Tuesday, November 06, 2007


The famous scientist and naturalist Loren Eiseley explained how flowers made human beings possible.

100 million years ago, wrote Eiseley, there was no such thing as a flower. The world was covered with monotonous green vegetation. The inhabitants of that long ago world were mostly cold-blooded creatures with low metabolic rates and small brains driven only by the instinct for the hunt. Their metabolisms made them slaves to weather and limited their lives--they mostly slept through winter, immobilized.

In this reptilian world, our ancestor was an unpromising little mammal who cowered at the losing end of the food chain. According to Eiseley, "man was still, like the genie in the bottle, encased in the body of a creature about the size of a rat."

Then during the cretaceous period, flowering plants (angiosperms with encased seeds) exploded into the world to rescue us. The age of flowers brought us seeds, fruits and nectars-- a totally new store of energy in concentrated form. This energy source enabled us to realize our potential by sustaining our higher metabolic rate. It brought about the rise of birds and mammals, with a more constant body warmth and efficiency and with newly agile brains. Warm blooded birds and mammals depended on high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms only provided by flowering plants. As a result of these "supreme achievements in the evolution of life," the human race was on its way:

Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable....man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.
For me, art plays a role similar to the role of Eiseley's flowers. It concentrates our everyday experience into denser packets of visual and emotional nutrition that we can carry with us in our minds and unpack as we go.

Art might take the form of that "special song" that sets your heart to racing, or a poem that is an intense nugget of content that slowly unfolds within you upon reflection. But whatever its form, the invention of art acts like the invention of flowering angiosperms; it allows humans to ingest experience in more intense and digestible forms. It helps our higher metabolism-- intellectual, emotional, visual, amatory-- process the fuel of everyday life.

And it propels us another inch down the road from that "nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark."


Anonymous said...

Wow. Romantic, thoughtful, philosophical, historical, anthropological... and brains too! What characteristics don't you have?

Nice missive! thanks, cp

David Apatoff said...

Ummm, anonymous, those are certainly all attributes of the great Loren Eiseley, and I would urge everyone to read his books. I, of course, am a little closer to the roach-gnawing nocturnal insectivore side of the spectrum. But thanks for your enthusiasm.

Anonymous said...

When you spoke of old-blooded creatures with low metabolic rates and small brains driven only by the instinct for the hunt, I thought you were talking about political pundits who appear on television.

Well, this flower theory is interesting. Makes one ponder those theories that say, what is good for us, we naturally evolve to find beautiful. Maybe the beauty we find in flowers is just some visual metaphor... a game our brains play... to get us to appreciate their inner value and acquire them. Maybe if dirt and sticks were as good for us, they would look like flowers to our minds. Or Oranges. Or Bananas.

Or maybe strong color just means life intrinsically. Maybe a shapely female body just means sensual pleasure and child bearing and welcoming-ness intrinsically. There is no difference in the pure and natural thing between its function and its look. It is what it does.

And Art in someway corresponds to the decorating of the thing to reflect its inner value... in an echo of nature's de facto packaging.

A girl adorns herself to express her true nature in the moment. A man puts on one battle suit or another. A book gets an appropriate cover. A car looks like it can bolt like lightning. An artist makes a recording of himself that may speak to his qualities in a way that he is otherwise unable. A projected packaging. A marker that says this is what I am inside.

Is this to sell him off the vine to the nearby monkeys?

Or does an artist surround himself with himself to sell himself to himself?

Some questions are as old as flowers.


David Apatoff said...

A very interesting theory, Kev, although there are some very attractive butterscotch sundaes and women out there that I am sure you would agree are no good for you at all.

Anonymous said...

Well now... who says women who are bad for you aren't good for you? :)

And of course you are right... one of the things that happens with commerce is the false front... the gilding of the turd... and thus we are warned, quite rightly, *not* to judge a book by its cover, even though it is our natural instinct to do so. Because we expect the beautiful to be useful. Like a fertile gal, or a ripe orange (not to be too Cro-Magnon about it).

Bubs McCall said...

I look forward to your posts every week David. The images you select are always excellent and often leave me wondering "Just where in the hell does he find all this amazing stuff?" and your writing is always very insightful, leaving me with plenty to ponder in the coming week.

Thanks Alot,

David Apatoff said...

Thanks very much, Bubs-- one of the best things about this blog is that it gives me an excuse to put aside real work and return to pictures I know and love.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for interesting article, i enjoyed it.

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