This is not your typical history of organic evolution. Eiseley ruminates on the philosophical character and consequences of the various theories that lead to and culminated in evolution. Moreover he does not take an academic, historical approach; rather he uses a poetic one: he employs metaphors, imagery, allusions, and other tools more typical of a poem.
The first four chapters detail how each of the world, death, life, and man became natural. In other words, how each became governed according to universal laws, gleaned by reason, without the intervention of a Divine Maker in earthly matters. "God, who had set the clocks ticking, was now an anomaly in his own universe." (p. 15). James Hutton's historical geology, Charles Lyell's mass historical extinctions, Darwin's evolutionism as applied to non-human species, and finally evolution as applied to humans - each find their poetic explication in these first four chapters.
In Chapter Five, he discusses the consequences of making man natural on his psyche: "How Human is Man". "Man did something which at the same time revealed his continued need of the stability which had preserved his ancestors. Scarcely had he stepped across the border of the old instinctive world when he began to create the world of custom" (p. 124). Man, by using his newfound capacity of reason, created a new unnatural world, one outside his old instinctive nature. But reason created a short-lived security as it developed and is always developing new tools, for either beneficence or destruction, which threaten man's future. These tools do not have an end; they are means which presume a worthwhile purpose will be found. Now, always gazing outwards at these new tools, man has forgotten about his history and himself: he is on the verge of not being to be human (p. 135). Eiseley has grasped the paradox that by making man natural, by separating him from other men and the infinite, he has threatened his own humanity.
Admittedly I found the last chapter to be difficult to understand and appreciate: I had to read it several times before it sank in. Here Eiseley fully engages in a poetic-philosophic narrative to discuss time and evolution. The gist is that man now can create the natural as he quotes Pascal: "'There is nothing which we cannot make natural ... there is nothing natural which we cannot destroy," (p. 159). Like the physicist who was afraid to fall through the vast molecular spaces (p. 153), man can generate his own view of what the world is, one that affects how he thinks and behaves to the point that what is natural is questioned. Ultimately, therefore, man should look inside himself rather than comb the depths of space, beyond the planets or between molecules.
If you'd like to approach evolution from a different angle, this is it.
Another wonderful book by Eiseley! This should be required reading in every high school science course in the country. Throughout history, our vision has been narrowed due to the constriction of our tiny individual lifespan - 50 to 100 years at best. So we tend to see grandiose (often religious) motivations behind everything we observe in that tiny time-slice.
But Nature is ever so slow, counting out the beat of time in eons, building the world in ways that are - though majestic - far simpler to understand. Here, the brilliant Eiseley poetically traces the path science has taken to lead us to our understanding of the ages that glaciers know.
I received my book way before the due date. I am replacing my paperbacks of this author so it was very nice to find a hardback that was not a rip off. It was received just as described on the JSL website. Thank you JSL Books.