By Christopher Agostino
I was re-reading an essay by Stephen Jay Gould and had what I think of as a Stephen Jay Gould moment: I made a connection between two pieces of information from unrelated sources that in conjunction allow for a greater understanding of each. It was this quality in his writing that made his essays in Natural History Magazine so enjoyable to read, how he would weave together disparate bits of history and science, and, through this accumulation of seemingly unconnected information, craft a coherent explanation of a subject outside of my usual understanding—achieving clarity through seeming obfuscation, and simplicity through carefully crafted complexity. It was (and is) a joy to be led through his winding paths to the brilliant new insight he’d leave you with, and—in large part because he always made a story out of it with interesting characters, touches of mystery, human foibles and aspirations—at the end you’d be left with such an organic understanding of the subject of the essay that you would remember it and could repeat it to a friend. I find his to be an ideal approach to creating an entertaining and educational essay, and try to emulate him in the educational programs I do and in these writings.
Gould's essays were also collected in a series of books
The essay in question was “The Upwardly Mobile Fossils of Leonardo’s Living Earth” (Natural History Magazine, May 1997), on Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to explain the appearance of fossils of sea creatures at the tops of Italian mountains through geological mechanisms in line with an all-inclusive theory that the physical earth is alive and ever-changing in the same way as the human body, which he learned from the writings of earlier scholars such as Jean Buridan and Albert of Saxony . Much of the essay describes the absolutely brilliant observations of Leonardo regarding fossils, describing his consistent ability to understand and develop concepts way beyond his contemporaries as analogous to Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, so far beyond his peers that he seems to be a man of the future sent back in time. Yet Gould’s goal is to point out that however advanced Leonardo’s observations may have been, he was a man of his times and his expostulation of his observations was in support of a world view of those times: “Simply stated, Leonardo was vigorously promoting a common and distinctively premodern view that could not have been more common to all his thought and art: the comparison, and causal union, of the earth as macrocosm with the human body as microcosm (Gould)” In Leonardo da Vinci’s own words from one his notebooks in the text called “Manuscript A”:
“Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the term is rightly applied, seeing that if man is compounded of earth, water, air and fire, this body of the each is the same; and as man has within himself bones as a stay and framework of the flesh, so the world has rocks which are the supports of the earth; as man has within him a pool of blood wherein the lungs as he breathes expand and contract, so the body of the earth has its ocean, which also rises and falls every six hours with the breathing of the world [the tides]”
The Living Earth
Reading that, I was immediately reminded of a passage I first came across some years ago, when I was doing research for a show I was writing about the environment. The book American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon Books 1984) describes a creation myth of the Okanogan people of Washington State that the earth is itself alive, a woman: “the soil is her flesh, the rocks are her bones, the wind is her breath, trees and grass are her hair.” In Joseph Campbell’s Historical Atlas of World Mythology he discusses this concept of a living earth in a larger context as emblematic of a world view generally shared by traditional cultures, a view of man as a only one part of a great unified creation, man as a reflection of Nature. As an example, Campbell sites the reported words of a Native American chief from a different tribe in that same region, Chief Seattle, in response to an order to transfer his lands to the U.S. government in 1855:
“Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people….We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins….The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors….The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father. The rivers are my brothers….This we know: The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.” (excerpted from Joseph Campbell’s Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Vol. 1: Part 2)
Now, here is where we reach (one of) the limitations that keep my attempts at an essay like this far removed from those of the man I admire, for Stephen Jay Gould is a genius—a true genius in terms of knowledge, accomplishment and stature—and so he could write with authority about what truths we can glean from the disparate pieces of information he would weave into an essay, whereas I am faced with questions rather than certainties when I find conceptual connections such as this one between the ideologies of Leonardo da Vinci and the Okanogan people, and have no sense of authority to share with a reader. In this case, as I wonder at the remarkable similarity in these two descriptions of the earth as a living being, from the Renaissance Italian Leonardo and these Okanogan Native Americans and Chief Seattle, I also question what I perceive as a distinctive difference in the emphasis they place within this macrocosm/microcosm relationship between man and the natural world as to who is the central figure in that relationship.
In addition to writing about his observations regarding fossils and how he used them as proof of a mechanism whereby the earth moves and changes like a living body in support of his living earth world view, Gould describes Leonardo’s frustration when he couldn’t make his observations of the earth match completely his understanding of the human body in another regard. In the same notebooks in which writes about fossils, Leonardo made multiple unsuccessful attempts to formulate a mechanical explanation of a way that water might be pumped upwards (against the flow of gravity) to the top of a mountain that would fit the analogy of blood pumped up to the head, and was frustrated because his observations of the movement of water through the earth did not meet the requirements postulated by these attempted explanations.
