LOREN EISELEY: POET OF EVOLUTION
Dick Pountain 25/02/05
I originally wrote this essay in 2005 as the introduction to an anthology of Loren Eiseley’s works whose publication was to be sponsored by my late business partner Felix Dennis. The anthology never appeared, due to apparently insuperable copyright issues, and I present my introduction here as a smaller attempt to resurrect Eiseley’s reputation, a project that could hardly be more topical…
In 1968 Professor Loren Corey Eiseley was rated among the most admired nature writers in the USA, and his dramatically personal essays on archaeology, fossil hunting, evolution, human origins and animal behaviour were devoured by fascinated lay readers in highbrow magazines from The American Scholar to Scientific American and Harper’s. His first essay collection ‘The Immense Journey’, published in 1957, sold 500,000 copies over the next decade. When men landed on the moon in July 1969, Eiseley was the first author commissioned to write a book placing this event in philosophical perspective, while in the same year he received the highest accolade American popular culture could then bestow, an article published in Playboy.
The source of that popularity will perhaps become understandable once you read some of the essays in this anthology. Eiseley tackled the deepest of subject matter, human nature and destiny viewed from the perspective of Darwinian evolution, and he tackled it in finely-honed and emotional prose. An ability to raise a chuckle over the death of Little Nell is famously supposed to be the touchstone of literary tough-mindedness nowadays, but even the flintiest of modern ironists might be unable to suppress a tiny lump in the throat at this description of the release of a captured hawk from Eiseley’s ‘The Bird and the Machine’: “I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing further up. Straight out of the sun’s eye, where she must have been soaring restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years and tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.”
Eiseley’s first published works were poems and he returned to writing verse at the very end of his career. His poetry was appreciated and encouraged by some great poets, including W.H. Auden, Conrad Aiken and Archibald McNiece, but it can be at least argued that the greater part of Eiseley’s poetic imagination went into his prose. The essays, always written in the first person and always emotionally charged (even when they carried a payload of scientific argument) are often best read as prose poems. This style of presentation raised some eyebrows among his scientific colleagues, but it also clearly struck a chord with a public disoriented by the sheer rapidity of the post-war technological revolution — a battery chicken in every pot and a transistor radio in every parlour — and so hungry for new philosophies. In England C.P. Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’ was published in 1959, a year after Eiseley’s first essay collection, but where Snow had proclaimed an almost unbridgeable gulf between the arts and the sciences, Eiseley seemed in his own person to bridge that gulf and show a way across to others.
Many of the concerns raised in Eiseley’s essays appeared superficially to overlap with those of the emerging 1960s ‘counterculture’: a dislike of mass society and industrialised consumerism; worries over environmental pollution; sympathy for exploited animals; and a romantic yearning for more ‘spiritual’ values. This congruence however was almost entirely illusory for Eiseley was no counterculture radical. He bitterly opposed the student revolts at his own university and expressed contempt for hippy ideals, most particularly their attempts to live in a permanent present and their careless attitude toward academic freedom. In reality they could hardly have been farther apart, as Eiseley was deeply immersed in the Past, which he claimed to be able to see and feel revealed in the landscape, and he had an almost Calvinist preoccupation with the inevitability of death.
Eiseley had a deeply melancholic personality, imprinted by his unhappy childhood split between a beloved father who loved to recite Shakespeare and a stone-deaf, paranoid and manipulative mother. He took refuge first in reading and later in writing, and accounts of his life suggest a man more at ease in the company of dead authors than live persons. A list of all his influences would be very long indeed, so it’s easier perhaps to recall just some of those mentioned explicitly in the essays: Boethius, Shakespeare, Bacon, Donne, Thoreau, Darwin, Melville, Poe, Thomas Huxley, W.H. Hudson, Jack London, Freud, Hardy. Inspired by such examples Eiseley developed a style that came to be so highly admired that in 1971 he was the first scientist ever elected to the prestigious National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Toward the end of his life Eiseley directed his thought into ever deeper and darker channels. Those soaring passages celebrating the diversity and fecundity of nature that illuminated his early works became rarer, and he dwelt more and more on the loneliness of a lost human species that had killed off both God and its own preserving animal instincts. His prose style changed to match, becoming convoluted, intense and portentous — but still with rewarding insights for those who cared to penetrate his thickets of overlayered metaphor. His final essay collection, ‘The Night Country’ of 1971, contains some of his best writing but would not be an obvious recommendation as a ‘holiday read’.
By the time Eiseley died in 1977, both his belle-lettrism and his moral earnestness were already starting to feel out of step with the times. A revival of radical Marxism cast suspicion on Darwin and any notion of a fixed component to human nature, which was once again believed to be malleable and possibly perfectable. The structuralist ideas of Levi-Strauss and his successors conquered all the human sciences, shifting the spotlight of scholarship from genes and history to language and social structures. In the realm of letters Mailer, Capote and Wolfe’s ‘new journalism’ was steering American writers toward a terser, more ironic prose style that was quite at odds with Eiseley’s seriousness.
Looking back now at Eiseley though, he seems far more closely in tune with our darkened times. The glib assumptions of ’60s libertarianism are increasingly questioned, scientific optimism has worn thin and fundamentalist religion is on the rise. Eiseley always warned against being fooled by our own abstractions, that we should duck for cover whenever something is proposed in the interest of ‘Man’ rather than mere men and women. Perhaps most important of all though, recent advances in genomics have shifted Darwin’s thought back to the centre of the intellectual stage in the most dramatic way, and our most pressing moral debate is now over the use or misuse of genetic engineering, a debate that Eiseley had fully anticipated in the early 1970s.
