loren eiseley on the secret of life

Loren Eiseley, “The Secret Of Life”


I am middle-aged now, but in the autumn I always seek for it again hopefully. On some day when the leaves are red, or fallen, and just after the birds are gone, I put on my hat and an old jacket, and over the protests of my wife that I will catch cold, I start my search. I go carefully down the apartment steps and climb, instead of jump, over the wall. A bit further I reach an unkempt field full of brown stalks and emptied seed pods.


By the time I get to the wood I am carrying all manner of seeds hooked in my coat or piercing my socks or sticking by ingenious devices to my shoestrings. I let them ride. After all, who am I to contend against such ingenuity? It is obvious that nature, or some part of it in the shape of these seeds, has intentions beyond this field and has made plans to travel with me.


We, the seeds and I, climb another wall together and sit down to rest, while I consider the best way to search for the secret of life. The seeds remain very quiet and some slip off into the crevices of the rock. A woolly-bear caterpillar hurries across a ledge, going late to some tremendous transformation, but about this he knows as little as I.


It is not an auspicious beginning. The things alive do not know the secret, and there may be those who would doubt the wisdom of coming out among discarded husks in the dead year to pursue such questions. They might say the proper time is spring, when one can consult the water rats or listen to little chirps under the stones. Of late years, however, I have come to suspect that the mystery may just as well be solved in a carved and intricate seed case out of which the life has flown, as in the seed itself. 


In autumn one is not confused by activity and green leaves. The underlying apparatus, the hooks, needles, stalks, wires, suction cups, thin pipes, and iridescent bladders are all exposed in a gigantic dissection. These are the essentials. Do not be deceived simply because the life has flown out of them. It will return, but in the meantime there is an unparalleled opportunity to examine in sharp and beautiful angularity the shape of life without its disturbing muddle of juices and leaves. As I grow older and conserve my efforts, I shall give this season my final and undivided attention. I shall be found puzzling over the saw teeth on the desiccated leg of a dead grasshopper or standing bemused in a brown sea of rusty stems. Somewhere in this discarded machinery may lie the key to the secret. I shall not let it escape through lack of diligence or through fear of the smiles of people in high windows. I am sure now that life is not what it is purported to be and that nature, in the canny words of a Scotch theologue, "is not as natural as it looks." I have learned this in a small suburban field, after a good many years spent in much wilder places upon far less fantastic quests.


 The notion that mice can be generated spontaneously from bundles of old clothes is so delightfully whimsicial that it is easy to see why men were loath to abandon it. One could accept such accidents in a topsy-turvy universe without trying to decide what transformation of buckles into bones and shoe buttons into eyes had taken place. One could take life as a kind of fantastic magic and not blink too obviously when it appeared, beady-eyed and bustling, under the laundry in the back room.


It was only with the rise of modern biology and the discovery that the trail of life led backward toward infinitesimal beginnings in primordial sloughs, that men began the serious dissection and analysis of the cell. Darwin, in one of his less guarded moments, had spoken hopefully of the possibility that life had emerged from inorganic matter in some "warm little pond." From that day to this biologists have poured, analyzed, minced, and shredded recalcitrant protoplasm in a fruitless attempt to create life from non- living matter. It seemed inevitable, if we could trace life down through simpler stages, that we must finally arrive at the point where, under the proper chemical  conditions, the mysterious borderline that bounds the inanimate must be crossed. It seemed clear that life was a material manifestation. Somewhere, somehow, sometime, in the mysterious chemistry of carbon, the long march toward the talking animal had begun.


A hundred years ago men spoke optimistically about solving the secret, or at the very least they thought the next generation would be in a position to do so. Periodically there were claims that the emergence of life from matter had been observed, but in every case the observer proved to be self-deluded. It became obvious that the secret of life was not to be had by a little casual experimentation, and that life in today’s terms appeared to arise only through the medium of preexisting life. Yet, if science was not to be embarrassed by some kind of  mind-matter dualism and a complete and irrational break between life and the world of inorganic matter, the emergence of life had, in some way, to be accounted for. Nevertheless, as the years passed, the secret remained locked in its living jelly, in spite of larger microscopes and more formidable means of dissection. As a matter of fact the mystery was heightened because all this intensified effort revealed that even the supposedly simple amoeba was a complex, self-operating chemical factory. The notion that he was a simple blob, the discovery of whose chemical composition would enable us instantly to set the life process in operation, turned out to be, at best, a monstrous caricature of the truth.


With the failure of these many efforts science was left in the somewhat embarrassing position of having to postulate theories of living origins which it could not demonstrate. After having chided the theologian for his reliance on myth and miracle, science found itself in the unenviable position of having to create a mythology of its own: namely, the assumption that what, after long effort, could not be proved to take place today had, in truth, taken place in the primeval past.


My use of the term mythology is perhaps a little harsh. One does occasionally observe, however, a tendency for the beginning zoological textbook to take the unwary reader by a hop, skip, and jump from the little steaming pond or the beneficent chemical crucible of the sea, into the lower world of life with such sureness and rapidity that it is easy to assume that there is no mystery about this matter at all, or, if there is, that it is a very little one.


This attitude has indeed been sharply criticized by the distinguished British biologist Woodger, who remarked some years ago: "Unstable organic compounds and chlorophyll corpuscles do not persist or come into existence in nature on their own account at the present day, and consequently it is necessary to postulate that conditions were once such that this did happen although and in spite of the fact that our knowledge of nature does not give us any warrant for making such a supposition  … It is simple dogmatism–asserting that what you want to believe did in fact happen."


