An extract from The Last Lost World

Draft of 2012.10.10 ☛ 2015.03.20 ☛ 2016.12.12

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading and enjoying Pyne & Pyne’s The Last Lost World, insofar as it isn’t a “popularization” of Pleistocene paleontology so much as it is a useful and well-built construction combining aspects of literary criticism and science reporting to that field. That is, in this book we’re actually talking about narratives, and surfacing the tension in scientific discourse between the creation of general robust facts and observations as opposed to the continuously multi-scaled dynamics of the actual world: the ways in which a “species” becomes “real” for example.

Mid-book, I find the following lovely little passage. In a sense it says: perhaps finally we can proceed mindfully. Maybe that’s what I’m asking for when I harp so much and often about the lack of science (and please, someday, engineering) books like this one: that it is time now to be mindful of our roles in the world we create or discover.

It was how that transfiguration had happened [from Darwin to Neodarwinism] that perhaps holds the most interest. In concluding the Origin of Species Darwin imagined “a tangled bank” overflowing with living forms yet organized by discernible laws, and while full of “grandeur,” a scene that did not result from a preformed pattern. Yet as Ernst Cassirer has argued, “Man cannot escape from his own achievement.” Darwin’s tangled bank has been replaced by a “tangled web of human experience” that weaves together language, myth, art, religion, and all the other strands of humanity’s “symbolic net.” That peculiar capacity of human thought remade Darwin’s tangled bank into a shelf of braided narratives in which the entwining of genomic and geographic data had to play out over a cultural landscape: that was where, to continue the analogy, the selection would take place. The revival of neo-Darwinian concepts, however, too often brought with it a neo-Darwinian scientism that failed to apply to its own informing conceits the perspective it demanded of others. In particular, it made Darwinian evolution an act of special creation.

It was a simplistic narrative that assumed that ideas could be discovered out of data the way bones could be found in sandstone or tuff, and it viewed the progress of biological science (and archaeology) in a way partisans scorned when others applied it to their own fields. They did not appreciate the extent to which their explanatory ideas, even the theory of organic evolution, had a long history, and that, like Equuus caballus within the equids or Homo sapiens among the hominins, the idea was not the intended end product towards which all research had trended but the selected survivor of ancient stock, a product of happenstance, historical contingency, and usefulness. Disciplinary histories tended to be teleological, as narrative must be; the history of the idea of evolution was thus orthogenic in ways the theory’s advocates denounced when applied to nature.

Darwinian evolution was less a special creation, the spark of a divine insight, than it was the rough, imperfect, best adapted, useful, and cantankerous outcome of a tedious and often errant chronicle of observations and imaginings. It was a powerful idea, and once discovered, destined (so it seemed to many) to ramify across whole continents of learning. It offered a promised consilience, which could seem the apex to which all prior study had tended. But such apparent inevitability was an inherent construct of narrative, and just as an organism’s traits are not intrinsically better or worse but better or more poorly adapted to its setting, so it is with ideas. The evolutionary paradigm achieved much of its power and reach because it tapped into very old traditions of thought. Far from being a radical innovation without precedent, Darwinian evolution had itself evolved by fits and starts out of one of the hoariest concepts in Western civilization, the Great Chain of Being.