A Genius, But Moody
Loren Eiseley was born in 1907 in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the very centre of the Mid-West prairies, a grandson of pioneers who had arrived on the westward-bound wagon trains of the 1880s. His grandparents were wealthy, but ruined by a recession, so that his parents, though some way from being ‘dirt poor’, had to struggle to get by. Unusually for those times both his parents had been previously married and divorced, and theirs was a deeply troubled marriage. Loren’s father Clyde, whom he adored, worked long hours as a hardware store clerk and was an amateur actor who declaimed Shakespeare in a mellifluous baritone voice. His mother Daisy, a talented prairie painter, was stone-deaf and mentally unstable, by turns paranoid, domineering and manipulative. Unable to hear herself, she spoke in discordant shouts which Loren came to detest. However since Clyde and Daisy conversed as little as possible, the house was typically shrouded in a gloomy silence. All Eiseley biographers have commented, plausibly enough, that in this horrible disparity between his communications with the revered, eloquent father and feared, strident mother lay the origins of his later love of language. His grandiloquent prose style perhaps remembered his father’s dramatic delivery — certainly he kept the battered Complete Works of Shakespeare that his father left to him all his life.
The Eiseleys were regarded as odd by their neighbours, and were more or less ostracised from Lincoln society. His only sibling, half-brother Leo, was 12 years older and left home while Loren was still a small boy. Given this isolating environment it was hardly surprising that Loren became — like so many other writers of talent — a solitary and bookish boy. He showed early signs of great intelligence, and developed an equally early a love of nature, collecting small water creatures and keeping them in home-made aquaria. When Loren was five his brother started reading to him from Robinson Crusoe during a visit home, and left the book with him: Loren taught himself to read in order to finish the story and was soon making his own way through Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. A childhood reading of Jack London’s ‘Before Adam’, so he later claimed, is what first introduced Loren to the concept of evolution (and in 1962 he was delighted to be asked to write an epilogue for a new edition). Young Loren also developed a taste for adventure stories and books with animal heroes, including Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’, J.O. Curwood’s ‘Baree: Son of Kazan’ about a wolf, and Charles Roberts ‘Hunter of the Silence’.
When Loren was 12 his Uncle Buck — Daisy’s brother-in-law, a wealthy Lincoln businessman and philanthropist — first took him to the University of Nebraska museum, which was mostly devoted to archaeology, zoology, geology and anthropology, and possessed a fine collection of Indian relics. Loren was fascinated and started to spend much of his spare time there. He also began to make small clay models of early human skulls, which he persuaded his beloved grandmother Malvina to fire in her bread oven. Malvina, a devout Methodist with spiritualist leanings, reluctantly complied while grumbling that his artefacts were ungodly, clearly possessing “that Darwin look…”
By the time he was 16 a sympathetic English teacher had recognized and nurtured Loren’s latent talent and he was admitted to the University of Nebraska in 1925 to study the natural sciences. He had also begun to write poetry, some of which was published in 1927 in the small magazine ‘Prairie Schooner’, founded and edited by Lowry Charles Wimberly. A circle of progressive and bohemian artists gathered around Wimberly’s magazine, avidly reading all the major texts of modernism, including Freud, Darwin and Marx. It was in that circle that Loren met his future wife Mabel Langdon. Some years his senior, Mabel was a woman of sensitivity and intellect, an Ibsen scholar at the university. After a decade of indecision on Loren’s part they married, a marriage which lasted his whole lifetime. Mabel greatly assisted his subsequent career, carefully nurturing his somewhat fragile ego and helping him weather criticism (which he always seems to have found a trial). Still at that time though, Loren declared no intention to become a professional writer and saw his future as a scientist.
In 1928 his father Clyde died of cancer, an event that appears to have deeply affected Loren’s mental equilibrium: from that time till the end of his life he suffered from incurable insomnia and a morbid preoccupation with death. One of the pivotal moments of his deeply psychological autobiography ‘All the Strange Hours’ comes when, following his father’s funeral, he discovers his mother burning Clyde’s papers: on a letter just being consumed by the flames young Loren briefly glimpses the phrase “…remember the boy is a genius, but moody…”
Eiseley’s university education was a fraught affair, prolonged to more than eight years and punctuated by periods of manual labour when money ran out, by the death of his father, and, following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, by periods of life as a hobo riding across America on freight trains, which provided him with the material of his first short stories. In 1930 he developed serious pulmonary problems after a bout of influenza and was diagnosed (or possibly mis-diagnosed) as having tuberculosis. One of his lecturers procured for him a caretaker’s job in the Mohave desert to help him recuperate, which further encouraged his lifelong taste for desolate places. That he finally received a degree at all was largely thanks to financial assistance from Uncle Buck.
While at Nebraska Eiseley briefly flirted with the idea of studying English, and during 1932 took the class in ‘The Nineteenth Century Essay’ taught by Kenneth Forward. This was one of the most important decisions of his life, because through it he discovered his preferred literary form. Forward’s course introduced students to the masters of the essay form — Hazlitt, Macaulay, Lamb, De Quincey, Carlyle, Ruskin and, most significantly for Loren, Thomas Henry Huxley, that early defender of evolutionary theory who was nicknamed ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. The essay form suited Loren’s talent perfectly, allowing him to propose and develop a single idea in dramatic and poetic style, and he was to become at least as much the T.H. Huxley as the Thoreau (to whom he was often compared) of the 20th century.
Nevertheless Eiseley decided against a career in literature, choosing instead to pursue in geology and palaeontology. During several successive seasons he took paid summer employment in the university’s collecting parties which scoured the badlands of western Nebraska and South Dakota for fossil bones. He also went on a fossil-hunting trip to New Mexico, where as a bonus he and Mabel gained an introduction to the Taos literary set surrounding Mabel Dodge Luhan (which at that time included D.H. Lawrence’s widow Frieda). Eiseley’s experiences during these fossil-hunting expeditions provided him with the raw materials for many, perhaps most, of his later essays, though they were not to be written-up for another 20 years. Under the influence of his teacher William Duncan Strong, Loren discovered a particular passion for the study of early man and was persuaded to switch to anthropology, in which he graduated in 1933.