 Yet, unless we are to turn to supernatural explanations or reinvoke a dualism which is scientifically dubious, we are forced inevitably toward only two possible explanations of life upon earth. One of these, although not entirely disproved, is most certainly out of fashion and surrounded with greater obstacles to its acceptance than at the time it was formulated. I refer, of course, to the suggestion of Lord Kelvin and Svante Arrhenius that life did not arise on this planet, but was wafted here through the depths of space. Microscopic spores, it was contended, have: great resistance to extremes of cold and might have come into our atmosphere with meteoric dust, or have been driven across the earth’s orbit by light pressure. In this view, once the seed was "planted" in soil congenial to its development, it then proceeded to elaborate, evolve, and adjust until the higher organisms had emerged.


This theory had a certain attraction as a way out of an embarrassing dilemma, but it suffers from the defect of explaining nothing, even if it should prove true. It does not elucidate the nature of life. It simply removes the inconvenient problem of origins to far-off spaces or worlds into which we will never penetrate. Since life makes use of the chemical compounds of this earth, it would seem better to proceed, until incontrovertible evidence to the contrary is obtained, on the assumption that life has actually arisen upon this planet. The now widely accepted view that the entire universe in its present state is limited in time, and the apparently lethal nature of unscreened solar radiation are both obstacles which greatly lessen the likelihood that life has come to us across the infinite wastes of space. Once more, therefore, we are forced to examine our remaining notion that life is not coterminous with matter, but has arisen from it.


If the single-celled protozoans that riot in roadside pools are not the simplest forms of life, if, as we know today, these creatures are already highly adapted and really complex, though minute beings, then where are we to turn in the search for something simple enough to suggest the greatest missing link of all–the link between living and dead matter? It is this problem that keeps me wandering fruitlessly in pastures and weed thickets even though I know this is an old-fashioned naturalist’s approach, and that busy men in laboratories have little patience with my scufflings of autumn leaves, or attempts to question beetles in decaying bark. Besides, many of these men are now fascinated by the crystalline viruses and have turned that remarkable instrument, the electron microscope, upon strange molecular "beings" never previously seen by man. Some are satisfied with this glimpse below the cell and find the virus a halfway station on the road to life. Perhaps it is, but as I wander about in the thin mist that is beginning to filter among these decaying stems and ruined spider webs, a kind of disconsolate uncertainty has taken hold of me.


I have come to suspect that this long descent down the ladder of life, beautiful and instructive though it may be, will not lead us to the final secret. In fact I have ceased to believe in the final brew or the ultimate chemical. There is, I know, a kind of heresy, a shocking negation of our confidence in blue-steel microtomes and men in white in making such a statement. I would not be understood to speak ill of scientific effort, for in simple truth I would not be alive today except for the microscopes and the blue steel. It is only that somewhere among these seeds and beetle shells and abandoned grasshopper legs I find something that is not accounted for very clearly in the dissections to the ultimate virus or crystal or protein particle. Even if the secret is contained in these things, in other words, I do not think it will yield to the kind of analysis our science is capable of making.


Imagine, for a moment, that you have drunk from a magician’s goblet. Reverse the irreversible stream of time. Go down the dark stairwell out of which the race has ascended. Find yourself at last on the bottom most steps of time, slipping, sliding, and wallowing by scale and fin down into the muck and ooze out of which you arose. Pass by grunts and voiceless hissings below the last tree ferns. Eyeless and earless, float in the primal waters, sense sunlight you cannot see and stretch absorbing tentacles toward vague tastes that float in water. Still, in your formless shiftings, the you remains: the sliding particles, the juices, the transformations are working in an exquisitely patterned rhythm which has no other purpose than your preservation–you, the entity, the ameboid being whose substance contains the unfathomable future. Even so does every man come upward from the waters of his birth.


Yet if at any moment the magician bending over you should cry, "Speak! Tell us of that road!" you could not respond. The sensations are yours but not–and this is one of the great mysteries–the power over the body. You cannot describe how the body you inhabit functions, or picture or control the flights and spinnings, the dance of the molecules that compose it, or why they chose to dance into that particular pattern which is you, or, again, why up the long stairway of the eons they dance from one shape to another. It is for this reason that I am no longer interested in final particles. Follow them as you will, pursue them until they become nameless protein crystals replicating on the verge of life. Use all the great powers of the mind and pass backward until you hang with the dire faces of the conquerors in the hydrogen cloud from which the sun was born. You will then have performed the ultimate dissection that our analytic age demands, but the cloud will still veil the secret and, if not the cloud, then the nothingness into which, it now appears, the cloud, in its turn, may be dissolved. The secret, if one may paraphrase a savage vocabulary, lies in the egg of night.


Only along the edges of this field after the frost there are little whispers of it. Once even on a memorable autumn afternoon I discovered a sunning blacksnake brooding among the leaves like the very simulacrum of old night. He slid unhurriedly away, carrying his version of the secret with him in such a glittering menace of scales that I was abashed and could only follow admiringly from a little distance. I observed him well, however, and am sure he carried his share of the common mystery into the stones of my neighbor’s wall, and is sleeping endlessly on in the winter darkness with one great coil locked around that glistening head. He is guarding a strange, reptilian darkness which is not night or nothingness, but has, instead, its momentary vision of mouse bones or a bird’s egg, in the soft rising and ebbing of the tides of life. The snake has diverted me, however. It was the dissection of a field that was to occupy us–a dissection in search of secrets–a dissection such as a probing and inquisitive age demands.


Every so often one encounters articles in leading magazines with titles such as "The Spark of Life," "The Secret of Life," "New Hormone Key to Life," or other similar optimistic proclamations. Only yesterday, for example, I discovered in the New York Times a headline announcing: "Scientist Predicts Creation of Life in Laboratory." The Moscow-date-lined dispatch announced that Academician Olga Lepeshinskaya had predicted that "in the not too distant future, Soviet scientists would create ‘life." "The time is not far off," warns the formidable Madame Olga, "when we shall be able to obtain the vital substance artificially." She said it with such vigor that I had about the same reaction as I do to announcements about atomic bombs. In fact I half started up to latch the door before an invading tide of Russian protoplasm flowed in upon me.


