The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, And The Invention Of The Pleistocene, by Lydia V. Pyne and Stephen J. Pyne
I’m not sure what to think about this book. The authors show an incurable love of irony and paradox, and express it in strange ways. While the authors seem to look at a great deal of the scientific world and attempts to harmonize science and art/humanities/religion with a strange sense of humor, the authors themselves engage in paradoxical reasoning. The authors seem to think, for example, that appealing to design make something an art rather than a science but also seek for legitimacy for the humanities in helping to provide narrative elements to science. They mourn the spread of scientism but paradoxically are a part of that at the same time by their continual failure to recognize the insufficiency of combinations of chance and necessity or the overwhelming need of naturalist philosophers to have a continuous nature that nowhere exists because of the paucity of fossils as well as intermediate forms . This book has a lot of spark to it, but it is a contradiction wrapped up in a paradox inside of an enigma.
In terms of its contents, this book seeks to discuss a variety of riddles relating to the penultimate (it depends on the measurement) period of geological history, the Pleistocene, whose ambiguous origins have depended on the contrary forces of ice and fire, both in its characteristic and repeated ages of long glacial periods with intermittent and brief interglacial periods and in the way that increasing human culture and capability meant that this period was the prelude to the contemporary handwringing over the power of human beings over creation. Throughout the book, the authors tell interesting stories about art, about scientific ideas and their short-lived hold in the face of contrary evidence, over the fossil record, over questions about scientific legitimacy, over climate change worries and questions about the soul and reason, about hoary concepts like the great chain of being and the continuity of creation. The first part of the book looks at the rift, ice, and story to point to the narrative aspects of the Pleistocene that have captured the public imagination. After this the authors look at the “great game” of species competing for ecological niches during the Pleistocene and how humanity tipped the scale in our own favor. The book the ends after about 250 pages on a melancholy note of concern about the fate of the world in the hands of humanity and the fate of humanity in the face of our own intellectual and moral divides.
At its heart, this book tries very hard to be all things to all people. It wants to be up-to-date on questions of the philosophy and history of science as well as the ever-changing theories about the origins of mankind and the way that having legitimacy as a field in the face of contemporary scientism is a difficult task. The book wants to give a place for narrative and urge the moral development of mankind and point out how scientists fall particularly short of objective when examining putative human history as well as the present and recent past. The existence of the Pleistocene, and even more the Holocene and Anthrocene, become problematic in the face of their short lengths relative to other geologic eras and their reliance on subjective human factors. Yet the authors are not thoroughgoing enough in their critique of science. This book reads like a not-very-cool kid trying to appeal to the cool kids while subtly criticizing them in the hope of sitting at the cool kids’ table. It is entertaining and endearing but hopelessly muddled in its approach and unaware of the larger moral stakes at risk in the debate over names and philosophies and education.
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