From Nebraska, Eiseley moved on a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania graduate school in Philadelphia to work for a doctorate. There his head of department was the man who became his mentor, ethnologist and naturalist Frank Speck, whose fascination with American Indian shamanism formed an important component of Eiseley’s later world-view. Speck was one of the last of the pioneer ethnologists: raised by an Indian woman and speaking several Indian languages, he would spend several months of each year hunting with them in the woods of the north-eastern USA. Considered somewhat eccentric by academic colleagues, Speck kept live turtles roaming free in his university office and often bartered with Indian fur traders there.
Loren’s financial state was still very precarious, and in 1936, to make ends meet, he skipped a semester to take up a job with the Works Progress Administration — an organ of Roosevelt’s New Deal — writing introductions to the geology, paleontology and Indian prehistory of Nebraska. He finally received his doctorate in 1937 for work co-authored with Speck on Indian hunting territories.
From then on Eiseley’s career progress was steady and rapid. In 1937 he was made assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Kansas, where he remained for most of World War II — excused war service on health grounds, his war was spent teaching medicine to enlisted reservists. In 1944 he made full professor at Oberlin College, returning to the University of Pennsylvania in 1947 to replace the dying Frank Speck as head of department. He remained a professor at Pennsylvania for the rest of his life, even acting for a few rather uncomfortable years as provost.
In Philadelphia Eiseley took his first tentative steps into journalism — from 1948 through the early 1950s, he wrote popular science articles on evolution and other archaeological themes for upmarket magazines that included Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, The American Scholar and Horizon. These essays were so well received that Random House persuaded him to collect them together with new ones to publish his first book ‘The Immense Journey’ in 1957. Such was its commercial success and critical acclaim that Eiseley was now launched on a second, literary, career which produced a string of works — ‘The Firmament of Time’ 1960, ‘Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma’ 1962, ‘The Mind as Nature’ 1962, ‘Man, Time and Prophecy’ 1966, ‘The Unexpected Universe’ 1969, ‘The Brown Wasps’ 1969, ‘The Invisible Pyramid’ 1970 and ‘The Night Country’ 1971 — from which most of the essays in this anthology are culled. In 1958 he published his sole academic textbook ‘Darwin’s Century’, a masterful survey of Charles Darwin’s intellectual predecessors and the unfolding of the idea of evolution by natural selection — this required much original documentary research in the Darwin archives, work which as an obsessive bibliophile Eiseley found very congenial.
By the mid 1960s Loren Eiseley had achieved a degree of celebrity as a nature writer, hailed as heir-apparent to Henry David Thoreau and sought after as a pundit on all matters biological. From 1966 to 1968 he even had his own TV nature series on NBC called ‘Animal Secrets’, though Eiseley’s somewhat stiff and gloomy persona didn’t really suit the medium — he was no David Attenborough — and the contract was not renewed. He also returned to writing poetry, of which three volumes (‘Notes of an Alchemist’ 1972, ‘The Innocent Assassins’ 1973 and ‘Another Kind of Autumn’ 1977) were published during his lifetime and one (‘All the Night Wings’) was published posthumously in 1979. His work was much appreciated by other poets: he corresponded with Archibald McLeish and Howard Nemerov and dined in New York with W.H. Auden who dedicated a poem to him.
After many years of difficult going Eiseley eventually completed his psychologically-revealing, if somewhat fictionalised, autobiography ‘All the Strange Hours’ (the title is a line from Swinburne) and published it in 1975, only shortly before contracting the illness that was to kill him. He died in 1977 of pancreatic cancer.
The Pilfered Parable
Nowadays Eiseley’s best-known work is his 1967 essay ‘The Star Thrower’, which gave its name to the last major anthology of his writing in 1978. Briefly summarised, this story finds Eiseley walking along the starfish-littered beach of a small Central American village. Eiseley, himself a collector of echinoderm specimens, knows that this beach is a magnet for commercial starfish souvenir gatherers. However he soon encounters a solitary man who is saving the starfishes from collection by throwing them far out into the sea, one at a time. Eiseley remonstrates with him that he can’t possibly make a difference, but the man retorts “I made a difference to that one… and that one.” Eiseley walks away, but thinking again, returns and joins the man in throwing starfish. (It’s significant, as we shall see later, that the name of the village appears in no gazetteer: Eiseley made it up).
While researching for the present anthology I came across a website (‘The Pilfered Parable’ at http://www-museum.unl.edu/research/entomology/Eiseley/Anderson/) devoted to tracing the spread of the Star Thrower story throughout American popular culture over the three decades since it was written. The story has become a folk myth, appearing in hundreds of different versions — modified, reset in both time and place, rewritten to feature different actors and animals, sometimes not attributed to Eiseley at all, but always traceable to his original.
The story’s dramatic prose style, verging on the Gothic, is highly agreeable to a younger generation raised on Tolkien, sci-fi, computer games and action movies — however the people who turned the Star Thrower into an urban myth were not attracted by its style but rather by the moral content that they perceived in it. The same website offers a page of links to organizations and causes that are currently using Eiseley’s parable to support their aims, and the variety of beliefs represented there is quite staggering: social and community workers; fire fighters; educationalists; mental hospitals and support groups; Roman Catholics; Methodists; Jews; Buddhists; Mormons; Masons; various New Age cultists; conservationists; US senators; Teens Against Drunk Driving; libertarians; even Creationists (ironically enough given Eiseley’s status as a major exponent of Darwinism).
Many of these causes admittedly have something in common — a ‘caring’ aspect, a promotion of compassion — but others instead emphasise the story’s message of individualism, that one person can ‘make a difference’. A rereading of the original, undoctored, story makes it plain that Eiseley didn’t for a minute believe he was saving the species of starfish, but was rather making a decision about the course of his own life. There’s an element of rebellion, of standing alone against a tide of commercialism. This ethical complexity, ambiguity even, is no doubt responsible for the great popularity of the parable: like many Christian parables, its message can be interpreted to support quite diverse philosophies (recall Margaret Thatcher’s reading of ‘The Good Samaritan’).
