An Evolutionist Looks at Modern Man

by Loren Eiseley
from The Saturday Evening Post (circa 1959)

A native Nebraskan, later a teacher at the University of Kansas and at Oberlin, in Ohio, Loren Eiseley is now chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and curator of Early Man in the University Museum. Following publication of his book The Immense Journey (1957) Dr. Eiseley was hailed for the imagination and lyricism with which he evoked the images of man in nature and the nature of man. In Darwin's Century (1958), Dr. Eiseley traces the history of the evolutionary concept.

In the age of technology which now surrounds us, and which boasts of its triumphs over nature, one thing is ever more apparent to the anthropologist -- the student of man. We have not really conquered nature because we have not conquered ourselves. It is modern man, Homo sapiens, "the wise" as he styles himself, who is now the secret nightmare of man. It is his own long shadow that falls across his restless nights and that follows soundlessly after the pacing feet of statesmen.

Not long ago I chanced to walk through the Hall of Man in one of the country's large museums. Persons of great learning had been instrumental in erecting those exhibits, and I hoped to find there some clue as to human destiny, some key that might unlock in a few succinct sentences the nature of man. The exhibit ended in a question mark before an atomic machine and a graph showing the almost incredible energy that now lay open to the hand of man. Needless to say, I agreed with the question mark which ended the history of humanity within that hall.

But as I turned and went in the other direction, step by step, eon by eon, back into the past, I came to a scarcely human thing crouched over a little fire of sticks and peering up at me under shaggy brows. The caption read: "Man begins his technological climb up the energy ladder. He discovers fire." I walked a short way backward and forward. I read the captions. I looked again at the creatures huddled over a fire of sticks -- at the woman clutching a child to her breast. Again I searched the hall. This was the sum total of all that science had here seen fit to emphasize graphically as important to the human story. The hunters' tools were there, the economic revolution effected by agriculture was ably presented. Summarized before my eyes, populations grew, cities and empires rose and fell, and still man's energy accumulated.

One saw another thing. One saw the armored legions grow and grow until at last continent confronted continent and the powers of death to a world lay in the hands of the descendants of that maned woman and her consort by the fire of sticks.

I hesitated again before those forgotten engines of the past, for it seemed to me that there was lacking here some clue, some vital essence of the creature man, and that I was looking upon stone and polished sword and catapult from some place lust a little remote and distorted. "This is the history of man," the caption ran through my head, and at that moment, finally, I knew I was looking at the past through the eyes of a modern twentieth-century American, or for that matter, a Russian. There was no basic difference.

In that whole exhibit were ranged the energies of wheat and fire and oil, but of what man had dreamed in his relations with other men, there was little trace. Yet it is only on paper, or, in human heads, we might say in paraphrase of Shaw, that man has sought successfully to transcend himself, his appetites and his desires. In that great room was scarcely a hint of the most remarkable story of all, the rise of a value-creating animal and the way in which his intangible dreams had been modified and transformed to bring him to the world he faces today.

The educated public has come to accept the verdict of science that man, along with the plant and animal world about us, is the product of endless evolutionary divergence and change. In accepting this verdict of science, however, men have frequently failed to inquire in what way human evolution may differ from that of other animals, or by what extra dangers and responsibilities the human brain may be haunted. In the revolt from the fanatical religiosity of past centuries we have too often welcomed with open arms a dogmatic scientific naturalism which, like the devil with Faust, seemed to offer unlimited material power over nature while, at the same time, assuring us that our moral responsibilities were limited and excusable since we were, after all, only the natural evolutionary culmination of a line of apes that chanced to descend upon the ground.

Darwin and his compatriots, struggling to establish for their day a new and quite amazing interpretation of human history, placed great emphasis upon man's relationship to the animal world about him. Indeed, at times they overemphasized man's kinship with the existing apes, partly because of their anxiety to prove the reality of man's descent from lower forms of life, partly because in their lifetime the course of human evolution was very imperfectly known from fossils. The result was that Darwin's own interpretation of the early stages of human evolution wavered between a theory involving an early and Edenlike seclusion on some oceanic island, to a later more ferocious and competitive existence on one of the major continents.

These extremes of interpretation need not concern us now except to illustrate the hesitancy with which Darwin attempted to account for some of the peculiar qualities of man. Today we are well convinced of the general course of man's rise from some ancient anthropoid line. Each year new fossil evidence of this fact is brought to our attention. Each year the public grows more accustomed to this history, feels more at home in the natural world which it casually assumes to be dominated by struggle, by a dog-eat-dog interpretation of existence which descends to us from the Darwinian period.

