Reflecting on the titles of Charles Darwin’s most famous books, Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man, the narrator in The Door-Man is drawn into a reverie about their inferences for the Tree of Life.
He imagines the first book as celebrating the ascendance of mankind while the latter rues its slow decline.
Of course, Charles Darwin meant nothing of the kind in either case but, if you don’t know Darwin…well, with titles like these, the thought is reasonable (See Ruminations…16 for more about book titles).
This brings me to genealogies.*
Clearly, mankind has come a long way, and we go back an equal distance. This is what genealogy charts aim for, but like Zeno’s Arrow never hit their mark.
It’s not only the elusive nature of Deep Time for our limited cognitive quiver that is at work here, there is also what I think of as the Adam and Eve Problem.
Even if you’re an addled Creationist, the thought must have crossed your mind about the first parents…after all, Eve was cloned from Adam’s rib – they share DNA, virtually all of it. In fact, I bet if you googled it, you’d find a website with a URL: Incestrydotcom (…actually, I just did and suggest you don’t try it, it’s creepy).
In any event, Creationist are spared since they don’t believe in DNA, but for the rest of us it’s probably best to trim off the upper branches of the Tree of Life (see Ruminations… 35 for more on Ancestry.com).
In the words of The Door-Man’s bemused narrator:
I could provide a family tree, one of those genealogical charts with floating names and dates, tied together in a spreading triangle of right-angled lines. The dates – birth, marriage, death – appearing to pin each name, each person, to their fixed place in Family Time, and yet, which have an uncanny way of floating free from it altogether. His brother, your fifth cousin-twice removed, her great half-nephew, my grandfather…? Who ever considers or cares that they are one and the same person – the dead, drifting as they do through the different lineages that extend endlessly into the invisible distance of The Family of Man. The dead are always on the move. To another chart, to a different place on another tree, to another family with a different story to tell, or to believe. And the stories are always incomplete, the dead borrowed to fit them as best they can.
Yet, on any given chart, the descent from a selected ancestor downward to the slow horizontal spread of the living at the bottom warns us of what we all share – that we all have been related since the beginning of Time…and our earthly communion is brief. It is as if these family trees mimic the sedimentary layers of death settling on the ocean floor of a primordial sea. The first ancestors, single celled bacteria – cyanoplankton and coralline algae – with its budding life force spent, sinking beneath the surface of the warm Proterozoic water to join others, and others again, on the way down to the vast demersal horizon of dead sponges, invertebrate brachiopods, echinoderms, and mollusk, layers upon layer of calcium carbonate from crushed shells and bacterial silica pressed hard into a soon-to-rise sea bottom so that the rest of us, their descendants, would have a foothold on a dry earth.
But that is just the oldest story. As I say, there are always other stories, the more urgent ones that follow whenever men and women couple up without knowing, without looking back at where they came from, or just without giving a damn.
*Note: The writer/critic/blogger Maud Newton has a lauded book forthcoming next March entitled Ancestor Trouble. It’s non-fiction, but I’m looking forward to seeing what is hanging off her family branches.