What finally enabled me to regain my shaken confidence was the recollection that these pronouncements have been going on for well over a century. Just now the Russian scientists show a particular tendency to issue such blasts–committed politically, as they are, to an uncompromising materialism and the boastfulness of very young science. Furthermore, Madame Lepeshinskaya’s remarks as reported in the press had a curiously old-fashioned flavor about them. The protoplasm she referred to sounded amazingly like the outmoded Urschleim or Autoplasson of Haeckel–simplified mucoid slimes no longer taken very seriously. American versions– and one must remember they are often journalistic interpretations of scientists’ studies rather than direct quotations from the scientists themselves–are more apt to fall into another pattern. Someone has found a new chemical, vitamin, or similar necessary ingredient without which life will not flourish.  By the time this reaches the more sensational press, it may have become the "secret of life." The only thing the inexperienced reader may not comprehend is the fact that no one of these items, even the most recently discovered, is the secret. Instead, the substance is probably a part, a very small part, of a larger enigma which is well-nigh as inscrutable as it ever was. If anything, the growing list of catalysts, hormones, plasma genes, and other hobgoblins involved in the work of life only serves to underline the enormous complexity of the secret. "To grasp in detail," says the German biologist Von Bertalanffy, "the physico-chemical organization of the simplest cell is far beyond our capacity."


It is not, you understand, disrespect for the laudable and persistent patience of these dedicated scientists happily lost in their maze of pipettes, smells, and gas flames, that has led me into this runaway excursion to the wood. It is rather the loneliness of a man who knows he will not live to see the mystery solved, and who, furthermore, has come to believe that it will not be solved when the first humanly synthesized particle begins–if it ever does–to multiply itself in some unknown solution.


It is really a matter, I suppose, of the kind of questions one asks oneself. Some day we may be able to say with assurance, "We came from such and such a protein particle, possessing the powers of organizing in a manner leading under certain circumstances to that complex entity known as the cell, and from the cell by various steps onward, to multiple cell formation." I mean we may be able to say all this with great surety and elaboration of detail, but it is not the answer to the grasshopper’s leg, brown and black and saw-toothed here in my hand, nor the answer to the seeds still clinging tenaciously to my coat, nor to this field, nor to the subtle essences of memory, delight, and wistfulness moving among the thin wires of my brain.


I suppose that in the forty-five years of my existence every atom, every molecule that composes me has changed its position or danced away and beyond to become part of other things. New molecules have come from the grass and the bodies of animals to be part of me a little while, yet in this spinning, light and airy as a midge swarm in a shaft of sunlight, my memories hold, and a loved face of twenty years ago is before me still. Nor is that face, nor all my years, caught cellularly as in some cold precise photographic pattern, some gross, mechanical reproduction of the past. My memory holds the past and yet paradoxically knows, at the same time, that the past is gone and will never come again. It cherishes dead faces and silenced voices, yes, and lost evenings of childhood. In some odd nonspatial way it contains houses and rooms that have been torn timber from timber and brick from brick. These have a greater permanence in that midge dance which contains them than ever they had in the world of reality. It is for this reason that Academician Olga Lepeshinskaya has not answered the kind of questions one may ask in an open field.


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 flashbulbs 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.


As for me, if I am still around on that day, I intend to put on my oId hat and climb over the wall as usual. I shall see strange mechanisms lying as they lie here now, in the autumn rain, strange pipes that transported the substance of life, the intricate seedcase out of which the life has flown. I shall observe no thing green, no delicate transpirations of leaves, nor subtle comings and goings of vapor. The little sunlit factories of the chloroplasts will have dissolved away into common earth.


Beautiful, angular, and bare the machinery of life will lie exposed, as it now is, to my view. There will be the thin, blue skeleton of a hare tumbled in a little heap, and crouching over it I will marvel, as I marvel now, at the wonderful correlation of parts, the perfect adaptation to purpose, the individually vanished and yet persisting pattern which is now hopping on some other hill. I will wonder, as always, in what manner "particles" pursue such devious plans and symmetries. I will ask once more in what way it is managed, that the simple dust takes on a history and begins to weave these unique and never recurring apparitions in the stream of time. I shall wonder what strange forces at the heart of matter regulate the tiny beating of a rabbit’s heart or the dim dream that builds a milkweed pod.


It is said by men who know about these things that the smallest living cell probably contains over a quarter of a million protein molecules engaged in the multitudinous coordinated activities which make up the phenomenon of life. At the instant of death, whether of man or microbe, that ordered, incredible spinning passes away in an almost furious haste of those same particles to get themselves back into the chaotic, unplanned earth.


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 has 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."


—from Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey


the rest of loren eiseley’s the invisible pyramid, chapter one

“When I lie in bed now and await the hastening of Halley’s comet, Iwould like to find my way back just once to that single, precise instant when the star dragon thrust out its tongue. Perhaps the story of all dragons since comes from that moment. Men have long memories when the memories are clothed in myth. But I drowse, and the train whistle mingles and howls with the heaven-sweeping light in my dream. It is 1910. I am going back once more.”





It may now appear that I have been wandering mentally amidst irrelevant and strange events—time glimpsed through a blowing curtain of dust, and, among fallen stones and badland pinnacles, bones denoting not just the erosion of ages but the mysterious transformation of living bodies.


Man after man in the immediately post-Darwinian days would stare into his mirror at the bony contours of a skull that held some grinning secret beyond the simple fact of death. Anatomists at the dissecting table would turn up odd vestigial muscles and organs. Our bodies held outdated machinery as strange as that to be found in the attics of old houses. Into these anatomical depths few would care to probe. But there were scholars who were not averse to delving among fossils, and the skulls they found or diagnosed would multiply. These would be recognized at last for what they were, the dropped masks of the beginning of Nature’s last great play—the play of man.


Strangely, it is a different play, though made partly of old ingredients. In three billion years of life upon the planet, this play had never been acted upon the great stage before. We come at a unique moment in geological history, and we ourselves are equally unique. We have brought with us out of the forest darkness a new unprophesiable world—a latent, lurking universe within our heads.


In the world of Charles Darwin, evolution was particulate; it contained and traced the history of fins, claws, wings, and teeth. The Darwinian circle was immersed in the study of the response of the individual organism to its environment, and the selective impact of the environment upon its creatures. By contrast, just as biological evolution had brought the magic of the endlessly new in organic form, so the evolving brain, through speech, had literally created a superorganic structure unimaginable until its emergence.


Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary, perceived that with the emergence of the human brain, man had, to a previously inconceivable degree, passed out of the domain of the particulate evolution of biological organs and had entered upon what we may call history. Human beings, in whom the power of communication had arisen, were leaving the realm of phylogeny for the realm of history, which was to contain, henceforth, our final destiny. After three billion years of biological effort, man alone had seemingly evaded the oblique trap of biological specialization. He had done so by the development of a specialized organ—the brain—whose essential purpose was to evade specialization.


The tongue and the hand, so disproportionately exaggerated in his motor cortex, were to be its primary instruments. With these he would elude channelized instinct and channelized organic development. The creature who had dropped from some long-ago tree into the grass had managed to totter upright and free the grasping forelimb. Brain, hand, and tongue would henceforth evolve together. Fin, fur, and paw would vanish into the mists of the past. Henceforth it would be the brain that clothed and unclothed man. Fire would warm him, flint would strike for him, vessels would carry him over dangerous waters.


In the end, with the naked body of an awkward and hastily readjusted climber, he would plumb the seas’ depths and mount, with wings spun in his brain, the heights of air. Enormous computations upon the movements of far bodies in space would roll in seconds from his computers. His great machines would leap faster at his bidding than the slower speed of his own nerves.


Because of speech, drawn from an infinitesimal spark along a nerve end, the vague, ill-defined surroundings of the animal world would be transformed, named, and categorized. Mind would reach into a past before its becoming; the misty future experienced by dim animal instinct would leap into sudden, clear perspective. Language, whose constituents have come down the long traverse of millennia as rolled and pounded by circumstance as a flint ax churned in a river bed, leaves no direct traces of its dim beginnings. With the first hieroglyph, oral tradition would become history. Out of a spoken sound, man’s first and last source of inexhaustible power, would emerge the phantom world which the anthropologist prosaically calls culture. Its bridges, its towers, and its lightnings lie potential in a little globe of gray matter that can fade and blow away on any wind. The novelty of evolutionary progression through time has begotten another novelty, the novelty of history, the evolutionary flow of ideas in the heads of men.


The role of the brain is analogous in a distant way to the action of mutation in generating improbabilities in the organic realm. Moreover, the human brain appears to be a remarkably solitary product of this same organic process which, in actuality, it has transcended. In this sense life has produced a newly emergent instrument capable of transmitting a greatly speeded-up social heredity based not upon the gene but instead upon communication. In its present technological phase it has brought the ends of the world into conflict and at the same time is reaching outward into space.


About ourselves there always lingers a penumbral rainbow—what A. L. Kroeber termed the superorganic—that cloud of ideas, visions, institutions which hover about, indeed constitute human society, but which can be dissected from no single brain. This rainbow, which exists in all heads and dies with none, is the essential part of man. Through it he becomes what we call human, and not otherwise.


Man is not a creature to be contained in a solitary skull vault, nor is he measurable as, say, a saber-toothed cat or a bison is measurable. Something, the rainbow dancing before his eyes, the word uttered by the cave fire at evening, eludes us and runs onward. It is gone when we come with our spades upon the cold ashes of the campfire four hundred thousand years removed.


Paradoxically, the purpose of the human brain is to escape physical specialization by the projections of thought. There is no parallel organism with which to compare ourselves. The creature from which we arose has perished. On the direct hominid line there is no twilight world of living fossils which we can subject to examination. At best we are forced to make inferences from less closely related primates whose activities lie below the threshold of speech.


The nineteenth century, in the efforts of men like Hughlings Jackson, came to see the brain as an organ whose primary parts had been laid down successively in evolutionary time, a little like the fossil strata in the earth itself. The centers of conscious thought were the last superficial deposit on the surface of a more ancient and instinctive brain. As the roots of our phylogenetic tree pierce deep into earth’s past, so our human consciousness is similarly embedded in, and in part constructed of, pathways which were laid down before man in his present form existed. To acknowledge this fact is still to comprehend as little of the brain’s true secrets as an individual might understand of the dawning of his own consciousness from a single egg cell.


The long, slow turn of world-time as the geologist has known it, and the invisibly moving hour hand of evolution perceived only yesterday by the biologist, have given way in the human realm to a fantastically accelerated social evolution induced by industrial technology. So fast does this change progress that a growing child strives to master the institutional customs of a society which, compared with the pace of past history, compresses centuries of change into his lifetime. I myself, like others of my generation, was born in an age which has already perished. At my death I will look my last upon a nation which, save for some linguistic continuity, will seem increasingly alien and remote. It will be as though I peered upon my youth through misty centuries. I will not be merely old; I will be a genuine fossil embedded in onrushing man-made time before my actual death.





"There never was a first man or a first primate," Dr. Glenn Jepsen of Princeton once remarked iconoclastically. The distinguished paleontologist then added that the "billions of genetic filaments in our ancestral phyletic cord are of many lengths, no two precisely the same. We have not had our oversized brain very long but the pentadactyl pattern of our extremities originated deep in . . . the Paleozoic." Moreover, we have, of late, discovered that our bipedal, man-ape ancestors seem to have flourished for a surprisingly long time without any increase in their cranial content whatever—some four or five million years, in fact.


