An essay by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed. Propædia ed.)
The essay will be posted here in several parts.
Molecular biologists have begun to consider whether the marvelous living alphabet which lies at the root of evolution can be manipulated for human benefit. Already some varieties of domesticated plants and animals have been improved. Now at last man has begun to eye his own possible road into the future. By delicate excisions and intrusions could the mysterious alphabet we carry in our bodies be made to hasten our advancements into the future? Already our urban concentrations, with all their aberrations and faults, are future-oriented. Why not ourselves? It is in our power to perpetuate great minds ad infinitum? But who is to judge? Who is to select this future man? There is the problem. Which of us poor orphans by the roadside, even those peering learnedly through the electron microscope, can be confident of the way into the future? Could the fish unaided by nature have found the road to the reptile, the reptile to the mammal, the mammal to man? And how was man endowed with speech? Could men choose their way? Suddenly before us towers the blackest, most formidable bridge of our experience. Across what chasm does it run?
Biologists tell us that in the fullness of times more than ninety percent of the world’s past species have perished. The mammalian ones in particular are not noted for longevity. If the scalpal, the excising laser ray in the laboratory, were placed in the hands of one person, some one poor orphan, what would he do? If assured, would he reproduce himself alone? If cruel, would he by indirection succeed in abolishing the living world? If doubtful of the road, would he reproduce the doubt? “Nothing is more shameful than assertion without knowledge,” the great Roman statesman and orator Cicero once pronounced as though he had foreseen this final bridge of human pride–the pride of a god without foresight.
After the disasters of the second World War when the dream of perpetual progress died from men’s minds, an orphan of this violent century wrote a poem about the great extinctions revealed in the rocks of the planet. It concludes as follows:
I am not sure I love
the cruelties found in our blood
from some lost evil tree in our beginnings.
May the powers forgive and seal us deep
when we lie down,
May harmless dormice creep and red leaves fall
over the prisons where we wreaked our will.
Dachau, Auschwitz, those places everywhere.
If I could pray, I would pray long for this.
One may conclude that the poet was a man of doubt. He did not regret man; he was confident that leaves, rabbits, and songbirds would continue life, as, long ago, a tree shrew had happily forgotten the ruling reptiles. The poet was an orphan in shabby circumstances pausing by the roadside to pray, for he did pray despite his denial; God forgive us all. He was a man in doubt upon the way. He was the eternal orphan of my father’s story. Let us then, as similar orphans who have come this long way through time, be willing to assume the risks of the uncompleted journey. We must know, as that forlorn band of men in Judaea knew when they buried the jar, that man’s road is to be sought beyond himself. No man there is who can tell the whole tale. After the small passage of 2,000 years who would deny this truth? [My comment: Jesus did so and proved it by rising from the dead.]