Lately have been rereading Loren Eiseley again. His words are clear and when appropriate, lyrical. Now reading The Firmament of Time, 1960. On the cover, underneath the title, this sentence: "A vivid and original exploration of the changes in man's vision of nature and himself by the author of The Immense Journey and Darwin's Century." Interesting to be reminded how we thought fifty years ago, and a hundred, two hundred years ago. Our world is changing so rapidly, how we live changes, and how we think of ourselves and the world around us, keeps changing. Somewhere I read that we, humankind, destroyed more of our planet in the last 60 years than had been destroyed by volcanoes, tsunamis and other natural causes in the previous 200,000 years.
And yet we think ourselves the pinnacle, the glorious end result of evolution. We who think ourselves the top, the fabulous apotheosis of evolution, also think we are the owners of this planet. We are convinced that our science knows almost all the secrets of the universe, certainly all we need to know of the planet. From our own point of view we are what all of creation has always been about.
Eiseley covers the last few centuries, a fascinating account of how we changed (somewhat) our thinking about nature and ourselves. Halfway through the book I wanted to look sideways. He mentions only the changes in thinking within European history of the last two or three centuries. There is no mention of how the Chinese, or Indians, or Polynesians, or Africans, or all other humans thought of themselves and nature. I know some of what, for instance, the Chinese and Indian thinkers thought about who we were and how we fit into all Life on the planet. Their ideas were much wider and more natural than the narrow history Eiseley describes. Western thinking, Eiseley says, of course correctly, was Christian thinking, based on interpretations of a Bible that was put together 300 years after Christ. And so we came to think about ourselves thrown out of Paradise (nature?) for the sin of wanting to know. But also accepting without question that Man was made in the image of a Creator who worked six days to create us for whom everything else was created.
Eiseley's little book then is about western philosophers and scientists of earlier ages who somehow had to account for records of hitherto unknown life forms to be found in rocks, measurably much older than 4004 years. Eiseley describes how thinkers and observers slowly, in small steps, got us to accept that Life as well as Nature were not created and destroyed (the Flood and other imagined catastrophes) over and over again, as Europeans of the Middle Ages and after thought. Each time created all over again with improvements. He calls this Catastrophism, the idea that the fossils we found must have been earlier creations that were destroyed in an apocalyptic catastrophe, then recreated with improvements. Today's world would then be the last creation. Now, God finally got it right because we are the ones for whom the planet, probably even the universe, was created.
The thought that changes could happen all the time, continuously, that something we now call evolution is an ongoing process, resulting in ever more varied creations making an ever richer biodiversity was hard to fit into the traditional Christian world view. Darwin of course was not alone in framing his theory of a continuing process of evolution, but his voyage on the Beagle, and his book that contains so many examples of slow continuing change changed our (western) understanding of where and when we came from.
Do we realize that evolution also implies that change continues into an unknown future? We may be the most complex life form, but the last, the final?
Eiseley's writing is a delight. I remember we celebrated Darwin's 200th birthday not long ago, but his book came out in 1859, a hundred and fifty-one years ago. From what I know the general idea of evolution as Darwin described it, is a gradual change of life forms adapting to specific locations, to climate, altitude, ocean, land, etc. Today scientists have studied, measured, observed millions of distinct species. The Darwinian idea of evolution still comes back to the old idea of humankind as the reason for all creation. Called "teleology," change with a purpose, a goal. Formerly pictured as a tree. We, humans at the very top of the tree. As if we are what all creation is about.
Somehow that does not sit well with me. The idea that we are the best, the highest, the most, comes from our ego. Scientists as well as philosophers have talked and thought about what makes us so unique, different, and special. What is it that makes us different from animals, to be specific. There are and have been many answers to that. To name only a few: we have a soul, we have intelligence, hands with thumbs that make us able to make tools, a sense of being an individual -- lately we call ourselves homo sapiens sapiens, the species that is aware of being aware. Certainly there is a difference between us and animals, but does the difference make us better? More something? Apes and monkeys, even ants, make and use tools -- not the metal contraptions that we dream up, but a stick, a hollow stem; definitely tools. Dogs have much better sense of scent than we have, many animals see more than what we can see. There are animals that fly which we cannot do without a "tool." Some animals have much more complex intestines and other organs than we have.