It used to be thought that the brain of proto-man would have had to develop very early to enable him to survive upright upon the ground at all. Oddly, it now appears that man survived so well under these circumstances that it is difficult to say why, in the end, he became man at all. His bipedal pre-man phase lasted much longer—five or six times at least—than his whole archaeological history down to this very moment. What makes the whole story so mystifying is that the expansion of his neurocranium took place relatively rapidly during the million years or so of Ice Age time, and has not been traced below this point. The supposed weak-bodied creature whom Darwin nervously tried to fit into his conception of the war of nature on the continents is thought to have romped through a longer geological time period than his large-brained descendants may ever see.


We know that at least two million years ago the creature could make some simple use of stones and bones and may possibly have fashioned crude windbreaks. He was still small-brained in human terms, however, and if his linguistic potentialities were increasing there remains no satisfactory evidence of the fact. Thus we are confronted with the question why man, as we know him, arose, and why, having arisen, he found his way out of the green confines of his original world. Not all the human beings even of our existing species did. Though their brains are comparable to our own, they have lingered on, something less than one per cent of today’s populations, at the edge of a morning twilight that we have forgotten. There can thus be no ready assertion that man’s departure from his first world, the world of chameleon-like shifts and forest changes, waseither ordained or inevitable. Neither can it be said that visible tools created brains. Some of the forest peoples—though clever to adapt—survive with a paucity of technical equipment.


As to why our pygmoid ancestors, or, more accurately, some group of them, took the road to larger brains we do not know. Most of the suggestions made would just as readily fit a number of non-human primate forms which did not develop large brains. Our line is gone, and while the behavior of our existing relatives is worth examination we cannot unravel out of another genetic strand the complete story of our own.


Not without interest is the fact that much of this development is correlated with the advances and recessions of the continental ice fields. It is conceivable, at least, that some part of the human stock was being exposed during this time to relentless genetic pressures and then, in inter-glacial times, to renewed relaxation of barriers and consequent genetic mixture. A few scattered finds from remote portions of the Euro-Asiatic land mass will never clarify this suspicion. For hundreds of thousands of years of crucial human history we have not a single bone as a document.


There is another curious thing about the Ice Age. Except for the emergence of genuinely modern man toward the close of its icy winter, it is an age of death, not a birth time of species. Extinction has always followed life relentlessly through the long eras of earth’s history. The Pleistocene above all else was a time of great extinctions. Many big animals perished, and though man’s hunting technology was improving, his numbers were still modest. He did not then possess the capacity to ravage continents in the way he was later to do.


The dinosaurs vanished before man appeared on earth, and their disappearance has caused much debate. They died out over a period many millions of years in extent and at a time when the low warm continents lapped by inland seas were giving way to bleaker highlands. The events of the Ice Age are markedly different. First of all, many big mammals—mammoth, mastodon, sloth, long-horned bison—survived the great ice sheets only to die at their close. It is true that man, by then dispersing over the continents, may have had something to do with their final extermination, but there perished also certain creatures like the dire wolves, in which man could have taken little direct interest.


We are thus presented, in contrast to the situation at the close of the age of reptiles, with a narrowly demarcated line of a few thousand years in which a great variety of earth’s northern fauna died out while man survived. Along with the growing desiccation in Southwest Asia, these extinctions gave man, the hunter, a mighty push outside his original game-filled Eden. He had to turn to plant domestication to survive, and plants, it just happens, are the primary road to a settled life and the basic supplies from which cities and civilizations arise. A half-dying green kingdom, one might say, forced man out of a relationship which might otherwise have continued down to the present.


But, the question persists, why did so many creatures die in so little time after marching back and forth with the advancing or retreating ice through so many thousand years? Just recently the moon voyage has hinted at a possible clue, though it must be ventured very tentatively when man’s observational stay upon the moon has been so short.


The Apollo 11 astronauts observed and succeeded in photographing melted or glazed droplets concentrated on points and edges of moon rock. Dr. Thomas Gold, director of Cornell University’s Center for Radio Physics, has suggested that these glasslike concretions are evidence of melting, produced by a giant solar flare activated for only a few moments, but of an unexpected intensity. Giant storms are known to lick outward from the sun’s surface, but a solar disturbance of the magnitude required to account for such a melting—if it was indeed sun-produced —would have seemed from earth like the flame of a dragon’s breath. Most of the ultraviolet of the sun-storm, generated perhaps by a comet hurtling into the sun’s surface, would have been absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere. A temperature effect on earth need not have been pronounced so long as the flare was momentary. The unprotected surface of the moon, however, would have received the full impact of the dragon’s tongue.


Dr. Gold has calculated by various means that the event, if actually produced by a solar flare, lies somewhere close to thirty thousand years from us in time and is therefore unrecorded in the annals of man. But here is the curious thing. The period involved lies in the closing Ice Age, in the narrow time zone of vast extinctions in the northern hemisphere. Was the giant flare, an unheard-of phenomenon, in some way involved with the long dying of certain of the great mammals that followed? Seemingly the earth escaped visible damage because of its enveloping blanket of air. No living man knows what the flicking tongue of a dragon star might do, however, or what radiation impact or atmospheric change might have been precipitated upon earth. Some scholars are loath to accept the solar-flare version of the moon glaze because of the stupendous energy which would have to be expended, and the general known stability of the sun. But men are short-lived, and solar catastrophes like the sunward disintegration of a comet would be exceedingly rare. Until more satisfactory evidence is at hand, most scientists will probably prefer to regard the glazed rock as splashed by the heat of meteoritic impact.


Nevertheless, the turbulent outpouring of even ordinary solar flares is on so gigantic a scale as to be terrifying in a close-up view. Until there is further evidence that ours is not a sleepy dragon star, one may wonder just what happened thirty thousand years ago, and why, among so many deaths, it was man who survived. Whatever occurred, whether by ice withdrawal or the momentary penetration of the ultraviolet into our atmosphere, man’s world was changed. Perhaps there is something after all to the story of his eviction from the green Garden.


When I lie in bed now and await the hastening of Halley’s comet, I would like to find my way back just once to that single, precise instant when the star dragon thrust out its tongue. Perhaps the story of all dragons since comes from that moment. Men have long memories when the memories are clothed in myth. But I drowse, and the train whistle mingles and howls with the heaven-sweeping light in my dream. It is 1910. I am going back once more.


“at four i had been fixed with the compulsive vertigo of vast distance and even more endless time”

…echoes of Beckettian existentialism in Loren Eisely:



"I think we are now well across the last ice, toward the beginning. There is no fire of any sort but we do not miss it. We are far to the south and the climate is warm. We have no tools except an occasional bone club. We walk upright, but I think we are now animals. We are small — pygmies, in fact. We wear no clothes. We no longer stare at the stars or think of the unreal. The dead are dead. No one follows us at nightfall. Do not repeat this. I think we are animals. I think we have reached beyond the bridge. We are happy here. Tell no one."


Bookseller Photo 




Already at the origin of the species man was equal to what he was destined to become.








In the year 1910 Halley’s comet—the comet that among many visitations had flared in 1066 over the Norman invasion of England—was again brightening the night skies of earth. "Menace of the Skies," shrieked the more lurid newspapers.


Like hundreds of other little boys of the new century, I was held up in my father’s arms under the cottonwoods of a cold and leafless spring to see the hurtling emissary of the void. My father told me something then that is one of my earliest and most cherished memories.


"If you live to be an old man," he said carefully, fixing my eyes on the midnight spectacle, "you will see it again. It will come back in seventy-five years. Remember," he whispered in my ear, "I will be gone, but you will see it. All that time it will be traveling in the dark, but somewhere, far out there"—he swept a hand toward the blue horizon ofthe plains—"it will turn back. It is running glittering through millions of miles."


I tightened my hold on my father’s neck and stared uncomprehendingly at the heavens. Once more he spoke against my ear and for us two alone. "Remember, all you have to do is to be careful and wait. You will be seventy-eight or seventy-nine years old. I think you will live to see it—for me," he whispered a little sadly with the foreknowledge that was part of his nature.


"Yes, Papa," I said dutifully, having little or no grasp of seventy-five years or millions of miles on the floorless pathways of space. Nevertheless I was destined to recall the incident all my life. It was out of love for a sad man who clung to me as I to him that, young though I was, I remembered. There are long years still to pass, and already I am breathing like a tired runner, but the voice still sounds in my ears and I know with the sureness of maturity that the great wild satellite has reversed its course and is speeding on its homeward journey toward the sun.


At four I had been fixed with the compulsive vertigo of vast distance and even more endless time. I had received, through inherited temperament and inclination, a nostalgic admonition to tarry. Besides, I had given what amounted to a desperate promise. "Yes, Papa," I had said with the generosity of childhood, not knowing the chances that men faced in life. This year, after a visit to my doctor, I had written anxiously to an astronomer friend. "Brad," I had asked, "where is Halley’s comet reported on the homeward track? I know it must have turned the elliptic, but where do you calculate it now, how far—and how long, how long—?"


I have his answer before me. "You’re pushing things, old man," he writes. "Don’t expect us to see it yet—you’re too young. The orbit is roughly eighteen astronomical units or one billion six hundred and fifty million miles. It headed back this way probably in nineteen forty-eight."


Nineteen forty-eight. I grope wearily amidst memories of the Cold War, Korea, the Berlin blockade, spies, the impossible-to-be-kept secrets of the atom. All that time through the black void the tiny pinpoint of light has been hurrying, hurrying, running faster than I, thousands of miles faster as it curves toward home. Because of my father and the promise I had made, a kind of personal bond has been projected between me and the comet. I do not think of what it heralded over Hastings in 1066. I think it is racing sunward so that I can see it stretched once more across the heavens and momently restore the innocence of 1910.


But there is inner time, "personal, private chronometry," a brain surgeon once told me. There is also outer time that harries us ruthlessly to our deaths. Some nights in a dark room, staring at the ceiling, I can see the light like a mote in my eye, like a far-off train headlight glimpsed long ago as a child on the prairies of the West. The mournful howl of the train whistle echoes in my head and mingles with the night’s black spaces. The voice is that of the comet as I hear it, climbing upward on the arc of space. At last in the dark I compose myself for sleep. I pull the blanket up to my chin and think of radar ceaselessly sweeping the horizon, and the intercontinental missiles resting in their blast-hardened pits.


But no, I dream deeper, slipping back like a sorcerer through the wood of time. Life was no better, not even as safe, proportionately, in the neolithic hill forts whose tiny trenches can be seen from the air over the British downs. A little band of men, with their families beside them, crouched sleepless with ill-made swords, awaiting an attack at dawn. And before that, the caves and the freezing cold, with the ice creeping ever southward autumn by autumn.


The dead we buried in red ochre under the fire pit, the red standing for blood, for we were quick in analogies and magic. The ochre was for life elsewhere and farewell. We tramped away in our furred garb and the leaves and snow washed over the place of our youth. We worked always toward the south across the tundra following the long trail of the mammoth. Someone saw a vast flame in the sky and pointed, but itwas not called Halley’s comet then. You could see it glinting through the green light and the falling snow.


