Resume Reading — The Death and Life of the Frontier

Close

The Death and Life of the Frontier

A voyage to the limits of the knowable.

Where does the world begin and where does it end? In many creation stories the Earth has well-defined edges. In early Mesopotamian…By Caspar Henderson

Where does the world begin and where does it end? In many creation stories the Earth has well-defined edges. In early Mesopotamian mythology it is a flat disk floating in the ocean and surrounded by a circular sky. The Hopi people of northeastern Arizona envision it as a series of layered worlds, of which humans have emerged into the fourth tier, escaping from the turmoil below through a hollow reed in the Grand Canyon. The ancient Greeks were probably the first to light on the idea of the Earth as science understands it today: as a sphere, and therefore without an end point on its surface.

Through time, science and exploration have changed where frontiers lie and how those frontiers are imagined. Such inquiries have shown them to be tenuous and unstable. Frontiers share the qualities of both a boundary and a threshold: they at once define, delineate, and exclude, but also act as permeable borders through which one may pass into a strange country and be transformed by the experience, or through which the unknown passes into the realm of the familiar.

The Greeks obtained much of their evidence for the theory of a spherical earth from observing the heavens. The Earth, noted Aristotle, casts a circular shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse, and constellations on the southern horizon rise in the sky as you travel south. But at least one line of reasoning followed from a hard slog on the ground, even if its logical foundations were shakier. Elephants were a prized weapon of war in Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire. In Egypt, his successors went to enormous pains to import them from parts of Africa, far to the south and west. If there were elephants to the east and elephants to the south and west, and the north was icebound, the Greeks reasoned, didn’t that show that the Earth was elephants all the way round?

Mappae mundi offered instruction and wonder to their viewers. They showed possibilities and alternatives beyond distant frontiers.

Seeing the Earth as round rather than as flat, or in some other form, affected the Greeks’ perception of frontiers. At that expansive phase of their history, distant lands might be unknown but they were not necessarily beyond reach. There were no restrictions on how far men might travel, only the limitations that they imposed on their own endeavors—a notion that has persisted in the West for most of the last 500 years. Today, with the Earth mapped, imaged and charted down to the last square foot, the frontier is supposedly in outer space: Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond. But humans’ power to transform themselves and their environment suggests that the most important contemporary frontiers lie in the realm of inner space, in the possibilities for conceptual and moral transformation. It is at these boundaries that our future will be decided.

How the Mormons Conquered America

At the end of the smash Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, the protagonist, Elder Price, a zealous young Mormon missionary in Uganda, triumphantly sings, “We are still Latter day Saints, all of us / Even if we change some...READ MORE


Europeans redrew the frontiers of their world after the collapse of Greek and Roman civilization. This is not a figure of speech. They produced beautiful world maps, or mappae mundi, to represent a mythic and religious order circumscribed by God rather than by proto-scientific enquiry. The new vision lasted more than 1,000 years and can be seen today in a fine example from about 1300 A.D., kept at Hereford cathedral in England. The world, round but flat, is centered on the holy city of Jerusalem. Europe and the Mediterranean are distorted but just about recognizable to the modern eye. (East is at the top of the map.) In most of the rest of the map, especially the peripheries beyond land and sea where few Europeans had ventured, wonders dwell—strange beasts, hybrids, and men.

Intricate lettering on the map reveals the Lynx, a wolf-like creature that sees through walls and produces a valuable carbuncle in its secret parts. The Manticor, in India, has a lion’s body, a scorpion’s tail, a triple row of teeth in a man’s face, and the voice of a Siren. Semi-humans such as the Phanesii, bat-like people with enormous drooping ears, live in Asia, as do the Spopodes, who have horses’ feet. The king of the Agriophani Ethiopes has one eye in his forehead, and his people feed on the flesh of panthers and lions. The Gangines of India live exclusively on the scent of forest apples and die instantly if they perceive any other smell. The Arimaspians fight with griffins for diamonds. Fully human but utterly foreign, and terrifying, are the Scythians: they love war, drink the blood of their enemies from the gushing wounds they inflict, and make cups from the skulls of the vanquished. The Hyperboreans, by contrast, are the happiest race of men. They live without quarreling and without sickness for as long as they like. Only when they are tired of living do they throw themselves from a prominent rock into the sea.

