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From the Hardcover edition.
Morgan describes his despair as their captors string up King Arthur for a hanging: "They were blindfolding him! I was paralysed; I couldn't move, I was choking, my tongue was petrified . . . They led him under the rope." But, in the best cliff-hanging traditions, and at the last conceivable instant, Sir Lancelot comes to the rescue with five hundred knights--all riding bicycles. "Lord, how the plumes streamed, how the sun flamed and flashed from the endless procession of webby wheels! I waved my right arm as Lancelot swept in. I tore away noose and bandage, and shouted: 'On your knees, every rascal of you, and salute the king! Who fails shall sup in hell to-night!'"
I am not citing either Monty Python or Saturday Night Live, and I didn't mix up my genders in the first sentence. The speaker is not Morgan le Fay (who, no doubt, would have devised a magical, rather than a technological, solution to the same predicament), but Hank Morgan, the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court, and the hero in Mark Twain's satirical novel of the same name. Morgan, transported from nineteenth-century Hartford, wreaks mayhem in sixth-century Camelot by introducing all manner of "modern" conveniences, including tobacco, telephones, baseball--and bicycles.
As a literary or artistic device, anachronism exerts a powerful hold upon us, and has been a staple of all genres from the highest philosophy to the lowest comedy--as Jesus is crucified in a corporate boardroom by Dali, condemned at his Second Coming by Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, but only offered a half-price discount (as he changes to modern dress) by the Italian barber or the Jewish tailor of various ethnic jokes, now deemed tasteless and untellable.
Anachronism works this eerie and potent effect, I suppose, because we use the known temporal sequence of our history as a primary device for imposing order upon a confusing world. And when "the time is out of joint. O cursèd spite," we really do get discombobulated. We also know that correction of a perceived time warp cannot be achieved so easily in real life as in magical fiction (where Merlin can put Hank Morgan to sleep for 1,300 years, or Dracula can be dispatched with a wooden stake driven into the right spot). We regard Hamlet's blithe confidence as a mark of his madness when he completes his rhyming couplet with the Shakespearean equivalent of "no sweat" or "hakuna matata": ". . . That ever I was born to set it right!"
Science, for reasons partly mythical, but also partly accurate and honorable, presents itself as the most linear and chronologically well ordered of all disciplines. If science, working by fruitful and largely unchanging methods of reason, observation, and experimentation, develops progressively more accurate accounts of the natural world, then history provides a time line defined by ever-expanding success. In such a simple linear ordering, mediated by a single principle of advancing knowledge, any pronounced anachronism must strike us as especially peculiar--and subject to diametrically opposite judgment depending upon the direction of warp. An ancient view maintained in the present strikes us as risible and absurd--the creationist who wants to compress the history of life into the few thousand years of a literal biblical chronology, or the few serious members of the Flat Earth Society. But a "modern" truth, espoused out of time by a scholar in the distant past, fills us with awe, and may even seem close to miraculous.
A person consistently ahead of his time--a real-life Hank Morgan who could present a six-shooter to Julius Caesar, or explain the theory of natural selection to Saint Thomas Aquinas--can only evoke a metaphorical comparison with a spaceman from a more advanced universe, or a genuine angel from the realms of glory. In the entire history of science, no man seems so well qualified for such a designation as Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519, but filled his private notebooks with the principles of aeronautics, the mental invention of flying machines and submarines, and a correct explanation for the nature of fossils that professional science would not develop until the end of the eighteenth century. Did he have a private line across the centuries to Einstein, or even to God Himself?
I must confess that I share, with so many others, a lifelong fascination for this man. I was not a particularly intellectual child; I played stickball every afternoon and read little beyond comic books and school assignments. But Leonardo captured my imagination. I asked, at age ten or so, for a book about his life and work, probably the only intellectual gift that I ever overtly requested from my parents. As an undergraduate geology major, I bought the two-volume Dover paperback edition of Leonardo's notebooks (a reprint of the 1883 compilation by Jean Paul Richter) because I had read some of his observations on fossils in the Leicester Codex, and had been stunned not only by their accuracy, but also by their clear statement of paleoecological principles not clearly codified before our century, and still serving as a basis for modern studies.
Leonardo remains, in many ways, a frustrating and shadowy figure. He painted only about a dozen authenticated works, but these include two of the most famous images in our culture, the Mona Lisa (in the Louvre) and the Last Supper (a crumbling fresco in Milan). He published nothing in his lifetime, despite numerous and exuberant plans, though several thousand fascinating pages of manuscript have survived, probably representing only about a quarter of his total output. He did not hide his light under a bushel and was, in life, probably the most celebrated intellectual in Europe. Dukes and kings reveled in his conversation and his plans for war machines and irrigation projects. He served under the generous patronage of Europe's most powerful rulers, including Ludovico il Moro of Milan, the infamous Cesare Borgia, and King Francis I of France.