Farther backward still across twin ice advances and two long interglacial summers. We were cruder now, our eyes wild and uncertain, less sure that we were men. We no longer had sewn garments, and our only weapon was a heavy pointed stone, unhafted and held in the hand. Even our faces had taken on the cavernous look of the places we inhabited. There were difficulties about making fire, and we could not always achieve it. The dead were left where they fell. Women wept less, and the bands were smaller. Our memories consisted of dim lights under heavy sockets of bone. We did not paint pictures, or increase, by magic, the slain beasts. We talked, but the words we needed were fewer. Often we went hungry. It was a sturdy child that survived. We meant well but we were terrifyingly ignorant and given to frustrated anger. There was too much locked up in us that we could not express.


We were being used, and perhaps it was against this that we unconsciously raged the most. We were neither beast nor man. We were only a bridge transmitting life. I say we were almost animals and knew little, but this we felt and raged against. There were no words to help us. No one could think of them. Sometimes we were stalked by the huge cats, but it was the inner stalking that was most terrible. I saw a star in the sky with a flaming tail and cowered, shaking, into a bush, making uncouth sounds. It is not laughable. Animals do not do this. They do not see the world as we do—even we.


I think we are now well across the last ice, toward the beginning. There is no fire of any sort but we do not miss it. We are far to the south and the climate is warm. We have no tools except an occasional bone club. We walk upright, but I think we are now animals. We are small— pygmies, in fact. We wear no clothes. We no longer stare at the stars or think of the unreal. The dead are dead. No one follows us at nightfall. Do not repeat this. I think we are animals. I think we have reached beyond the bridge. We are happy here. Tell no one.


I sigh in my sleep but I cannot hold to the other side of the bridge—the animal side. The comet turns blazing on its far run into space. Slowly I plod once more with the furred ones up the ladder of time. We cross one ice and then another. There is much weeping, too much of memory. It is all to do over again and go on. The white-robed men think well in Athens. I heard a man named Pindar acclaim something that implied we have a likeness to the immortals. "What course after nightfall," he questioned, "has destiny written that we must run to the end?"


What course after nightfall? I have followed the comet’s track returning and returning while our minds and our bodies changed. The comet will appear once more. I will follow it that far. Then I will no longer be part of the bridge. Perhaps I will be released to go back. Time and space are my inheritance from my father and the star. I will climb no further up the ladder of fiery return. I will go forward only one more rung. What will await me there is not pleasant, but it is in the star’s destiny as well as mine. I lie awake once more on the dark bed. I feel my heart beating, and wait for the hurrying light.





In 1804, well over a century and a half ago, Captain William Clark recorded in his diary far up the unknown Missouri that ahead of the little expedition that he shared with Meriwether Lewis hung a formidable curtain of blowing dust through which they could not see.


"Tell us what is new," the few savants in the newborn American republic had advised the explorers when they departed westward. Men continued to have strange expectations of what lay hidden in the still uncharted wilds behind the screen of the great eastern forest. Some thought that the mammoth, whose bones had been foundat Big Bone Lick, in Kentucky, might still wander alive and trumpeting in that vast hinterland. The "dreadful curtain" through which the youthful captains peered on that cold, forbidding day in January could have hidden anything. Indeed the cloud itself was symbolic. It represented time in inconceivable quantities—time, not safe, not contained in Christian quantity, but rather vast as the elemental dust storm itself.


The dust in those remote regions was the dust of ice ages, of mountains wearing away under the splintering of frost and sun. The Platte was slowly carrying a mountain range to the sea over giant fans of gravel. Fremont’s men would later report the strange and grotesque sculptures of the wind in stone. It was true that a few years earlier the Scottish physician James Hutton had philosophically conceived such time as possible. His views had largely proved unwelcome and had been dismissed in Europe. On the far-western divide, however, amid the roar of waters falling toward an unknown western ocean, men, frontiersmen though they were, must have felt with an increasing tinge of awe the weight of ages unknown to man.


Huge bones bulked in the exposed strata and were measured with wonder. No man knew their names or their antiquity. New things the savants had sought surrounded the explorers, not in the sense of the living survival of great elephants but rather in the sense of a vaster novelty —the extension of time itself. It was as though man for the first time was intruding upon some gigantic stage not devised for him. Among these wastes one felt as though inhuman actors had departed, as though the drama of life had reached an unexpected climax.


One catches this same lost feeling in the remarks of another traveler, Alexis de Tocqueville, venturing into the virgin forest far from the pruned orchards of France. "Here," he said, "man seems to enter life furtively. Everything enters into a silence so profound, a stillness so complete that the soul feels penetrated by a sort of religious terror." Even in the untouched forest, time had taken on this same American quality: "Immense trees," de Tocqueville wrote in awe, "retained by the surrounding branches, hang suspended in the air and fall into dust without touching the earth."


It is perhaps a significant coincidence that man’s full recognition of biological novelty, of the invisible transformations of the living substance itself, came close upon the heels of the discovery of the vast wilderness stage which still held the tumbled bones of the former actors. It was a domain which had remained largely unknown to Europeans. Sir Charles Lyell, who, in the 18305, successfully revived Hutton’s lost doctrines of geological antiquity, visited the United States in the 18405 and lectured here to enthralled thousands. Finally, it was Charles Darwin, the voyager-naturalist, who, as a convinced follower of Lyell, had gazed upon a comparable wilderness in South America and had succeeded, in his mind’s eye, in peopling the abandoned stage with the creatures of former epochs. It was almost as though Europe, though rife with speculation since the time of the great voyagers, could not quite escape its man-centeredness or its preoccupation with civilized hedgerows and formal gardens. Its thinkers had still to breathe, like Darwin, the thin air of Andean highlands, or hear the falling of stones in mountain cataracts.