The Star Thrower is not a Christian parable though. Though throughout his career Eiseley was mistaken for a religious believer, even a mystic, he emphatically rejected either label. As a working archaeologist, palaeontologist and anthropologist he never cast doubt on the facts of the fossil record and the evidence for evolution, and it requires a positively perverse misreading to find any succour for Creationism in his work. Eiseley’s own scientific colleagues were sometimes misled by the ‘unscientific’ language of his essays, and he was accused of blurring the division between science and literature. (Similar charges are levelled nowadays against Oliver Sacks, another fine prose stylist who dares to blend human sympathy with scientific discourse, in his case neuroscience).
The ethic expressed in Eiseley’s parables does overlap in places with Christ’s teachings — for example, the virtue of compassion — and it’s precisely at these intersections that the profusion of enthusiasts listed above can grasp him as justification for their own beliefs. In other essays though Eiseley feels closer to animism, shamanism and paganism, which are far less congenial to those sorts of reading. Despite his love of animals he was not a vegetarian and even participated (albeit with distaste) in deer hunting — he understood, perhaps too well, that there could be no life without the predator/prey food chain. Eiseley was first and foremost a scientist who wrestled throughout his life with a problem that still eludes satisfactory solution: to discover an ethical stance compatible with modern science’s picture of an unknowing, uncaring, evolving universe that yet avoids nihilism. Bear in mind that Charles Darwin himself retained his Christian faith — Darwin was never a ‘Social Darwinist’.
Formed In The Ice
Loren Eiseley was one of the great popularisers of Darwin’s thought, taking as his starting point the last line of “The Origin Of Species” in which Darwin remarked appropos the theory he had just expounded, “There is a grandeur in this vision”. Eiseley devoted his considerable poetic talent to conveying this grandeur to a lay readership. His essays weave together anthropological, ethological, dramatic and moral observations into an account of his own emotional development in parallel with the narrative of human evolution. He felt a deep empathy with wild animals that was entirely free from the cloying sentimentality and anthropomorphism that afflict pet owner, animal-libber and Disney nature film alike. He could as easily identify with the predator as with its prey, and might simultaneously admire and loathe the fiendishly cunning adaptation of some highly-evolved parasite.
In his first essay collection ‘The Immense Journey’ Eiseley tries to popularise, even rhapsodise, the theory of evolution. The subject matter is mostly drawn from Eiseley’s earlier career as a fossil hunter, and each story illustrates some aspect of evolution or archaeology (that is, evidence for the evolution of Homo sapiens in particular) in a thrilling and powerful fashion.
In ‘The Flow of the River’ Eiseley describes how one day when hunting fossils in the high plains of Kansas, he decided, despite the fact that he could not swim, to float on his back down the great river Platte: “… 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.” During his perilous journey Eiseley undergoes an epiphany concerning the unity of the processes of nature (the archetypal form of many of his stories):
“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.”
In ‘How Flowers Changed the World’ Eiseley explains, with a wonderfully light touch, how the emergence of the flowering plants transformed the energetics of life on earth, their nutrient-rich seeds finally providing a food source compact enough to make possible the fast-moving, warm-blooded, large-brained creatures from which we are descended:
“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.” [p75]
In his four later essay collections Eiseley moved steadily toward moral and cultural concerns, becoming ever more critical as he did so, but his thought always remained within an overall framework of evolutionary theory. ‘The Firmament of Time’ (1960) concentrated on the anthropological and archaeological, explaining how our contemporary nature has been formed by the ordeals that our ancestors survived. In particular the essay ‘How Human Is Man?’ is a powerful critique of the harmful effects of a media-saturated society, which predates Martin Amis’s ‘Moronic Inferno’ by decades:
“The television networks seek the lowest denominator which will entrance their mass audience. There is a muted intimation that we can do without the kind of intellectual individualists who used to declaim along the edges of the American wilderness and who have left the world some highly explosive literature in the shape of Walden and Moby Dick”. [p120]
In the ‘The Unexpected Universe’ (1969) Eiseley moves onto more personal ground, and perfects his trademark story structure, namely an encounter with some animal or plant to which he attaches an anthropological observation or from which he draws a moral conclusion (‘The Star Thrower’ was first published in this collection). ‘The Hidden Teacher’ is perhaps the most metaphysical of all Eiseley’s essays, and the one most likely to be mistaken for mysticism: in it he draws together (not altogether successfully) accounts of his dead mother, the psyche of female spiders, Hindu mythology, Frank Speck’s student days, and dreams about mirrors. The story ‘The Innocent Fox’ provides one of the most memorable scenes in the whole of Eiseley’s work, which finds him on hands and knees, wrestling with a baby fox for possession of a chicken bone held in his teeth.
‘The Invisible Pyramid’ (1970) took Eiseley into the space age. It contains several seminal essays (‘The Spore Bearers’, ‘The World Eaters’) on space exploration and environmental degradation, which question whether it would be desirable for Homo sapiens to attempt the colonization of other planets before we’ve disciplined ourselves sufficiently not to destroy this one.