Leonardo's notebooks did not become generally known until the late eighteenth century, and were not published (and then only in fragmentary and occasional form) until the nineteenth century. Thus, he occupies the unique and peculiar role of a "private spaceman"--a thinker of preeminent originality, but whose unknown works exerted no influence at all upon the developing history of science (for nearly all his great insights had been rediscovered independently before his notebooks came to light).
The overwhelmingly prevailing weight of public commentary about Leonardo continues to view him as Western cultures primary example of a "spaceman," that is, as a genius so transcendent that he could reach, in his own fifteenth century, conclusions that the rest of science, plodding forward in its linear march to truth, would not ascertain for several hundred years. Leonardo stood alone and above, we are told over and over again, because he combined his unparalleled genius with a thoroughly modern methodology based on close observation and clever experiment. He could therefore overcome the ignorance and lingering sterile scholasticism of his own times.
For example, the "Introductory Note" in the official catalog for a recent exhibition of the Leicester Codex in New York summarizes the basis of Leonardo's success in these words: "In it [the codex] we can begin to see how he combined almost superhuman powers of observation with an understanding of the importance of experimentation. The results were inspired insights into the workings of nature that match his artistic achievements." When such conventional sources acknowledge the persisting medieval character of many Leonardian pronouncements, they almost always view this context as a pure impediment to be overcome by observation and experiment, not as a matrix that might have been useful to Leonardo, or might help us to understand his beliefs and conclusions. For example, the closing passage of the long Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Leonardo states: "Leonardo approached this vast realm of nature to probe its secrets . . . The knowledge thus won was still bound up with medieval Scholastic conceptions, but the results of his research were among the first great achievements of the thinking of the new age because they were based on the principle of experience."
I think that this conventional view could not be more wrong in its general approach to the history of knowledge, or more stultifying for our quest to understand this most fascinating man of our intellectual past. Leonardo did make wonderful observations. He did often anticipate conclusions that public science would not reach for another two or three centuries. But he was neither a spaceman nor an angel--and we will never understand him if we insist on reading him as Hank Morgan, a man truly out of time, a modernist among the Medici, a futurist in the court of Francis the First.
From the Hardcover edition.
|Introduction: Pieces of Eight: Confession of a Humanistic Naturalist||1|
|1||The Upwardly Mobile Fossils of Leonardo's Living Earth||17|
|2||The Great Western and the Fighting Temeraire||45|
|3||Seeing Eye to Eye, Through a Glass Clearly||57|
|4||The Clam Stripped Bare by Her Naturalists, Even||77|
|5||Darwin's American Soulmate: A Bird's-Eye View||99|
|6||A Seahorse for All Races||119|
|7||Mr. Sophia's Pony||141|
|8||Up Against a Wall||161|
|9||A Lesson from the Old Masters||179|
|10||Our Unusual Unity||197|
|11||A Cerion for Christopher||215|
|12||The Dodo in the Caucus Race||231|
|13||The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague||251|
|15||Boyle's Law and Darwin's Details||285|
|16||The Tallest Tale||301|
|17||Brotherhood by Inversion (or, As the Worm Turns)||319|
|18||War of the Worldviews||339|
|19||Triumph of the Root-Heads||355|
|20||Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?||375|
|21||Reversing Established Orders||393|
Stephen Jay Gould: I don't care to discuss my health with anyone I don't know.
Stephen Jay Gould: That nature has a purpose in our terms. Mind you, nature is not random in its meaning, but the history of earth has been going on for 3.5 billions of years and we are only in the last cosmic eye blink and the world does not go on because of us.
Stephen Jay Gould: Not really. I think science is a very honored profession. The difference is that unlike in art, where we see the individual personalities of them all and therefore we celebrate the personalities, the myth of science holds that the field is one of logic and observation and the individuals who happen to make these observations have no particular significance because if they didn't make these observations somebody else would have. So we don't honor scientists like we would politicians or people in the arts, but that doesn't mean that they don't get honored in their profession, because they do.
Stephen Jay Gould: An eclectic bunch, from my father to Joe DiMaggio to Charles Darwin.
Stephen Jay Gould: It is the eighth volume of my collective essays -- the ones I write every month. And like many of the previous titles, the title is made up of the essays themselves, and in this case I put two essays together. In one essay I have written about how Leonardo classified clams, and of course, the Diet of Worms is the famous meeting where Martin Luther refused to recant and I use that incident to write an essay on intolerance.
