyss alone remains unaltered. It is the one place on the planet where conditions remain as they have been since the beginning, where the five-mile pressures have not altered, where no suns have ever shone, where the cold is the same at the poles as at the equator, where the seasons are unchanging, where there is no wind and no wave to stir the ooze above which the glass sponges rise on graceful stems, or the abyssal sea squirts float like little balloons on strings above the mud. This is the sole world on the planet which we can enter only by a great act of the imagination. There has been, perhaps, only one greater imaginative effort--the attempt of nineteenth-century biology, intoxicated by its own successes, to observe on the sea floor life in the process of becoming, to glimpse in the abyssal oozes the crossing between life and death.

The story begins with the laying of the first Atlantic cable in the sixties of the last century. It involves one of the most peculiar and fantastic errors ever committed in the name of science. It is useless to blame this error upon one man because many leading figures of the day participated in what was, and remains, one of the most curious cases of self-delusion ever indulged in by scholars. It was the product of an overconfident materialism, a vainglorious assumption that the secrets of life were about to be revealed.

Haeckel in Germany and Huxley in England were proceeding to show that as one passed below the stage of nucleated single-celled organisms one arrived at a simple stirring of the abyssal slime wherein something that was neither life nor non-life oozed and fed without cellular individuality.

This soft, gelatinous matter had been taken from the ocean bed during dredging operations. Examined and pronounced upon by Professor Huxley, it was given the name of Bathybius haeckelii in honor of his great German colleague. Speaking before the Royal Geographical Society in 1870, Huxley confidently maintained that Bathybius formed a living scum or film on the sea bed extending over thousands of square miles. Moreover, he expanded, it probably formed a continuous sheet of living matter girdling the whole surface of the earth.

Sir Charles Thomson shared this view, commenting that the "organism" showed "no trace of differentiation of organs" and consisted apparently "of an amorphous sheet of a protein compound, irritable to a low degree and capable of assimilating food ... a diffused formless protoplasm." Haeckel conceived of these formless "monera" as arising from non-living matter, their vital phenomena being traceable to "physico-chemical causes." Here was the "Urschleim" with a vengeance, the seething, unindividualized ooze whose potentialities included the butterfly and the rose. Man was mud and mud was man. Mechanism was the order of the day.

Unfortunately for this beautiful theory wistfully remembered by one writer as "explaining so much," Bathybius proved to be what the microscopists call an artifact; that is, it did not exist. A certain unfeeling Mr. Buchanan of the Challenger Expedition discovered, as he tried to investigate the nature of Bathybius, that he could produce all the characters of that indescribable animal by the simple process of adding strong alcohol to sea water. It was not necessary to drink the potion. One simply examined a specimen under the lens and observed that sulphate of lime was precipitated in the form of a gelatinous ooze which clung around particles as though ingesting them, thus lending a superficial protoplasmic appearance to the solution.

Mr. Huxley's original specimen had apparently been treated in this manner when it was sent to him. Huxley took the episode in good grace, but it was a severe blow to the materialists. The structureless protoplasmic "Urschleim" was a projective dream of scientists striving to build an evolutionary family tree upon existing organisms. Being nineteenth-century zoologists they unfortunately forgot the world of microscopic plant life, its basic position in the nourishment of living things, and the fact that it must have sunlight in order to perform its mysterious green miracles.

The abyss, it was now to be learned, whatever might roam its waters or slither wetly through its midnights, was not the original abode of life. If there was a past on the black plain far beneath us, if indeed the strange life of remote eras lingered there, it was not stacked with the layered neatness of geological strata as some oceanographers had imagined. The floating heads with their starveling bodies, the squid which emitted clouds of luminescent ink and vanished in their own bright explosions, were all a part of one of life's strangest qualities--its eternal dissatisfaction with what is, its persistent habit of reaching out into new environments and, by degrees, adapting itself to the most fantastic circumstances.

Once long ago as a child I can remember removing the cover from an old well. I was alone at the time and I can still anticipate, with a slight crawling of my scalp, the sight I inadvertently saw as I peered over the brink and followed a shaft of sunlight many feet down into the darkness. It touched, just touched in passing, a rusty pipe which projected across the well space some twenty feet above the water. And there, secretive as that very underground whose mystery had lured me into this adventure, I saw, passing surely and unhurriedly into the darkness, a spidery thing of hair and many legs. I set the rotting cover of boards back into place with a shiver, but that unidentifiable creature of the well has stayed with me to this day.

For the first time I must have realized, I think, the frightening diversity of the living; something that did not love the sun was down there, something that could walk through total darkness upon slender footholds over evil waters, something that had come down there by preference from above. It was in this way that the oceanic abyss was entered: by preference from above. Life did not arise on the bottom; the muds of the deep waters did not compound it. Instead, with its own pale lanterns or with the delicate, strawlike feelers of blindness, it has groped its way down into the dark.

The four-year voyage of the Challenger under the auspices of the British Admiralty, beginning in 1872, was the most ambitious project to investigate the ocean depths that men had ever attempted. The vessel was equipped with floating laboratories and a staff of naturalists. She traveled sixty-nine thousand nautical miles, took hundreds of soundings, and the observations of her staff of investigators occupy fifty huge volumes.

When the Challenger left port oceanography was still essentially a speculative science. Her biological director, Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, the same zoologist who had dredged the little red sea urchin out of the North Atlantic, believed along with many of his colleagues that the deep recesses of the ocean, unchanging through the ages, would reveal "living fossils," actual missing links in the history of life. Thomas Huxley, then at the height of his powers, proclaimed with characteristic vigor:

It may be confidently assumed that .. the things brought up will ... be zoological antiquities which in the tranquil and little changed depths of the ocean have escaped the causes of destruction at work in the shallows and represent the predominant population of a past age.

This view was enthusiastically shared by the great Swiss naturalist, Louis Agassiz, who contended that in deep waters "we should expect to find representatives of earlier geological periods." Agassiz went even further and observed that it was the deep wafers which today most closely approximated the conditions under which life had originally emerged. It was, he said, the depths of the ocean alone which could place animals under a pressure such as he believed corresponded to the heavy atmosphere of a young world.

These were the excited dreams of science in 1872 as the Challenger steamed out of port. Sixty-nine thousand miles and four years later her weary scientists came home. They had rocked sickeningly in all seas, had dragged with cumbersome and ill-devised apparatus the very bowels of Creation. They had handled rare forms of life, looked on things denied to ordinary men, and, above all, they had laid the foundations of a true science of the sea. Nevertheless, their eyes were empty.

The great globe-girdling carpet of the living ooze was gone--that evolutionary base in which the German scholars had seen "an infinite capacity for improvement in every conceivable direction." "Our ardor," wearily confessed Moseley, the coral specialist, "abated somewhat ... as the same tedious animals kept appearing from the depths in all parts of the world."

In the beginning even the cabin boys had crowded to see what four miles of rope would bring up from the bottom. Gradually, however as the novelty wore off, the spectators became fewer. Even members of the scientific staff were not always present, particularly when the dredge arrived during the dinner hour.

The great hopes of the beginning were fading in disappointment, but Moseley gives an unforgettable picture of Sir Charles Thomson's sturdy persistence arid enthusiasm in the face of the collapse of his theories. "To the last," he writes, "every cuttlefish which came up in our deep sea net was squeezed to see if it had a belemnite's bone in its back, and trilobites were eagerly looked out for." Either of these events would have found the world of the Paleozoic floundering alive on the deck of the Challenger. To the despair of Sir Charles they never appeared. It is true that here and there a few animals were recovered that were believed to be extinct and to exist only as fossils, but these were only such discoveries as might be expected when any vast unexplored region is first investigated, whether it be land or sea.

The secret and remote abysses were yielding not the protected remnants of the very earliest world, but a scattering of later antique types along with a more modern abyssal fauna obviously related to, and descended from, the swarming creatures of the shallow seas and upper waters. Such ancient forms as survive in the abyss represent adaptations and migrations that took place in antiquity from the continental shoals far above. In that sense the midnight timeless city does indeed exist, for in those depths the ages overlap and some few elements of the older world, losing out in competition with more highly evolved and modern types, have chosen to slip by degrees into the freezing cold of the abyss. Here in the unchanging mud and comforting darkness they have survived. After them in time have come others, groping into that enormous cellar with lanterns or light-magnifying eyes--clever adaptations possible to squids and higher vertebrates.

Even among the mammals, the great sperm whale has come sounding down into the fearful pressures of the kraken's world, the last of all to enter, and capable of enduring only moments on what is actually the upper edge of the abyss. If it is a place of refuge it is also, we know now, a famine world. There is no vegetable life below there. All that lives preys on others or on the dead raining down from above. This is the reason for the curiously abbreviated bodies of many of the fishes and their enormous jaws; this is the reason why we know that life came relatively late to the abyss.