‘The Night Country’ (1971) was the last essay collection published in Eiseley’s lifetime and contains his most personal work — deeply revealing, melancholic and sometimes melodramatic. Among its high points are ‘The Places Below’, in which Eiseley explains his fascination with caves and tunnels through the story of a childhood friendship, and ‘Big Eyes, Small Eyes’, perhaps the most gripping of all his stories — an account of a moonlit trek across a bleak cattle prairie in the Midwest that involves several eerie animal encounters. In ‘Instruments of Darkness’ Eiseley aired his fears about the Cold War arms race and technology run out of control in a most impassioned way. He foresees the potential danger of genetic modification, despite the fact that this essay was written barely five years after Watson and Crick uncovered the genetic code:
“It was not necessary to break the code of DNA in order to control human destiny. The tragedy lies in the fact that men are already controlling it even while they juggle retorts and shake vials in search of a physical means to enrich their personalities. We would like to contain the uncontainable future in a glass, have it crystallized out before us as a powder which we might swallow. All then, we imagine, would be well.” [p53]
Woven throughout the texts of the 52 essays in these four collections is Eiseley’s powerful vision of human evolution, picking out the crucial episodes in that evolution and explaining how they contributed to our present human nature. He argues as an orthodox Darwinist, positing that all the species now alive (together with those we know of only from the fossil record) arose through unguided evolution by natural selection, from original primitive single-celled ancestors. Homo sapiens was not exempted from this process and evolved like all the other creatures. During the course of evolution species frequently become extinct, a fate that can befall even the most successful of species if it adapts so closely to a particular ecological niche that it is unable to cope when geological or meteorological changes remove that niche. In such circumstances low-population species that had previously been competing poorly (i.e. that might appear to some hypothetical observer to be evolutionary ‘failures’) may suddenly come into their own and make an evolutionary spurt.
Homo sapiens was one such species and our spurt was in an unprecedented direction: we evolved a huge brain, capable of developing complex communication skills and hence creating Culture — tools, agriculture, art, religion and eventually science — which granted us a flexibility denied to all other species. We were thereby able to conquer almost all the land niches on Earth, and to survive (so far) even the most drastic of climatic and geological changes.
The various Ice Ages represented just such drastic changes, and these lie at the heart of both Eiseley’s scientific and imaginative worlds. Eiseley’s field work consisted of seeking humanoid fossils in the Ice Age fossil beds exposed by erosion in the ‘Badlands’ of the American mid-west. He came to believe that something that occurred during the last Ice Age was responsible for the final explosion in human brain volume that permitted language and culture, and speculated that this may have been a near-extinction event which so reduced the human population that a chance mutation could spread with great rapidity through the tiny population of survivors — what geneticists call a ‘genetic bottleneck’.
Wearing his poet/psychologist’s hat, Eiseley also suspected that this experience had somehow hard-wired into the character of Homo sapiens a flinty hardness and loneliness that he liked to contrast with the warmth of other social animals (a repeated image in his essays is the ‘ping’ sound made as a pebble cracked in the frost of some uninhabited upland desert):
“It is unlikely… in our present comfortable circumstances, that the pace of human change will ever again speed at the accelerated rate it knew when man strove against extinction. The story of Eden is a greater allegory than man has ever guessed. For it was truly man who, walking memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world, sat down and passed a wondering hand across his heavy forehead. Time and darkness, knowledge of good and evil, have walked with him ever since. It is the destiny struck by the clock in the body in that brief space between the beginning of the first ice and that of the second. In just that interval a new world of terror and loneliness appears to have been created in the soul of man.” [‘The Dream Animal’, p125]
Eiseley was fascinated by those unpredictable and irreversible branches that evolution sometimes follows, and especially by the island as a privileged place where such effects can be seen most clearly (hence the crucial importance to Darwin of his Galapagos observations). He firmly believed that, despite the protective blanket provided by civilisation, Homo sapiens too could eventually become extinct, or else be deposed from the top of the heap by some other evolving species thanks to a drastic environmental change, maybe brought about precisely by the toxic by-products of man’s own technologies wielded in the service of his unsatisfiable aggressive instincts.
Over the fourteen years that separated ‘The Immense Journey’ from ‘The Night Country’, Eiseley’s tone darkened from an almost upbeat sense of wonder at the sheer extravagance of evolution, to a brooding sense of extinction and finality. (This pessimism was not solely a product of advancing age and disillusion, for as early as 1927 Eiseley had been enthusiastic about the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, a ferocious misanthrope who built himself a solitary granite tower in Monterey from which to curse the human race).
A rather unfortunate coda to Eiseley’s career was the posthumous publication of ‘Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X’ in 1979. While he was working on ‘Darwin’s Century’ during 1957–58, Eiseley thought he had discovered a precedent for Darwin’s discovery of natural selection that had been overlooked by previous historians, in the work of a British naturalist Edward Blyth. While curator of a museum in Bengal, India, in the 1840s, Blyth had corresponded with Darwin on the subject of evolution and Darwin cited his ideas in some early notebooks. On the basis of some missing pages from these notebooks, Eiseley formed the opinion that Darwin may have taken the idea of natural selection from Blyth without acknowledgement, and he published several essays developing this thesis, which were collected by his estate and published as ‘Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X’. Subsequent scholarship has not supported Eiseley’s accusation, given that other authors as well as Blyth arrived at similar conclusions around the same time, but none of them presented the concept in the coherent way Darwin did. A good summary of this matter, which somewhat tarnished Eiseley’s reputation, can be found in Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘An Urchin in the Storm’.
No Enemy But Time
As befits an archaeologist, Eiseley was fascinated by the passage of time. He was acutely, even morbidly, aware of his own mortality, and his essays describe many uncanny experiences involving prophecies, glimpses into the future and visitations from the past. (Whether all such episodes were actual experiences or literary devices is difficult to establish, and matters not very much).
A crucial event in his early childhood, recounted in the story ‘The Star Dragon’, was sitting on his father’s shoulders to watch Halley’s Comet in 1910: Clyde told the 3-year-old Loren that if he lived long enough he would see the comet’s return in 1985 (he didn’t make it). He appears to have had a dramatically heightened subjective experience of time, claiming once to see a prehistoric face when he looked in his mirror, and on another occasion to have confused his own footprints with those of a fossil creature. One of his posthumously published notebooks contains the claim that: “I am powerfully influenced by locale, and being geologically trained, a locale which may be projected vertically in time.” In other words, whenever he strode across a landscape he was constantly aware of the strata of the past buried beneath its surface contours.
