Mar 032011


Science is in a strange predicament these days.  Political rhetoric for math and science funding abounds, but creationism, in some corners, has equal footing with evolution.  Science is set forth as the savior of the nation: we will innovate our way out of this recession, our ingenuity is our greatest asset.  But from the same mouths come cuts in funding for basic research, or else strings attached.  Such fact-centrism unfortunately sets science at odds with the arts, which are being cut even more deeply.

In 1959 British novelist-scientist C.P. Snow called this dichotomy “The Two Cultures,” a phrase Loren Eiseley references in “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” which appeared in The American Scholar in 1964.  In his essay Eiseley, himself an anthropologist, distills his core belief:

It is because these two types of creation—the artistic and the scientific—have sprung from the same being and have their points of contact even in division, that I have the temerity to assert that, in a sense, the “two cultures” are an illusion, that they are a product of unreasoning fear, professionalism, and misunderstanding.

That theme—that science and art are born of the same mind and are therefore inseparable—permeates Eiseley’s writing and reverberates today.  Eiseley was one of the earliest practitioners of, shall we say, philosophical science writing.  He didn’t just examine the natural world and illuminate it in layperson’s terms, he considered the symbolism in scientific happenstance, and he ruminated on our true human place in the galactic flotsam.

The culmination of his career is The Star Thrower, a compendium published a year after his death in 1977.  Eiseley organized much of the book himself, drawing from magazine articles; unpublished essays and lectures; and his previous books, including The Immense Journey (1957), The Firmament of Time (1960), and The Unexpected Universe (1969).  The publication timeframe of those three major books puts Eiseley at the heart of the mid-century environmental discussion, right alongside Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and the other writers to be profiled in this series.  What makes Eiseley’s work unique among this group is his struggle with science.  He asks continuously whether is it all right for him, as a distinguished anthropological scientist, to feel.

The titular essay in Eiseley’s posthumous collection was originally published in The Unexpected Universe.  In it, he walks along a beach and comes upon a man throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean, an act Eiseley first sees as futile.  In the essay, he recalls the writings of G.K. Chesterton and Goethe; considers Darwin; and remembers the Biblical injunction “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”  But, he writes:

I do love the world…. I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again…. I love the lost ones, the failures of the world. [This is] like the renunciation of my scientific heritage.

The next day he joins the man on the beach in lofting starfish to the waves.  If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of “The Parable of the Starfish,” which took off in the 1980s and likely originated with Eiseley’s essay.  But while the parable’s moral is about making a difference in the world, Eiseley’s story is more complex.  As a scientist, he knows he should have no compassion for those starfish, he should not anthropomorphize them into beings that care whether they live or die. But he does.  “It was as though,” he writes, “at some point the supernatural had touched hesitantly, for an instant, upon the natural.”

That self-given permission to feel, in the context of scientific observation, allows Eiseley’s work to glide through long pages of evolutionary theory and the history of philosophy, then return to personal moments in nature: Eiseley rescuing, somewhat humorously, a snake and a desert hen, which had entangled themselves in an inadvertent death-struggle; Eiseley being joined for lunch beneath a dock by a muskrat; Eiseley wrestling playfully with a young fox, as if it were a puppy. And he lets himself edge toward fiction.  The previously (until The Star Thrower) unpublished “Dance of the Frogs” and “The Fifth Planet” have a touch of the mystical. The former features a scientist skipping along a road in the presence of barely seen giant frogs; the latter tells of an amateur meteorite hunter obsessively seeking fossils of extraterrestrial life.  These remind me a lot of Barry Lopez’s fiction: in particular Desert Notes (1976, one year before The Star Thrower) and Winter Count (1981)

This mixture of science and art also gives birth to an exciting and varied language.  In one place (noticing a resemblance between eroded rock and the human brain) Eiseley trots out this tortured staccato:

The human brain contains the fossil memories of the past—buried but not extinguished moments—just as this more formidable replica contained, deep in its inner stratigraphic convolutions, earth’s past in the shape of horned titanotheres and stalking dirk-toothed cats.

And elsewhere, on the same general topic of human-nature correspondence, he keeps it simple:

For example, I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider.

So where does Eiseley sit in the pantheon of Eco-Lit?  He’s an outlier, his name not often said in the same breath as Edward Hoagland’s or Carson’s.  But The Immense Journey sold a million copies, making it an early anchor, just after Carson’s and Joseph Wood Krutch’s initial works and before Abbey and Wendell Berry.  His work is perhaps less accessible than the others, prone to long probing philosophical passages that smack more of Ivory Tower than beachcomber.  But always, just when he’s gone almost too deep into the mind, Eiseley, with the subtlest of transitions, lifts from his own experience an unforgettable tangible moment, rich with sensory detail.

