An essay by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed. Propædia ed.)
The essay will be posted here in several parts.
When in following years scientific experiment and observation became current, a vast change began to pass over Western thought. Man’s conception of himself and his world began to alter beyond recall. “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” exclaimed the poet John Donne, Bacon’s contemporary. The existing world was crumbling at the edges. It was cracking apart like an ill-nailed raft in a torrent–a torrent of incredible time. It was, in effect, a new nature comprising a past embedded in the present and a future yet to be.
First, Bacon discerned a mundus alter, another separate world that could be drawn out of nature by human intervention–the world that surrounds and troubles us today. Then, by degrees, time depths of tremendous magnitude began, in the late 18th century, to replace the Christian calendar. Space, from a surrounding candelabrum of stars, began to widen to infinity. The Earth was recognized as a mere speck drifting in the wake of a minor star, itself rotating around an immense galaxy composed of innumerable suns. Beyond and beyond, into billions of light years, other galaxies glowed through clouds of wandering gas and interstellar dust. Finally, and perhaps the most shocking blow of all, the natural world of the moment proved to be an illusion, a phantom of man’s short lifetime. Organic novelty lay revealed in the strata of the Earth. Man had not always been here. He had been preceded, in the 4,000,000,000 years of the planet’s history, by floating mollusks, strange fern forests, huge dinosaurs, flying lizards, giant mammals whose bones lay under the dropped boulders of vanished continental ice sheets.
The Orphan cried out in protest, as the cold of naked space entered his bones, “Who am I?” And once more science answered. “You are a changeling. You are linked by a genetic chain to all the vertebrates. The thing that is you bears the still aching wounds of evolution in body and in brain. Your hands are made-over fins, your lungs come from a creature gasping in a swamp, your femur has been twisted upright. Your foot is a reworked climbing pad. You are a rag doll resewn from the skins of extinct animals. Long ago, 2,000,000 years perhaps, you were smaller, your brain was not large. We are not confident that you could speak. Seventy million years before that you were an even smaller climbing creature known as a tupaiid. You were the size of a rat. You ate insects. Now you fly to the Moon.”