In ‘Darwin’s Century’ and in his 1966 lecture ‘Man, Time and Prophecy’, Eiseley distinguished three principal stages in the evolution of the human awareness of time: the cyclic, endlessly repeating time of the ancients, driven by the succession of night and day, moon phases and seasons; the historical time of the great monotheistic religions, which starts with The Creation and ends after a few thousand years with the return of The Messiah; and lastly modern scientific time as measured out by atomic clocks, which began with the Big Bang and may end in the Heat Death of the Universe trillions of years from now.
An enhanced perception of time was, Eiseley realised, a crucial part of humankind’s evolutionary equipment. During that rapid evolutionary spurt that formed the modern human’s cerebral cortex some 30,000,000 years, the faculties of long-term memory and language were both massively extended (the latter of course depending critically on the former) and this gift transformed the way we live in the world. Rather than living in a perpetual present as most of the so-called ‘lower’ animals do, we constantly, second-by-second, trisect our lives into three movable compartments called past, present and future.
This knowledge that there was a past and that there will be a future renders human culture possible: it becomes possible to learn lessons from past events and use this knowledge to improve the future, to plan ahead, and to build monuments solely to pass messages down to our descendants. Our entire intellectual apparatus — language, religion, magic, philosophy, and eventually science — exists for the purpose of manipulating the future. In his notebooks Eiseley scribbled this epigram: “The space age was born when the first man-ape said ‘tomorrow’.” He was by no means the first to make such an observation, but Eiseley’s explanation is less technical and far more approachable than that of say, Heidegger, and he shows convincingly that while our sense of time is a profound evolutionary advantage, it’s also a source of suffering: we can choose many things in life, but we can’t choose not to die.
For him, other animals are blessed rather than cursed by living in a perpetual present, and he often expressed a longing to join them in this state of joyful ignorance and urgency. Humanity fell from grace when our sense of past and future seduced us into fighting against our own mortality. Other animals can’t ignore death because, top predators excepted, they spend so much of their lives trying to dodge it, but they are not tormented by the certainty that one day in the future they will die, as we are. As another great 20th century poet put it:
Free from death.
Only we see that; but the beast is free
and has its death always behind it and God before it…
[Rilke, Eighth Duino Elegy]
The tone of Eiseley’s essays grew progressively darker throughout his career, and by some accounts gloomy introspection threatened to overwhelm him towards the end of his life — close friends nicknamed him ‘Schmerzie’ and ‘Eeyore’. He was well aware of his own temperament, and offered a wry apologia in the preface to his second collection of poems, ‘The Innocent Assassin’: “An alienated creature does not laugh, but a midnight optimist, even a fugitive, might, nor does a complete melancholic say ‘The earth pleases me’”. Had he ever sought psychotherapy he might have been a relatively easy patient to analyse, given the cold manipulating mother, the desolate prairies, the death of the beloved father and the rest, but there’s no evidence he ever did. In an astute review (included in this anthology) of ‘The Unexpected Universe’ W.H. Auden remarked “I get the impression of a wanderer who is often in danger of being shipwrecked on the shores of Dejection…” In danger, certainly, but never actually shipwrecked.
His distant relationship to his mother was certainly a source of sorrow to Eiseley. In ‘The Hidden Teacher’ he describes how, standing at his mother’s grave, he angrily refused to be buried next to her: “We, she and I, were close to being one now, lying like the skeletons of last year’s leaves in a fence corner […] Rest. You could never rest. This was your burden. But now, sleep. Soon I will join you, although, forgive me, not here. Neither of us then would rest.”
Eiseley’s ancestry concealed another great source of anxiety — his maternal grandparents, the Shepard family, were notorious for violence and inherited madness. A photograph of his maternal great-grandmother Permila Shepard, a woman feared for her “homicidal tendencies”, bears a startling facial resemblance to Loren himself. All through his childhood he felt that his parents were watching him for signs of the Shepard “bad blood” to emerge, and during his teens and hobo days he confessed to experiencing murderous impulses which he successfully resisted. This matter preyed on his mind throughout his life and he frequently alludes to it in the essays: he confided once to his editor Kenneth Heuer that, had things taken a different turn he might have decided on life as a criminal rather than a scholar.
Ultimately though, the gloomy tone of Eiseley’s later work stemmed quite rationally from his growing knowledge of human evolution and human nature. Of two great commentators on human nature Adam Phillips  has said:
“… to think of Darwin and Freud as pessimists is too crudely reassuring. They are only pessimists compared to certain previous forms of optimism (the belief in redemption, or progress, or the perfectibility of Man). […] one can only write the poems of the earth, as Darwin and Freud did, if one is happily convinced that there is nowhere else to go”.
These thoughts apply equally well to Loren Eiseley if we perhaps delete “happily”.
No Mystic, No Humanist
Loren Eiseley was often mistaken for a religious prophet or a mystic by his readers, but insisted that he was neither, stating unequivocally in a 1971 interview: “I know this term [mystic] has been sometimes applied to me as though I were lost in some kind of sectarian theology, which is outrageous.” In his biography of Eiseley , Gale Christianson hints that despite his outrage, Loren actually rather liked being taken for a mystic, and played up to the image by collecting fetishes, talismans, shamanistic artefacts and even a crystal ball. This could be seen as no more than an eccentric personal style picked up from his beloved teacher Frank Speck, or even a sign that he was, to this extent at least, in tune with his changing times — interest in the esoteric, occult and uncanny had been spreading in America from the 1950s Beat movement through to the New Age hippies of the ’70s.
In his introduction to ‘The Innocent Assassins’, Eiseley slyly mocked the confusion his style aroused:
“… these are the poems of a bone hunter and a naturalist, or at least those themes are predominant in the book. Some have called me Gothic in my tastes. Others have chosen to regard me as a Platonist, a mystic, a concealed Christian, a midnight optimist. Like most poets I am probably all these things by turns, or such speculations are read into me by those who are pursuing some night path of their own.”