Stephen Jay Gould: Yes, this is where I lecture. I teach at Harvard in the spring and will be lecturing at NYU from the middle of November to the middle of December and you are welcome.
Stephen Jay Gould: It would be too much of a busted holiday to read essays; I don't read them for pleasure. I have heroes in the field and they would be T. H. Huxley and Peter Medawar. But I confess that on those rare occasions when I do read for pleasure, like when I read on airplanes, I go for mystery novels.
Stephen Jay Gould: He understood perfectly well why cultural history would be very different from biological evolution, and he would be disturbed by many trends that he saw, but he thought that human relationships had very little connection to evolution. He is deeply unpredictable, so I don't think much would surprise him.
Stephen Jay Gould: There is a whole chapter in my book about that perennial unanswerable question to which both alternative answers are correct -- but the systems of reckoning are different. They are arbitrary human conditions, and either one works perfectly well.
Stephen Jay Gould: No way to know. Fascinating unanswerable questions you can pose, but the reason I write about it very little is because we truly don't have any good way to give good forms. I could give all the conventional arguments, but none are better than anyone elses. I accept the standard arguments that it would be peculiar if we were the only example of life.
Stephen Jay Gould: There are so many rain-forest species that have not been found yet. Estimates of yet-to-be-found species range from 5 to 50 times the [currently known] species. Most are tiny little things we don't look for, but we haven't even dented the insects.
Stephen Jay Gould: Like any powerful technology it has benevolent uses and many we would like to avoid. I never want to cut off the technique entirely, because there are so many good uses. In fact, we have been cloning fruit trees for decades. We call it grafting, but it is cloning. On the other hand there are many dubious uses for humans, and we have to set regulative boundaries if necessary.
Stephen Jay Gould: I have written every month. If it were every week, I couldn't do it. I have decided to stop at the millennium: January 2001. That will mean two more volumes after this book, for a total of ten. And monthly essays without ever a deadline missed. I have enough topics to keep going forever, but an old motto really says that one should really quit when one is ahead.
Stephen Jay Gould: 1 Yes. 2 I don't think so. In the 20th century we don't write long and discursive books, so that while there have been many discovers of equal magnitude theory of relativity and DNA, they were announced in short articles rather than full-length books.
Stephen Jay Gould: I don't mean to be facetious but it is a kind of internal compulsion. Too much part of the definition of who I am and what I do.
Stephen Jay Gould: I am the wrong person to ask. I don't have an email address, and I am not typing these answers now, either. But although I can't give you any informed opinion, we have some local glitches of disruption then life will go on.
Stephen Jay Gould: The Yankees as long as we play San Diego. Because pitching almost always prevails in short series -- dubious but still true -- but first we have to win tonight, which we will.
Stephen Jay Gould: Of course it is a bad result. Nobody is saying they can't make public affirmation. That is what democracy is all about. It is very different that you would allow disproven nonsense into school. It doesn't come into the democratic rights of expressing one's views.
Stephen Jay Gould: Yes, it is [meaningful], but I don't think natural selection has any major effect on human futures. People die of genetic diseases. That is natural selection. But first of all, people are so much alike, and there is so little difference between groups and people having any effect. But the main point is that cultural history so overwhelms any biological change that biological change has become irrelevant.
Stephen Jay Gould: Good question, I don't know the formal systems of this. It is something I should learn more about.
Stephen Jay Gould: For Wordsworthian reasons the Bronx Zoo in New York. I used to go as a child and the child is father of the man.
Stephen Jay Gould: I sorry to be so conventional, but I don't know what to say but the DNA structures. If you don't much about that, you don't have a base. Without that you can't even begin.
Stephen Jay Gould: LUCKY TO BE A YANKEE by Joe DiMaggio, ORIGIN OF SPECIES, and NAME OF THE ROSE. All in different phases in my life and the last one for its understanding other principal time scales.
Stephen Jay Gould: Go Yankees! And I hope Maguire hits 75 next year.
Posted February 5, 2002
Excellent series of essays that bring to light the evolution of modern scientific thought. Clear, understandable discussion of some of the core ideas of past masters of science, and how (and why) they were wrong, but also how thier work eventually contributed to establishing the current 'state of the art' in scientific thinking. Includes some of the best discussion of the interaction between science and religion that I have ever seen. Solidly based on the original writings of the famous and not-so-famous great thinkers of the modern era. Clear, understandable, well written work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.