Some time ago I had a letter from a professional friend of mine commenting upon the education his daughter was receiving at a polite finishing school. "She has been taught," he wrote to me a little sadly, "that there are two kinds of people, the tough- and the tender-minded. Her professor, whose science I will not name, informed her that the tough-minded would survive."

This archaic remark shook me. I knew it was not the product of the great selfless masters of the field, but it betrayed an attitude which demanded an answer. In that answer is contained the whole uniqueness of man. Man has not really survived by toughness in a major sense -- even the great evolutionists Darwin and Wallace had had trouble with that aspect of man instead, he has survived through tenderness. Man in his arrogance may boast that the battle is to the strong, that pity and affection are signs of weakness. Nevertheless, in spite of the widespread popularity of such ideas, the truth is that if man at heart were not a tender creature toward his kind, a loving creature in a peculiarly special way, he would long since have left his bones to the wild dogs that roved the African grasslands where he first essayed the great adventure of becoming human.

The professor who growled to his class of future mothers about being tough-minded spent a childhood which is among the most helpless and prolonged of any living creature. If our parents had actually practiced certain of the philosophies that now flourish among us, or if our remote ancestors had achieved that degree of sophistication which would have enabled them to discount their social responsibilities for the day's pleasure, we -- you and I and all of us -- would never have enjoyed the experience of living.

Man, in the achievement of a unique gift -- a thinking brain capable of weighing stars or atoms -- cannot grow that brain in the nine months before birth. It is, moreover, a peculiarly plastic brain, intended to receive impressions from the social world around it. Instinct, unlike the case in the world of animals, is here reduced to a minimum. This brain must grow and learn, be able to profit by experience. In man much of that growth and learning comes after birth. The result is that the human infant enters the world in a peculiarly helpless and undeveloped condition. His childhood is lengthy because his developing brain must receive a large store of information and ways of behavior from the social group into which it is born. It must acquire the complicated tool of speech.

The demands of learning thus placed upon the human offspring are greater than in any other animal. They have made necessary the existence of a continued family, rather than the casual sex life of many of the lower animals. Although the family differs in many of its minor features in distinct societies, it is always and everywhere marked by its tender and continuing care of the human offspring through the lengthened period of childhood.

The social regulations of all human groups promote the welfare of the young. Man's first normal experience of life involves maternal and paternal care and affection. It continues over the years of childhood. Thus the creature who strives at times to deny the love within himself, to reject the responsibilities to which he owes his own existence, who grows vocal about "tough-mindedness" and "the struggle for existence," is striving to reject his own human heritage. For without the mysteriously increased growth rate of the brain and the correlated willingness of fallible, loving adults to spend years in nursing the helpless offspring they have produced, man would long since have vanished from the earth.

We take the simple facts of human life too much for granted. To the student of human evolution this remarkable and unique adjustment of our peculiar infancy to a lengthened family relationship between adults is one of the more mysterious episodes in the history of life. It is so strange, in fact, that only in one group of creatures -- that giving rise to man -- has it been successfully developed in the three billion years or so that life has existed on the planet. Family life is a fact that underlies everything else about man -- his capacity for absorbing culture, his ability to learn everything, in short, that enables us to call him human. He is born of love and he exists by reason of a love more continuous than in any other form of life. Yet this, in all irony, is the creature who professes to pierce the shams of life and to live by tough-mindedness!

Let us see how this nascent and once-aspiring creature now lives in great danger of re-entering the specialized trap that his ancestors escaped from ages ago when they evolved a brain capable of abstract thought. "Man is the dwarf of himself," Emerson once wrote, and never, perhaps, has he been more than dwarf than in this age where he appears to wield so much power. The only sign of health remaining to him is the fact that he is still capable of creeping out of the interior of his thickening crust of technological accomplishment to gaze around him with a sense of dissatisfaction and unease.

He has every reason to feel this way. For man has never lived before in so great an age of exterior accomplishment, so tremendous a projection of himself into his machines, nor yet so disheartening a period in all that stands for the nobler aspects of the human dream. His spiritual yearnings to transcend his own evil qualities are dimming as he is constantly reminded of his animal past. His desire to fly away to Mars, still warring, still haunted by his own black shadow, is the adolescent escape mechanism of a creature who would prefer to infect the outer planets with his problems than to master them at home.