Eiseley’s attitude to mainstream Christianity was far less ambiguous, and pungently expressed in an unpublished work ‘How Man Came’ contained in his Lost Notebooks [p113]. Speaking of the medieval roots of Christian theology he says:
“It is then that he builds his coal-cellar universe with the devil stoking away below, and angels plucking a harp in the upper room to drown the outcries in the basement. Small and black and flame-licked was that eternity, and small and black and at times venomous was the mind that conceived it”.
Eiseley rejected the Calvinism of his ancestors as a hubristic celebration of human mastery over nature, dressed up as piety. Such mastery arose not from God but from nature — our opposable thumb and our ability to speak — and the notion that the world was given to us alone to exploit filled him with despair.
At the height of his career Eiseley was often labelled a humanist — for example by reviewers of ‘The Invisible Pyramid’ in 1970 — and he certainly was one in the Renaissance sense of a man of learning who seeks to educate mankind through philosophical poetry, rhetoric, utopian imaginings and concern for the future. However the term humanist nowadays suggests more than this: when used as a less-loaded term for ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist’, it implies a strongly-held belief in progress and scientific reason, and many of Eiseley’s essays are aimed precisely against such triumphalism. For example in ‘The Time Effacers’ he claims emphatically that
“The scientist is now in the process of learning that the social world is stubbornly indifferent to the elegant solutions of the lecture hall, and that to guide a future-oriented world along the winding path to Utopia demands an omniscience that no human being possesses” [p106].
The ambiguity stems from a debate about human nature that has been raging ever since the ancient Greeks. Conservatives insist that human nature is selfish and aggressive — that is, ‘bestial’ — and needs to be restrained by law and the state. Radicals insist either that human nature is at root cooperative and loving — when not corrupted by deprivation — or else that there is no fixed human nature, that our characters are entirely formed by society. Neither position is consistent with the latest findings in genetics, which suggest that human behaviour is governed almost equally by genetic factors and by the effects of upbringing — that is, by culture — as Eiseley was well aware.
Eiseley’s thought is actually much closer to a seam of sceptical naturalism that stretches from the ancients Democritus and Lucretius, through Spinoza and Hume, to Nietszche, Darwin, and in the 20th century Freud and Santayana. Humans are animals, hence part of nature, but unlike the other animals we can partially sculpt our own characters, and our story is one of struggle between these instinctual and artificial halves of our nature.
Eiseley abhorred the mechanistic and instrumental outlook that modern scientific humanism engenders, the worship of facts accompanied by denigration of the imagination. In ‘Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma’ he expressed this doubt so:
“No one need object to the elucidation of scientific principles in clear, unornamental prose. What concerns us is the fact that there exists a new class of highly skilled barbarians — not representing the very great in science — who would confine men entirely to this diet” [p85].
As a working scientist and a poet, Eiseley straddled the worlds of reason and imagination, and it’s unwise to try and label him either a rationalist or an irrationalist. He certainly didn’t believe that the universe is ruled by reason, nor even that reason is capable of fully controlling that tiny morsel of it we live on. In a notebook from the early 1950s he remarks: “Man’s ego suffered three great blows. Loss of the center of the stage — Copernicus. Loss of directed evolution — Darwin. Loss of the moral mind — Freud.”
Though he seldom employed psychoanalytical terminology, several essays refer approvingly to Freud — for example ‘The Unexpected Universe’, ‘Easter: the Isle of Faces’ and ‘The Time Effacers’ — and Gene V. Glass  has suggested that much of his work can be read as a sort of jargon-free self-analysis. He accepted the psychoanalytical concept of an Unconscious, which he saw as that part of the mind ruled by animal instinct rather than reason. His most picturesque escapades, from floating down the river Platte to wrestling with a baby fox were attempts at ‘acting-out’ his own animal impulses. To say someone is ‘behaving like an animal’ is for most people harsh censure, but Eiseley did not regard animals as evil — for him the animal part of human nature might even be the better part.
Nor could he accept that man’s works are the supreme good, which would licence the exploitation and consumption of all the other things and beings on the planet: “Modern man, the world eater, respects no space and no thing green or furred as sacred. The march of the machines has entered his blood” [The World Eaters p70]. In ‘The Spore Bearers’ he even expressed a fear that the human race might spread its predatory culture to other worlds via space travel.
Eiseley’s metaphysical beliefs occupy a strange space between Spinoza’s God-as-Nature, Bergson’s creative principle (‘élan vital’), Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the Brahma of Indian theology, and Santayana’s notion of a pagan ‘necessary piety’ toward nature. He concluded ‘The Immense Journey’ with this tantalisingly ambiguous statement:
“… 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 to even 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 the many worn by the Great Face behind’”.
But in a letter to a friend in 1969 he offered a more succinct precis: “I would place my hopes on life itself, without naming the form. As one theologian phrased it to me not long ago, I am biocentric rather than anthropocentric”. That’s another way of saying that Homo sapiens is one animal among many, and there is a moral value superior to ours, namely the interest of life in its entirety. Different natures will seldom share the same goods: the good of the lion is to eat the antelope, whereas the good of the antelope is not to be eaten.
Eiseley’s studies of Native American shamanism lead him to an understanding deeper than our ‘New Age’ appropriation of a some vague ‘oneness with Nature’. He understood their need to respect the good of their prey even though it must be killed — placating the spirit of the prey, apologising for having to kill it, was not mere superstition, but a necessary moral hygiene that assuages guilt and avoids the slide into ‘anything goes’ nihilism. This ability is what Eiseley sensed had been lost from modern industrial civilisation.
The theme running through all of Loren Eiseley’s work is an uncomfortable acceptance that Nature made us and can unmake us too. We’re neither better nor worse than other animals, merely more powerful. Other animals would ravage the planet too given the chance but Malthusian forces always control them — he remarks somewhere that the ambition of the mouse is to turn the whole universe into mouse meat! Science continues to uncover the laws of nature, making our lives somewhat longer and a lot more comfortable, but it can’t, in the end, defend us against the sheer contingency of what exists and what happens.
