The Immense Journey

by Loren Eiseley
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1312

In the first essay, Eiseley asserts that he has no pretensions to exact scientific observation; instead, he records a portion of his “personal universe, the universe traversed in a long and uncompleted journey.” Eiseley’s personal journey represents the journey of life; it is the voyage not only of physical evolution but also of human knowledge and understanding. Although the voyager may often feel confused, in Eiseley’s view the human mind, like all life, is continually reaching to be more than it has been.

An almost mystical sense of wonder infuses the essays and defies logic. What Eiseley calls “organization” is a mysterious force that the scientist cannot explain; it is essential to life but not produced by life or by evolution. Eiseley’s perspective is that of scientist as humanist, and although his essays have a foundation in scientific knowledge his stress is on the role of the human being in the evolutionary world. The values his essays embrace are humanistic values, particularly those concerned with human growth into knowledge and into transcendence of self. “The lonely, magnificent power of humanity,” he writes, is an “extension of vision,” a “reaching out” to become more than it presently is. Thus, Eiseley becomes an interpreter of science who incorporates the personal elements of wonder and emotional response. He records his response to an ill-tempered catfish that survives the winter in a basement tank only to become, leaping from the tank, a victim of the impulse that allowed its evolutionary ancestors to escape from the shallows into deeper pools. He records an eye-to-eye confrontation with an imprisoned eagle, which he releases, after seeing its mate circling above, to soar with its mate in a symbolic expression of freedom. Eiseley strives to keep scientific facts accurate while expressing the sense of wonder that he finds essential to understanding the “immense journey” of life.

Beginning with essays that detail specific experiences, such as floating in a river while imagining the destination of the molecules all about him, Eiseley balances physical experience with observation, commentary, and interpretation. As a member of the scientific establishment, he explores the limitations of twentieth century reductionist science, which seeks answers by reducing the whole to its parts, and rejects the scientism that would find explanations only in scientific experiment. Arguing that science often reduces humankind to matter and neglects the thinking, creative human mind, he wonders “whether the desire to link life to matter may not have blinded us to the more remarkable characteristics of both.” For Eiseley, nature is mysterious and unexpected, continuously creative and always a source of wonder. The whole, for him, is more complex than a summary of its parts.

Four dominant themes emerge in The Immense Journey: the vastness of time, evolution as an ongoing process, the mystery or “unnaturalness” of nature, and the responsibility of the individual in an evolving world. Evolutionary thinking requires conceiving of time in terms of millions of years, and Eiseley stresses the short span of human history as compared with geological time. Humanity, he notes, is near its beginnings as Homo sapiens. The human brain, as such, emerged late in evolutionary history, and with it came language, culture, and the ability to internalize vast reaches of time and space.

Eiseley also stresses that evolution is an ongoing process. He questions the nineteenth century notion that the purpose of evolution was the production of enlightened northern European man. Today human beings have no need for further physical evolution, for they can protect themselves from heat and cold and can produce food without highly specialized hunting skills. Nevertheless, Eiseley argues, nature is not finished or satisfied with its present state. Evolution today is cultural evolution, and the human being is “one of many appearances of the thing called Life” and “not its perfect image.” For Eiseley, the hope of the species lies not in the level of analysis that twentieth century science has perfected—that is, in reductionist analysis of the parts to find the whole—but in an intellectual version of the reaching, probing, or grasping that characterizes even a throbbing sea urchin dredged up from the floor of the Atlantic.

Eiseley suggests that “nature” is affected by the very process of observation and naming. In separating itself from nature, humankind gives nature new meanings, chiefly traceable to the eighteenth century concept of the universe as a great machine. Because human beings control and use machines, they think of nature in terms of human dominance, of consuming rather than interacting with the external world.

Eiseley is especially concerned with the human responsibility to nature. In The Immense Journey, he criticizes the willful destruction of the environment, refusal to see other animals as fellow creatures, and extension of human powers to weapons and the quest for space. He juxtaposes this assumption of human dominance over nature to primitive notions of communication with animals, of respect for all life-forms, of symbiosis rather than exploitation. In his opinion, nature is compounded of more than matter; nature itself is filled with mysteries—water, the cyclical return of the seasons, organization. In “How Flowers Changed the World,” he contemplates the role of flowering, seed-bearing plants in providing food for the great herbivores, such as mammoth and bison, which, in turn, fed ancient carnivores such as wolves and saber-toothed tigers. Existing at the edge of the world of these creatures, primate predecessors of humankind learned to feed directly on both seeds and flesh. “The weight of a petal,” he concludes, “has changed the face of the world and made it ours.” Yet if the world belongs to humankind, so does a responsibility for continuing the cycle of food that made possible human emergence and cultural growth. Part of the human responsibility is abandoned, in Eiseley’s view, when human beings turn to willful destruction of nature, defining “nature” in terms of human control rather than of interaction.

Eiseley’s pattern of organization is complex. His essays usually begin with an episode from his own experience and move to explication of scientific fact. In “Little Men and Flying Saucers,” for example, he tells of a rancher who wanted to sell a mummy, a “little man”; he uses the tale to exemplify the tendency to see everything in terms of human forms. Life on Earth is unique, he contends, the result of innumerable variables, and life from anywhere else in the universe would almost certainly have assumed a different form.

His style is equally complex. As he alternates between personal tales and explication of archaeological and paleontological discoveries, Eiseley’s sentences alternate between dense, difficult constructions and short, apparently simple, even poetic ones that often carry symbolic significance. “The Flow of the River,” for example, opens with the deceptively simple statement, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” “Magic” is not the sleight of hand of the entertainer but a subtle, undefinable quality that links modern and primitive in continuous wonder.

His essays are introspective, meditative, and consciously literary. An admirer of the introspective essays of Charles Lamb and the somber meditations of Sir Thomas Browne, he drew on their style of obscure allusions and elaborate metaphors. His essays are often consciously literary, using techniques such as metaphor and synecdoche. In “How Flowers Changed the World,” flowers represent a specific food source; “the weight of a petal” is a synecdoche for the importance of a natural form that is easily dismissed as ornamental. The human hand is a remarkable achievement of evolution, but it also represents the human ability to reach out or to grasp for something both physically and intellectually. The bird is a recurrent metaphor not only for the inexplicable ability of life-forms to feel joy, sorrow, and freedom but also for the mystery of organization that leads Eiseley to argue that science cannot explain all things by analyzing their parts.

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