By Adam Regn Arvidson
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 Eiseley organized much of the book himself, drawing from magazine articles; unpublished essays and lectures; and his previous books, including The Immense Journey (1957), The Firmament of Time (1960), and The Unexpected Universe (1969).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.
— Adam Regn Arvidson