According to the biochemists the conditions under which cellular life is possible are very restricted, nor have they changed in any marked degree since life began. At first glance this statement seems absurd. Life has crept upward from the waters, it crawls in the fields, it penetrates the air, it is not unknown even in the frozen wastes of the Antarctic. Surely this enormous diversity is the very reverse of restriction.

The answer, of course, lies in that modest little phrase "the conditions of cellular life." All of the tremendous differences between living forms have been achieved only by the elaboration of devices for the maintenance of that inner nourishing liquidity in which cells can live and grow within a certain narrow range of tolerance. Not for nothing has the composition of mammalian blood led to our description as "walking sacks of sea water," Not for nothing did the great French physiologist Bernard comment that "the stability of the interior environment is the condition of free life."

The drifting cell masses of the early ocean lived in a nutrient solution. Salt and sun and moisture were accessible without great mechanical elaboration. It was the reaching out that changed this pattern, the reaching out that forced the cells to bring the sea ashore with them, to elaborate in their own bodies the very miniature of that all-embracing sea from which they came. It was the reaching out, that magnificent and age-long groping that only life--blindly and persistently among stones and the indifference of the entire inanimate universe--can continue to endure and prolong.

Men have worked in many places. They have seen this sea-born protoplasm creeping upward in the shape of lichens, among the howling winds of snow-clad mountains. They have seen it in the delicate "snowshoe" feet of desert lizards devised for running over sand. From some unknown spot, most probably along the shoals above the continental shelf, it has reached out into lakes and grasslands, edged stealthily into deserts, learned even to endure the heat of boiling springs or to hatch eggs, like the emperor penguin, in the blizzards by the southern pole. It has similarly found its way into the downward coursing streams of the abyss. It has solved the pressures of the ocean bottom as it has survived the rarefied air of the highest mountains. In these difficult surroundings life thins a little; the inventions that support it grow more difficult to produce and the intrusions are apt to be late, because life has experimented last in these bleak planetary wastelands.

Nevertheless the reaching out that began a billion years ago is still in process. The cells, so carefully transferring their limited range of endurance through astounding extremes of heat and frost and pressure, show no inclination toward content. Content is a word unknown to life; it is also a word unknown to man.

In 1949, on the White Sands proving grounds, a Wac Corporal rocket reached an altitude of 250 miles and, on the verge of outer space, paused and fell back. Somehow I like to think of those rockets, pounding year after year at that ocean of air, roaring away into an immensity from which, before long, one will not come back. Sometimes, walking in the star- sprinkled evenings, I think of that almost forgotten theory of Arrhenius that the spores of life came originally from outer space.

Perhaps that explains it, I think wistfully--life reaching out, groping for a billion years, life desperate to go home.

The nineteenth-century mechanists, at least, did not find our origins in the abyss, and every bubble of the chemist's broth has left the secret of life as inscrutably remote as ever. The ingredients are known; they are to be had on any drug-store shelf. You can take them yourself and pour them and wait hopefully for the resulting slime to crawl. It will not. The beautiful pulse of streaming protoplasm, that unknown organization of an unstable chemistry which makes up the life process, will not begin. Carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen you have mixed, and the same dead chemicals they remain.

Shape of sea water and carbon rings, yet simultaneously a perplexed professor on a village street I look up across the moon and Venus--outward, outward into that blue- white glitter beyond the galaxy. And as I look and shiver I feel the voice in every fiber of my being: Have we come from elsewhere? By these our instruments shall we go home? Whatever the beginning, and by whatever mechanical extensions, life is about to cross into the open domain of space. Has not the great 2oo-inch reflector upon Mount Palomar already spied out the prospect?

A billion years have gone into the making of that eye; the water and the salt and the vapors of the sun have built it; things that squirmed in the tide silts have devised it. Light-year beyond light-year, deep beyond deep, the mind may rove by means of it, hanging above the bottomless and surveying impartially the state of matter in the white-dwarf suns.

Yet whenever I see a frog's eye low in the water warily ogling the shoreward landscape, I always think inconsequentially of those twiddling mechanical eyes that mankind manipulates nightly from a thousand observatories. Someday, with a telescopic lens an acre in extent, we are going to see something not to our liking, some looming shape outside there across the great pond of space.

Whenever I catch a frog's eye I am aware of this, but I do not find it depressing. I stand quite still and try hard not to move or lift a hand since it would only frighten him. And standing thus it finally comes to me that this is the most enormous extension of vision of which life is capable: the projection of itself into other lives. This is the lonely, magnificent power of humanity. It is, far more than any spatial adventure, the supreme epitome of the reaching out.
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:15 pm

The Snout

I have long been an admirer of the octopus. The cephalopods are very old, and they have slipped, protean, through many shapes. They are the wisest of the mollusks, and I have always felt it to be just as well for us that they never came ashore, but--there are other things that have.

There is no need to be frightened. It is true some of the creatures are odd, but I find the situation rather heartening than otherwise. It gives one a feeling of confidence to see nature still busy with experiments, still dynamic, and not through nor satisfied because a Devonian fish managed to end as a two-legged character with a straw hat. There are other things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat. It pays to know this. It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past. The only thing that doesn't pay is to be sure of man's own part in it.

There are things down there still coming ashore. Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity. It gets into your head--the certainty, I mean--the human certainty, and then you miss it all: the things on the tide flats and what they mean, and why, as my wife says, "they ought to be watched."

The trouble is we don't know what to watch for. I have a friend, one of these Explorers Club people, who drops in now and then between trips to tell me about the size of crocodile jaws in Uganda, or what happened on some back beach in Arnhem Land.

"They fell out of the trees," he said. "Like rain. And into the boat."

"Uh ?" I said, noncommittally.

"They did so," he protested, "and they were hard to catch."

"Really--" I said.

"We were pushing a dugout up one of the tidal creeks in northern Australia and going fast when smacko we jam this mangrove bush and the things come tumbling down.

"What were they doing sitting up there in bunches? I ask you. It's no place for a fish. Besides that they had a way of sidling off with those popeyes trained on you. I never liked it. Somebody ought to keep an eye on them."

"Why?" I asked.

"I don't know why," he said impatiently, running a rough, square hand through his hair and wrinkling his forehead. "I just mean they make you feel that way, is all. A fish belongs in the water. It ought to stay there--just as we live on land in houses. Things ought to know their place and stay in it, but those fish have got a way of sidling off. As though they had mental reservations and weren't keeping any contracts. See what I mean?"

"I see what you mean," I said gravely. "They ought to be watched. My wife thinks so too. About a lot of things."

"She does ?" He brightened. "Then that's two of us. I don't know why, but they give you that feeling."

He didn't know why, but I thought that I did,

It began as such things always begin--in the ooze of unnoticed swamps, in the darkness of eclipsed moons. It began with a strangled gasping for air.

The pond was a place of reek and corruption, of fetid smells and oxygen-starved fish breathing through laboring gills. At times the slowly contracting circle of the water left little windrows of minnows who skittered desperately to escape the sun, but who died, nevertheless, in the fat, warm mud. It was a place of low life. In it the human brain began.

There were strange snouts in those waters, strange barbels nuzzling the bottom ooze, and there was time--three hundred million years of it--but mostly, I think, it was the ooze. By day the temperature in the world outside the pond rose to a frightful intensity; at night the sun went down in smoking red. Dust storms marched in incessant progression across a wilderness whose plants were the plants of long ago. Leafless and weird and stiff they lingered by the water, while over vast areas of grassless uplands the winds blew until red stones took on the polish of reflecting mirrors. There was nothing to hold the land in place. Winds howled, dust clouds rolled, and brief erratic torrents choked with silt ran down to the sea. It was a time of dizzying contrasts, a time of change.

On the oily surface of the pond, from time to time a snout thrust upward, took in air with a queer grunting inspiration, and swirled back to the bottom. The pond was doomed, the water was foul, and the oxygen almost gone, but the creature would not die. It could breathe air direct through a little accessory lung, and it could walk. In all that weird and lifeless landscape, it was the only thing that could. It walked rarely and under protest, but that was not surprising. The creature was a fish.

In the passage of days, the pond became a puddle, but the Snout survived. There was dew one dark night and a coolness in the empty stream bed. When the sun rose next morning the pond was an empty place of cracked mud, but the Snout did not lie there. He had gone. Down stream there were other ponds. He breathed air for a few hours and hobbled slowly along on the stumps of heavy fins.

It was an uncanny business if there had been anyone there to see. It was a journey best not observed in daylight, it was something that needed swamps and shadows and the touch of the night dew. It was a monstrous penetration of a forbidden element, and the Snout kept his face from the light. It was just as well, though the face should not be mocked. In three hundred million years it would be our own.

There was something fermenting in the brain of the Snout. He was no longer entirely a fish. The ooze had marked him. It takes a swamp-and- tide-flat zoologist to tell you about life; it is in this domain that the living suffer great extremes, it is here that the water-failures, driven to desperation, make starts in a new element. It is here that strange compromises are made and new senses are born. The Snout was no exception. Though he breathed and walked primarily in order to stay in the water, he was coming ashore.

