The moon hoax, why Nixon lost the debate, and what dinosaurs have to do with Gerald Ford and a chicken.
By Maria Popova
Despite our general dismissal of history as a boiling pot of mistakes that humanity never learned from, we have to admit it offers a great and telling tale or two. And the History Channel is out to prove it.
The Great and Telling Tales of History is a brilliant series of 1-minute films in which history’s walking encyclopedia, historian Timothy Dickinson, tells us, in a grandfatherly voice and an endearing British accent, little-known and fascinating facts about the history of politics, pop culture and the world at large.
But what makes the films truly marvelous is that we’re taken through the unexpected twists and turns of history by artist Benjamin Goldman‘s wonderful animation — dark and delightful at the same time, every bit as full of unexpected twists and turns as the stories themselves.
The talks aren’t just mere recaps of history, either. They’re full of Tim Dickinson’s own, often unapologetic and unorthodox, theories about the world — like the rather snarky short on drugs, in which he shares this uneuphemistically true sentiment about human nature:
The point is, we are fundamentally dissatisfied with our standard biological condition, and we’ll find one way or another of altering it.
From the rudiments of consciousness to the redemptions of conservation, with a side of existential reckoning.
By Maria Popova
“Obviously, if you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster,” Eleanor Clark wrote in the book that won her the National Book Award, published exactly 100 years after On the Origin of Species. For Darwin, these strange and quietly wondrous creatures furnished a different kind of enjoyment. He had come under their spell as a college student, accompanying two of his mentors as they waded into tidal pools to collect oyster specimens. By twenty-five, having fused the enchantment of oysters with his growing passion for the deep time of geology, he was exulting to a friend:
When puzzling about stratifications, etc., I feel inclined to cry “a fig for your big oysters, and your bigger megatheriums” [extinct prehistoric giant sloths].
As natural history, evolution, and anatomy began revealing the unsuspected complexity of this organism long perceived as incredibly simple — and, in consequence, treated more like a lifeless rock than like a creature — to “enjoy” an oyster in the culinary sense became a less carefree endeavor. The biologist and anatomist T.H. Huxley — Darwin’s greatest champion against the first tidal wave of dogmatic attacks on evolutionary theory — captured the dismantling of the convenient delusion:
I suppose that when the sapid and slippery morsel — which is gone like a flash of gustatory summer lightning — glides along the palate, few people imagine that they are swallowing a piece of machinery (and going machinery too) greatly more complicated than a watch.
From the dawning scientific knowledge of the oyster, a different kind of enjoyment arose — a kind consonant with Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower. Here was a creature at once rugged and tender, like life itself. Here was an emissary of a primordial Earth that carries the ancestral root of consciousness — that crucible of our capacity for enjoyment — in its tiny brain and nervous system fringed with a dark mantle of myriad nerve endings ceaselessly scanning the environment for threat and dispatching signals to the brain to slam the shell shut.
Out of such simplicity arose cognition, consciousness, the emotional machinery of love. All these billions of years of evolution, and still the same impulse animates our days and our songs — what to seal in, what to keep out, what to trust.
But the history of our species is the history of convenient delusions — those willful blindnesses that allow us to live with ourselves: By the end of the nineteenth century, oysters were being sold by the bushel at three for a penny and eaten by the dozen at fine restaurants and street foodcarts alike. An entire industry of shuckers employed a whole new labor force. There were oyster-eating championships and champions who could open and eat 100 oysters in three minutes. Travelers remarked that in New York, “oysters in every size and variety of flavor are as cheap as oranges are at Havana.”
The fact, which for many years we strove to hide even from ourselves, [is] that our indifference and lack of foresight, and our blind trust in our natural advantages, have brought this grand inheritance to the verge of ruin. Unfortunately this is now so clear that it can no longer be hidden from sight nor explained away, and every one knows that, proud as our citizens once were of our birthright in our oyster-beds, we will be unable to give to our children any remnant of our patrimony unless the whole oyster industry is reformed without delay. We have wasted our inheritance by improvidence and mismanagement and blind confidence.
More than a century later, with the Atlantic Coast oyster beds overfished to the brink of ruin and entire marine ecosystems devastated by pollution, Mark Kurlansky picks up the admonition and hones it on an edge of optimism in his fascinating book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (public library). Lamenting that “the only thing New Yorkers ignore more than nature is history” — a statement as true if we substituted “Americans” (as a national identity) or “modern humans” (as a civilizational identity) for “New Yorkers” — he writes:
The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself — its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and — as any New Yorker will tell you — its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary.
New York is a city that does not plan; it creates situations and then deals with them. Most of its history is one of greedily grabbing beautiful things, destroying them, being outraged about the conditions, tearing them down, then building something else even further from nature’s intention in their place.
Writing nearly a decade before the founding of the Billion Oyster Project — one of the most inspired and inspiring restoration, conservation, and ecological education endeavors of our time — Kurlansky regards the extraordinary resilience of the oyster against a century of overfishing and pollution to envision a future in which the restoration of the oyster is both a function of and a catalyst for the restoration of our humbler and more harmonious relationship with the natural world:
A fresh oyster from a clean sea fills the palate with the taste of all the excitement and beauty — the essence — of the ocean. If the water is not pure, that, too, can be tasted in the oyster. So if someday New Yorkers can once again wander into their estuary, pluck a bivalve, and taste the estuary of the Hudson in all the “freshness and sweetness” that was once there, the cataclysm humans have unleashed on New York will have been at last undone.
