Mark Twain: Fossil Hunter and Science Writer
Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting June 6th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast—Mark Twain: scientist! We will talk with Dr. Michael Pratt, a Twain scholar from Elmira College in upstate New York. Elmira College is a major center of Twain scholarship. Twain spent a lot of time in Elmira and wrote drafts of some of his best-known works there. Pratt also teaches an intro to Paleobiology course at Elmira and has become a student of Twain's great interest in science and paleontology. Later on I'll share a short story that Twain published in—believe it or not—Scientific American! Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.
First up, Mark Twain. Before I play my conversation—with Dr. Pratt that is—it'll be helpful to hear this Mark Twain essay; I hope amusing as well. It was written in 1903. It's kind of a paleontological and anti-teleological rebuttal to Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace was the co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, but in his later years he became convinced that the entire universe had been created specifically as a venue for man. Twain—who often held humanity in relatively low esteem—felt compelled to respond to that assertion. So, here are some selections from the Mark Twain essay, "Was the World Made for Man?" from 1903.
Steve: It begins with a quote from the Literary Digest about Wallace's ideas:. “Alfred Russell Wallace's revival of the theory that this earth is at the center of the stellar universe and is the only habitable globe has aroused great interest in the world."
Steve: Twain now gives a long list of examples of how each organism in its time would have been utterly convinced that it was what everything had been created for, but they were all wrong—they were obviously all stepping stones on the way to man.
It was foreseen that man would have to have the oyster. Therefore the first preparation was made for the oyster. Very well, you cannot make an oyster out of whole cloth, you must make the oyster's ancestor first. This is not done in a day. You must make a vast variety of invertebrates, to start with—belemnites, trilobites, jebusites, amalekites, and that sort of fry—and put them to soak in a primary sea, and wait and see what will happen. Some will be a disappointment—the belemnites, the ammonites and such—they will be failures; they will die out and become extinct in the course of the 19 million years covered by the experiment. But all is not lost, for the amalekites will fetch the home-stake; they will develop gradually into encrinites, and stalactites, and blatherskites, and one thing and another as the mighty ages creep on and the Archaean and the Cambrian periods pile their lofty crags in the primordial seas, and at last the first grand stage in the preparation of the world for man stands completed, the oyster is done. An oyster has hardly any more reasoning power than a scientist has; and so it is reasonably certain that this one jumped to the conclusion that the 19 million years was a preparation for him; but that would be just like an oyster, which is the most conceited animal there is, except man. And anyway, this one could not know, at that early date, that he was only an incident in a scheme, and that there was some more to the scheme yet.
The oyster being achieved, the next thing to be arranged for in the preparation of the world for man, was fish—fish and coal to fry it with. So the old Silurian seas were opened up to breed the fish in, and at the same time the great work of building old red sandstone mountains eighty thousand feet high to cold-storage their fossils in was begun. The latter was quite indispensable, for there would be no end of failures again, no end of extinctions—millions of them—and it would be cheaper and less trouble to can them in the rocks than keep tally of them in a book. One does not build the coal beds and eighty thousand feet of perpendicular old red sandstone in a brief time—no, it took 20 million years. In the first place, a coal bed is a slow and troublesome and tiresome thing to construct. You have to grow prodigious forests of tree-ferns and reeds and calamites and such things in a marshy region; then you have, to sink them under out of sight and let them rot; then you have to turn the streams on them, so as to bury them under several feet of sediment, and the sediment must have time to harden and turn to rock; next you must grow another forest on top, then sink it and put on another layer of sediment and harden it; then more forest and more rock, layer upon layer, three miles deep—ah, indeed it is a sickening slow job to build a coal-measure and do it right!
So the millions of years drag on; and meantime the fish-culture is lazying along and frazzling out in a way to make a person tired. You have developed 10,000 kinds of fishes from the oyster; and come to look, you have raised nothing but fossils, nothing but extinctions. There is nothing left alive and progressive but a ganoid or two and perhaps half a dozen asteroids. Even the cat wouldn't eat such. Still, it is no great matter; there is plenty of time, yet, and they will develop into something tasty before man is ready for them. Even a ganoid can be depended on for that, when he is not going to be called on for 60 million years.