He was not really a successful fish except that he was managing to stay alive in a noisome, uncomfortable, oxygen-starved environment. In fact the time was coming when the last of his kind, harried by more ferocious and speedier fishes, would slip off the edge of the continental shelf, to seek safety in the sunless abysses of the deep sea. But the Snout was a fresh-water Crossopterygian, to give him his true name, and cumbersome and plodding though he was, something had happened back of his eyes. The ooze had gotten in its work.

It is interesting to consider what sort of creatures we, the remote descendants of the Snout, might be, except for that green quagmire out of which he came. Mammalian insects perhaps we should have been--solid- brained, our neurones wired for mechanical responses, our lives running out with the perfection of beautiful, intricate, and mindless clocks. More likely we should never have existed at all. It was the Snout and the ooze that did it. Perhaps there also, among rotting fish heads and blue, night-burning bog lights, moved the eternal mystery, the careful finger of God. The increase was not much. It was two bubbles, two thin-walled little balloons at the end of the Snout's small brain. The cerebral hemispheres had appeared.

Among all the experiments in that dripping, ooze-filled world, one was vital: the brain had to be fed. The nerve tissues are insatiable devourers of oxygen. If they do not get it, life is gone. In stagnant swamp waters, only the development of a highly efficient blood supply to the brain can prevent disaster. And among those gasping, dying creatures, whose small brains winked out forever in the long Silurian drought, the Snout and his brethren survived.

Over the exterior surface of the Snout's tiny brain ran the myriad blood vessels that served it; through the greatly enlarged choroid plexuses, other vessels pumped oxygen into the spinal fluid. The brain was a thin-walled tube fed from both surfaces. It could only exist as a thing of thin walls permeated with oxygen. To thicken, to lay down solid masses of nervous tissue such as exist among the fishes in oxygenated waters was to invite disaster. The Snout lived on a bubble, two bubbles in his brain. It was not that his thinking was deep; it was only that it had to be thin. The little bubbles of the hemispheres helped to spread the area upon which higher correlation centers could be built, and yet preserve those areas from the disastrous thickenings which meant oxygen death to the swamp dweller. There is a mystery about those thickenings which culminate in the so-called solid brain. It is the brain of insects, of the modern fishes, of some reptiles and all birds. Always it marks the appearance of elaborate patterns of instinct and the end of thought. A road has been taken which, anatomically, is well-nigh irretraceable; it does not lead in the direction of a high order of consciousness.

Wherever, instead, the thin sheets of gray matter expand upward into the enormous hemispheres of the human brain, laughter, or it may be sorrow, enters in. Out of the choked Devonian waters emerged sight and sound and the music that rolls invisible through the composer's brain. They are there still in the ooze along the tideline, though no one notices. The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back to the water. There are things still coming ashore.

The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.

There are two ways to seek the doorway: in the swamps of the inland waterways and along the tide flats of the estuaries where rivers come to the sea. By those two pathways life came ashore. It was not the magnificent march through the breakers and up the cliffs that we fondly imagine. It was a stealthy advance made in suffocation and terror, amidst the leaching bite of chemical discomfort. It was made by the failures of the sea.

Some creatures have slipped through the invisible chemical barrier between salt and fresh water into the tidal rivers, and later come ashore; some have crept upward from the salt. In all cases, however, the first adventure into the dreaded atmosphere seems to have been largely determined by the inexorable crowding of enemies and by the retreat further and further into marginal situations where the oxygen supply was depleted. Finally, in the ruthless selection of the swamp margins, or in the scramble for food on the tide flats, the land becomes home.

Not the least interesting feature of some of the tide-flat emergents is their definite antipathy for the full tide. It obstructs their food-collecting on the mud banks and brings their enemies. Only extremes of fright will drive them into the water for any period.

I think it was the great nineteenth-century paleontologist Cope who first clearly enunciated what he called the "law of the unspecialized," the contention that it was not from the most highly organized and dominant forms of a given geological era that the master type of a succeeding period evolved, but that instead the dominant forms tended to arise from more lowly and generalized animals which were capable of making new adaptations, and which were not narrowly restricted to a given environment.

There is considerable truth to this observation, but, for all that, the idea is not simple. Who is to say without foreknowledge of the future which animal is specialized and which is not? We have only to consider our remote ancestor, the Snout, to see the intricacies into which the law of the unspecialized may lead us.

If we had been making zoological observations in the Paleozoic Age, with no knowledge of the strange realms life was to penetrate in the future, we would probably have regarded the Snout as specialized. We would have seen his air-bladder lung, his stubby, sluggish fins, and his odd ability to wriggle overland as specialized adaptations to a peculiarly restricted environmental niche in stagnant continental waters. We would have thought in water terms and we would have dismissed the Snout as an interesting failure off the main line of progressive evolution, escaping from his enemies and surviving successfully only in the dreary and marginal surroundings scorned by the swift-finned teleost fishes who were destined to dominate the seas and all quick waters.

Yet it was this poor specialization--this bog-trapped failure--whose descendants, in three great movements, were to dominate the earth. It is only now, looking backward, that we dare to regard him as "generalized." The Snout was the first vertebrate to pop completely through the water membrane into a new dimension. His very specializations and failures, in a water sense, had preadapted him for a world he scarcely knew existed.

The day of the Snout was over three hundred million years ago. Not long since I read a book in which a prominent scientist spoke cheerfully of some ten billion years of future time remaining to us. He pointed out happily the things that man might do throughout that period. Fish in the sea, I thought again, birds in the air. The climb all far behind us, the species fixed and sure. No wonder my explorer friend had had a momentary qualm when he met the mudskippers with their mental reservations and lack of promises. There is something wrong with our world view. It is still Ptolemaic, though the sun is no longer believed to revolve around the earth.

We teach the past, we see farther backward into time than any race before us, but we stop at the present, or, at best, we project far into the future idealized versions of ourselves. All that long way behind us we see, perhaps inevitably, through human eyes alone. We see ourselves as the culmination and the end, and if we do indeed consider our passing, we think that sunlight will go with us and the earth be dark. We are the end. For us continents rose and fell, for us the waters and the air were mastered, for us the great living web has pulsated and grown more intricate.

To deny this, a man once told me, is to deny God. This puzzled me. I went back along the pathway to the marsh. I went, not in the past, not by the bones of dead things, not down the lost roadway of the Snout. I went instead in daylight, in the Now, to see if the door was still there, and to see what things passed through.

I found that the same experiments were brewing, that up out of that ancient well, fins were still scrambling toward the sunlight. They were small things, and which of them presaged the future I could not say. I saw only that they were many and that they had solved the oxygen death in many marvelous ways, not always ours.

I found that there were modern fishes who breathed air, not through a lung but through their stomachs or through strange chambers where their gills should be, or breathing as the Snout once breathed. I found that some crawled in the fields at nightfall pursuing insects, or slept on the grass by pond sides and who drowned, if kept under water, as men themselves might drown.

Of all these fishes the mudskipper Periophthalmus is perhaps the strangest. He climbs trees with his fins and pursues insects; he snaps worms like a robin on the tide flats; he sees as land things see, and above all he dodges and evades with a curious pop eyed insolence more suggestive of the land than of the sea. Of a different tribe and a different time he is, nevertheless, oddly reminiscent of the Snout.

But not the same. There lies the hope of life. The old ways are exploited and remain, but new things come, new senses try the unfamiliar air. There are small scuttlings and splashings in the dark, and out of it come the first croaking, illiterate voices of the things to be, just as man once croaked and dreamed darkly in that tiny vesicular forebrain.

Perpetually, now, we search and bicker and disagree. The eternal form eludes us--the shape we conceive as ours. Perhaps the old road through the marsh should tell us. We are one of many appearances of the thing called Life; we are not its perfect image, for it has no image except Life, and life is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time.
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:15 pm

How Flowers Changed the World

If it had been possible to observe the Earth from the far side of the solar system over the long course of geological epochs, the watchers might have been able to discern a subtle change in the light emanating from our planet. That world of long ago would, like the red deserts of Mars, have reflected light from vast drifts of stone and gravel, the sands of wandering wastes, the blackness of naked basalt, the yellow dust of endlessly moving storms. Only the ceaseless marching of the clouds and the intermittent flashes from the restless surface of the sea would have told a different story, but still essentially a barren one. Then, as the millennia rolled away and age followed age, a new and greener light would, by degrees, have come to twinkle across those endless miles.

This is the only difference those far watchers, by the use of subtle instruments, might have perceived in the whole history of the planet Earth. Yet that slowly growing green twinkle would have contained the epic march of life from the tidal oozes upward across the raw and unclothed continents. Out of the vast chemical bath of the sea--not from the deeps, but from the element-rich, light- exposed platforms of the continental shelves--wandering fingers of green had crept upward along the meanderings of river systems and fringed the gravels of forgotten lakes.