1977, the year Loren Eiseley died, was a pivotal time in 20th century political, economic and intellectual history. The oil crisis of 1973 had finally stifled the boom that followed World War II, and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were about to up-end the social democratic political consensus the war and post-war boom had engendered. In the realm of ideas, several important new strands of thought launched themselves within a year or two of Eiseley’s death, and the temptation to speculate what he would have made of these had he lived for another ten years is impossible to resist.
In 1975 Edward O. Wilson published ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’  while Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’  appeared the next year. Both works suggest that a rigorous return to Darwinian first principles would benefit the social sciences, and make strong claims for the influence of genetic makeup in all areas of human life. Dawkins title was intended as a metaphor — from the detached viewpoint of genetics, evolution of life on earth can be seen as the pursuit of immortality by a vast collection of genes, which selfishly sacrifice the lives of the individual organisms they cause to be built in order to propagate themselves, including you and me. It was a good metaphor and one that Eiseley would have accepted (though it would hardly have cheered him up). All metaphors though, however good, risk being taken literally, and many of Dawkins’ readers and followers have done just that, believing him to be saying that human nature is fundamentally selfish. Conservatives latched onto the idea to stress competition as the driving force of evolution not merely of species, but of social institutions, and to resurrect Victorian Social Darwinism. Eiseley was perhaps the last exponent of a poetic and less aggressive evolutionary perspective, continued after him by only a handful lead by Steven Jay Gould (incidentally an admirer of his work) — it seems likely he would have rejected the reductionism of the more hard-core sociobiologists.
1975 also saw the publication of ‘Animal Liberation’  by Professor Peter Singer, which inaugurated the modern debate over animal welfare. It’s harder to speculate what Eiseley’s attitude to animal liberation would have been. In some essays he had already expressed disgust at the suffering of animals in poorly designed or unnecessary experiments, and toward the end of his life he and Mabel cared for and found owners for stray dogs. On the other hand his opposition to the ’60s student protests suggests that he would have abhorred animal lib terrorists, while Singer’s insistence that other animals be granted the same moral status as humans might have struck Eiseley as another example of human egotism — who are we to grant such rights? If we could, as Eiseley wished, rejoin the animal world, we would remain a top predator, never a herbivore.
Eiseley also died just too soon for the 1979 publication of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’ Gaia Hypothesis . This theory treats the whole planet Earth as a self-regulating super-organism, in which living matter, air, oceans and land surfaces are all involved in a fantastically complex set of feedback loops that conspire to keep the average environment fit for living things to survive. This is a notion that Eiseley might have found attractive, even equivalent to that oneness or Great Face that he was groping to describe.
Moving closer to the present day, growing concern about climate change has recently stimulated great advances in climatology, largely by the study of deep polar ice cores. This new knowledge adds support to Eiseley’s idea that the need to survive prolonged winters was crucial in driving Homo Sapiens’ explosive growth of brain size — though it may have been through frequent less severe coolings caused by switching of North Atlantic Current rather than the major Ice Ages, as he supposed. As for his fear that the Ice May Come Again, that’s now seen as a distinct possibility, not merely despite Global Warming, but possibly triggered by it. The geopolitical effects of such an episode on today’s highly-interdependent, just-in-time world would be devastating: crashing grain harvests and drought would trigger wars for the remaining food and water.
If we are animals like the others, then our destiny may well be decided by natural factors beyond our control. This feels implausible when the human population is the greatest ever and growing, and our science is triumphant on so many fronts from genetics to cosmology, microelectronics to meteorology. But the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005 showed just how far beyond our control nature remains. Loren Eiseley was morbidly aware that a global drought, a super-volcano eruption, an asteroid impact, a nuclear war (i.e. an act of human nature) could cause the human population to crash back to Stone Age levels, or in the worst case eradicate us altogether and pass the baton of evolution to some other species. He understood sooner, and better, than most of us that ancient man was already capable of ravaging the Earth long before he possessed science or God — even in a primitive state our species could strip the Australian outback and the Gobi Desert or exterminate large mammals from the American continent. Technology gives us the power to destroy more and faster, but it is not in itself the problem — might just save us if we can change our attitude to using it. Eiseley in his anguished way was pointing toward a new humanism based on respect for the natural order rather than the will to dominate.
For some 21st-century readers reared on irony, convenience and sound-bites, Eiseley’s prose may be too rich to consume in large doses — his combination of tough science, poetic gravitas and moral austerity is completely at odds with contemporary taste. In that case, you could always dip into this volume like a box of chocolates — but if you do, be warned that there are more hard centres than soft…
Eiseley’s life and work:
1. Gale Christianson ‘Fox At the Wood’s Edge’, Henry Holt, 1990.
2. Gene V Glass, ‘Searching for Loren Eiseley: An attempt at reconstruction from a few fragments’, 1982 on the website American Buddha at http://www.americanbuddha.com/eiseley.bio.htm#LOREN EISELEY BIOGRAPHY
3. Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Misserving Memory’ in “An Urchin in the Storm”, Norton 1987.
4. Antonio Damasio, ‘Looking for Spinoza’, Vintage 2004.
5. George Santayana, ‘Classic Liberty’ in ‘Soliloquies in England’, University of Michigan Press, 1967.
6. Lewis White Beck, ‘Six Secular Philosophers’, Free Press, 1960.
7. Adam Phillips, ‘Darwin’s Worms’, Faber and Faber 1999.
8. Edward O. Wilson, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Harvard University Press 1975.
9. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Selfish Gene’, Oxford University Press 1989.
Climate change and geography:
10. William H. Calvin, ‘A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change’, University of Chicago Press, 2002.
11. Jared Diamond, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, W. W. Norton 1999.
Environmentalism and animal rights:
12. Peter Singer, ‘Animal Liberation’, New York Review Books 1975.
13. James Lovelock, ‘Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth’, Oxford University Press 1979.