Monday, July 28, 2008
The Dragons of Eden
Our book today is Carl Sagan's wise and witty little 1977 masterpiece, The Dragons of Eden, which spent a gratifying number of weeks on the bestseller lists and delighted a very large number of readers who might otherwise have considered themselves the furthest thing in the world from being science readers.
The reason for the appeal is that Sagan was a masterful popularizer (the late 60s and 70s were a golden age for such popularizers, for reasons that remain slightly obscure), and in none of his books is this more evident than in The Dragons of Eden, whose nine chapters cover in enthusiastic and illuminating detail many of the highways and byways of what it means to be human. When we here at Stevereads read it (an advance copy was sent to us by Asimov, as always craving our attention), we felt as if we were once again in the presence of Pliny the Elder, hearing of marvels, seeing everything entirely anew.
Every separate chapter in The Dragons of Eden is a self-contained masterpiece (honed to perfection by test-runs on countless student audiences throughout the years), an essay of nearly incantatory elegance and power. "The Brain and the Chariot" and especially "Tales of Dim Eden" are marvelous probings of the soft workings of the human brain, where many of the mysteries Sagan confronts are still mysteries today. In the chapter "Genes and Brains," the digression on hybrids affords our author an irresistible chance for some fun:
In earlier times it was widely held that offspring could be produced by crosses between extremely different organisms. The Minotaur whom Theseus slew was said to be the result of a mating between a bull and a woman. And the Roman historian Pliny suggested that the ostrich, then newly discovered, was the result of a cross between a giraffe and a gnat. (It would, I suppose, have to be a female giraffe and a male gnat.) In practice there must be many such crosses which have not been attempted because of a certain understandable lack of motivation.
Our nominee for single best chapter is "The Abstraction of Beasts," in which Sagan explores the subject of animal cognition with a sensitivity both rare and pleasing to find. Here he deals with Washoe the chimp learning sign language and opening up to scientist an entire new world, in which mankind's nearest genetic relative could directly express sadness, joy, creativity, grief, embarrassment, and linguistic creativity:
Washoe was observed "reading" a magazine - i.e. slowly turning the pages, peering intently at the pictures, and making, to no one in particular, an appropriate sign, such as "cat" when viewing a photograph of a tiger, and "drink" when examining a Vermouth advertisement.
Sagan wrote his book when the Western world was on the cusp of enormous technological change, far greater change than even science's most talented visionaries (and he was science's most talented visionary) could guess. As he correctly intuited, such change can be frightening (The Dragons of Eden is rife with great quotations from other writers, and one of the best deals with the very subject - Alfred North Whitehead: "It is the business of the future to be dangerous ... the major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur"), but likewise these changes - and the fascinating forces behind them - could have no better, no more welcoming emissary than Carl Sagan.
His secret was wonder, and despite the generous lampooning he received when American television audience's got a glimpse of that trait in Sagan's mini-series Cosmos, it was real; he never stopped feeling the thrill of being a free mind in a world of wonders.
Perfect case in point: years ago he and I were leaving the same lecture (James Van Allen, as always ending his talk with a quick fusillade of dazzling ideas), emerging into a crossroads crammed with cars and trucks, all honking their horns in a heavy downpour. We shared a rough geographical proximity, so we agreed to split a cab. Moments later we were logjammed, rain pouring down, horns honking everywhere, and the cab driver made some grousing remark about the traffic jam.
Sagan immediately started talking about the beauty of it all, about the sheer statistical rarity of pure drinking water falling free out of the sky, about the tremendously complex harmonics the falling rain made on the various car and truck roofs, how the wind and the thickness of the roof metals and the horns and the echoes bouncing back and forth were nothing less than an acoustic miracle, a fantastic riff-session that was totally unique to this moment and would never come again.
Impulsively, he rolled down his window (this was back when you could still do that in a cab, at least in the trusting Midwest), letting in gusts of water. Turning his face up into the rain, smiling that weird, beatific smile of his, he said, "This isn't a traffic jam; it's a symphony."
Perhaps neither I nor that cab driver could quite access the sheer wonder he was feeling at that moment, but we knew enough to shut our mouths while we were seeing it.
The Dragons of Eden is completely filled with that same wonder, here preserved for all of you to read anytime you like, without your copy of the TLS getting soaked. The book's print run was enormous; you'll find a copy in every thrift shop and library sale in the country, so don't cheat yourself of an opportunity to be science reader!