Like the books of beasts, called bestiaries, that were created in the same period, mappae mundi offered instruction and wonder to their viewers. They showed possibilities and alternatives beyond distant frontiers, but also warned of the terrors awaiting those who were overly curious. Wonder was permissible so long as one did not stray too far from revealed and unchanging doctrine. Curiosity had been condemned by St Augustine as concupiscentia oculorum—lust of the eyes.

The inner lives of our fellow creatures offer a frontier of wonder and beauty to explore as wide and deep as the sea, and they change humanity’s sense of its own borders.

In the 15th century, however, a revolution in thinking and behavior began to take root. In 1417 the scholar Poggio Bracciolini discovered a manuscript of De Rerum Natura by the Roman poet Lucretius, which propagated the explosive idea that everything is made of atoms (the one scientific idea, Richard Feynman later said, he would pick to survive the collapse of civilization). The revival of ancient knowledge, combined with new reports from adventurous travelers, contributed to a growing sense of man’s importance and potential.

The Erdapfel, or Earth apple, embodies this change. It is a terrestrial globe made in Nuremberg in 1492. In a particularly dramatic break with the medieval European past, and showing knowledge that the ancients never possessed, the Erdapfel features the entire African coast and the route around the Cape to the other side of the world, where the Portuguese monarchy, for whom the globe was made, hoped to find fabulous wealth. Gone are the fanciful creatures and races of men. The emphasis is on the practical—on showing navigable routes to the far East that would bypass the Islamic world.

Unless they fail to notice altogether—something that happens surprisingly often—most people who look at the Erdapfel today are struck by one thing: there is no North or South America. Sail west from Lisbon and your landfall is in Japan. But this and other inaccuracies, such as the distorted shape of the African continent, pale beside the confidence that the Erdapfel proclaims in the human capacity to reach any part of the world, no matter how remote, and to find prizes there for the taking.

There is a risk of over-romanticizing the age of discovery and the scientific revolution that followed. The empires of early modern Europe could be as cruel as any in history, and many leading figures in the emerging field of natural philosophy had little time for the sense of wonder that is palpable in medieval mappae mundi. Francis Bacon, who is widely regarded as the father of the scientific method, was dismissive of wonder, calling it “broken knowledge.” His aim was the betterment of the condition of humanity, or—not quite the same thing—European adventurers. Results, not frills.

But the cumulative experience of the scientific age suggests that greater knowledge does not abolish wonder. Discoveries are often more amazing than the mysteries they resolve. They uncover depths that are more beautiful and far stranger than anything we had previously imagined, and motivate ever greater endeavors. They have expanded our sense of the possible, with breakthroughs that redraw not only the location of the frontier but also its significance.


The geologists who disinterred “deep time” at the turn of the 19th century illustrate the power of scientific discovery to precipitate profound conceptual shifts. Their analysis of rocks and fossils shone a light backwards into the dark, and revealed prehistory’s almost unimaginably vast contours with precision. For those accustomed to thinking of the world as only a few thousand years old, the discovery of “deep time” was shocking, like a swoop into stereoscopic vision for someone who has previously only seen in two dimensions and suddenly finds himself on a high promontory above a chasm. “The mind [grew] giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time,” wrote John Playfair, a friend of the geological pioneer James Hutton, in 1788. The past, it became clear, was another country, or rather several. There had been periods lasting millions of years filled with monstrous creatures such as mososaurs (huge and ferocious marine reptiles) and pterosaurs (enormous flying lizards). The anatomist George Cuvier, who named both creatures, wrote in 1812 that he and his successors would “burst the limits of time” by making prehistory legible, just as astronomers had “burst the limits of space” by making the solar system knowable to human beings who were confined to one small planet.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, first described in detail in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, followed elegantly from the discovery of deep time. The English naturalist was not the first to argue that species evolved and changed, but every previous account had failed to provide a sufficiently detailed and robust explanation of how this happened, and orthodoxy remained on the side of the immutability of forms. Prehistoric monsters were interpreted as special creations of a different age. Darwin’s insight was that small gradations over what were inconceivably long periods of time, at least to humans, could lead cumulatively to profound transformations that turned monsters into familiar animals.

Darwin’s vision was of life as both astonishingly fecund and productive, and as a field of relentless war and destruction. But it was not, in the end, bleak. The Origin concludes, famously, with a declaration that there is grandeur in the view of life in which “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Darwin’s theory indicated that, contrary to Christian teaching and 300 years of scientific orthodoxy, humanity was animal in origin and wholly continuous with (though not the same as) the rest of nature. It broke down boundary conditions accepted by most philosophers and scientists since Descartes. Not all of Darwin’s contemporaries were receptive to this message, however. On seeing an orangutan named Jenny at the London Zoo in 1842, Queen Victoria declared it “frightful and painfully and disagreeably human.” Cousin to half the crowned heads of Europe though she may have been, here was one frontier the young Queen was not willing to breach on grounds of consanguinity.


A few years before Jenny received Victoria, Darwin had observed the more hirsute of the two in her cage, writing:

Let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication, hear its expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken to; as if it understands every word said; see its affection to those it knew; see its passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair; ... and then let him boast of his proud pre-eminence.

But the gulf between accepting humanity’s biological proximity to other creatures, and appreciating their unique social, moral, and cognitive worlds, was not an easy one for Darwin’s successors to bridge. When the zoologist Donald Griffin wrote in 1976 that biologists should investigate “the possibility that mental experiences occur in animals and have important impacts on their behaviors,” it was still a radical suggestion. In the decades since, numerous studies have proven him right.

Many of the characteristics thought to be important for higher consciousness, such as brain size and a sense of self, turn out not to be unique to humans. Last year, leading neuroscientists signed what they called “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all [sic] mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess [them].” Working memory and episodic memory are widespread among animals, as are social inclinations born of environmental pressures that favor their evolution. The distinction between cognition and emotion is also increasingly seen as a false one. Crows and other members of the corvid family have self-awareness and a theory of mind. Octopuses can solve some problems as well as 3-year-old children, not to mention perform feats of dexterity far beyond the scope of humans. Chimpanzees grieve for non- related individuals, and records of their reactions to stimuli such as a majestic waterfall and the birth of a baby chimp suggest that they may be capable of a sense of wonder.

The inner lives of our fellow creatures offer a frontier of wonder and beauty to explore as wide and deep as the sea, and they change humanity’s sense of its own borders. The animal kingdom is a symphony of mental activity and other intelligent processes of which we apprehend only a small part. Take bird song: what sounds to our ears like simple single notes resolve at slow speed and lower pitch into dense, subtle tone-poems.


Dental hygiene was not well advanced in 17th-century Holland. One trembles to think of the sight and smell that greeted Antonie van Leeuwenhoek when, in 1683, the cloth merchant and gentleman microscopist gazed into the mouths of two old men who had never cleaned their teeth in their lives. But his curiosity yielded astonishing results. Looking at samples taken from the men’s mouths under his microscope, he found “an unbelievably great company of living animalcules, a-swimming more nimbly than any I had ever seen up to this time ... [A]ll the water… seemed to be alive.”

Van Leeuwenhoek was, of course, describing bacteria. It was the first glimpse of a domain whose nature and importance scientists are, even now, only beginning to appreciate. For the first 300 years after their discovery, bacteria and other microorganisms were studied with a view to understanding their role as agents of disease and decay. Only in recent decades has a fuller, more nuanced picture emerged—one that challenges our sense of the frontiers between beings, and within the category of life itself.

