The Dark Backward

by A. Jay Adler on April 16, 2010
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What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
If thou remember’st aught ere thou camest here,
How thou camest here thou mayst.

Prospero, Act 1, Scene 1, The Tempest

Over the past week, the general media have begun to report – Sixty Minutes this past Sunday, The New York Times last week – on what has been just published in the journal Science: the discovery in what is named The Cradle of Humankind, in South Africa, of Australopithecus sediba, 1.9 million-year-old fossil remains that indicate an adaptive shift (a transitional stage) from the larger hominid genus of Australopithecines to the homo genus, our own. Preliminary data has just been made public and paleontologists not part of the discovery team have just begun to analyze it. You can read the impressions of John Hawkes at Homo Erectus. (You thought, maybe, there aren’t paleontologist bloggers?)

Australopithecus sediba

The leader of the discovery team is Lee R. Berger, an American paleontologist accompanied on his field work by his nine-year-old son Matthew. Sixty Minutes properly covered the politics of such discoveries – the natural egocentric desire to make the most of them and to find and name new species. Hawkes mentions that too. One of the people interviewed in the Sixty Minutes piece was Donald Johanson, a 1974 discoverer of Lucy, the 3.5 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis hailed at the time as the “mother” of us all. Though her brain was small, she was bipedal – walked upright – and was the earliest known hominid sample. Since Lucy an older hominid has been found, dating back 4.1 million years.

Lucy

Such discoveries are always exciting, for those who take an interest, whose energies are not directed, in one way or another, toward denying the profound nature of these finds. The 2004 discovery in Canada of the remains of Tiktaalik was similarly striking, a 375 million year old fossil indicating the transition from fish to tetrapod, a precursor of the amphibian: Tiktaalik’s fins contained a wrist bone and fingers. How we came, once, from the sea.

Creationists of different stripes and materialist atheists are both like students new to the study of literature. The latter are prone to certain unsophisticated responses founded in the notion, with fiction, for instance, that a tale derived as artifice from experience and imagination is no different from the story of real life retailed over lunch or a cell phone confab. It is meant to have a moral, and a moral entails a moral judgment. Of poetry, new students will tend, already, because of some brief, previous citing of unfamiliar form and apparently difficult language, to think it a puzzle to be solved, a mysterious shell to be cracked for its nut of meaning inside. They will not think that poetry is an experience, and not a code, and that its “saying “is the poem itself, and not what one says about it. They will not think of the Tao of poetry.

The light along the hills in the morning
comes down slowly, naming the trees
white, then coasting the ground for stones to nominate.

Notice what this poem is not doing.

A house, a house, a barn, the old
quarry, where the river shrugs–
how much of this place is yours?

Notice what this poem is not doing.

Every person gone has taken a stone
to hold, and catch the sun. The carving
says, “Not here, but called away.”

Notice what this poem is not doing.

The sun, the earth, the sky, all wait.
The crowns and redbirds talk. The light
along the hills has come, has found you.

Notice what this poem has not done.

William Stafford, Notice What This Poem Is Not Doing

The materialist will likely discount the light that finds us or insist it is only an inner beam, and thus not real. In a story, there is no Joycean epiphany – the lighted manifestation in mind and spirit that is neither in the text or its reader, but in their contact. There is only entailment. The creationist will treat the story told by the earth’s geology and its fossil record as mere chronology, a calendar of dates and occurrences without causation or entailment, without the meanings that arise from the relationship of phenomena.

For the literary person, everything – all the world – is a text, subject to hermeneutic analysis and divination. Paleontologists are among the readers of the human story, but the diviners are all of us. Closely observed, we are the melodrama of adolescence, the fire of ambition, and the felt experience of every individual life to which our evolution leads. From a far remove, we are also that single sociobiological development that is every species. When we pursue our backward look into the dark of our history, the abysm of time, we are not a single historian or geologist, or a team of anthropologists or archeologists, but the species itself, through its myriad eyes and hands and sensors. And where once, until sometime in the nineteenth century, all we could make out in the gloom of the past was what had survived and been uncovered to us, now we are able to reclaim parts of what once was, reach back to the earliest cells and enter them in understanding, tracing their evolution all down the evolutionary tree, until a primate climbed a tree, and a hominid dropped from a branch and loped across a plain, forged a tool, planted a seed.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/martin_heigan/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

All of this led to Lee R. Berger, who did his dissertation on hominid shoulder bones, among them the clavicle, exploring with Matthew among the caves Berger had discovered using Google Earth. It led to Matthew crying out in excitement and holding aloft the clavicle bone of a youth near his own age who had lived nearly two million years ago, and his father, come in response, cursing with astonishment at the sight of the bone he had studied so long to know. And the long train of mind of the single organism, looking back, in its several individual instances, upon itself, to recognize itself, flashed with self-knowledge.

Somewhere over the earth should have passed an atomic vibration, a shuddering in the chromosomes, lightning in the sky.

AJA


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