Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Does Anyone Remember Loren Eiseley?

I here begin a short series of essays about the mid-twentieth-century paleontologist and science writer Loren Eiseley. Does anyone remember him?

The thing I remember most about him was something that I cannot find on the web. He had a Saturday morning program, right in the middle of the cartoons, in which he provided tours of the Smithsonian museum. It was usually their natural history collections, something he knew a lot about, but I remember one of the programs was about the paintings of George Catlin, which depicted Native American life before the tribes were conquered and degraded by Europeans and later by white Americans. I was particularly struck by the (to me) new concept of biodiversity. So many species! I had started a bird list, and I knew there were lots of species of plants as well. But millions? I imagined that every species of organism in the world had its own sheet of paper, all of them gathered together in a filing cabinet at the Smithsonian, and that the deep-voiced Loren Eiseley had the key to it.

Eiseley wrote many, many essays, mostly about his feelings in response to scientific discoveries. Each essay was insightful, and a few of them were masterpieces, about which I write in the next few entries.

One of Eiseley’s insights was that each organism understands only a small part of the real universe. One of Eiseley’s favorite examples was the garden spider. He could walk right up and look at it. It ignored him, because its universe consisted of the insects that landed on its web and finding a mate. To the spider, Eiseley the man was inconceivable. Another example was the “inner galaxy” of white blood cells, which gave their lives to protect us from infection, but they did not even know they were inside of a human body. Maybe our view of reality is as limited by our biology as the views, if they can be so called, of spiders and white blood cells.

Science helps us understand ourselves, but our understanding is always determined largely by our cultural context. That is, we use scientific facts to portray ourselves the way our culture sees us.  As Eiseley wrote in The Inner Galaxy, “In one [historical] period angels hover over our birth, in the following time we are planetary waifs, the product of a meaningless and ever-altering chemistry. We exchange haloes in one era for fangs in another. Our religious and philosophical conceptions change so rapidly that the theological and moral exhortations of one decade become the wastepaper of the next epoch. The ideas for which millions yielded up their lives produce only bored yawns in a later generation.” This happens, whether we see ourselves as created or as the products of evolution.

Eiseley wrote at a time when the scientific as well as the popular conception of evolution was very different from what it is today. For example, he wrote about Boskop Man, which he considered to be a separate lineage from ours, but one in which brain growth and the reduction of facial features—that is, becoming more childlike as adults—had occurred as a separate evolutionary experiment. We consider our pedomorphic species to have the assurance of success; but an entirely separate lineage of humans was even more pedomorphic than we are, bigger-brained than anyone alive today, and became extinct. Nice insight, but it is no longer considered valid; Boskop people were simply a population of modern humans related to the South African San people.

The dominant view was that evolution leads inevitably upward. If, as many believed at the time Eiseley wrote, evolution was about the improvement of species, then this view followed directly. But an individual view of natural selection now shows us that people who are most successful at getting their genes propagated will become more common, even if this causes the society or species to degrade. Eiseley, not considering the ascendency of evil people and the decline of human societies to be consistent with evolution, came up with a different word, a word that never caught on: involution. Human society, he seemed to believe, operated contrary to evolution.

One of the things that Eiseley hated the most was the “deliberate blunting of wonder.” Many scientists did this, by assuming the natural world was only the operation of physical laws. But so did many religious people, who saw the world as merely a stage for the battle between God and the devil; many political leaders, who saw the world as an opportunity for power; and commercial interests, who saw the world as mere resources. If any word can describe Eiseley’s writings, it is wonder.

His was some of the most beautiful science writing, even if it is not technically correct. It is not surprising that he edited a literary journal (PrairieSchooner) before he became a professional paleontologist. Here is an example, from The Firmament of Time:

“Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and a puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man. By this tenuous thread of living protoplasm, stretching backward into time, we are linked forever to lost beaches whose sands have long since hardened into stone. The stars that caught our blind amphibian stare have shifted far or vanished in their courses, but still that naked, glistening thread winds onward. No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real: the thread of life.”

Eiseley got a fair amount of criticism at the time he wrote. This bothered but did not stop him. After all, today, who is remembered most: Eiseley, or his critics? More entries on Loren Eiseley to follow.

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