In those first ages plants clung of necessity to swamps and watercourses. Their reproductive processes demanded direct access to water. Beyond the primitive ferns and mosses that enclosed the borders of swamps and streams the rocks still lay vast and bare, the winds still swirled the dust of a naked planet. The grass cover that holds our world secure in place was still millions of years in the future. The green marchers had gained a soggy foothold upon the land, but that was all. They did not reproduce by seeds but by microscopic swimming sperm that had to wriggle their way through water to fertilize the female cell. Such plants in their higher forms had clever adaptations for the use of rain water in their sexual phases, and survived with increasing success in a wet land environment. They now seem part of man's normal environment. The truth is, however, that there is nothing very "normal" about Nature. Once upon a time there were no flowers at all.

A little while ago--about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates time in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet--flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator, one would have seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.

Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms--the flowering plants. Even the great evolutionist, Charles Darwin, called them "an abominable mystery," because they appeared so suddenly and spread so fast.

Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know--even man himself--would never have existed. Francis Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star. Intuitively he had sensed like a naturalist the enormous interlinked complexity of life. Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man.

If we were to go back into the Age of Reptiles, its drowned swamps and birdless forests would reveal to us a warmer but, on the whole, a sleepier world than that of today. Here and there, it is true, the serpent heads of bottom-feeding dinosaurs might be upreared in suspicion of their huge flesh-eating compatriots. Tyrannosaurs, enormous bipedal caricatures of men, would stalk mindlessly across the sites of future cities and go their slow way down into the dark of geologic time.

In all that world of living things nothing saw save with the intense concentration of the hunt, nothing moved except with the grave sleepwalking intentness of the instinct-driven brain. Judged by modern standards, it was a world in slow motion, a cold-blooded world whose occupants were most active at noonday but torpid on chill nights, their brains damped by a slower metabolism than any known to even the most primitive of warm-blooded animals today.

A high metabolic rate and the maintenance of a constant body temperature are supreme achievements in the evolution of life. They enable an animal to escape, within broad limits, from the overheating or the chilling of its immediate surroundings, and at the same time to maintain a peak mental efficiency. Creatures without a high metabolic rate are slaves to weather. Insects in the first frosts of autumn all run down like little clocks. Yet if you pick one up and breathe warmly upon it, it will begin to move about once more.

In a sheltered spot such creatures may sleep away the winter, but they are hopelessly immobilized. Though a few warm-blooded mammals, such as the woodchuck of our day, have evolved a way of reducing their metabolic rate in order to undergo winter hibernation, it is a survival mechanism with drawbacks, for it leaves the animal helplessly exposed if enemies discover him during his period of suspended animation. Thus bear or woodchuck, big animal or small, must seek, in this time of descending sleep, a safe refuge in some hidden den or burrow. Hibernation is, therefore, primarily a winter refuge of small, easily concealed animals rather than of large ones.

A high metabolic rate, however, means a heavy intake of energy in order to sustain body warmth and efficiency. It is for this reason that even some of these later warm-blooded mammals existing in our day have learned to descend into a slower, unconscious rate of living during the winter months when food may be difficult to obtain. On a slightly higher plane they are following the procedure of the cold-blooded frog sleeping in the mud at the bottom of a frozen pond.

The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world. Their appearance parallels in a quite surprising manner the rise of the birds and mammals.

Slowly, toward the dawn of the Age of Reptiles, something over two hundred and fifty million years ago, the little naked sperm cells wriggling their way through dew and raindrops had given way to a kind of pollen carried by the wind. Our present-day pine forests represent plants of a pollen-disseminating variety. Once fertilization was no longer dependent on exterior water, the march over drier regions could be extended. Instead of spores, simple primitive seeds carrying some nourishment for the young plant had developed, but true flowers were still scores of millions of years away. After a long period of hesitant evolutionary groping, they exploded upon the world with truly revolutionary violence.

The event occurred in Cretaceous times in the close of the Age of Reptiles. Before the coming of the flowering plants our own ancestral stock, the warm-blooded mammals, consisted of a few mousy little creatures hidden in trees and underbrush. A few lizard-like birds with carnivorous teeth flapped awkwardly on ill-aimed flights among archaic shrubbery. None of these insignificant creatures gave evidence of any remarkable talents. The mammals in particular had been around for some millions of years, but had remained well lost in the shadow of the mighty reptiles. Truth to tell, man was still, like the genie in the bottle, encased in the body of a creature about the size of a rat.

As for the birds, their reptilian cousins the Pterodactyls, flew farther and better. There was just one thing about the birds that paralleled the physiology of the mammals. They, too, had evolved warm blood and its accompanying temperature control. Nevertheless, if one had been seen stripped of his feathers, he would still have seemed a slightly uncanny and unsightly lizard.

Neither the birds nor the mammals, however, were quite what they seemed. They were waiting for the Age of Flowers. They were waiting for what flowers, and with them the true encased seed, would bring. Fish-eating, gigantic leather-winged reptiles, twenty-eight feet from wing tip to wing tip, hovered over the coasts that one day would be swarming with gulls.

Inland the monotonous green of the pine and spruce forests with their primitive wooden cone flowers stretched everywhere. No grass hindered the fall of the naked seeds to earth. Great sequoias towered to the skies. The world of that time has a certain appeal but it is a giant's world, a world moving slowly like the reptiles who stalked magnificently among the boles of its trees.

The trees themselves are ancient, slow-growing and immense, like the redwood groves that have survived to our day on the California coast. All is stiff, formal, upright and green, monotonously green. There is no grass as yet; there are no wide plains rolling in the sun, no tiny daisies dotting the meadows underfoot. There is little versatility about this scene; it is, in truth, a giant's world.

A few nights ago it was brought home vividly to me that the world has changed since that far epoch. I was awakened out of sleep by an unknown sound in my living room. Not a small sound--not a creaking timber or a mouse's scurry--but a sharp, rending explosion as though an unwary foot had been put down upon a wine glass. I had come instantly out of sleep and lay tense, unbreathing. I listened for another step. There was none.

Unable to stand the suspense any longer, I turned on the light and passed from room to room glancing uneasily behind chairs and into closets. Nothing seemed disturbed, and I stood puzzled in the center of the living room floor. Then a small button-shaped object upon the rug caught my eye. It was hard and polished and glistening. Scattered over the length of the room were several more shining up at me like wary little eyes. A pine cone that had been lying in a dish had been blown the length of the coffee table. The dish itself could hardly have been the source of the explosion. Beside it I found two ribbon-like strips of a velvety green. I tried to place the two strips together to make a pod. They twisted resolutely away from each other and would no longer fit.

I relaxed in a chair, then, for I had reached a solution of the midnight disturbance. The twisted strips were wisteria pods that I had brought in a day or two previously and placed in the dish. They had chosen midnight to explode and distribute their multiplying fund of life down the length of the room. A plant, a fixed, rooted thing, immobilized in a single spot, had devised a way of propelling its offspring across open space. Immediately there passed before my eyes the million airy troopers of the milkweed pod and the clutching hooks of the sandburs. Seeds on the coyote's tail, seeds on the hunter's coat, thistledown mounting on the winds--all were somehow triumphing over life's limitations. Yet the ability to do this had not been with them at the beginning. It was the product of endless effort and experiment.

The seeds on my carpet were not going to lie stiffly where they had dropped like their antiquated cousins, the naked seeds on the pine-cone scales. They were travelers. Struck by the thought, I went out next day and collected several other varieties. I line them up now in a row on my desk--so many little capsules of life, winged, hooked or spiked. Everyone is an angiosperm, a product of the true flowering plants. Contained in these little boxes is the secret of that far-off Cretaceous explosion of a hundred million years ago that changed the face of the planet. And somewhere in here, I think, as I poke seriously at one particularly resistant seedcase of a wild grass, was once man himself.

When the first simple flower bloomed on some raw upland late in the Dinosaur Age, it was wind pollinated, just like its early pine-cone relatives. It was a very inconspicuous flower because it had not yet evolved the ideal of using the surer attraction of birds and insects to achieve the transportation of pollen. It sowed its own pollen and received the pollen of other flowers by the simple vagaries of the wind. Many plants in regions where insect life is scant still follow this principle today. Nevertheless, the true flower--and the seed that it produced--was a profound innovation in the world of life.

In a way, this event parallels, in the plant world, what happened among animals. Consider the relative chance for survival of the exteriorly deposited egg of a fish in contrast with the fertilized egg of a mammal, carefully retained for months in the mother's body until the young animal (or human being) is developed to a point where it may survive. The biological wastage is less--and so it is with the flowering plants. The primitive spore, a single cell fertilized in the beginning by a swimming sperm, did not promote rapid distribution, and the young plant, moreover, had to struggle up from nothing. No one had left it any food except what it could get by its own unaided efforts.