Eiseley could be considered an unwitting instigator of what John Brockman calls “The Third Culture:” scientists that are also literary giants.  This is a hot subject today.  The Best American Science and Nature Writing is in its 11th installment. Brian Greene (Mr. String Theory) regularly publishes physics books for the masses (he’s got one on the NY Times Bestseller list right now).  Neil deGrasse Tyson has brought the stars down to earth with provocative titles like Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries.  Mike Brown’s recent How I Killed Pluto interweaves the story of the ninth planet’s demotion with Brown’s own infant daughter’s first years.

I read The Immense Journey in college, while studying landscape architecture and also, for fun, taking courses in anthropology, cooking, raquetball, and nature writing.  Back then Eiseley went over my head, but I picked up The Star Thrower this winter.  I was reminded of an experience from a year ago.

Last March, during yet another cold weekend when I wished the long northwoods winter would just be over already, I took my toddler son to the zoo and lifted him up so he could reach into the tidepool exhibit and touch starfish and anemones.  Ethan was utterly gleeful, maybe about the strange salty water, maybe about the leathery skin of the starfish, maybe about the way the anemone tentacles stuck to his fingers like tape, but certainly about nature.  There was no scientific inquiry there, only feel. That’s what we are born with.

Science can either make us forget how to feel, or can augment our ability to feel by adding in the details, broadening connections to other things, creating excitement at the unusual.  Art and knowledge, science and literature: Eiseley’s message is to keep both vital.

Proceed to the next essay,  on Edward Abbey—the provocateur, or return to the Table of Contents.

— Adam Regn Arvidson

  39 Responses to “Nature Writing in America: Loren Eiseley’s Two Cultures — Adam Regn Arvidson”

  1. grateful to you for writing such a thought provoking post…and grateful to wordpress for not just freshly pressing something about charlie sheen!

  2. Loved this, absolutely loved this… and will search you out to read more. Thank you! Andrea

  3. Science and art, born of the same mind…I couldn’t agree more. And yet, when children are young, I think too much time is spent trying to inspire them to develop their “left brain” logic and “right brain” creativity. Why don’t we try the “whole brain” approach to life?

    Great post. Thank you. And Edward Abbey is a personal fave…can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store! 🙂

  4. This reminds me of when I attempted to learn to play piano. I read many things that said people with a mathematical mind tend to pick up piano quickly. It’s like a big math problem.

  5. Adam’s post is featured today on the front page under the words: “The best of 412,208 bloggers, 799,491 new posts, 418,530 comments, & 151,919,126 words posted today on”

  6. Love your blog. I was amazed and pleased to see you mention JW Krutch, an early hero of mine. I thought his name had vanished.

    Where is your entry on him?


  7. Beautiful post. I get a similar feeling from reading Richard Selzer’s writing. He writes so generously about human biology, using the body as meditation piece for really genuine observations about human relationships. I seem to recall hearing that he is now required reading in many American med programs.

    Looking forward to more in the series. Thanks, Adam (and congrats on the feature)!

    • A little introduction: Peter Chiykowski is a newcomer, introduced to NC by Darryl Whetter. He’ll be writing book reviews and joining in otherwise. Please welcome him.

    • Howdy, Peter, and welcome! This is what I love about posting here, is all the new reading ideas. I haven’t heard of Selzer, so thanks for the recommendation. I’ll look forward to reading your book reviews.

      • Oh, I actually used to know Selzer. He was originally from Troy, NY, and I met him in Albany a couple of times. We corresponded for a while, back in the day.

  8. “Two” or “three” cultures? Why stop at that? Seems to me some minds, feelings, and whatever else lock into one thing. There’s usually much more happening. Still, I appreciate Eiseley for not ignoring the smaller things in life. That was 40 years ago and I don’t think he was the first!

    • So true he wasn’t the first. And you also hit on something Eiseley is a master at: acknowledging that there is “much more happening.” His essays range from Moby Dick to Freud to fossils in Nebraska to the vagaries of the universe, and he manages to always tie them back to his theme that all we do springs from our human minds and is therefore equally valid. I would suggest Eiseley would see no hierarchy between however many cultures we choose to define. Thanks for your comment.

  9. I enjoyed your essay! You might not be surprised to learn that Loren Eiseley and Barry Lopez have long been among my favorites.
    Mike Brown (of How I Killed Pluto etc.)

    • Mike: I’m very happy to see you here. I didn’t even have to call your name three times to conjure you.

      I just finished your Pluto book and, as you must have noticed in my essay, I tend to let my world revolve around my little one, too, so I could relate. I would (and I am sure other visitors to this site would) love to hear your recommendations on good science/nature literature, either contemporary or, well, less contemporary.

      • Ahhh that’s a question that can make me go on and on, but here are a few of my all time favorites in science/nature literature.

        Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics (this would be science/nature inspired fiction, but I still count it)
        Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (plus most everything else)
        John McPhee, take your pick (but I still can’t read the opening sequence of Los Angeles Against the Mountains, in The Control of Nature, without losing all of my fingernails).
        You already mentioned Eiseley and Lopez, who are high on my list.
        Edward Hoagland, essays in Walking the Dead Diamond River, which I last read 15 years ago, I still think about today now and then.

        The list goes on, but I’ll stop there!

  10. I had never really read much of Eiseley’s work (outside of some articles I read for school) this was a really great look at his character and thoughts on Science.

  11. Thanks for posting this essay, Adam. Your last lines really resonate with me and I look forward to reading more essays from this series.

  12. You did n’t mention C.P. Snow, one of the seminal thinkers on this whole issue, who, in his Rede lecture On the Two Cultures, discussed this in some detail, and most importantly saw the significance of this division, and the importance of bridging it.

    • Thanks for the link eee. It is great to follow ideas back and see how they evolve as they pass through different times and writers. Adam is a scholarly guy and not one to miss something like CP Snow on the Two Cultures – sure enough, there it is in the 2nd P. Easy enough to miss in an essay jam packed with interesting ideas.

      • Ooh: scholarly. Now I have far too much to live up to….

        But I can’t take full credit for C.P. Snow. I am actually not that familiar with him; Eiseley specifically mentions him in his own Two Cultures essay. Eiseley was very well read and was certainly aware of the debate, but I most love his anthropological spin on it: art and science spring from the same evolutionarily honed mind.

  13. Adam, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay. Thank you, and congrats on being lifted up by the wordpress poobahs. Well earned.

    I’ve torn apart my bookshelves tonight looking for my copy of The Star Thrower. Sadly, it seems to have disappeared. After reading your essay I was moved to re-read “Dance of the Frogs.” About a dozen years ago I made a double-sided reduced font copy of this story to take on a backpacking trip in the high sierras with a few scientist friends. It was a week long trip to celebrate the 50th birthday of a neuroscientist who studies frogs. I was feeling clever to have found this wonderful story to contribute to the festivities. One dry sparkling clear night with an awe inspiring star-filled sky, I gave a spectacular reading of the story. It fell totally flat. Ouch. I can still feel it. What was that about? Of the few scientists I know who read this sort of thing, Eiseley is not a favorite. I don’t know why. These days it is totally cool to love your organism – just don’t love your ideas about how it works. I don’t think it is the emotional content that turns scientists off of Eiseley. I wonder if perhaps some of his stories are just too far out, too esoteric? Perhaps the literary mirror image of a science tale that doesn’t quite cross the threshold to speak to a mind marinated in the arts?

    • Lynne, I loved the frogs essay. Gave me chills! When I read it, I had just finished a lot of Barry Lopez (and met Lopez at the winter VCFA residency), and this reminded me so much of him (even though it likely predates him). There is another whole discussion here about fiction and nonfiction that brings the reader along in a seemingly scientific, journalistic story, then makes the turn into the mystical. When Lopez does it, he explicitly calls it fiction, but he lulls you into thinking it’s not, before turning the final screw (“Buffalo” in Winter Count is a masterpiece of this). Eiseley, in the two mystical essays I cite, is less clear.

      The twist is that these two essays were found by an assistant after Eiseley’s death, meaning he may not have intended them to (ever) be published…. Hmmm…

      • Adam, Interesting about the post-mortem discovery of the two mystical essays – he may indeed have held them back. It has been too many years since I read The Immense Journey so this morning I was paging through and discovering something of great personal interest. Eiseley had more of a role in shaping this particular scientist than she had heretofore appreciated. Thank you for bringing him back for me!

  14. I had never read Eiseley’s essey (full disclosure here; did not even know who he was) but the way you highlighted parts of his writing was beautiful! And I would now like to read the entire essey….loved this!

  15. Utterly fascinating. I had never heard of this man or his books before but am now interested. A thought=provoking, informative essay whose style I loved

    • Thanks! If you want to dive into Eiseley, definitely go for The Star Thrower. It has a good range of his decades of writing (even poetry). All The Strange Hours is his autobiography–but not the kind of autobiography you’d expect. I’ve just scratched the surface of it, but I know there are Numero Cinq readers who feel its his best work of all. Doug…?

  16. that pic of Edward Abbey looks a little like Pierce Brosnan with a beard! congrats on FP!

  17. Great blog. Thanks for sharing!

  18. I just have to mention this here (Thanks to AnnaMaria Johnson for alerting me): Wendell Berry, one of the great mid-century environmental writers, was awarded the National Humanities Medal this week. Read about it in the Courier-Journal|head

  19. I immensely enjoyed this post, and through it the discovery of Eyseley’s writing.

  20. Adam, Lynne and everyone, I just want to remind everyone that Eiseley wrote an amazing memoir called All the Strange Hours which, to me, trumps his science writing. It begins with a harrowing account of a nervous breakdown and a lecture he gave in, I think, Texas, when a rat came out on the stage behind him (he couldn’t understand why the audience was tittering and laughing) and danced while he spoke.

  21. Thanks, Adam (and dg), for adding more to my to-read list.

  22. Adding to the kudos. great piece, AA.

  23. My mind is very full of thought right now. Thanks, Adam!

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