An essay by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed. Propædia ed.)
The essay will be posted here in several parts.
“This is a fairy tale,” protested the Orphan. “I am here, I will look in the mirror.”
“Of course it is a fairy tale,” said the scientists, “but so is the world and so is life. That is what makes it true. Life is indefinite departure. That is why we are all orphans. That is why you must find your own way. Life is not stable. Everything alive is slipping through cracks and crevices in time, changing as it goes. Other creatures, however, have instincts that provide for them, homes in which to hide. They cannot ask questions. A fox is a fox, a wolf is a wolf, even if this, too, is illusion. You have learned to ask questions. That is why you are, an orphan. You are the only creature in the universe who knows what it has been. Now you must go on asking questions while all the time you are changing. You will ask what you are to become. The world will no longer satisfy you. You must find your way, your own true self.”
“But how can I?” wept the Orphan, hiding his head. “This is magic. I do not know what I am. I have been too many things.”
“You have indeed,” said all the scientists together. “Your body and your nerves have been dragged about and twisted in the long effort of your ancestors to stay alive, but now, small orphan that you are, you must know a secret, a secret magic that nature has given to you. No other creature on the planet possesses it. You use language. You are a symbol-shifter. All this is hidden in your brain and transmitted from one generation to another. You are a time-binder, in your head symbols that mean things in the world outside can fly about untrammeled. You can combine them differently into a new world of thought or you can also hold them tenaciously throughout a lifetime and pass them on to others.”
Thus out of words, a puff of air, really, is made all that is uniquely human, all that is new from one human generation to another. But remember what was said of the wounds of evolution. The brain, parts of it at least, is very old, the parts laid down in sequence like geological strata. Buried deep beneath the brain with which we reason are ancient defense centres quick to anger, quick to aggression, quick to violence, over which the neocortex, the new brain, strives to exert control. Thus there are times when the Orphan is a divided being striving against himself. Evil men know this. Sometimes they can play upon it for their own political advantage. Men crowded together, subjected to the same stimuli, are quick to respond to emotion that in the quiet of their own homes they might analyze more cautiously.