Even now in the enthusiasm for new discoveries, reported public interviews with scientists tend to run increasingly toward a future replete with more inventions, stores of energy, babies in bottles, deadlier weapons. Relatively few have spoken of values, ethics, art, religion -- all those intangible aspects of life which set the tone of a civilization and determine, in the end, whether it will be cruel or humane; whether, in other words, the modern world, so far as its interior spiritual life is concerned, will be stainless steel like its exterior, or display the rich fabric of genuine human experience. The very indifference of many scientists to such matters reveals how far man has already gone toward the world of the "outside," of no memory, of contempt toward all that makes up the human tradition.

"Wars will be fought in space," prophesied a high military authority recently. "Teach children the hard things first." "Ah, but what hard things?" the teacher asks, because youth is shaped in the teaching and becomes what he is taught. Without spiritual insight and generosity, without the ability to rise beyond power and mechanical extensions, man will encounter in place of the nature which gave him birth only that vast, expanding genie rising from his own brain -- himself. Nothing more terrible threatens to confront him in his final hour.

It is increasingly plain that if we read the past as a justification for a kind of moral complacency, an animal limit which justifies military remarks such as "man will always fight," we have not read it well. Until man came, it is true, the evolution of life had been an evolution of parts. It had been hook and clutching bur and fang, struggling upward in an agelong effort. Life had been shaped by the blind forces of the inanimate world. All it had that was different was the will to crawl, the will to find the crevice, the niche, the foothold on this mountain of inanimate matter, and to hold its place against the forces which ever seek to disperse and destroy the substance of life. In all that prehuman world there had been no animal capable of looking back or forward. No living creature had wept above another's grave. There had been nothing to comprehend the whole.

For three billion years that rule remained unbroken. At the end of that time there occurred a small soundless concussion. In a sense it was the most terrible explosion in the world, because it forecast and contained all the rest. The coruscating heat of atomic fission, the red depths of the hydrogen bomb -- all were potentially contained in a little packet of gray matter that, somewhere between about a million and 600,000 years ago, quite suddenly appears to have begun to multiply itself in the thick-walled cranium of a ground-dwelling ape.

The event itself took place in silence, the silence of cells multiplying at an enormous pace under a small bone roof, the silence of some great fungus coming up at night in a forest glade. The eruption had about it the utter unpredictability of nature when she chooses to bypass her accepted laws and to hurtle headlong into some new and unguessed experiment. Even the solar system has now felt the impact of that tiny, soundless explosion. The fact that it was the product of evolutionary forces does not lessen its remarkable quality.

For three billion years, until an ageless watcher might have turned away in weariness, nothing had moved but the slime and its creations. Toward the end of that time a small, unprepossessing animal sat on his haunches by a rock pile on a waste of open ground. He clutched a stick and chewed the end of it meditatively. He was setting the fuse of the great explosion. In his head was the first twinkle of that tenuous rainbow bridge which stretches between earth and the city of the gods.

At that moment the ancestor of man had become the molder of things, rather than their victim, but he had, at the same time, suffered a major loss of instinctive adjustments to life. As the psychologist Jung very aptly remarks: "The forlornness of consciousness in our world is due primarily to the loss of instinct, and the reason for this lies in the development of the human mind over the past eon."

In a recent paper given before the Research Conference on Growth and Aging, my colleague, Dr. W. M. Krogman, remarked that "The mind of man, the learning potential of an evolved cerebral cortex, enabled him to focus upon the quality of things rather than mere quantity." Man has become, in other words, a value-creating animal. He sets his own goals and more and more exerts his own will upon recalcitrant matter and the natural forces of the universe. In this activity he has passed from the specialized evolution of the parts of the body to a projection of such "part" evolution upon his machines and implements. In this respect man is a unique being. Having achieved high intellectual ability, he may remain comparatively unchanged in structure while all around him other animals are still subjected to the old laws of specialized selection. His brain evolves parts and replaces them, but only upon man's mechanical inventions: his tools. This fact gives man a kind of freedom which none of the crawlers-up-the-mountain ever had. He is, as the philosopher Henri Bergson once remarked, a reservoir of indetermination; his power of choice for good or evil is enormous.

It is here that we come upon what I choose to call the "unnatural" aspect of man; unnatural, that is, in the sense that there is nothing else like it on the planet. Even Darwin confessed that his principle of limited perfection -- that is, the conception that life would evolve only sufficiently to maintain itself in competition with other life or to adjust to changes in its environment -- had been upset in the case of man. A part, such as a tooth or an eye, could reach perfection only for a given purpose in a particular environment. With man, however, Darwin professed to observe no foreseeable limit to the development of the mental faculties.

Psychology had once regarded human nature as something consisting of separate abilities given to man at the time of creation. Mind was a fixed, unchanging thing that molded history. Now it was to be seen as malleable and moving, subject like the body, though in a different and more mysterious way, to change. Perhaps, indeed, there was no such thing as human nature in the old fixed sense, except the human ability to become what it most desired in terms of the social world in which it existed. As we have seen, the mind's power of choice has opened to man a tremendous freedom, but it is a freedom whose moral implications only a few great spiritual leaders have fully grasped.

Increasingly, at the very height of the human achievement, there loom two obstacles which threaten to cast man back into the world of parts, tools and processes, in a way he has scarcely imagined. In fact there are times when it appears man is so occupied with the world he is now creating that he has already lost a sense for what may be missing in his society. He is deeply influenced by his knowledge of the past and the animal limitations which it seems to place upon his earlier spiritual aspirations. Equally, he confuses "progress" with his mechanical extensions which represent his triumph over the caprices of biological selection. Man, in a new way, shows formidable signs of taking the road of the dinosaurs, though by quite another track.

On a night during the period of the Korean War I sat with an old hunter at a campfire in the wilds of Wyoming. Around us in the mountain dark were geological strata that contained the remains of dinosaurs. My companion threw a log upon the fire. As the flames rose upward, I could see the bronzed old American face looking at me across the fire. It could have been a face from any period out of the frontier past. And it was the frontier that spoke to me from the man who had two sons in Korea.

"America," he said, "needs a strong enemy. It will keep her from getting fat and make her strong."

I nodded dubiously. It was a philosophy of the frontier, of the woods. But I saw in my mind's eye the fate of the colossi that lay about us in the stone. They had warred and thundered, shaken the earth with their tread, grown larger, armored themselves with great shields of bone, and teeth like bear traps. Spikes had glistened on their tails and foreheads. In the end they had vanished with their monstrous tumult, and some small, ratlike mammals and a few birds had come hesitantly into the arena they had vacated. It had been a war of parts, won, not by the participants, but by some small, relatively intelligent creatures that had hidden in the trees.

"We need a strong enemy," my friend repeated. I did not doubt it was being said also in the Siberian forests and on the Manchurian plains. Faster and faster labor the technicians, the scientists of parts. They labor so today. The pace grows ever swifter. Already, and I quote from one recent industrial report, "scientists and engineers can be utilized more effectively by confining their work almost entirely to the field of their specialization." This remark indicates the re-emergence of the war of parts, and if continued, it forecasts the death of all we claim as human. Such statements convey a failure to grasp that it is the creative thinker capable of using his brain out of the immediate context of his surroundings who is the innovator, the religious leader, the artist, the man who in all ages has been, in the words of Lancelot Whyte, "the very creator of humanity."

"Man," John Burroughs once remarked, "is like the trainer of wild beasts who, at his peril, for one instant relaxes his mastery over them. Gravity, electricity, fire, flood, hurricane, will crush or consume him if his hands are unsteady or his wits tardy." It is true that man has been badly knocked about by raw nature, but that nature has never organized her powers for the deliberate purpose of destroying man. He has even benefited and had his wits sharpened by her vagaries. Man has survived the long inexorable marchings of the glacial ice that pressed him back upon the Mediterranean and threatened his annihilation in Europe. He has left his bones under the boiling mud of volcanic upheavals. He has known drought and famine -- the careless buffets of the storm that blows unceasingly through nature. He has seen cities go down, cities full of adept artisans and clever technicians, cities fallen to the sands when an old enemy cut off the water supply.

Who was that enemy? It was man. He is the other face of that nature man has feared. Now, in an age when man lays his hands upon the lightning, and heat in millions of degrees shudders in his confining mechanisms, an old shadow, a monstrous growing shadow, falls across the doorway of all the world's laboratories. It is merely man, merely the creature by the fire of sticks, merely the museum wielder of the sling and spear, but now grown large enough to shadow the sun. This creature thinks with all the malignant concentration that man has so far escaped in nature, and it thinks toward just one purpose -- the creation of the ultimate weapon. Ultimate, ultimate, and still more ultimate, as if there were a growing secret zero in its mind.

So terrible is the fascination of that zero, so much does it appeal to some ancient power-loving streak in our still primitive natures, that whether men plan aggression or defense from it, they are, in degree, corrupted. At heart they know the word "neutral" has lost its meaning; that the blow, if it falls, will mean what the ultimate weapon means -- death to green grass and singing bird, death to a world.

Nevertheless, as I have said, no creature in the world demands more love than man; no creature is less adapted to survive without it. Man is a paradox. Individually most men hate and fear war in spite of much of the talk of professional militarists about instinct. Men have to be drummed to war, propagandized to war, assured their cause is righteous. Even dictators have to render lip service to humanitarian principles. None of this sounds particularly as though an "instinct" for war existed. There are, instead, things from the old dark midnight of the past that suffice as well for evil purposes. Fear of the stranger, when the stranger was two eyes in the dark beyond the fire at a cave mouth; aggressive hungers that were stoked to a high pitch by nature in the million years of man's wandering across the wastes of an open world. Man is not completed -- that is the secret of his paradoxical behavior. He is not made. He is, perhaps, about to be. Once long ago in the Middle Ages he was called Homo duplex a thing half of dust and half of spirit. The term well expresses his predicament.

Today we know a great deal about human evolution, but as scientists we have failed, I sometimes think, to convey successfully to the public the marvel of the human transformation. We have shown man the anthropoidal skulls of his ancestors. We have convinced him that the human brain is an instrument of ancient origin which has not sprung full blown into being, but rather partakes of both the old and the new; that it includes the imperfections which are written into the substance of all moving and growing life. The vestigial organs that are concealed here and there in our bodies and which tell tales of the long past of trees and waters in our lost ancestral world -- have their corollary in the mind of man. His flashes of unreasoning temper, his frustrations, his occasional irrationalities are, some of them, echoes out of an older, more primitive machine. Yet signs of affection and mutual co-operation, love of beauty, dreams of a future life, can be traced into forms of man physically more primitive than ourselves.

Now, however, it is the present which concerns us -- the present that creates tomorrow. Who contends for it -- the rocket century with its vast zero looming over the future? The now is our responsibility, not that of the hoarse-voiced animal that came from the wood in a dream and made our today. Nor can we call to those pleasant, wide-browed people whom we strive to conjure up as inhabiting the comfortable future of our novels and dreams. They are lost in the unfathomable, formless future which we are engaged in shaping. Do we want them deeply? Do we want them enough, in the heavy-handed violence of this day, to live toward them at all cost, to struggle once more against the destructive forces of nature? To stand up and face, as every man must face, that ancient lurking shadow of himself? Is the price of acquiring brains, brains to look before and after in the universe, only to mean subservience to man after escaping subservience to nature that has lasted for a million years? Is it to mean acquiescence in the plans of those clever intellects who talk glibly of psychological "break-throughs" and the subliminal control of nations? Is it for this that men have labored up the dark pathway behind us and died often and blindly for some vision they could scarcely see?

A society has an image of itself, its way of life. This image is a wavering, composite picture reflected from millions of minds. If the image is largely compounded of the events of the present; if tradition is weak, the past forgotten, that image can alter by subtle degrees. A "cold war" such as we are fighting demands great tenacity in democratic institutions. Secrecy grows, technicians multiply, two great societies shoulder each other down a road that may look increasingly alike to both. The humane tradition arts, letters, philosophy, the social sciences threatens to be ignored as unrealistic in what has become a technological race for survival.

Man was a social animal long before he was man. But when he created huge societies and elaborated the world of culture that surrounds him today, he was acting, in some degree, consciously. Man, unlike the animal, is aware of the nature of his society. His conscious image of it is tremendously important in shaping what it will become. It is this that helps to build the human future, and why the future must be fought for day by day in the lives of innumerable and humble men.

Man, whether he engages in war or not, is in a pyramiding technological society whose values are largely directed outward upon things. The important fact in such a material age is that we do not abandon or forget that man has always sought to transcend himself spiritually, and that this is part of his strange heritage. It is a heritage which must be preserved in our schools and churches, for in a society without deep historical memory, the future ceases to exist and the present becomes a meaningless cacophony. A future worth contemplating will not be achieved solely by flights to the far side of the moon. It will not be found in space. It will be achieved, if it is achieved at all, only in our individual hearts. This is the choice that has been presented man, as a free agent, as one who can look before and after in the cosmos.

Last updated by Morgan Matthew Jul 30, 2008.

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