By contrast, the true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means "encased seed") grew a seed in the heart of a flower, a seed whose development was initiated by a fertilizing pollen grain independent of outside moisture. But the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. Moreover, by featherdown attachments, as in dandelion or milkweed seed, it can be wafted upward on gusts and ride the wind for miles; or with hooks it can cling to a bear's or a rabbit's hide; or like some of the berries, it can be covered with a juicy attractive fruit to lure birds, pass undigested through their intestinal tracts and be voided miles away.

The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. They got into strange environments heretofore never entered by the old spore plants or stiff pine-cone-seed plants. The well-fed, carefully cherished little embryos raised their heads everywhere. Many of the older plants with more primitive reproductive mechanisms began to fade away under this unequal contest. They contracted their range into secluded environments. Some, like the giant redwoods, lingered on as relics; many vanished entirely.

The world of the giants was a dying world. These fantastic little seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability. If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world had changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard-of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced concentrated foods in a way that the land had never seen before, or dreamed of back in the fish-eating, leaf-crunching days of the dinosaurs.

That food came from three sources, all produced by the reproductive system of the flowering plants. There were the tantalizing nectars and pollens intended to draw insects for pollenizing purposes, and which are responsible also for that wonderful jeweled creation, the hummingbird. There were the juicy and enticing fruits to attract larger animals, and in which tough-coated seeds were concealed, as in the tomato, for example. Then, as if this were not enough, there was the food in the actual seed itself, the food intended to nourish the embryo. All over the world, like hot corn in a popper, these incredible elaborations of the flowering plants kept exploding. In a movement that was almost instantaneous, geologically speaking, the angiosperms had taken over the world. Grass was beginning to cover the bare earth until, today, there are over six thousand species. All kinds of vines and bushes squirmed and writhed under new trees with flying seeds.

The explosion was having its effect on animal life also. Specialized groups of insects were arising to feed on the new sources of food and, incidentally and unknowingly, to pollinate the plant. The flowers bloomed and bloomed in ever larger and more spectacular varieties. Some were pale unearthly night flowers intended to lure moths in the evening twilight, some among the orchids even took the shape of female spiders in order to attract wandering males, some flamed redly in the light of noon or twinkled modestly in the meadow grasses. Intricate mechanisms splashed pollen on the breasts of hummingbirds, or stamped it on the bellies of black, grumbling bees droning assiduously from blossom to blossom. Honey ran, insects multiplied, and even the descendants of that toothed and ancient lizard-bird had become strangely altered. Equipped with prodding beaks instead of biting teeth they pecked the seeds and gobbled the insects that were really converted nectar.

Across the planet grasslands were now spreading. A slow continental upthrust which had been a part of the early Age of Flowers had cooled the world's climates. The stalking reptiles and the leather-winged black imps of the seashore cliffs had vanished. Only birds roamed the air now, hot-blooded and high-speed metabolic machines.

The mammals, too, had survived and were venturing into new domains, staring about perhaps a bit bewildered at their sudden eminence now that the thunder lizards were gone. Many of them, beginning as small browsers upon leaves in the forest, began to venture out upon this new sunlit world of the grass. Grass has a high silica content and demands a new type of very tough and resistant tooth enamel, but the seeds taken incidentally in the cropping of the grass are highly nutritious. A new world had opened out for the warm-blooded mammals. Great herbivores like the mammoths, horses and bisons appeared. Skulking about them had arisen savage flesh-feeding carnivores like the now extinct dire wolves and the saber- toothed tiger.

Flesh eaters though these creatures were, they were being sustained on nutritious grasses one step removed. Their fierce energy was being maintained on a high, effective level, through hot days and frosty nights, by the concentrated energy of the angiosperms. That energy, thirty per cent or more of the weight of the entire plant among some of the cereal grasses, was being accumulated and concentrated in the rich proteins and fats of the enormous game herds of the grasslands.

On the edge of the forest, a strange, old-fashioned animal still hesitated. His body was the body of a tree dweller, and though tough and knotty by human standards, he was, in terms of that world into which he gazed, a weakling. His teeth, though strong for chewing on the tough fruits of the forest, or for crunching an occasional unwary bird caught with his prehensile hands, were not the tearing sabers of the great cats. He had a passion for lifting himself up to see about, in his restless, roving curiosity. He would run a little stiffly and uncertainly, perhaps, on his hind legs, but only in those rare moments when he ventured out upon the ground. All this was the legacy of his climbing days; he had a hand with flexible fingers and no fine specialized hoofs upon which to gallop like the wind.

If he had any idea of competing in that new world, he had better forget it; teeth or hooves, he was much too late for either. He was a ne'er-do-well, an in-betweener. Nature had not done well by him. It was as if she had hesitated and never quite made up her mind. Perhaps as a consequence he had a malicious gleam in his eye, the gleam of an outcast who has been left nothing and knows he is going to have to take what he gets. One day a little band of these odd apes--for apes they were--shambled out upon the grass; the human story had begun.

Apes were to become men, in the inscrutable wisdom of nature, because flowers had produced seeds and fruits in such tremendous quantities that a new and totally different store of energy had become available in concentrated form. Impressive as the slow-moving, dim-brained dinosaurs had been, it is doubtful if their age had supported anything like the diversity of life that now rioted across the planet or flashed in and out among the trees. Down on the grass by a streamside, one of those apes with inquisitive fingers turned over a stone and hefted it vaguely. The group clucked together in a throaty tongue and moved off through the tall grass foraging for seeds and insects. The one still held, sniffed, and hefted the stone he had found. He liked the feel of it in his fingers. The attack on the animal world was about to begin.

If one could run the story of that first human group like a speeded-up motion picture through a million years of time, one might see the stone in the hand change to the flint ax and the torch. All that swarming grassland world with its giant bison and trumpeting mammoths would go down in ruin to feed the insatiable and growing numbers of a carnivore who, like the great cats before him, was taking his energy indirectly from the grass. Later he found fire and it altered the tough meats and drained their energy even faster into a stomach ill adapted for the ferocious turn man's habits had taken.

His limbs grew longer, he strode more purposefully over the grass. The stolen energy that would take man across the continents would fail him at last. The Great Ice Age herds were destined to vanish. When they did so, another hand like the hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively.

In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand. Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard-bird, might still be snapping at beetles on a sequoia limb; man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:16 pm

The Real Secret of Piltdown

How did man get his brain? Many years ago Charles Darwin's great contemporary, and co-discoverer with him of the principle of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, propounded that simple question. It is a question which has bothered evolutionists ever since, and when Darwin received his copy of an article Wallace had written on this subject he was obviously shaken. It is recorded that he wrote in anguish across the paper, "No!" and underlined the "No" three times heavily in a rising fervor of objection.

Today the question asked by Wallace and never satisfactorily answered by Darwin has returned to haunt us. A skull, a supposedly very ancient skull, long used as one of the most powerful pieces of evidence documenting the Darwinian position upon human evolution, has been proven to be a forgery, a hoax perpetrated by an unscrupulous but learned amateur. In the fall of 1953 the famous Piltdown cranium, known in scientific circles all over the world since its discovery in a gravel pit on the Sussex Downs in 1911, was jocularly dismissed by the world's press as the skull that had "made monkeys out of the anthropologists." Nobody remembered in 1953 that Wallace, the great evolutionist, had protested to a friend in 1913, "The Piltdown skull does not prove much, if anything!"

Why had Wallace made that remark? Why, almost alone among the English scientists of his time, had he chosen to regard with a dubious eye a fossil specimen that seemed to substantiate the theory to which he and Darwin had devoted their lives? He did so for one reason: he did not believe what the Piltdown skull appeared to reveal as to the nature of the process by which the human brain had been evolved. He did not believe in a skull which had a modern brain box attached to an apparently primitive face and given, in the original estimates, an antiquity of something over a million years.

Today we know that the elimination of the Piltdown skull from the growing list of valid human fossils in no way affects the scientific acceptance of the theory of evolution. In fact, only the circumstance that Piltdown had been discovered early, before we had a clear knowledge of the nature of human fossils and the techniques of dating them, made the long survival of this extraordinary hoax possible. Yet in the end it has been the press, absorbed in a piece of clever scientific detection, which has missed the real secret of Piltdown. Darwin saw in the rise of man, with his unique, time- spanning brain, only the undirected play of such natural forces as had created the rest of the living world of plants and animals. Wallace, by contrast, in the case of man, totally abandoned this point of view and turned instead toward a theory of a divinely directed control of the evolutionary process. The issue can be made clear only by a rapid comparison of the views of both men.

