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Loren c Eiseley the Fire Apes

Loren c Eiseley the Fire Apes

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Published by: hairymary100 on May 01, 2012
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The Fire Apes
 Loren C. Eiseley
I
WAS
the only man in the world who sawhim do it. Everybody else was hurrying.Everybody else around that hospital was busy, or flat on his back and beyond seeing.I had a smashed ankle and was using a crutch,so I couldn't hurry. That was the only reasonI was on the grounds and allowed to sit on a bench. If it hadn't been for that I would havemissed it. I saw what it meant, too. I hadthe perspective, you see, and the time to thinabout it. In the end I hardly knew whetheto be glad or sorry, but it was a frighteningexperience, perhaps not so much frighteningas weird because I suddenly and preternatur-ally saw very close to the end-the end of all of us-and it happened because of that squirrel.The bird-feeding station stood on the lawn.before my bench. Whoever had erected itwas a bird-lover, not a squirrel enthusiast,that much was certain. It was on top of asection of thin pipe stuck upright in theground, and over the end of the pipe half oa bread can had been inverted. The thin,smooth pipe and the bread can were to keepsquirrels from the little wooden platform androof where the birds congregated to feed.The feeding platform was attached just abovethe tin shield that protected it from the squir-rels. I could see that considerable thoughthad gone into the production of this appara-tus and that it was carefully placed so thatno squirrel could spring across from a nearbytree.In the space of the morning I watched fivesquirrels lope easily across the lawn and trytheir wits on the puzzle.
It
was clear thatthey knew the bread was there-the problemwas to reach it. Five squirrels in successionclawed their way up the thin pipe only todiscover they were foiled by the tin umbrellaaround which they could not pass. Eachsquirrel in turn slid slowly and protestingly back to earth-;-flinched at my distant chuckle..and went away with a careful appearance of total disinterest that preserved his dignity.There was a sixth squirrel that came aftea time, but I was bored by then, and only half watching. God knows how many things a.man misses by becoming smug and assumingthat matters will take their natural course.I almost drowsed enough to miss it, and if Ihad, I might have gone away from there still believing in the fixity of species, or theinviolability of the human plane of existence.I might even have died believing some crassanthropocentric dogma about the uniquenessof the human brain.As it was, I had just one sleepy eye halopen, and it was through that that I saw theend of humanity. It was really a very littleepisode, and if it hadn't been for the squirrelI wouldn't have seen it at all. The thing was:he stopped to think. He stopped right thereat the bottom of the pole and looked up andI knew he was thinking. Then he went up.
H
E WENT
up with a bound that swayedthe thin pipe slightly and teetered theloose shield. In practically the nextsecond he had caught the tilted rim of the
 Professor Eisele», head of the department of anthropologyat the University of Pennsylvania, is an assiduous bone-hunter who has written often fo
Harper's
about Early Man.
 
48HARPER'S MAGAZINE
shield with an outstretched paw, flicked his body on to and over it, and was sitting onthe platform where only birds were supposedto be. He dined well there and daintily, andwent away in due time in the neat quicfashion by which he had arrived. I cluckedat him and he stopped a moment in hisleisurely sweep over the grass, holding upone paw and looking at me with the smallshrewd glance of the wood people. Thereare times now when I think it was a momen-tous meeting and that for just a second inthat sunlit glade, the present and the futuremeasured each other, half conscious in somestrange way of their destinies. Then he wasloping away with theautumn sunlight flicker-ing on his fur, to a tree where I could notfollow him. I turned away and limped back to the shadow of my bench."He's a smart squirrel, all right," I tried toreassure myself. "He's a super-smart squirrel, but just the same he's only a squirrel. Be-sides, there are monkeys that can solve bette problems than that. A nice bit of naturalhistory, an insight into a one-ounce brain atits best, but what's the significance of--"It wasjust then I got it. The chill that had been slowly crawling up my back as I facedthat squirrel. You have to remember whatI said about perspective. I have been steepedin geological eras; my mind is filled with theosseous debris of a hundred graveyards. Uptill now I had dealt with the past. I was oneof the planet's undisputed masters. But thatsquirrel had busy fingers. He was lopingaway from me into the future.The chill came with the pictures, and those pictures rose dim and vast, as though evokedfrom my subconscious memory by that smalluplifted paw. They were not pleasant pic-tures. They had to do with times far off andalien. There was one, I remember, of gasp-ing amphibian heads on the shoresof marshes,with all about them the birdless silence of aland into which no vertebrate life had ever  penetrated because it could not leave thewater. There was another in which great brainless monsters bellowed in the steaminghollows of a fern forest, while tiny wraith-likemammals eyed them from the underbrush.There wasa vast lonely stretch of air, throughwhich occasionally skittered the ill-aimedflight of lizard-like birds. And finally therewas a small gibbon-like primate teeteringalong through a great open parkland, uprighton his two hind feet. Once he turned, and Iseemed to see something familiar about him, but he passed into the shade.There were more pictures, but always theyseemed to depict great empty corridors, cor-ridors in the sense of a planet's spaces, firstempty and then filled with life. Alwaysalongthose corridors as they filled, were _eagewatchers, watching from the leaves, watchingfrom the grasses, watching from the woods'edge. Sometimes the watchers ventured outa little way and retreated. Sometimes theyemerged and strange changes overtook thecorridor.It was somewhere there at the last on theedge of a dying city that I thought I recog-nized my squirrel. He was farther out of thewoods now, bolder, and a bit more insolent, but he was still a squirrel. The city wasdying, that was plain, but the cause was un-discernible. I saw with a slight shock thatnothing seemed very important about it. Itwas dying slowly, in the length of centuries,and all about it the little eyesunder the leaveswere closing in. It wasthen that I understood,finally, and no longer felt particularly glador sorry. The city was forfeit to those littleshining brains at the woods' edge. I knew howlong they had waited. And we, too, had beenat the woods' edge in our time. We couldafford to go now. Our vast intellectual cor-ridor might stretch empty for 
a
million years.It did not matter. My squirrel would attendto it. And if not he, then the wood rats. Theywere all there waiting under the leaves.
II
I
SUPPOSE
everyone keeps by his night lightsome collection of tales by which he mayfrighten himself back to sleep in momentsof insomnia. I know that I do. And if youare like me, you have, on occasional mid-nights, disputed lordship of the planet withintellectual octopi, or seen mankind pushedhorribly aside by giant termites. These no-tions may be sinister at midnight, but thetruths of daylight are simpler and more ter-rible: mankind may perish without assistancefrom any of these.The human brain was a beautiful and ter-rible invention. It is unique. And becauseit is unique there are many who believe that
 