“That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.”
By Maria Popova
In 1742, more than a century before Darwin parted the veil of creationist mythology to reveal the reality of nature, an English theologian by the name of Charles Owen published An Essay Toward a Natural History of Serpents — a curious artifact from the museum of sensemaking, a fossil from the tidal zone between ignorance and knowledge where the primordial waters of superstition are lapping at the slowly emerging terra cognita of science.
Depicted as equally real alongside the common vipers familiar to every English child are the “poetick Griffins,” a “monstrous Serpent of four or five Yards long… very large and furious,” and the Ethiopian dragons, inherited from ancient Greek mythology and believed to kill elephants “by winding themselves about the Elephant’s Legs, and then thrusting their Heads up their Nostrils, fling them, and suck their Blood till they are dead.”
What emerges is a kind of natural history tinted by supernatural inheritance — while Owen was inspired by the symbology of reptiles in a great many of the world’s religious traditions, he brought the mindset of a naturalist or “natural philosopher” (the word scientist was yet to be coined) to the endeavor. While his prefatory note to the reader is trapped in the mind and language of its time, speaking of the “Almighty Creator,” the “Divine Wisdom in the works of Nature,” and the immutability of species in their “Eternal Design,” he also advocates passionately for acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and savoring the rewards of observation, especially of looking more closely at what is commonly overlooked. Although his motive is theological, its end and effect are almost scientific:
That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.
For the Illustration of this, we may take a short View of Creatures, in vulgar account too diminutive and despicable as a Species, to deserve a close Attention.
Even looking closely at the most “Noxious” of creatures, he suggests, brings us into more intimate contact with the consummate perfection of nature, for the more we consider them, the more we find not a particular reason why they should exist but no reason why they should not. A lovely notion to roll against the palate of the mind — a notion that sweetens a great many other contexts with its implications.
Nestled between the serpents are other poison-wielding animals — spiders, scorpions, frogs, wasps, hornets, the tarantula (“a kind of an overgrown Spider, about the Size of a common Acorn,” against the deadly bite of which “the most effectual and certain Remedy is Musick.”)
And then, in one of those glorious metaphysical meanderings lacing pre-scientific works of “natural philosophy,” Owen turns to the belief that music mitigates the effects of poisons, physical and moral, and adds a reverie to the canon of great writers extolling the power of music:
Musick appears to be one of the most antient of Arts, and of all other, vocal Musick must have been the first kind, and borrowed from the various natural Strains of Birds; as stringed Instruments were from Winds whistling in hollow Reeds, and pulsatile Instruments (as Drums and Cymbals) from the hollow Noise of concave Bodies. This is the Conjecture.
Musick has ever been in the highest Esteem in all Ages, and among all People. Nor could Authors express their Opinions of it strongly enough, but by inculcating, that it was in Heaven, and was one of the principal Entertainments of the Blessed.
The Effects ascribed to Musick by the Antients, almost amount to Miracles; by means thereof Diseases are said to have been cured, Unchastity corrected, Seditions quelled, Passions raised and calmed, and even Madness occasioned.
Musick has been used as a Sermon of Morality… The Pythagoreans made use of Musick to cultivate the Mind, and settle in it a passionate Love of Virtue… made use of it, not only against Diseases of the Mind, but those of the Body. It was the common Custom of the Pythagoreans to soften their Minds with Musick before they went to sleep; and also in the Morning, to excite themselves to the Business of the Day.
This Cure of Distempers by Musick sounds odd, but was a celebrated Medicine among the Antients. We have already considered, how those wounded by the Tarantula were healed by Musick; the Evidence of which is too strong to be overturned.
By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven. While she was dying, his unscrupulous father was having an open affair with the children’s nanny, whom he went on to marry. Three more children came. Then, just before William’s twentieth birthday, his toddler half-brother disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night. His body was found in the vault of the outhouse, savaged by multiple stab wounds. His nursemaid — with whom William’s father was already having an affair — was at first arrest, then released; suspicion was diverted toward William’s sixteen-year-old sister Constance. She was detained, but released on account of favorable public opinion. A Scotland Yard detective became obsessed with the case and prosecuted her for murder five years later, eventually extracting a confession and making national headlines with true crime sensationalism. Caroline was sentenced to twenty years in prison. But many — including Charles Dickens — mistrusted the confession, having suspected the volatile, perfidious father all along. He was never brought under investigation.
William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.
Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels.
At twenty-five, he won a grant from the Royal Society to lead a dredging survey off the coast of Portugal, trading in the lifeless stillness of museum specimens for the coruscating aliveness of the marine world. Upon his return, he could only continue working with living species. Over the next decade, he took a series of job as various aquariums, but his imagination continued reaching for the unglassed sea.
As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined.
Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors. (This, after all, was the gloaming hour of that golden age when scientists were also trained as artists, which enabled them to advance their own discoveries in sometimes epoch-making ways.)