To see his role on the world stage, Western man had twice to revise his conception of time: once from the brevity of a few thousand years to eons of inconceivable antiquity, and, a second time, with far more difficulty, to perceive that this lengthened time-span was peopled with wraiths and changing cloud forms. Time was not just aged rocks and trees, alike since the beginning of creation; its living aspect did not consist merely of endless Oriental cycles of civilizations rising and declining. Instead, the  living flesh itself was alterable. Our seeming stability of form was an illusion fostered by the few millennia of written history. Behind that history lay the vast and unrecorded gloom of ice ages inhabited by the great beasts which the explorers, at Thomas Jefferson’s bidding, had sought through the blowing curtain of the dust.


Man, but not man in the garb we know, had cracked marrow bones in those dim shadows before his footprints vanished amidst the grass of wild savannahs. For interminable ages winged reptiles had hovered over the shores of ancient seas; creatures still more strange had paddled in the silence of enormous swamps. Finally, in that long backward range of time, it was possible to emerge upon shores which no longer betrayed signs of life, because life had become mere potential.


At thatpoint one could have seen life as the novelty it truly is. "Tell us what is new," reiterated the eager scientists to the explorers. Past mid-century, an answer could be made. It was life itself that was eternally, constantly new. Dust settled and blew the same from age to age; mountains were worn down to rise again. Only life, that furtive intruder drifting across marsh and field and mountain, altered its masks upon the age-old stage. And as the masks were discarded they did not come again as did the lava of the upthrust mountain cores. Species died as individuals died, or, if they did not perish, they were altered beyond recognition and recall. Man cannot restore the body that once shaped his mind. The bird upon the bough cannot, any more than a summer’s yellow butterfly, again materialize the chrysalis from which it sprang.


Indeed, in the end, life can be seen not only as a novelty moving through time toward an endlessly diverging series of possible futures but also as a complete phantom. If we had only the scattered chemicals of the cast-off forms and no experience in ourselves of life’s existence, we would not be able to identify its reality or its mutability by any chemical test known to us. The only thing which infuses a handful of dust with such uncanny potential is our empirical knowledge that the phenomenon called life exists, and that it constantly pursues an unseen arrow which is irreversible.


Through the anatomical effort and puzzle-fitting of many men, time, by the mid-nineteenth century, had become gigantic. When On the Origin of Species was published, the great stage was seen not alone to have been playing to remote, forgotten audiences; the actors themselves still went masked into a future no man could anticipate. Some straggled out and died in the wings. But still the play persisted. As one watched, one could see that the play had one very strange quality about it: the characters, most of them, began in a kind of generous latitude of living space and ended by being pinched out of existence in a grimy corner.


Once in a while, it is true, a prisoner escaped just when all seemed over for him. This happened when some oxygen-starved Devonian fish managed to stump ashore on their fins and become the first vertebrate invaders of the land. By and large, however, the evolutionary story had a certain unhappy quality.


The evolutionary hero became a victim of his success and then could not turn backward; he prospered and grew too large and was set upon by clever enemies evolving about him. Or he specialized in diet, and the plants upon which he fed became increasingly rare. Or he survived at the cost of shutting out the light and eating his way into living rock like some mollusks. Or he hid in deserts and survived through rarity and supersensitive ears. In cold climates he reduced his temperature with the season, dulled his heart to long-drawn spasmodic effort, and slept most of his life away. Or, parasitically, he slumbered in the warm intestinal darkness of the tapeworm’s eyeless world.


Restricted and dark were many of these niches, and equally dark and malignant were some of the survivors. The oblique corner with no outlet had narrowed upon them all. Biological evolution could be denned as one long series of specializations—hoofs that prevented hands, wings that, while opening the wide reaches of the air, prevented the manipulation of tools. The list was endless. Each creature was a tiny fraction of the life force; the greater portion had died with the environments that created them. Others had continued to evolve, but always their transformations seemed to present a more skilled adaptation to an increasingly narrow corridor of existence. Success too frequently meant specialization, and specialization, ironically, was the beginning of the road to extinction. This was the essential theme that time had dramatized upon the giant stage.


“in a universe whose size is beyond human imagining… men have grown inconceivably lonely”

". . . the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning however; it is thus we torture ourselves.”

Darwin saw clearly that the succession of life on this planet was not a formal pattern imposed from without, or moving exclusively in one direction. Whatever else life might be, it was adjustable and not fixed. It worked its way through difficult environments. It modified and then, if necessary, it modified again, along roads which would never be retraced. Every creature alive is the product of a unique history. The statistical probability of its precise reduplication on another planet is so small as to be meaningless. Life, even cellular life, may exist out yonder in the dark. But high or low in nature, it will not wear the shape of man. That shape is the evolutionary product of a strange, long wandering through the attics of the forest roof, and so great are the chances of failure, that nothing precisely and identically human is likely ever to come that way again.

[. . .]

In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanisms of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible. As the only thinking mammals on the planet—perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe—the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning however; it is thus we torture ourselves.

Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.

Loren Eiseley, “Little Men and Flying Saucers”

putting things in perspective

One day as I cut across the field which at that time extended on one side of our suburban shopping center, I found a giant slug feeding from a runnel of pink ice cream in an abandoned Dixie cup. I could see his eyes telescope and protrude in a kind of dim uncertain ecstasy as his dark body bunched and elongated in the curve of the cup… Then I came to a sign which informed me that this field was to be the site of a new Wanamaker suburban store. Thousands of obscure lives were about to perish, the spores of puffballs would go smoking off to new fields, and the bodies of little white-footed mice would be crunched under the inexorable wheels of the bulldozers. Life disappears or modifies its appearances so fast that everything takes on an aspect of illusion — a momentary fizzing and boiling with smoke rings, like pouring dissident chemicals into a retort. Here man was advancing, but in a few years his plaster and bricks would be disappearing once more into the insatiable maw of the clover. Being of an anthropological cast of mind, I thought of this fact with an obscure sense of satisfaction and waded back through the rose thickets to the concrete parking lot.

— Loren Eiseley, The Night Country