THE FIRE APES
49its achievements will never be possible of duplication in nature, that, in the words of one naturalist, "progress hangs on but asingle thread. That thread is the humangerm plasm." A French scholar murmurs alittle uneasily "man alone in the universe isnot finished." Julian Huxley defends theuniqueness of the human species with an im- passioned vigor. "Among the actual inhabi-tants of the earth," he says, "past and present,no other lines could have been taken whichwould have produced speech and conceptualthought ... It could not have been evolvedon earth except in man."That remark is both wise, in a sense, andfoolish. It is the statement of a man who haslooked far into the depths of the past andseen nothing so wonderful as man. Yet it be-trays also the reluctance of the human imagi-nation as it turns toward the future-its con-cern with itself, its unwillingness to relin-quish the stage. This genuinely profoundmind is surely not unaware that an intellec-tual dinosaur of the dying Cretaceous mightwell have murmured: "The saurians aloneare not finished. What possible things couldimprove upon us?" The Cretaceous date linewould have made it a wise and Huxlianstatement. It would have taken ten millionyears to force its serious alteration. Mr.Huxley is equally safe from refutation, sosafe in fact that he sniffs contemptuously atthe potential threat offered by our rowdy re-maining cousins up in the family tree. "Themonkeys," he says, "have quite left behindthem that more generalized stage from whicha conscious thinking creature could develop."I am afraid that we are altogether too im- pressed by the fact;that we live on the groundand that our remaining relatives, poor fellows,show a decided preference for trees. It neveseems to occur to us that. if they didn't stay upthere we would jolly well show them whatfor. As for that "more generalized stage"which Mr. Huxley demands for the appear-ance of a thinking creature, I am quite surethat he cannot define it in a way which wouldseriously threaten the reputation of severalexisting primates.The only way to become a "generalizedstage" is to produce, in the course of time,several divergent smart descendants. No onecan say that that faculty has been lost, but thewhole monkey group will stay upstairs nowtill we are gone. And if they don't comedown, there is still my squirrel, whose actionsat times remind me of a certain ancient hu-man forerunner in the Eocene. That chapwasn't recognized as "generalized" either,until somewhere along the way he began towalk on his hind feet. In the beginning,I'm not at all sure he was as smart as mysquirrel. Now I have said that Mr. Huxley is safefrom refutation, geological time being whatit is. If it is impossible to refute him untilthe passage of another sixty million years, itmight be more comfortable to assume he hasspoken the truth. It might have been, that is,up until last year. It was then that scientists began to scratch actively in the African bonelands. It was then that archeologists beganto Whisper behind their hands and exchangeglances. It concerned, of course, a certainskull. That in itself was bad enough, but whatensued was worse.
H
EWAS
an ape, they had said in the be-ginning: "A creature lacking the dis-tinctive temporal expansions whichappear to be concomitant with and necessaryto articulate man is no true man." Thenthere had come that frightening insistence onthe part of his discoverer that he had used fireand tools.The little fellow was promptly redescribed.His type was cited in glowing terms as "intel-ligent, energetic, erect, and delicately pro- portioned little people." He was creditedwith speech, and spoken of respectfully as a potential human ancestor. It was more com-fortable that way. Otherwise you were con-fronted with a spectacle like Dunsany's mys-terious Abu Laheeb, that strange being squat-ting over its lonely fire in the marshes-theonly beast in the world that made fire likeman.The mythical Abu Laheeb survived by hid-ing in the papyrus swamps of the upper Nile.
 Australopithecus prometheus,
the ape whomade fire, was not that fortunate. He disap- peared. The reason why concerns Mr. Hux-ley's philosophy and is in some sense a refuta-tion of it. Men say, in the books, that manis the last hope of life on the planet, the lastchance, that is, for brain. In the past, how-ever, when man was yet weak, a cousin triedto take the path he walked upon and almost

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