Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lydia V. Pyne & Stephen J. Pyne's "The Last Lost World"

Lydia V. Pyne is a lecturer at Drexel University. She has an MA and PhD in the history and philosophy of science, and an MA degree in anthropology. Stephen J. Pyne is a historian in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. He is the award-winning author of Voyager, Year of the Fires, and How the Canyon Became Grand.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene, and reported the following:
There are two Pleistocenes. The one most people recognize is the geologic epoch just ahead of today’s. It’s a world of ice and megafauna, moraine and fossils, extinctions and new species. The other Pleistocene is the one that’s in our heads. That Pleistocene is a world of data and ideas -- an evolution (if you will pardon the pun) of understanding that has its own extinctions and creations, of which the idea of a Pleistocene is one. The Last Lost World traces both of these Pleistocenes.

Reading some passages, a friend remarked, “It’s the Pleistocene for English majors.” We’ll accept that accolade, but argue to include philosophy and history majors as well -- along with anyone broadly interested in understanding better why the Pleistocene looks the way it does to us. The text forms a loose dialectic that lays out the received scientific knowledge of the epoch and its inhabitants, and then offers a running commentary that draws from the humanities to enrich those explanations. Trying to describe the outcome indirectly gets pretty abstract. You’ll know it when you see it.

Alas, the literal “Page 99” of The Last Lost World is an anomaly because we are not glossing others’ work but briefly presenting some of our own. Steve has spent a career studying fire. The Last Lost World offered an opportunity to project those insights into Homo erectus as the hominin Prometheus. A uniquely fire planet acquired a uniquely fire creature, one not only adapted to fire but capable of using fire to remake himself and then the world. From fire scavenging to cooking to turning the Earth into a crock pot -- page 99 announces the onset of that process, what might well be the original Faustian bargain. It just seemed too meta-literary to comment on our own comments in the book, so we didn’t. We’ll resist that temptation here as well and just quote a long paragraph from page 99:
Fire, though not alive, is a creation of the living world and displays many of its outward properties. Life supplies the oxygen it needs to breathe; life furnishes the combustibles that feed it. Like living creatures, it warms, it moves, it sounds. It is birthed – in many languages (as in English) “to kindle” applies equally to giving birth as to starting a fire. It must be tended. It must be bred and trained. When left, it is buried. Carrying fire, that is, involves not simply a chemical reaction but a social one. It demands a reorganization of tasks and duties. And not least, fire has to be housed. Paradoxically, a fire has a greater need for shelter than does its tenders. This – creating a domus – may well mark the onset of domestication. Particularly if fire was onerous to start, keeping it always alight required shielding it from the elements. The instinct for eternal flames is likely encoded deeply in hominin culture.
The fire saga ends, as the book does, with what many moderns now consider a coda to the Pleistocene, the period of a human-dominated planet known as the Anthropocene. That epoch began when Earth’s keystone species for a keystone process shifted from burning surface biomass to fossil fuels and ignited industrial afterburners to propel us every more quickly into an uncertain future.

That future begins on page 99.
Learn more about The Last Lost World at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue