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“In What Furnace Was Thy Brain?”

For hundreds of millions of years you have been bullied and pushed around, driven from the ocean to the rivers, from the rivers to the shallows, from the shallows to the swamps, and out on land.  Always the species who were better adapted to the older environment stayed in the older environment.  The faster fishes stayed in the sea.  You are not descended from them.  You are descended from a long line of misfits who were bullied and driven out.  Always it was “Shape up or get out!” and you got out.


You were driven ashore on stumpy fins in the Devonian swamps, and you were driven underground in the Paleocene grass, and you were driven from the grass into the trees, by other descendants of those stumpy fins. And every change entailed millions of years of discomfort while you painfully built in your new genetic adjustments, not so much by the survival of those who succeeded as by the early demise of those who failed.  The dinosaurs, with scaly feet, drove some of you underground.  Those who couldn’t adjust are gone.  There in their burrows, in the sunny grass, the rodents, furry mammals much like you, but better adapted to the grass than you, drove you to the trees.  Those who couldn’t adjust went down.


There in the trees, through long and painful genetic readjustments you learned to swing from branch to branch. Those who failed were eaten by cats.  Then, after many more millions of years, just when your arms could reach from side to side, came the dwindling of the forests by drought, twelve million years of drought.  Those who were better at swinging than you drove you to the ground, and you fled to the sea.  You had four hands and no feet, and the grass was now no place for you.  There were pack-hunting dogs and great, stalking cats.  Those who didn’t make it to the beach are gone.


In the safety of the terrifying breakers you were cradled in the sea, with hands instead of paddles and hands instead of feet, and there were millions of cold, wet, salty years before you even had the tears to cry.  You were small and you were timid when you came from the green-roofed jungle with eyes accustomed to the dark, and there were millions of years of blinding brightness on the sunlit waves and beaches before you had the frown of your bewilderment, the furrowed brow of the thinker, and you wondered what it’s all about.


The long pursuit has made you thoughtful.  Every new adjustment entailed a genetic enlargement of the brain.  It is the brain of a misfit, driven hither and yon to the refuge of new environments by those better adapted to the old.  It is the brain of a shiftless outcast, living always in the discomfort of genetic maladjustment.  It is the product of hundreds of millions of years of distress, the product of the vicissitudes of countless misfortunes encountered along the seemingly endless reaches of the immense journey.  And your present form is not the end.  The journey lies as far ahead as behind.  No, not so far, for now, for the first time, you can look behind to see how you have come.  And now, for the first time, you can guess ahead to see how you should go.


In all that three hundred million years, no creature descended from the Snout thought of himself as descended from the Snout, that lumbering, Devonian fish with simple lungs and bubbles in his brain.  In all that length of time, no creature thought that any creature would ever think to figure it out, to unscramble and decipher the account.  You are the first species that ever investigated its own genetic past.  You are the only creatures who are not fish who ever knew that they are not fish but that their ancestors were.  You are the first creatures who ever lived on land but who knew that their ancestors lived in the sea. 


And you are the first creatures who can look ahead to see where you are going.  You are the first creatures who can understand that you got into this mess through an uncertainty and cannot possibly get out by transformation.  Uncertainty is overcome by knowledge, not by transformation.  You alone can understand that the journey has an end, which cannot possibly be reached by journeying.


Yours is the strength of the eternal underdog.  You have been pushed and bullied and driven till you have mastered every environment on the face of the earth, and have the brain to comprehend the Universe beyond.  Out of the endless vicissitudes of your misfortunes and your failures has come your strength, and your love for the underdog.  Every unbiased observer among you roots for the underdog.


When you walk in the woods, the squirrels don’t bring you their peanuts, but you carry peanuts for them.  The gulls don’t bring you their lunches, but you throw your lunches to them.  And signs are required at every zoo to keep you from feeding the underdog.  Out of the strength to save yourselves has come the strength to save others.  You are Eiseley’s Star Throwers.  Hundreds of millions of years of distress have gone into that strength, and the salt of those eyes.


