Editor's Notebook: Our awareness of the immense journey should give us confidence

Mar 1, 2005

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Where is Loren Eiseley, now that we need him? I met him, in a manner of speaking, years ago, and then only by chance (how he would worry that word). He was sitting at his desk contemplating a fish fossil. 

It could, he noted, just as well have been the long-horned Alaskan bison on his wall. Both are extinct and gone, he mused, as "our massive-faced and shambling forebears of the Ice have vanished." 

This, as with so many things, would give him pause. It was then that he would tell the stories.

He was drawn to the study of time and space and our place within it. And here was a mystery, written in a "heavy and peculiar stone."

The outline of what was, the shadow of the fish, was still there. And the chemicals that once gave it life. Most of them anyway. But the fish was no more. It is the same with him, he concluded. "There is no life in the iron, there is no life in the phosphorus, the nitrogen does not contain me, the water that soaks my tissues is not I. What am I then?" What, indeed? 

"Just once out of all time," he continued in The Night Country, his moodiest collection of essays, "there was a pattern that we call Bison regius, a fish called Diplomystus humlis, and, at this present moment, a primate who knows, or thinks he knows, the entire score."

I leaned nearer. What? What does it mean? But I was too late. He, too, was gone. I had entered a dark room and found a shadow writing words in the long-ago.

Eiseley would understand that. He envisioned himself as one who was meant to be born into the Age of Ice, at the dawn of human consciousness. He was acquainted with those who were driven to depict the last of the old world's shaggy beasts on rock walls, those who were compelled to describe the dark beyond the firelight of the cave. He was, is, among the shamans, one of the storytellers.

But where is he, now that we need him? He's not widely read in our time. And he was, as he himself chose to put it, an outcast in his own time. He was a scientist, an anthropologist and the author of 13 books, including Darwin's Century, which won acclaim from his peers. Yet he was drawn far beyond what is measurable. He was drawn to the metaphor, to the spirit behind the visible.

He was a bone hunter, a historian of science, an inspiring teacher. For these accomplishments he would win applause from the academy. For the poetry and for the essays in the American ScholarHarper's Magazine and the Scientific American, he would not.

Yet we have always needed a shaman, a storyteller who can answer our fears. And so, to prepare for this special issue on bioethics, I went looking for Loren Eiseley again in our campus library. We had aimed to look into the future of biotechnology. But, as is often the case, we were left with more questions than answers. 

The most urgent of these was posed by our lead essayist, Lori Andrews. "Should the government allow or prohibit technologies that would significantly alter the human race?" she asked. 

Yet this may be a question many scientists and most politicians are not equipped to answer.

Even the President's Council on Bioethics, charged with weighing these moral dilemmas, has called on the storytellers. While writing her piece on stem cell research, our Statehouse reporter Paige Wassel discovered the council has culled the great literature for some answers. Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics gathers excerpts from poetry, fiction and philosophy. But I would also invite the literary scientists to this imaginary colloquium.

Among them, Lewis Thomas, who was, before he died, a physician and medical researcher. He, too, was a scribbler of essays for the popular press, if we can consider The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly to be such. The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snailare collections of these essays. 

For the first time in four billion years a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden, unaccountable loneliness, the whisper of the wind in the night reeds. Perhaps he knew, there in the grass by the chill waters, that he had before him an immense journey. - Loren Eiseley The Immense Journey Random House, 1946

  Thomas' subject matter was topical and contemporary. He suggested, for instance, that, while the prospect of human cloning may be dismaying, we can never really succeed in making a perfect copy of a human being. That's because we would first have to replicate the social and physical environment that shaped the individual. We would begin by trying to clone a person and end by cloning the entire world.

Stephen Jay Gould, whose natural history essays were published in Vanity Fair and The New York Times should be there. Though gone, he is the best-known of the popularizers of science. He was an evolutionist, and so makes a readable case for the relationship of living form to function over time. The Flamingo's Smile and The Panda's Thumb are two of his collections. 

But Eiseley, the poet and philosopher of science, would have to be the guest of honor. He could issue dark warnings about the uses of science. And he could quarrel with those who have forgotten, or never heeded, the mystery. The human animal, he would remind us, is the first to have a consciousness of itself within time and space. But while the memory of our past grows longer, we cannot see the future.

 Then he might tell the story of the time he came upon a skull embedded in sandstone. "It was," he wrote in The Immense Journey, "the face of a creature who had spent his days following his nose, who was led by instinct rather than memory, and whose power of choice was very small." The skull, he wrote, seemed to stare, sightless, up at him, as though Eiseley himself were already caught in the strata above. 

"The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?"

And yet, Eiseley could remind us, our awareness of the immense journey should give us confidence. Nature is still experimenting, "still dynamic, and not through nor satisfied because a Devonian fish managed to end as a two-legged character with a straw hat. There are other things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat. It pays to know this. It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past. The only thing that doesn't pay is to be sure of man's own part in it." 

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, March 2005