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci
Just as Leonardo’s observations of fossil sea creatures were framed in the context of his view of the earth as formed by the scholars he had studied, the sense I get of the root cause of his frustration at this failure to perfectly match a function of the human body with an observation of the earth is framed for me by the context of the image I hold of Leonardo da Vinci—that is Gould’s main point after all, that someone’s world view always provides a context for their observations. I am led by my image of him to see his frustration as stemming primarily from his placing man (not Nature) at the center of this reflective relationship, his certainty that the earth must function as the human body does because the human body is the perfect divine creation, the model for all, and therefor comes his annoyance when the earth doesn’t seem to measure up. Just the picture I hold in my mind of his Vitruvian Man might be enough to make me see Leonardo this way, but I also bring to bear the knowledge that he was a humanist, part of a movement towards a humanist view of the world that engendered some, or much, of the cultural changes that we call the Renaissance, a view that places man (as opposed to gods, supernatural forces or nature spirits) at the spiritual center of the universe. This is a particularly strong framing context for me just now in regard to Leonardo, as I’m in the midst of reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modernby Stephen Greenblatt, which is about
Even the Mona Lisa is interpreted as being within Leonardo's world view of the living earth as the background landscape appears in a state of flux and is full of flowing waters.
how this massive change in the course of European culture came about, and, specifically, how intently men such as Leonardo were looking back to the sciences, arts and philosophy of the classical Greeks (and Romans). Gould points out that this view of “the earth as a living, self-sustaining ‘organism,’ a macrocosm working by the same principles and mechanisms as the microcosm of the human body” is just such an idea with origins in classical times.
Joseph Campbell, in his writings about the varied and changing world views of human cultures, also speaks of the origins of what we call “Western Civilization” in the classical Greek view of the universe, marking it as a turning away from the nature/spirit orientated belief structure we associate with tribal cultures, a shamanist belief structure arising in paleolithic times that all of our ancestral cultures started with. The Greeks put man at the center, as opposed to nature. Even the Greek gods, for example, are in the image of man, in contrast with the animal spirits and strange supernatural beings of shamanist cultures. (Campbell also discusses the emergence of monotheism and religions, such as the Judeo-Christian religions, as part of this turning away from shamanism, but I’m gonna keep it simple here and stick to the Greeks.) (There is a direct connection here, by the way, between the emergent Greek world view and body art, for as the Greeks came to see man as the primal creation they idealized the unadorned human form, and body art comes to be seen as a disfigurement of perfection—think of all those naked Greek statues and the naked athletes competing in the original Olympics. Body arts like tattooing became taboo in classic Greek times, associated with “uncivilized” people.)
In his introduction to the words of Chief Seattle quoted above, Joseph Campbell describes him as “one of the last spokesmen of the paleolithic moral order” speaking out against the new order of the white settlers, a new order less concerned with the reflective relationship between man and nature than with man’s dominance over nature. With that contextual understanding I see Seattle’s words about how “the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth,” and that Okanogan evocation of a living earth that “the soil is her flesh, the rocks are her bones…,” as having a very different emphasis than the very similar words of Leonardo, for here I find the earth placed at the center of the reflective relationship, not man. For that show on the environment I was writing years ago I used part of the text of Chief Seattle’s speech as an example of this general perception of the Native American reverential relationship with nature, as the speech fits a romantic notion of the native, the primitive, living in perfect harmony with nature—the circle of life and all that—the stereotypical view we in the Western Civilization are taught to bring to any understanding of Tribal People. But here I have to question the context that I, as a product of my culture, bring to this subject, for, though I may not be an authority, I’ve done enough research since then into tribal cultures around the world to feel that this romantic Western view of “the native at one with nature” is an oversimplification, at best. (And a persistent one: in a brief aside, there was a Gauguin exhibit recently that pointed out that by the time he got to Tahiti most of the people there wore European clothing and were Christians, so he made those naked tropical women up in his paintings to fit his own idealized image of the primitive, and was encouraged to do so in part by the French authorities looking to promote tourism to the Tahitian islands they owned.) (I should also point out here that I am aware that using a phrase like “Native American culture” or “Tribal People” is an inaccurate shorthand, and it’s another oversimplification to suggest there is single homogenous culture amongst all the varied groups covered by those rubrics.)