As everyone who has studied evolution knows, Darwin propounded the theory that since the reproductive powers of plants and animals potentially far outpace the available food supply, there is in nature a constant struggle for existence on the part of every living thing. Since animals vary individually, the most cleverly adapted will survive and leave offspring which will inherit, and in their turn enhance, the genetic endowment they have received from their ancestors. Because the struggle for life is incessant, this unceasing process promotes endless slow changes in bodily form, as living creatures are subjected to different natural environments, different enemies, and all the vicissitudes against which life has struggled down the ages.

Darwin, however, laid just one stricture on his theory: it could, he maintained, "render each organized being only as perfect or a little more perfect than other inhabitants of the same country." It could allow any animal only a relative superiority, never an absolute perfection--otherwise selection and the struggle for existence would cease to operate. To explain the rise of man through the slow, incremental gains of natural selection, Darwin had to assume a long struggle of man with man and tribe with tribe.

He had to make this assumption because man had far outpaced his animal associates. Since Darwin's theory of the evolutionary process is based upon the practical value of all physical and mental characters in the life struggle, to ignore the human struggle of man with man would have left no explanation as to how humanity by natural selection alone managed to attain an intellectual status so far beyond that of any of the animals with which it had begun its competition for survival.

To most of the thinkers of Darwin's day this seemed a reasonable explanation. It was a time of colonial expansion and ruthless business competition. Peoples of primitive cultures, small societies lost on the world's margins, seemed destined to be destroyed. It was thought that Victorian civilization was the apex of human achievement and that other races with different customs and ways of life must be biologically inferior to Western man. Some of them were even described as only slightly superior to apes. The Darwinians, in a time when there were no satisfactory fossils by which to demonstrate human evolution, were unconsciously minimizing the abyss which yawned between man and ape. In their anxiety to demonstrate our lowly origins they were throwing modern natives into the gap as representing living "missing links" in the chain of human ascent.

It was just at this time that Wallace lifted a voice of lonely protest. The episode is a strange one in the history of science, for Wallace had, independently of Darwin, originally arrived at the same general conclusion as to the nature of the evolutionary process. Nevertheless, only a few years after the publication of Darwin's work, The Origin of Species, Wallace had come to entertain a point of view which astounded and troubled Darwin. Wallace, who had had years of experience with natives of the tropical archipelagoes, abandoned the idea that they were of mentally inferior cast. He did more. He committed the Darwinian heresy of maintaining that their mental powers were far in excess of what they really needed to carry on the simple food-gathering techniques by which they survived.

"How, then," Wallace insisted, "was an organ developed so far beyond the needs of its possessor? Natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but little inferior to that of the average member of our learned societies."

At a time when many primitive peoples were erroneously assumed to speak only in grunts or to chatter like monkeys, Wallace maintained his view of the high intellectual powers of natives by insisting that "the capacity of uttering a variety of distinct articulate sounds and of applying to them an almost infinite amount of modulation ... is not in any way inferior to that of the higher races. An instrument has been developed in advance of the needs of its possessor."

Finally, Wallace challenged the whole Darwinian position on man by insisting that artistic, mathematical, and musical abilities could not be explained on the basis of natural selection and the struggle for existence. Something else, he contended, some unknown spiritual element, must have been at work in the elaboration of the human brain. Why else would men of simple cultures possess the same basic intellectual powers which the Darwinists maintained could be elaborated only by competitive struggle?

"If you had not told me you had made these remarks," Darwin said, "I should have thought they had been added by someone else. I differ grievously from you and am very sorry for it." He did not, however, supply a valid answer to Wallace's queries. Outside of murmuring about the inherited effects of habit--a contention without scientific validity today--Darwin clung to his original position. Slowly Wallace's challenge was forgotten and a great complacency settled down upon the scientific world.

For seventy years after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, there were only two finds of fossil human skulls which seemed to throw any light upon the Darwin-Wallace controversy. One was the discovery of the small-brained Java Ape Man, the other was the famous Piltdown or "dawn man." Both were originally dated as lying at the very beginning of the Ice Age, and, though these dates were later to be modified, the skulls, for a very long time, were regarded as roughly contemporaneous and very old.

Two more unlike "missing links" could hardly be imagined. Though they were supposed to share a million-year antiquity, the one was indeed quite primitive and small brained; the other, Piltdown, in spite of what seemed a primitive lower face, was surprisingly modern in brain. Which of these forms told the true story of human development? Was a large brain old? Had ages upon ages of slow, incremental, Darwinian increase produced it? The Piltdown skull seemed to suggest such a development.

Many were flattered to find their anthropoid ancestry seemingly removed to an increasingly remote past. If one looked at the Java Ape Man, one was forced to contemplate an ancestor, not terribly remote in time, who still had a face and a brain which hinted strongly of the ape. Yet, when by geological evidence this "erect walking ape-man" was finally assigned to a middle Ice Age antiquity, there arose the immediate possibility that Wallace could be right in his suspicion that the human brain might have had a surprisingly rapid development. By contrast, the Piltdown remains seemed to suggest a far more ancient and slow-paced evolution of man. The Piltdown hoaxer, in attaching an ape jaw to a human skull fragment, had, perhaps unwittingly, created a creature which supported the Darwinian idea of man, not too unlike the man of today, extending far back into pre-Ice Age times.

Which story was the right one? Until the expose of Piltdown in 1953, both theories had to be considered possible and the two hopelessly unlike fossils had to be solemnly weighed in the same balance. Today Piltdown is gone. In its place we are confronted with the blunt statement of two modern scientists, M. R. A. Chance and A. P. Mead.

"No adequate explanation," they confess over eighty years after Darwin scrawled his vigorous "No!" upon Wallace's paper, "has been put forward to account for so large a cerebrum as that found in man." [fn1]

We have been so busy tracing the tangible aspects of evolution in the forms of animals that our heads, the little globes which hold the midnight sky and the shining, invisible universes of thought, have been taken about as much for granted as the growth of a yellow pumpkin in the fall.

Now a part of this mystery as it is seen by the anthropologists of today lies in the relation of the brain to time. "If," Wallace had said, "researches in all parts of Europe and Asia fail to bring to light any proofs of man's presence far back in the Age of Mammals, it will be at least a presumption that he came into existence at a much later date and by a more rapid process of development.'" If human evolution should prove to be comparatively rapid, "explosive" in other words, Wallace felt that his position would be vindicated, because such a rapid development of the brain would, he thought, imply a divinely directed force at work in man. In the 1870's when he wrote, however, human prehistory was largely an unknown blank. Today we can make a partial answer to Wallace's question. Since the exposure of the Piltdown hoax all of the evidence at our command--and it is considerable--points to man, in his present form, as being one of the youngest and newest of all earth's swarming inhabitants.

The Ice Age extends behind us in time for, at most, a million years. Though this may seem long to one who confines his studies to the written history of man, it is, in reality, a very short period as the student of evolution measures time. It is a period marked more by the extinction of some of the last huge land animals, like the hairy mammoth and the saber- toothed tiger, than it is by the appearance of new forms of life. To this there is only one apparent exception: the rise and spread of man over the Old World land mass.

Most of our knowledge of him--even in his massive-faced, beetle-browed stage--is now confined, since the loss of Piltdown, to the last half of the Ice Age. [f we pass backward beyond this point we can find traces of crude tools, stone implements which hint that some earlier form of man was present here and there in Europe, Asia, and particularly Africa in the earlier half of Ice Age time, but to the scientist it is like peering into the mists floating over an unknown landscape. Here and there through the swirling vapor one catches a glimpse of a shambling figure, or a half-wild primordial face stares back at one from some momentary opening in the fog. Then, just as one grasps at a clue, the long gray twilight settles in and the wraiths and the half-heard voices pass away.

Nevertheless, particularly in Africa, a remarkable group of human-like apes have been discovered: creatures with small brains and teeth of a remarkably human cast. Prominent scientists are still debating whether they are on the direct line of ascent to man or are merely near relatives of ours. Some, it is now obvious, existed too late in time to be our true ancestors, though this does not mean that their bodily characters may not tell us what the earliest anthropoids who took the human turn of the road were like.

These apes are not all similar in type or appearance. They are men and yet not men. Some are frailer-bodied, some have great, bone-cracking jaws and massive gorilloid crests atop their skulls. This fact leads us to another of Wallace's remarkable perceptions of long ago. With the rise of the truly human brain, Wallace saw that man had transferred to his machines and tools many of the alterations of parts that in animals take place through evolution of the body. Unwittingly, man had assigned to his machines the selective evolution which in the animal changes the nature of its bodily structure through the ages. Man of today, the atomic manipulator, the aeronaut who flies faster than sound, has precisely the same brain and body as his ancestors of twenty thousand years ago who painted the last Ice Age mammoths on the walls of caves in France.

To put it another way, it is man's ideas that have evolved and changed the world about him. Now, confronted by the lethal radiations of open space and the fantastic speeds of his machines, he has to invent new electronic controls that operate faster than his nerves, and he must shield his naked body against atomic radiation by the use of protective metals. Already he is physically antique in this robot world he has created. All that sustains him is that small globe of gray matter through which spin his ever-changing conceptions of the universe.

Yet, as Wallace, almost a hundred years ago, glimpsed this timeless element in man, he uttered one more prophecy. When we come to trace out history into the past, he contended, sooner or later we will come to a time when the body of man begins to differ and diverge more extravagantly in its appearance. Then, he wrote, we shall know that we stand close to the starting point of the human family. In the twilight before the dawn of the human mind, man will not have been able to protect his body from change and his remains will bear the marks of all the forces that play upon the rest of life. He will be different in his form. He will be, in other words, as variable in body as we know the South African man-apes to be.

Today, with the solution of the Piltdown enigma, we must settle the question of the time involved in human evolution in favor of Wallace, not Darwin; we need not, however, pursue the mystical aspects of Wallace's thought --since other factors yet to be examined may well account for the rise of man. The rapid fading out of archaeological evidence of tools in lower Ice Age times--along with the discovery of man-apes of human aspect but with ape-sized brains, yet possessing a diverse array of bodily characters--suggests that the evolution of the human brain was far more rapid than that conceived of in early Darwinian circles. At that time it was possible to hear the Eskimos spoken of as possible survivals of Miocene men of several million years ago. By contrast to this point of view, man and his rise now appear short in time--explosively short. There is every reason to believe that whatever the nature of the forces involved in the production of the human brain, a long slow competition of human group with human group or race with race would not have resulted in such similar mental potentialities among all peoples everywhere. Something--some other factor--has escaped our scientific attention.

There are certain strange bodily characters which mark man as being more than the product of a dog-eat-dog competition with his fellows. He possesses a peculiar larval nakedness, difficult to explain on survival principles; his periods of helpless infancy and childhood are prolonged; he has aesthetic impulses which, though they vary in intensity from individual to individual--appear in varying manifestations among all peoples. He is totally dependent, in the achievement of human status, upon the careful training he receives in human society.

Unlike a solitary species of animal, he cannot develop alone. He has suffered a major loss of precise instinctive controls of behavior. To make up for this biological lack, society and parents condition the infant, supply his motivations, and promote his long-drawn training at the difficult task of becoming a normal human being. Even today some individuals fail to make this adjustment and have to be excluded from society.

We are now in a position to see the wonder and terror of the human predicament: man is totally dependent on society. Creature of dream, he has created an invisible world of ideas, beliefs, habits, and customs which buttress him about and replace for him the precise instincts of the lower creatures. In this invisible universe he takes refuge, but just as instinct may fail an animal under some shift of environmental conditions, so man's cultural beliefs may prove inadequate to meet a new situation, or, on an individual level, the confused mind may substitute, by some terrible alchemy, cruelty for love.

The profound shock of the leap from animal to human status is echoing still in the depths of our subconscious minds. It is a transition which would seem to have demanded considerable rapidity of adjustment in order for human beings to have survived, and it also involved the growth of prolonged bonds of affection in the subhuman family, because otherwise its naked, helpless offspring would have perished.

It is not beyond the range of possibility that this strange reduction of instincts in man in some manner forced a precipitous brain growth as a compensation--something that had to be hurried for survival purposes. Man's competition, it would thus appear, may have been much less with his own kind than with the dire necessity of building about him a world of ideas to replace his lost animal environment. As we will show later, he is a pedomorph, a creature with an extended childhood.

Modern science would go on to add that many of the characters of man, such as his lack of fur, thin skull, and globular head, suggest mysterious changes in growth rates which preserve, far into human maturity, foetal or infantile characters which hint that the forces creating man drew him fantastically out of the very childhood of his brutal forerunners. Once more the words of Wallace come back to haunt us: "We may safely infer that the savage possesses a brain capable, if cultivated and developed, of performing work of a kind and degree far beyond what he ever requires it to do."

As a modern man, I have sat in concert halls and watched huge audiences floating dazed on the voice of a great singer. Alone in the dark box I have heard far off as if ascending out of some black stairwell the guttural whisperings and bestial coughings out of which that voice arose. Again, I have sat under the slit dome of a mountain observatory and marveled, as the great wheel of the galaxy turned in all its midnight splendor, that the mind in the course of three centuries has been capable of drawing into its strange, nonspatial interior that world of infinite distance and multitudinous dimensions.

Ironically enough, science, which can show us the flints and the broken skulls of our dead fathers, has yet to explain how we have come so far so fast, nor has it any completely satisfactory answer to the question asked by Wallace long ago. Those who would revile us by pointing to an ape at the foot of our family tree grasp little of the awe with which the modern scientist now puzzles over man's lonely and supreme ascent. As one great student of paleoneurology, Dr. Tilly Edinger, recently remarked, "If man has passed through a Pithecanthropus phase, the evolution of his brain has been unique, not only in its result but also in its tempo .... Enlargement of the cerebral hemispheres by 50 per cent seems to have taken place, speaking geologically, within an instant, and without having been accompanied by any major increase in body size."

The true secret of Piltdown, though thought by the public to be merely the revelation of an unscrupulous forgery, lies in the fact that it has forced science to reexamine carefully the history of the most remarkable creation in the world--the human brain.



1. Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology, VII., Evolution (New York: Academic Press. 1953). p. 395.
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 11:17 pm

The Maze

Shortly after I had expressed my conclusions about the real secret of Piltdown, I was roundly castigated by a few people who had construed my remarks as an attack upon Darwin and thus an assault upon the theory of evolution itself. A surprising amount of suppressed emotion still lingers about these hundred-year-old controversies, and those who are not historical-minded may be quick to launch themselves, sometimes more valiantly than accurately, into the thick of some forgotten fray. Along an advancing front of science, the man who writes for a nontechnical public runs risks and has curious experiences. Sometimes he is unlucky, as in the case of an acquaintance of mine whose article dealing soberly with the Piltdown skull appeared at the very moment when the hoax was denounced in the press. Sometimes, on the other hand, he may have almost preternatural luck, in that unexpected events may further substantiate a view that he had earlier broached in hesitation and with a minimum of supporting evidence.

After I had expressed myself upon the dangerously controversial subject of the human brain--and I say this avowedly, though so distinguished an authority upon the great apes as Solly Zuckerman has spoken of the "enormous gap" which exists "between the intelligence of Man and that of any other Primate"--two quite astonishing things happened. The first of these it is my intention to chronicle in this chapter; the second event, and the final culmination of the plot, will have to be reserved for the one which follows. The first happening, as it was described in the press, seemed to be a total negation of much that has been expressed in my treatment of the Piltdown story, namely, the recency of man.

The reader may remember that in March of 1956 curious and startling headlines began to appear in the newspapers. In the first excitement it must have seemed to the layman that the whole theory of evolution was about to be overthrown. There were accounts in the press of a ten-million- year-old "human" fossil. Such a discovery seemed, at first thought, to contradict what I had contended was the great youth of man, that is, man as a culture bearer, a user of speech.

The commotion had been touched off by the arrival in New York City of a paleontologist from Switzerland bearing the bones of a small primate long known to science as Oreopithecus. Johannes Hurzeler of Basel presented to a group of scholars gathered at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research his view that the bones of Oreopithecus showed human rather than anthropoid affinities. Since these bones are estimated to be ten million years older than the earliest known fossil men, his announcement made headlines.

"Fossil Research Questions Darwin Evolution Theory," the New York Times announced. The Herald Tribune editorialized: "No Missing Link?" Specialists on fossil man were besieged by telephone calls from reporters and by faintly derisive queries from anti-evolutionists whose interest had already been whetted by the Piltdown hoax. Perhaps this new contradiction would mark the final exit of the man-monkey and of the anthropologists along with it.

By the time scientists had begun to respond, the press had passed on to other things, leaving in the mind of the public a confused vision of a sort of "little man" who, so the newspapers said, had been found in a coal mine in Tuscany. Like most such episodes, that of Oreopithecus has a history, and the argument over it is of the same general nature as two similar controversies fought within the memory of men now living.

The incident has served to draw attention to a long-existing debate among anthropologists, which has occasionally waxed acrimonious. The partisans divide basically into two schools: the school of the "little man" and that of the "apeman." The former pursue the figure of man backward until, upon some far wall in time, it appears as a dwarfed, big-headed little shadow; the latter see our earliest ancestor shambling into the light like some great shaggy anthropoid. The argument recalls the ancient dispute between the preformationists, who saw in the human sperm cell a preformed homunculus, or little man, which had only to grow to adult size, and the epigenesists, who judged correctly that each embryo acquires the characteristics of a human being only through development.

Some anthropologists search for human characters-- vertical front teeth, a shortened face, an expanded brain case--early in the human line of descent. They seek, in other words, for something dangerously close to the homunculus of the preformationists. They "prove" evolution by finding, as St. George Jackson Mivart said in 1874, "an ancestral form so like man [that] we have the virtual pre-existence of man's body supposed, in order to account for the actual first appearance of that body as we know it."

