We tell ourselves that we find books. We do, but sometimes books find us. A book which found me recently is Darwin’s Century by anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Subtitled “Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It” and written in 1958 (yes, that long ago!), it is a highly relevant account of how the theory of evolution came to be.
Driving to Concord on Interstate 84, we made our usual stop at The Traveler Restaurant. The ambiance is perfect as all the walls are lined with books — free books to every customer. This place is apparently like our local Good Will. People with surplus books drop them off and The Traveler recycles them. If you want to buy books you can; the bookstore is in the basement — “the best cellars.” After my turkey sandwich, Loren Eiseley (who was free) spotted me and asked me to take him home.
Once upon a time, before Darwin and his colleagues lived and wrote, scholars conceived of a scale of nature — the “Great Chain of Being” — in which all creatures are linked on an ascending scale:
The scholars of the eighteenth century recognized quite well that the ape stood next to man on the Scale of Nature, but they did not find this spectacle as appalling as a nineteenth-century audience listening to Thomas Huxley. There was a very simple reason for this: the Scala Natura in its pure form asserts the immutability of species.
God created the species; they do not change; man is fixed in his place above the ape. Creation took place once. Since then, new creatures are not created and existing creatures do not disappear. After the navigators opened the New World, curious men began to study the new creatures they found there. They were filling in the links in the Chain, but some discoveries were disturbing. Why were horses in Eurasia but not in North or South America? With the development of scientific agriculture, breeders were able to develop deliberately-modified plants and animals. The geologists began to dig and to account for the layers they found, the evidence of ancient seas and cataclysms. Within the old sediments they found the remains of previously-unknown creatures, extinct remnants of perhaps earlier creations. Could all of this have happened within the traditional Biblical span of 6,000 years?
Eiseley provides a readable account of the many scientists who helped to develop the body of knowledge that made Darwin’s work possible: Wallace, Linnaeus, Cuvier, Smith, Lyell, Lamarck, and many more. He is careful to establish what each contributed, but in the end, the exchange of ideas was more significant than any priority of discovery. Darwin himself stumbled, editing his The Origin of Species to account for oversights and to try to answer criticisms. His writings — and those of his contemporaries — on the evolution of mankind reflect a great deal of racism, as well as confusion about which developments were physical and which were cultural. No inventory of human or pre-human fossils existed, so it is not surprising that many saw apes as living fossils and assumed Homo sapiens developed directly from the them.
In the end, the details of exactly who did what do not matter much. I am left with a vision of curious and serious men, struggling to understand a world which was being recreated by new knowledge just as surely as the plants and animals which inhabit it were being recreated by the forces of nature.
Even those who loathe the very names of Wallace and Darwin today seek out unquestioningly, when ill, doctors whose whole medical training is postulated upon evolutionary principles, whose medical experiments are based upon the fact that one form of life is related to another…. “Mother Nature”as Charles Kingsley, a nineteenth-century minister once said, “lets things make themselves.”