Sunday, February 19, 2017

The bones may be dry, but not the writer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, nature, essay collections

Once or twice over the years I stumbled upon an essay by Loren Eiseley. He always had a fresh take on a subject, and his writing has a lyrical quality unlike anyone else from the mid-Twentieth Century on. So when I came across his collected essays in two volumes, I couldn't resist!

I've just finished reading Loren Eiseley, Collected Essays, Vol. 1, edited by William Cronon. This volume and its companion are the 2016 offering of The Library of America Series. Volume 1 contains in three sections the three books The Immense Journey, The Firmament of Time, and The Unexpected Universe, and a fourth section, Uncollected Prose.

In modern terms, Eiseley was primarily a hominin palaeontologist; he studied the bones and grave-related artifacts of ancient humans and their ancestors and related species such as the Australopithecines. He studied human and prehuman evolution. This is in contrast to an anthropologist who studies human artifacts as evidence of culture and technology. Gathering specimens of archaic humans has always been difficult and very few were known in the 1950's to 1970's when Eiseley was most active. As late as the 1990's you could fit all known specimens of non-sapiens hominids and hominins into a footlocker. A small one. In his day a largeish suitcase was probably sufficient.

When writing for scientific publication, he could write prose as concise and acerbic as any. When writing for the public—and it is clear that this is what he most enjoyed—he wrote with heart and imagination and great lyricism. I know no other like him. He could immerse himself in a different viewpoint and somehow the writing drags us in with him. For example, writing of a spider, that was spinning a web in the heat of a street light late into winter:
  "Good Lord," I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."
  I procured a ladder… There she was, the universe running down around her, warmly arranged among her guy ropes attached to the lamp supports—a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or stepladders. She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web. … a kind of heroism, a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star. (p 111)
He notes that the web was her entire universe, and that she paid attention to nothing that wasn't in direct contact with her web. Then he wonders what we are missing, thinking that all the universe we see is all the universe there is.

He had a kind of sideways take on natural selection. Clearly understanding evolution and evolutionary theory, he points out that the popular image of "survival of the fittest" is quite wrong-headed and actually back-to-front. More than once he described how little lungfish struggle from drying pond to, hopefully, wetter ones, and calls them "fish failures". The genetic pathway their ancestors took made them less fit as a fish, but more fit overall, allowing them to endure where "fishier fish" could not. A species of lungfish or something like it evolved into the earliest amphibian. Those lungfish that still exist aren't much in the way of being fishes, nor of being salamanders, but are a compromise of both.

In the same way, proto-human primates were small, became hairless and rather weak, adopting an upright posture before they had brain enough to be much of a toolmaker. Somehow this "failed ape" survived long enough to develop toolmaking, fire, and broader social groupings, all with a brain not much larger than a chimp's.

But at a later stage, language erupted. To this day we know less about the development of language skills than about the depths of the sea. In several of the essays Eiseley waxes lyrical about what this could have meant. Language effectively brought most physical evolution to a halt, substituting cultural evolution. Human culture effectively shields us from most strictures of natural selection. But as compared to the lungfish, are we closer to the salamander, or still only a little ways beyond the ape? Are we like the lungfish in truth, no more than halfway developed in a direction we cannot discern? Are we still "failed apes" and "not-quite amphibians"…let alone a true "land" animal along the track of that analogy? In one of the last essays in the book Eiseley wonders if, having grasped the fires of the universe, will we survive our own half-formedness and grow to be worthy of the powers to which we aspire?

Indeed. I can hardly wait to dig into the second volume!

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