The Paleozoic time limit having now been reached, it was necessary to begin the next stage in the preparation of the world for man by opening up the Mesozoic age and instituting some reptiles. For man would need reptiles—not to eat, but to develop himself from. This being the most important detail of the scheme, a spacious liberality of time was set apart for it—30 million years. What wonders followed! From the remaining ganoids and asteroids and alkaloids were developed by slow and steady and pains-taking culture those stupendous saurians that used to prowl about the steamy world in those remote ages, with their snaky heads reared forty feet in the air and sixty feet of body and tail racing and thrashing after. All gone, now, alas—all extinct, except the little handful of Arkansawrians left stranded and lonely with us here upon this far-flung verge and fringe of time.
Yes, it took 30 million years and 20 million reptiles to get one that would stick long enough to develop into something else and let the scheme proceed to the next step.
Then the pterodactyl burst upon the world in all his impressive solemnity and grandeur, and all Nature recognized that the Cenozoic threshold was crossed and a new period open for business, a new stage begun in the preparation of the globe for man. It may be that the Pterodactyl thought the 30 million years had been intended as a preparation for himself—for there was nothing too foolish for a Pterodactyl to imagine—but he was in error: the preparation was for man. Without doubt the pterodactyl attracted great attention, for even the least observant could see that there was the making of a bird in him. And so it turned out. Also the makings of a mammal, in time. One thing we have to say to his credit—that in the matter of picturesqueness he was the triumph of his period; he wore wings and had teeth, and was a starchy and wonderful mixture altogether, a kind of long-distance premonitory symptom of Kipling's marine:
'E isn't one O'the reg'lar Line,
nor 'e isn't one of the crew,
'E's a kind of a giddy harumfrodite [hermaphrodite]–
soldier an' sailor too!
From this time onward for nearly another 30 million years the preparation moved briskly. From the Pterodactyl was developed the bird; from the bird the kangaroo; from the kangaroo the other marsupials; from these the mastodon, the megatherium, the giant sloth, the Irish elk, and all that crowd that you would make useful and instructive fossils out of—then came the first great ice sheet, and they all retreated before it and crossed over the bridge at Bering's strait and wandered around over Europe and Asia and died. All except a few, to carry on the preparation with. Six glacial periods with two million years between Periods chased these poor orphans up and down and about the Earth, from weather to weather—from tropic swelter at the poles to Arctic frost at the equator and back again and to and fro, they never knowing what kind of weather was going to turn up next. And if ever they settled down anywhere the whole continent suddenly sank under them without the least notice, and they had to trade places with the fishes and scramble off to where the seas had been, and scarcely a dry rag on them. And when there was nothing else doing a volcano would let go and fire them out from wherever they had located. They led this unsettled and irritating life for 25 million years, half the time afloat, half the time aground, and always wondering what it was all for, they never suspecting, of course, that it was a preparation for man and had to be done just so or it wouldn't be any proper and harmonious place for him when he arrived.
And at last came the monkey, and anybody could see that man wasn't far off now. And in truth that was so. The monkey went on developing for close upon five million years, and then turned into a man—to all appearances.
Such is the history of it. Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I don’t know. If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world's age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man's share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I don't know.”
So now that you’ve heard a lot of Twain's 1903 rebuttal to Wallace, "Was the World Made for Man?" Here's Michael Pratt, he is a Twain scholar at Elmira College. He was in New York City last week to give a talk about Twain to a group called "the New York City atheists". If you sneeze there, you are on your own. Anyway, I went to his talk and we met the next morning for a conversation in his hotel's restaurant.
Steve: Dr. Pratt, great to see you this morning.
Pratt: Thank you Steve. It's wonderful to see you again.
Steve: Let's talk about Mark Twain the scientist. He had a strong interest in science.
Pratt: That’s certainly
is the case. For example, his library—which has been carefully catalogued—contained many, many books on science and natural history; and he read these books—many of them, most of them in fact—and annotated them with his own comments in the margins.
Steve: And as a riverboat pilot, he was exposed to state-of-the-art technology and had to know some science.
Pratt: Exactly! As a river boat pilot, he had to carefully study the river, remember where the various landmarks and dangers were based on what he saw and the currents and the shores and the shoreline, remember where they were and carefully navigate the river. So he was a trained observer, and he realized the importance of observation and the follow up interpretation, which is essentially what scientists do—observe and interpret.
Steve: Now he spent a lot of time at this place called Quarry Farm—where is Quarry Farm and what was he doing there?
Pratt: Yes, Quarry Farm is located near Elmira, New York. It was owned by his sister-in-law, Susan Crane, who invited Mark—Sam Clemens and Sam's wife, Livy, to spend summers there; and it's during those summers that Twain wrote at least part of many of his best known and most loved books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Steve: And the last of those is—you could almost categorize that as a science fiction book, Connecticut Yankee.
Pratt: Absolutely. It's a time-travel book where the protagonist, the Connecticut Yankee, travels back to King Arthur's time and introduces modern—then modern—technology such as the bicycle, gun powder, weapons—pistols and guns—and what disastrous consequences in the end.
Steve: Right! So what were the paleontological activities he was engaging in there while he was at Quarry Farm?
Pratt: The first summer that he spent at Quarry Farm in 1871, he was struggling with his current manuscript for Roughing It,. A series of family tragedies and crises the winter before took the wind out of his sails, so he invited his friend, Joe Goodman, to spend the summer with him; and the two of them happened upon the quarry and found numerous fossils in the rocks there and spent almost a month, perhaps even more, looking for fossils and organizing a small collection that they spread out on abandoned pine boards and pontificated and speculated about what those fossils meant—why they were there up on top of the hill.
Steve: And he continued to be a fossil hunter throughout the rest of his life?
Pratt: I think that the fossil hunting was probably limited to that one summer, though I suspect that when his young daughters would drag a bag of fossils to him, he would tell stories. But I don't have any further documented evidence that he collected fossils after that one summer, though his interest in paleontology lasted well into his later life. For example, in the essay—[the] 1903 essay—"Was the World Made for Man?", he uses fossils in that essay extensively.
Steve: That's a really interesting essay you talked about at your presentation last night. This essay is a rebuttal in a way to Alfred Russell Wallace, who is a legendary figure in science— co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection—but in his later years, he went off the rails a little bit.
Pratt: Yes, Alfred Russel Wallace, later in his life, began to see the natural selection as a supernaturally-driven process with a plan or goal in mind—namely to create a universe, world, and all the life upon the world as a place for humans—mankind—to live. Twain saw this claim as being an overstatement of the case—that humans should not be seen as the center of the universe—and his essay was a rebuttal of that, of Wallace's contention and uses fossils, refers to fossils, to help satirically rebut and debunk the notion that the universe is human centered.
Steve: You know he has got some real fossils and then he has some fossils that the names of which he has made up to refer to some things that are not really in the paleontological record.
Pratt: Exactly! Twain is using parody throughout the essay to create the illusion—the sense of a scientific basis—for the notion that the universe is human centered and the world was made for human kind or mankind. But he plays with the words—scientific as well as fictitious fossils—as part of this parody, this part of the satire that he relies on to poke fun at Wallace's contention and that of many other scientists at the time that Twain wrote the essay.
Steve: There is a part of the essay [that] is clearly a jab at the scientific community and their use of jargon.
Pratt: Yes, I think Twain was not just focusing his satire at Alfred Russell Wallace and those that saw the universe as a[n] Earth-centered creation, but also science generally that tends to over rely on jargon, scientific terminology, perhaps to beguile the listener who is not sophisticated in science. And I think he is warning the reader to be wary of scientific terminology and to be inquisitive and ask questions and not take it at face value.
Steve: Any argument from authority would be suspect for Twain, regardless of which side it came from?
Pratt: Yes—that the important issue is to think for one’s self and not swallow hook, line and sinker what word a scientist or some other so-called expert might be telling you but—too important—to be inquisitive, check it out, think about what you are being told in a critical way.
Steve: The essay was part of this book, Letters from the Earth—or is the book separate?
Pratt: The book is an edited compilation of many of Twain's later writings—the essay was just one. The book, Letters from the Earth, was compiled by a person by the name of DeVoto; [it was] in 1962, I believe, that he compiled and published these later writings of Mark Twain.
Steve: What was the book that his daughter kept under wraps then for many years?
Pratt: It was these writings that were not really a book, but were independently authored essays and critiques and satires about religion [and] man’s place in the world. But his daughter Clara thought [they] should not be published—at least within her lifetime and certainly not the lifetime of her father.
Steve: This is pretty interesting considering
the[that] a lot of the work he did publish was pretty clearly antagonistic toward religion and authority and convention; and this stuff was so far beyond that that she was uncomfortable with it.
Pratt: That's my understanding, yes—that especially in the later years of Twain’s life—the last 15 years or so—that his writing turned away from a traditional story telling and became more of a critical commentary on humankind and human behavior. "The War Prayer", for example, was a stinging rebuke of patriotic warfare in which [Twain argues] we need to think about, or should think about, the consequences of raging a war against another country and other people that—there are consequences that we easily can overlook. And Twain reminded [us] that these are human beings, that we are waging war against them—there are consequences.
Steve: That was the Spanish-American War.
Pratt: Yes, that war period was [a] direct outcome of the American involvement in the Spanish-American War, particularly in the Philippines.
Steve: So what's next for you in terms of your Twain scholarship?
Pratt: I have two areas of interest. One is to look at Twain as a naturalist within some of his travel books, particularly Roughing It, where he describes the natural world that he sees in all its detail and magnificent vistas—the mountains of the West, the wide rivers, the climate. He is—again his scientific nature is breaking through as an observer and providing commentary on what he sees or what it means. My other area of interest is then to follow further his interest in paleontology—to look for connections between what he thought and wrote about and Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution looking for connections. Because he—as an American—was exposed to Charles Darwin’s writings—in fact The Origin of Species was one of the books in Mark Twain's library, and he had read much of it—and I was looking for ways to find out what Twain in fact did think about Darwin and evolution and natural selection—what were his views about those ideas?
Steve: And there is some evidence that Darwin was a Twain reader, reciprocally.
Pratt: That's what I have heard. I need to confirm it, but it's apparently the case that Charles Darwin had read Huckleberry Finn—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Steve: Fabulously interesting stuff. Thanks very much, Dr. Pratt.
Pratt: Oh, you are welcome Steve; glad to participate.
Steve: By the way, the little building at Quarry Farm where Mark Twain wrote and smoked cigars in peace now resides and can be visited on the campus of Elmira College, which is also home to the center for Mark Twain studies. For more info just go to www.elmira.edu. And a few miles up the road from Elmira is Ithaca, where I'll be signing books this coming Saturday June 9th at the Cornell store. I was going to sign just any book but they insisted that I sign only my book called Antigravity; it's a collection of my columns from Scientific American magazine. So if you're in the neighborhood, drop by the Cornell Bookstore and say hello between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Saturday. For more information go to www.store.cornell.edu and hit the link for news and events . And by the way an exhibit at Cornell's Paleontological Research Institution called "Mark Twain and Quarry Farm: The Man, he Place, the Fossils", curated by Elmira college students, will be on display at the Museum of the Earth on the Cornell campus through August 31st, 2007.
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Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: A new class of explosives is so touchy it makes famously unstable nitroglycerin look rock solid by comparison.
Story number 2: India now has more help center workers answering calls from U.S. consumers than the U.S. itself does to handle domestic consumer help requests.
Story number 3: Computer scientists have proven that any Rubik's Cube configuration can be solved in only 26 moves.
And Story number 4: Some army ants returning from a raid will plug a hole in the road with their own bodies for the rest of the troops to walk on to continue to move quickly.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. These new explosives were so sensitive that researchers could only do a few tests because the samples kept blowing up. That's according to research published in the May 30th issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The compounds are variants of common explosives in the pentaerythritol family, in which silicon replaces a carbon. One sample exploded when touched with a plastic spatula, another blew up just sitting under a microscope. As the great chemist, Pierre Louis Dulong, once said, "How many fingers am I holding up? Ah!” That's one for the chemists out there.
Story number 3 is true. The previous record proof for the minimum number of moves to solve any Rubik's Cube configuration was 27, but computer scientists at Northeast[ern] University us
ing[ed] [a] new technique in mathematical group theory, seven terabytes of distributed RAM, and a zippy computer to show that 26 moves was all you needed to solve any of the Rubik's cube’s 43 quintillion different states.
And story number 4 is true. Some army ants plug up holes in the road with their own bodies to make bridges for the rest of the troops to walk over. For more check out the May 31st edition of the daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 2—about more help center call responders working in India than in the U.S.—is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because the study out of Cornell found that there are still 10 times as many help desk operators in the U.S. than in India—four million to 400,000. Most call centers all over the world are less than 10 years old.
Steve: One more Mark Twain item—a little while back I was bumming around on Project Gutenberg on the Web. That's a project to put everything that's out there that has expired from copyright up on the Web, free—for nothing. So Project Gutenberg had old Scientific Americans that were part of their project, and I happened to be looking through this issue of Scientific American dated January 1st 1870, and … lo and behold! Mark Twain published in Scientific American back then. It was a very different publication from the one you are familiar with today. First of all it was weekly—and let me read you here the Scientific American's own description of itself:
Scientific American, volume 22, number 1, January 1, 1870; "Journal of Practical Information, Art, Science, Mechanics, Chemistry and Manufactures."
So here we have Mark Twain's contribution to Scientific American. It's basically a how-to guide for winterizing your 1870 home— "Putting up Stoves," by Mark Twain, Scientific American, January 1st, 1870.
"We do not remember the exact date of the invention of stoves, but it was some years ago. Since then mankind has been tormented once a year by the difficulties that we set the task of putting them up and getting the pipes fixed. With all our Yankee ingenuity, no American has ever invented any method by which the labor of putting up stoves can be lessened. The job is as severe and vexatious as humanity can possibly endure and gets more so every year. Men always put their stoves up on a rainy day, why we know not, but we never heard of any exception to this rule. The first step to be taken is to put on a very old and ragged coat under the impression that when he gets his mouthful of plaster, it will keep the shirt bosom clean. Next the operator gets his hand inside the place where the pipe ought to go and blacks his fingers, and then he carefully makes a black mark down the side of his nose. It is impossible to make any headway in doing this work until this mark is made down the side of the nose. Having got his face properly marked, the victim is ready to begin the ceremony. The head of the family—who is the big goose of the sacrifice—grasps one side of the bottom of the stove and his wife and the hired girl take hold of the other side. In this way, the load is started from the woodshed toward the parlor. Going through the door, the head of the family will carefully swing his side of the stove around and jam his thumbnail against the door post. This part of the ceremony is never omitted. Having got the family comfort in place, the next thing is to find the legs. Two of these are left inside the stoves since the spring before; the other two must be hunted after for 25 minutes; they are usually found under the coal. Then the head of the family holds up one side of the stove while his wife puts two of the legs in place, and next he holds up the other while the other two are fixed and one of the first two falls out. By the time the stove is on its legs, he gets reckless and takes off his old coat regardless of his linen. Then he goes for the pipe and gets two cinders in his eye. It don’t make any difference how well the pipe was put up last year, it’ll always be found a little too short or a little too long. The head of the family jams his hat over his eyes and—taking a pipe under each arm—goes to the tin shop to have it fixed. When he gets back, he steps upon one of the best parlor chairs to see if the pipe fits, and his wife makes him get down for fear he will scratch the varnish off from the chairs with the nails in his boot heel. In getting down, he will surely step on the cat and may thank his stars that it is not the baby. Then he gets an old chair and climbs up to the chimney again to find that in cutting the pipe off, the end has been left too big for the hole in the chimney. So he goes to the woodshed and splits one side of the end of the pipe with an old axe and squeezes in his hands to make it smaller. Finally, he gets the pipe in shape and finds the stove does not stand true. Then himself and wife and the hired girl move the stove to the left and the legs fall out again. Next it is to move to the right, more difficult[l]y now with the legs move[d] to the front a little, elbow not even with the hole in the chimney; and the head of the family goes again to the woodshed after some little blocks. While putting the blocks under the legs, the pipe comes out of the chimney. That remedied, the elbow keeps tipping over, to the great alarm of the wife. Head of the family gets the dinner table out, puts the old chair on it, gets his wife to hold the chair and balances himself on it to drive some nails into the ceiling, drops the hammer on wife’s head. At last he gets the nails driven, takes a wire swing to hold the pipe, hammers a little here, pulls a little there, takes a long breath and announces the ceremony concluded. Job never put up any stoves—it would have ruined his reputation if he had. The above program with unimportant variations will be carried out in many respectable families during the next six weeks."
Steve: Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com, check out news articles at our Web site, www.SciAm.com; the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. See you Saturday at the Cornell store between 11 and 1, andThanks for clicking on us.