Here we get to another of those twists that always made a Stephen Jay Gould essay so much fun, for now I’ve come to learn that those words are not authentic. There was a Chief Seattle (for whom the city is named) and he apparently did make a moving speech to a large group of people at a time when white settlers were taking away their traditional lands, but it wasn’t recorded or transcribed in any way that can be considered accurate. We don’t know what Seattle said that day. (Check out Wikipedia Chief Seattle’s Speech for the earliest version, written by a white settler, Dr. Henry A. Smith, some 30 years after the supposed date of the speech, based on his incomplete notes of a translation of a translation, which then became the basis for all the other versions you can find in so many different places today.)
This is a twist that leads back to this overall consideration of context, the world view we each bring to our observations and how it colors and limits them, and back to an aspect of it which Gould approached in his essay regarding Leonardo, which I also see as applicable to Chief Seattle and his speech. In addition to writing about his actual brilliance and accomplishments, Gould referred to the “legend” of Leonardo da Vinci, the image we hold of him today as a man beyond his time: “The overwhelming prevailing weight of public commentary about Leonardo continues to view him as western culture’s primary example of a ‘spaceman,’ that is, a genius so transcendent that he could reach, in his own fifteenth century, conclusions that the rest of science…would not ascertain for several hundred years…because he combined his unparalleled genius with a thoroughly modern methodology based on close observation…” It is that legend of Leonardo, Gould writes, that impedes a more accurate understanding of how his observations and discoveries fit within his world. In other words, the context that we today bring to Leonardo’s brilliance prevents us from seeing that brilliance in the context within which it functioned. I’d go further to say that we are bringing a modern arrogance to our view of that brilliance when we insist on seeing him as someone beyond his time, as if a man from that long ago couldn’t be so brilliant without some kind of supernaturally futuristic ability. It’s a similar arrogance which I also often perceive, and that I find myself falling into, when doing research on other cultures, ancient people, tribal people. Their most lauded accomplishments are those that seem to be most in line with our modern Western Civilization world view, rather than trying to understand them within their own perspective.
The World on a Turtle's Back - another living earth image from folklore
My world view, my context, is relatively close to Leonardo’s world view from the Italian Renaissance of 500 years ago when taken in comparison to the world view of someone like Chief Seattle or the Okanogan people, because Leonardo and I share a classical Western Culture and Chief Seattle does not. We can readily frame Leonardo’s accomplishments in our modern Western context, and, further, we have Leonardo’s thoughts and observations because of a cultural element we share with him that he didn’t share with Chief Seattle: he wrote them down in a notebook. I don’t think that Chief Seattle would have ever considered writing his speech down because he lived within a culture with an oral tradition for the retention and dissemination of information. (It is a discussion for another time of how an oral tradition like Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians retain just as much complexity of information and history as we Western Civilization folks do in our books and notebooks.) It was through an application of the context of the white settlers’ culture that Seattle’s speech became “legendary” once it was written down and published in a newspaper 30 years after the fact, and the legend has apparently outstripped the man, as it has come to be that speech that he is know for among the general American culture. I don’t know how he is viewed within the contemporary Native American culture and I certainly don’t know how he was viewed by his own culture during his lifetime, and isn’t that the lesson about context that we have to remain aware of, the limitation of the cultural framework we each bring to our understanding of another?
Thus the question remains for me: how did the humanist Leonardo da Vinci and the shamanist Chief Seattle, as men of their time, their culture, come to see the world we all share as alive? Is it a cultural concept that survived from the ancient, paleolithic mythology through the transformational Greek philosophy? Is there an application of the macrocosm/microcosm analogy here in another way, that each of us lives in the microcosm of our times within the macrocosm of our larger human heritage? At the core, we are each of us a being alone in a vast world, and it has always been so. Perhaps we all want to see the earth as alive because it then becomes a kinder macrocosm within which each of us lives as our own little microcosm?
So I am left with a sense of wonder about this quote of Leonardo’s and how much it shares with an Okanogan creation myth, and here we get back to Stephen Jay Gould, for I can’t help but think that at this point in an essay he would have answers where I have questions. He was a scientist after all, it was his job to find answers. I’m an artist. What I am working on is trying to find the right questions.
http://www.agostinoarts.com Christopher Agostino
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Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the latter years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University near his home in SoHo.
Gould’s most significant contribution to science was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972. The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution….
Gould became widely known through his popular science essays in Natural History magazine and his best-selling books on evolution. Many of his essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life and Full House.
A passionate advocate of evolutionary theory, Gould wrote prolifically on the subject, trying to communicate his understanding of contemporary evolutionary biology to a wide audience. A recurring theme in his writings is the history and development of evolutionary, and pre-evolutionary, thought…..
(READ the rest yourself, it’s fascinating: Stephen Jay Gould )
Or check out: The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive and Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)
- The Creation Myths of Cooperstown (english414fall2011.wordpress.com)