For hundred of millions of years, you have been bullied by the superior genetic technologies of better adapted species.  You were hurt by the pincers of crabs, bled by the syringes of insects and killed by the syringes of snakes.  You were scratched and torn by the talons and beaks of birds, crushed by the hoofs of mammals, tossed by their antlers and gored by their horns.  Losing the sea to the fins of faster fishes, long ago, and to the flukes of faster mammals, only yesterday, you came ashore again, only to be slashed by the fangs of cats, descended by another trail, another trial, from that same Devonian fish.  Into every new habitat you came, you came lately.  Everywhere you looked, there was someone ahead of you.  Everything you could do, they could do better.


Every vicissitude of your misfortune had robbed you of some piece of genetic hardware which could have saved you in some niche, till, by the time you came, a second time, ashore, you had no fins, you had no flukes, you had no tusks, you had no claws, you had no hoofs, you had no fur.  You were a ne’er-do-well’s ne’er-do-well, protecting naked babies in the grass.


Without pincers, without syringe, without talons, without beak and without wings you came ashore, with no trunk, no hoofs, no fangs and no fur.  But something else you had.  Behind your furrowed brow you had a better brain.  Every single blow of your misfortune, which drove you to another niche and robbed you of some piece of genetic technology, had hammered on its anvil some improvement in your brain till you had now the gleam of knowledge in your eye.  At the cost of losing every piece of hard-won hardware, you have built the software behind your eyes.  You have a brain to wonder and to understand.


And you have breasts to feed the growing brain of your helpless offspring.  And you have tools, and you have words to tell your offspring how to use them.  And you have fire to protect both your infant and your breasts from the bullying of furry beasts with fangs and claws and chattering teeth.  Only in your nakedness have you lost your fear of fire, driven by the cold and by your terror of the hardware of other species.  Your every misfortune you have turned to your account. Through the unfortunate necessity of prolonged parental care has come the growth of that brain that uses fire.  Only through the prolonging of your youth has come your wisdom which began in the swamp, long ago, around those bubbles in your brain.  You are the descendants of that ne’er-do-well, air-breathing fish, and the children of children who never grow up.


Now, for the first time, you have a software technology before which all the genetic hardware has gone down.  Now, with non-genetic hardware, you out-swim the fish, you out-run the cats, you out-fly the birds, and you look down from the Moon, and you smile.  Just think what went into that smile.


You have been pushed and bullied till you can be pushed and bullied no more.  Every time you went down before the onslaught of some piece of genetic hardware you have come back with some unexpected improvement in the software behind your eyes, till now, with your software technology and the use of non-genetic hardware, you, the eternal underdog, can bully any species that ever bullied you.  But with your new-won strength has come the frown of your puzzlement, the salt of your tears, and your smile.  Why should dog eat dog?  Why should a species, once bullied, bully back against the species that bullied it?  The furrowed brow has noticed and the salty eyes are wet.  You are the underdog’s underdog, and now that hand, once fin, once paw, lengthened for swinging in the trees, and flattened for swimming in the sea; now that hand, grown old, reaches out to touch, in consolation, those who, in the past, have bullied it.  Was it not their bullying that made you what you are?  You are the Star Thrower, throwing the broken starfish back into the sea.  Save the condor!  Save the whales!  Save the leopard!  Save the shark!  Save that menace of the seas against whose fearful jaws you learned to clench your fist!


You are the only creatures who ever knew that the rest of the creatures are just like you.  You are the only creatures to have figured it out, that you got into this plight through an uncertainty and cannot possibly get out through a transformation.  Knowledge is the key.


You are the first creatures to have figured out that the entire Universe is made out of hydrogen but that the hydrogen itself is an apparition.  You are the first to see that your bodies, and every single terror that beset them in the past, arose by transformation from that primordial hydrogen, the colorless, odorless, tasteless, intergalactic gas, which couldn’t possibly have arisen by any transformation, but only by the appearance of pairs of opposites on an underlying identity – plus against minus, electricity against gravity, and space against time – and that only on that identity rests your concern for other creatures.


That ancient, bullied hand still reaches out.  That ancient, furrowed brow has understood, and now the strength of knowledge lights those salty eyes.  The end is the not far, and, to one who sees beyond the transformations, the end is already within reach.  The journey has been immense, and, in its immensity, it has yet to run, but the journey has and end which cannot possibly be reached by journeying.