“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 Our bodies held outdated machinery as strange as that to be found in the attics of old houses.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.