Is Man “the beast that cannot learn?”: Loren Eiseley’s The Unexpected Universe

“A Harvest/HBJ Book” 1969.

“What is it that we are a part of that we do not see, as the spider was not gifted to discern my face, or my little probe into her world?”

page 54

Unless one writes works of fiction, most books are a collection of essays held loosely together by an intention to penetrate a central concern from different angles by its author. Loren Eiseley’s, The Unexpected Universe, is a collection of ten essays written between 1964 and 1969, a book of 233 pages of pure intentionality and revelation.

Eiseley is not a typical science writer. While he does write about scientific challenges facing our modern age: technology, abundance, evolution, poverty and population, to name a few, he does not, however, set out to prove a specific thesis by way of statistics. His data set is his contact with the world; his power of observation takes him beyond numbers and into the vast web of interrelatedness we call the universe. He takes care, however, not to collect stories for the mere sake of putting them on display to a reader who might yearn for an adventure. He writes beautifully and prophetically, and in context. The reader is constantly awed by Eiseley’s perception and heart as well as his courage. He gently, but firmly, and without hesitation, pulls the mask from the face of man, the powerful and all-knowing being, to reveal his eternal homelessness. If it is a permanent sense of “homelessness” that drives us then predictability and certainty are the illusory contours of such a longing. For it is through our desire to reach home, and our journeying home, that we become entangled in our illusions.

The Unexpected Universe begins through fiction with Odysseus and ends with Neanderthal man.

“…I learned under the night sky of the utter homelessness of man.” p.227

We are creatures forever seeking to know, as if somehow knowing everything will lead us to a place unlike, and even better than, where we happen to be; yet Eiseley states at the very beginning of his book:

Knowledge, or at least what the twentieth century acclaims as knowledge, has not led to happiness.”

page 5

Our desire for knowledge is both satisfied and fueled by our machines, which are extensions of our bodies. As a result, and what seems to be almost a bad joke on us by machines, we are presented with an unlimited number of things to know and then these machines, designed by man, whisper in our ear and light up our brain with thoughts of knowing all there is to know…, about our world?. An interesting loop. Some might call it a good example of Samsara.

What our desire and technological abilities never take into consideration is the actual universe itself.

“How Natural is Natural? – a subject that raised the hackles of some of my scientifically inclined colleagues, who confused the achievements of their disciplines with certitude on a cosmic scale.”

page 31

Eiseley quite rightly calls this hubris. Our data sets are like minions supporting us and keeping us from seeing our margins of error.

“We have heard much of science as the endless frontier, but we whose immediate ancestors were seekers of gold among great mountains and gloomy forests are easily susceptible to a simplistic conception of the word frontier as something conquerable in its totality. We assume that, with enough time and expenditure of energy, the ore will be extracted and the forests computed in board feet of lumber. A tamed wilderness will subject itself to man.

“Not so the wilderness beyond the stars or concealed in the infinitesimal world beneath the atom. Wise reflection will lead us to recognize that we have come upon a different and less conquerable region. Forays across its border already suggest that man’s dream of mastering all aspects of nature takes no account of his limitations in time and space or of his own senses, augmented though they may be by his technological devices.”

page 42

As an archeologist, Eiseley’s sense of time was long and slow moving. He studied the past; not the past of political intrigue or technological innovations, but rather our real past, our origins, our brethren, and our connections to the world around us. A past in which all have a stake and to which all have a right; not just the most wealthy. A past that binds us to the world and its creatures, not as mere custodians, but as fellow travelers. He seeks the living, the truly living among us. The message is urgent. For, unlike historical accounts of history, it is not a warning of failure that will inevitably be repeated in an action lived out over again as some banal evil that seeks to express itself in a so-called new age because the sting of history could no longer be felt. His voice is more than an admonishment about knowing our facts. It is, rather, a prophetic voice attempting to chart the danger of losing the way, a way that man has traversed since the first ape-man. Each deliberately written word tells us if we turn away from our past then we will not have a future, at least not one recognizable to modern man.

“Those individuals who persist in pursuing the mind-destroying drug of constant action have not alone confined themselves to an increasingly chaotic present — they are also, by the deliberate abandonment of their past, destroying the conceptual tools and values that are the means of introducing the rational into the oncoming future.

page 6

Here it seems Eiseley’s rational has a different tone than what is ordinarily thought of as rational man. If technology is assumed to be the result of rational thought then as an extension its outcome is rational and therefore is not questioned. But, Eiseley is making a different case for the rational. The fascination and total acceptance of our high-speed race to out maneuver each other appears to be creating less of what we want, predictability and certainty.

As we move farther from home; we lean more on technology to take us there — to a place to which technology is absolutely indifferent. We have abdicated the throne of humanness to our machines. The result is like being left without a compass. Eiseley sees this as creating a world that awakens the primitive.

“Their world, therefore, becomes increasingly the violent, unpredictable world of the first men simply because, in losing faith in the past, one is inevitably forsaking all that enables man to be a planning animal.”

page 6-7

What I find interesting here is that Eiseley is reading modern man as if he were already a neanderthal. Technology does not make us less primitive. We react rather than think as if we were living in a dark dangerous forest where unimaginable beasts were waiting to pounce. We are preoccupied with becoming great again, but not so worried that our narrowly defined ideas of progress, which are more often than not centered around technology, are giving rise to a neo-neanderthal:

“But what of the empire of science? Does not its word leap fast as light, is it not a creator of incalculable wealth, is not space its plaything? Its weapons are monstrous; its eye is capable of peering beyond millions of light-years. There is one dubious answer to this buoyant optimism: science is human; it is of human devising and manufacture. It has not prevented war; it has perfected it. It has not abolished cruelty or corruption; it has enabled these abominations to be practiced on a scale unknown before in human history.”

page 43

The world cries out we are headed for extinction, and some laugh at the idea. We are modern. We can solve any problem with money. But, Eiseley, as archeologist, gives us a look at ourselves through a long view of time, and we seem to come up short in advancements.

“We are too content with our sensory extensions, with the fulfillment of that ice age mind that began its journey amidst the cold of vast tundras and that pauses only briefly before its leap into space. It is no longer enough to see as a man sees — even to the ends of the universe. It is not enough to hold nuclear energy in one’s hand like a spear, as a man would hold it, or to see the lightening, or times past, or time to come, as a man would see it. If we continue to do this, the great brain — the human brain — will be only a new version of the old trap, and nature is full of traps for the beast that cannot learn.”

page 55

Are we the “beast that cannot learn?” Surely, we can point to all the knowledge we have accumulated over time. We’ve landed on the Moon; we’ve telescoped the world and a large part of the universe; we’ve eradicated diseases and a vast majority of the world lives on more than two dollars a day. Surely, I say to you we have learned! But, as I write this St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (13:1) comes to my mind and I can faintly recall something about a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.

Eisely, heartbroken, as he peered out his window watching our technological devices bringing yet another superstore with an expanse of parking available to his neighborhood, must have realized something was missing.

“As we turn from the galaxies to the swarming cells of our own being, which toil for something, some entity beyond their grasp, let us remember man, the self-fabricator who came across an ice age to look into the mirrors and the magic of science. Surely he did not come to see himself or his wild visage only.”

page 55

“Finally, the commitment to life departs or turns to bitterness. But out of such desolation emerges the awesome freedom to choose — to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle in the role of titans. They contend for the destiny of a world.”

page 88

While we are living the choice is ours. Many who walk among us choose love. There are, as Eiseley writes, many “hidden teachers.” For Eiseley, he had seen it in the spider who taught him something about man’s universe; in a former professor who was not recognized but certainly inspired his students; in the Star Thrower who, instead of collecting starfish expelled by the sea, threw them back; in a small fox pup who wished to play; and in the universe as a whole that is mysterious and secretive, and ironically, in Darwin’s infamous Natural Selection, which seems to have permitted some to revel in their crude selfishness, but to the contrary, is neither static nor as superficial as most of its interpreters.

Some might say, it is Armageddon. But, a call to love is not a war cry.

We have returned to love. As always we are told to love. We know love will triumph. But, we must remember, as Eiseley reminds us, love triumphant does not necessarily include man.

“We would win, I thought steadily, if not in human guise then in another, for love was something that life in its infinite prodigality could afford. It was the failures who had always won, but by the time they won they had come to be called successes. This is the final paradox, which men call evolution.”

page 193

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