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Book Review 229: On a Piece of Chalk

March 4, 2012 - Harry Eagar
ON A PIECE OF CHALK, by T.H. Huxley, edited with an introduction by Loren Eiseley. 90 pages, illustrated. Scribners

This old reprint of Huxley's even older essay provides a double look back in time, and the result is not flattering to us moderns.

Huxley's talk was prepared for mechanics' institutes, where despite 72-hour workweeks, crowds of workers – poorly educated by a nation whose elite did not wish ordinary people to have education (like Rick Santorum) – thronged to lectures on up-to-the-minute scientific topics. Today's equivalent, only slightly better informed despite free public education, would hardly be expected to turn out.

I am not guessing about this. I sometimes go to the free scientific lectures at Maikalani, and the current equivalent of a Victorian mechanic is seldom to be seen there. It's possible today, in ways that were not possible in the 1870s, to obtain the information without coming out at night, but my experience as as newspaper reporter does not suggest to me that the average worker knows much about current scientific questions, or, worse, even about those that were current in Huxley's day.

If people were to come out to a lecture, it would more likely be the antiscientific crap offered by the creationists. (I am not guessing about this either; as a reporter, I went to both kinds.)

Huxley was among the finest popularizers of natural history ever. He started with a lump of chalk “such as every carpenter carries in his pocket” and relentlessly carried forward the arguments to demonstrate that the presence of chalk in most of Europe proved the existence of a huge sea where land is now, and on to what that suggested about time and evolution.

At the time, the exact lengths of time were not known, and Huxley did not pretend to know them, but the arguments did not depend on such exactitude,; nor did he or anyone else have to understand the exact place in the environment of the small animals and plants that produced the chalk – at the time, the affinities of the ooze animals was not clearly apprehended.

Now we know more detail, but the creationists leave Huxley severely alone. They prefer to set up fake complaints; they dare not deal with his real arguments, which are remorseless in their persuasiveness.

Nearly a hundred years later, Loren Eiseley was one of the most popular popularizers of natural science. I read many of his books and essays when I was a teenager.

I had forgotten, or did not fully realize at the time, what a pessimist he was.

His words, written in 1967, sound strange today. Things have not turned out nearly so badly as he was sure they would.


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