The more I learn from other cultures, indigenous and aboriginal people's stories about where and how we became, the less I can accept that we are the final product of evolution. Most non-western humans never thought we were so different from all other life. Recent polls show that America may be the only country in the world where more than half of all people do not "believe" in evolution. In non-western and non-Christian parts of the world, evolution as a science has been accepted more or less "of course." Aboriginal and indigenous people have no problem seeing themselves as another kind of animal, they never denied that.
I remember a visitor from Europe who thought she must talk to me; I was probably eight or nine years old. She explained that we, humans, are so wonderful that it must have taken an even more wonderful, smarter, "Creator" to create us. Even then I thought that was explaining the beginning by the end, how it all started by who we are today. We think we are the best from our own point of view -- well yes, but there are other points of view. At the time we had a young gibbon (one of the apes) at our house. I asked the woman how we were so different from that gibbon. She looked at me with disgust. He's a beast, she spat at me. The little gibbon was an animal, of course, but I knew him well, I knew how he felt, and why. Ours was the first relationship I had with another that was not simple. The relationship with my parents was difficult sometimes, but straight forward. The people "in the back" were a warm family. I had friends, and knew other kids. The gibbon was different. I knew that he suffered, he felt lonely with no other of his own kind around. He was fed and treated well, but I deeply felt his loneliness. There was a piece of soft leather on one foot, connected to a long chain. He could move, but not escape. I probably knew that if he escaped he would be caught by someone else, but I also knew that his circumstances were wrong. He was in a place that had no way out. I had seen gibbons in the wild. They are apes, a step up from monkeys. Gibbons are incredible trapeze artists. They fly through the branches of high trees from one long arm to a longer leg, seemingly in free fall or flight most of the time. And our little gibbon was tied to a pole. There were times when as soon as I came home from school I would take off the little leather around his foot, and he would throw himself at me, his arms around my shoulders, his legs tightly around my hips, his head cuddled on my neck. I was never big for my age; he was heavy. I remember the day when I realized he could bite my neck; he had bitten someone, not seriously. When he wound himself tightly around me he would wimper a little, close to my ear (always the left ear). We would walk around, I talked to him, sometimes I thought he talked to me. Always tightly melded. Eventually I would sit down, and tie the little leather strap around his foot again. As he grew bigger -- faster than I did -- I would hear one or another of my family-in-the-back mumble trouble. My own feelings were troubled as well. He never had a name, we all referred to him as Siamang, just the name of the kind of black gibbon he was. I loved Siamang for trusting me, and for that tight, intimate hug, but I keenly felt his agony. Our driver, Udin -- to me, my other father -- said to me once, Siamang clings to you because you're the size of his mother, all of us are too big, and your sister is too small. Finally I talked about Siamang's pain to my father. He was a good listener. He told me again how some villagers had found the helpless, starving little ape, its mother probably killed; brought it to father's lab. One of the women had fed him from a bottle. When he was old enough it was my father who had brought him home, thinking we might "learn from him." I knew what my father meant and thought about what I had learned. After many minutes I said, "what I have learned is that I never again want to have an animal on a chain." Nothing more was said. I went to my room. That evening father took Siamang back to the lab. I guessed what had to be done. I knew of course that Siamang could not be taken back to the jungle. At our house, and before, at the lab, we had given him a banana, a bit of leftover rice, a bread crust; he would not have known how to survive in the wild, and wild gibbons would not have accepted him because he smelled wrong. I've never owned another pet, but very occasionally an animal has chosen to live with me. I've never tied them up, or prevented them from leaving if that is what they needed to do.
And yes, I am quite certain that thinking ourselves special is wrong. I know deep down that I am of the same stuff as that little gibbon, or the cats next door, or a tree. The same atoms, the same matter, we breathe the same air, we eat each other to live. We need each other, we are interdependent.
Sure, we are smart, we can invent machines but almost everything we do seems to be bad for other beings, for the planet, for our own survival. I can't see that as higher, better.