The more thoroughgoing evolutionists, in contrast, have looked for forms which contained only the possibility of development into man. Such students have generally regarded man as a relatively recent emergent from a group of primates which also gave rise to the modern great apes; in other words, the comparison of man with the anthropoids of today has been based on the assumption that they and we had ancestors in common.

Charles Darwin was not the first to notice our likeness to the monkeys and apes. Such observations extend into antiquity, and by the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries philosophers were arranging the primate's in an order of complexity. As voyagers began to come into contact with primitive peoples, these were often placed on the scale as grades between the anthropoids and civilized European man. The Hottentots of the Cape of Good Hope particularly appealed to the Western mind as candidates for such a place; it was said that their language was only a step above the chatter of apes.

Thus notions of the "missing link" were in existence long before Darwin and long before the appearance of a truly evolutionary philosophy. Darwin himself cautiously refrained from attempting to trace man's precise relationship to the apes. But some of his followers, notably T. H. Huxley, tackled the problem head on. Huxley was provoked to his excursion into man's past by events at the famous meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford in 1860. He had borne the brunt of the conservatives' attacks on evolution. At this meeting Richard Owen, England's foremost comparative anatomist and a mortal enemy of Darwin and his followers, attempted to maintain man's unique position in the animal world by placing him in a distinct subclass of the mammals for which he proposed the name "Archencephala." This classification was based upon brain characters which Owen maintained did not occur in the lower primates. Huxley, his ire aroused, set out to demonstrate that Owen was wrong, that man was closely related to the other primates. He composed a series of lectures which were published in 1863 under the title Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature.

In this work, which more or less set the pattern for much that followed, Huxley thoroughly demolished Owen's position. He took the view that "the surface of the brain of a monkey exhibits a sort of skeleton map of man's, and in the manlike apes the details become more and more filled in, until it is only in minor characters ... that the chimpanzee's or the orang's brain can be structurally distinguished from man's." Huxley was quite willing to admit that man's own origin was obscure and might go back millions of years to a common ancestor, but he insisted that the modern apes were our closest surviving relatives. If Huxley dwelt too heavily and too emotionally upon anatomical correspondence between ourselves and the great apes, it must be remembered that at the time he wrote the evolutionists were fighting primarily for a principle, against the orthodox "special creationists." Furthermore, it must also be remembered that very few human fossils had been discovered, and these were fragmentary. Our living relatives in the trees could be seen at the zoo, and it was inevitable that they should dominate man's imagination. Serious scholars even came to believe that microcephalic idiots were throwbacks to some remote period of the human past.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the ape origins of modern man seemed pretty well established. The finding of the Pithecanthropus skull cap had bolstered this view. Many felt that from a form something like that of a chimpanzee it was an easy step to the Java man and thence on to Neanderthal and modern man. But at the turn of the century there came a new revolt against the ape.

The attention of anatomists was attracted to a small, tree-living creature in southeast Asia possessing definite characters of a primate. The tarsier (Tarsius spectrum), an animal with enormous eyes and about the size of a small kitten, has a brain and other characteristics which ally it to the lower monkeys. In 1918, F. Wood Jones, a distinguished English anatomist, had expressed the heretical view, which he has maintained and developed since, that man arose from a tarsioid rather than from an anthropoid ancestry.

Wood Jones insists that the human line is very ancient, going back to a past tens of millions of years old in the Tertiary Period. He predicts that man's immediate ancestors, if ever discovered, "will be utterly unlike the slouching, hairy 'ape-men' of which some have dreamed ... and will be found in geological strata antedating the heyday of the great apes." The ancestors of man, he says, were "small, active animals" already endowed with legs longer than their arms, small jaws without protruding teeth, and enlarged craniums. They were not swingers in trees: the human hand and foot, he contends, are too specialized to have been made over rapidly from an arboreal ancestor's. The present-day tarsiers in the trees, according to his view, evolved their tree-living specializations later, but our early tarsioid ancestor walked on the ground.

Wood Jones's proto-man thus sounds like a homunculus. When he first advocated his views, he found very few followers. Henry Fairfield Osborn, the late paleontologist, though not a Wood Jones follower, inclined toward a homuncular dawn man going back to early Tertiary times many millions of years ago. "I predict," he said, "that even in Upper Oligocene time we shall find pro-men, and that they will have pro-human limbs."

Wood Jones and Osborn were vigorously refuted by primatologists who championed the orthodox view that man was a "made-over ape." They insisted that man's immediate forerunners could not be so ancient as Wood Jones and Osborn said. "It seems anachronistic," wrote William King Gregory, "to attribute to the very remote Tertiary ancestors of man the long legs, long thumbs, big brain, short face, small canines, etc., which arc now diagnostic characters." But by the 1940's the "made-over ape" point of view had moderated. The most important factor in this change was the discovery in South Africa of the fossil Proconsul africanus--a creature of the early Miocene (about twenty million years ago) which combined characters of early Old World monkeys and great apes. William L. Straus, Jr., of the Johns Hopkins University, voiced a suspicion that man's immediate ancestors might have been "more monkey-like than anthropoid-like." Straus, who takes a very sane and cautious position on this lengthy controversy over the human ancestry, feels that the anthropoid-ape theory is weakest in its failure to account for anatomical traits which man shares with the monkeys and lemurs. More recently W. C. Osman Hill, the well-known English primatologist, has come to believe that man branched off the primate stock below the great- ape line. He even suggests that Straus's view might be reconciled with Wood Jones's tarsioid hypothesis if some early Oligocene monkey of tarsioid affinities were admitted on the line leading to man--a form, say, like Parapithecus.

Thus, before Hurzeler's recent announcement a slow shift of thought or widening of possible horizons had been under way in the study of human evolution. The theory that man came down late out of the trees has been dropped in some quarters and is less explosively defended in others. There is a greater willingness to reserve judgment and wait upon new evidence. It was in this receptive atmosphere that Hurzeler presented his new study of Oreopithecus.

The fossil has been known since 1872, when it was described by the French paleontologist Paul Gervais, who regarded it as an Old World monkey. Hurzeler, after studying the original fossil and later finds, has become convinced that Oreopithecus is the first manlike form discovered in the Tertiary Period--it is believed to date from the Miocene. He apparently bases this view upon certain technical features of the teeth, including the nonprojecting canines, the vertical bite and the shortened face. It must be noted, however, that only parts of the skull have been found, and its full shape cannot be reconstructed.

Oreopithecus is a lower "monkey," in popular terms. It is not a "man" in the sense that many reporters assume it to be, in spite of "no tooth gaps, no apelike protruding jaw," and so on. There are both fossil and still living primates which would have no trouble in answering that description, yet I am sure no one would call them men.

So the substance of the story is that Hurzeler has revived interest in a problematical bit of bone we have long been fingering. For the successful reconstruction of the evolution of the horse in the Tertiary Period, paleontologists had thousands of fossil bones to study. Primatologists may therefore be forgiven their fumblings over great gaps of millions of years from which we do not possess a single complete monkey skeleton, let alone the skeleton of a human forerunner. For the whole Tertiary Period, which involves something like sixty to eighty million years, we have to read the story of primate evolution from a few handfuls of broken bones and teeth. Those fossils, moreover, are from places thousands of miles apart on the Old World land mass.

If we were able to follow every step of man's history backward into time, we would see him divested, rag by rag and stitch by stitch, of every vestige of his human garment. That divestment, however, would not occur all at one place. If we accept the evidence of evolution, we must assume that man became man by degrees, that he emerged out of the animal world by the slow accumulation of human characters over long ages--save for that seemingly rapid spurt in brain growth, which has carried him so far from his other relatives.

Our knowledge at present is not sufficient to establish precisely what anatomical traits are peculiarly human. As Straus has very aptly pointed out: "It is this general lack of structural specialization that makes the study of primate phylogeny so difficult." Some traits may have been paralleled in primate lines of evolution which did not lead to man; some traits called human may represent old generalized characters which have survived in man and been lost in some of his modern specialized relatives.

To continue our writing of the story of human evolution we are totally dependent upon finding additional fossils. Until further discoveries accumulate, each student will perhaps inevitably read a little of his own temperament into the record. Some, as Hurzeler has done, will dwell upon short faces, vertical front teeth and little rounded chins. They will catch glimpses of an elfin human figure which mocks us from a remote glade in the forest of time. Others, just as competent, will say that this elusive homuncular elf is a dream spun from our disguised human longing for an ancestor like ourselves. They will say that in the living primate world around us there are lemurs with short faces and vertical teeth, and that there are monkeys which have the genuine faces of elves and the capacious craniums of little men.

In the end we may shake our heads, baffled, and have to admit that many lines of seeming relatives, rather than merely one, lead to man. It is as though we stood at the heart of a maze and no longer remembered how we had come there.
Site Admin
Posts: 32379
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am


Return to Science

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest