Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What We're Reading: New Science

The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene by Lydia V. Pyne & Stephen J. Pyne

This is the third of three recent books reviewed in this blog that relate to the early origins of man. Together they comprise a complimentary assortment of books for those interested in this subject (previously noted were Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall and Lone Survivors by Chris Stringer). The Pleistocene was the geological epoch, the planetary environment, in which the evolution of man occurred, a period roughly marked from 2.6 million years ago to 12,000 years ago. It is more commonly known as the Ice Age, a period marked by the alternating phenomena of massive global glaciations and interglacial periods of warmth, conditions that led to what was the fifth major extinction in the history of life on earth and were a catalyst for the development of many new species.

Readers should be warned however, that if they are interested in reading about the natural history of wooly mammoths, aurochs and saber tooth tigers, learning a great deal more about the Neanderthals, or exploring along with the changing fauna the evolving flora and landmasses of the Pleistocene, this is not the book for you. This is not a book so much about the Pleistocene epoch itself as it is about the development and history of the Pleistocene as a commanding and powerfully formative idea in 19th and 20th century science, one that produced a new creation story of man in light of revolutionary scientific understandings of the world. The academic background of the father-daughter team that has written this book is not in geology but rather in the history and philosophy of science. This secular story of our own origins has been constructed inside the framework of an evolved conception of the Pleistocene. The authors present that story as a representative example of how the humanities and modern science continue to interact in our minds as we seek to create meaning from new scientific information. They demonstrate that the vaunted bifurcation and alienation of the two has been much overstated. As the authors contend, the history of this period is a “model for the evolution of science; its interplay of experiment and serendipity, of field and lab, of personality and institutions. The descent of science is also as populated with false leads and failed trials as nature, and that only in retrospect does the chronicle seem providential.”

The Pynes believe the “competition between the endless turmoil of empirical discovery and the required anchoring of narrative” is the dynamic that shapes our modern understanding of the world . In their review of the history of the Pleistocene as an idea, they give us examples of the interplay between that idea and the development of paleoanthropology as science tried to explain human fossil discoveries and has debated the why and how of human existence, trying to come up with a definition of exactly what it means to be human, what defines a Homo sapien and distinguishes us from the other now extinct hominids and the rest of nature. In this regard, the narrative of how we view our most recently living relatives, the Neanderthals, is especially interesting. We have developed a narrative of why the Neanderthals became extinct that explains to us why we prevailed. Another lens through which the Pyne’s examine the Pleistocene is through an understanding of our need for narrative and how narrative works. Its “rules” and requirements frame how we construct the past and it sets up as well our expectations of what we will find in the future, the search paradigm of what will fit the narrative. The book concludes with an interesting discussion of how we should define our current epoch, a recommendation of what revisions should be made about our present conceptions of the Pleistocene and also what we have defined as our present epoch, the Holocene, and why such decisions are important. And the Pynes too sound the major theme of our time, that something has now changed fundamentally in the history of life on earth because of a new relationship of man to nature, remarking that “In what modernists might see as a burst of irony, natural selection apparently selected for traits that allowed humans to overrule it.” Now there’s a perplexing and profound irony to endlessly contemplate.

This book is not a “light” read. If the reader is not familiar with some of the subject matter, to at least a small degree, there may be allusions and references that they miss. This book is rich in ideas, dense but not recondite. The writing is accomplished and plumbs its subject matter for metaphor, a piquant marriage that perhaps in itself demonstrates the writers’ central thesis, the compatibility and usefulness of the humanities to understanding the implications of how we make scientific discoveries, how we fashion them into narrative, and how we arrive at a consensus about their meaning. This is a book that will make you more humble, more aware of the provisional nature of knowledge, and more understanding of how it is that we come to know what we know, or think we know.

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