The microbiologist Lynn Margulis was rejected by about 15 leading journals before her pathbreaking paper on symbiosis was published in 1967. She argued that the complex cells of protists, plants, and animals resulted from earlier and simpler organisms merging and cooperating. The ancestors of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the organelles in plants and animal cells that provide them energy, were once free-living bacteria that larger organisms then swallowed. But instead of becoming lunch, the bacteria took up residence, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Unlike Jonah, however, they paid for their keep by performing a new role as ‘batteries.’

Life on these stars would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.

Today the evidence for Margulis’s theory of endosymbiosis, as it has become known, is overwhelming. The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas captured the essential point in an essay published in the 1970s, proposing “some biomythology.” A bestiary for modern times, he argued, should be a micro-bestiary, since microbes teach us an essential lesson: “There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible.”

The implications of this insight are deeply personal. In the last decade, science has attempted to reckon with the power of the bacteria that live on us and, mostly, in us, in a miniature ecosystem known as the microbiome. It has been shown to play a role in digestion and immune response, and there is mounting evidence that the composition of the microbiome affects cognition and the risk of contracting illnesses like heart disease. The abundance of its constituents is astonishing: there may be around 500 trillion bacteria with us at any one time, outnumbering our own cells by 10 to 1. During a lifetime we excrete five elephants’ weight of them.

Micro-organisms are, quite literally, part of our make-up. The human body is littered with scars from the viral attacks on cellular life that have been going on since at or near its beginning. Some 8 percent of our DNA is made up of remains of endogenous retroviruses that invaded us in the past. The ascendancy of the microbial domain and its coevolution with the human body raises the question of where the human ends and the microbe begins. A viral infection is thought likely to have given rise to the placenta in the ancestor of all mammals. Without it, we might still be laying eggs.


The abyssal plain beneath much of the world’s ocean is, at first sight, a dark, silty no-place. But it harbors 2.9×1029 single-celled organisms—10 million trillion for every human on the planet. Even the deepest trenches, 11,000 meters below the surface, teem with microbial life. At volcanic “black smokers” on the sea bed, in almost total darkness and scorching temperatures, chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea use hydrogen from the vents to support assemblages no fabulist could have dreamed of: gutless worms taller than men, crabs with hairy claws, and bleached octopuses that bear a striking resemblance to Marge Simpson.

Microbes have been found in stupendous abundance in the most unlikely of places. Tourists may be familiar with some of the spectacles that they create on land, such as the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, a round lake whose rainbow rim has been painted by heat-loving bacteria. Yet fewer know of the strange phenomena in the Antarctic interior, far inland from a frontier that is almost impenetrable to most multi-cellular life forms. At the Blood Falls in east Antarctica, sulfur-and iron-eating microbes buried in the oxygen-parched ice give the surface water a bright sanguine hue. Beneath the icy crust of Lake Untersee, to the north and west, cyanobacteria find enough light to photosynthesize and build pinnacles and cones that may resemble some of the earliest forms of life on Earth. Moving to Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands, below the tip of South America, bacteria living 15 meters beneath the permafrost have been found to be capable of surviving gamma-ray radiation exposures 5,000 times greater than any other known organism.

Such discoveries have recast our sense of where the frontiers congenial to life might lie—including those beyond Earth. The idea that we might find living things in space long predates the discovery of a microorganism such as Halorubrum lacusprofundi, whose adaptations to the cold are, in the words of one researcher, likely to allow it “to survive not only in Antarctica, but elsewhere in the universe.” In the preface to the work that inspired van Leeuwenhoek, the Micrographia of 1665, Robert Hooke wrote “there may be yet invented several other helps for the eye, as much exceeding those already found, as those do the bare eye, such as by which we may perhaps be able to discover living Creatures in the Moon, or other Planets.”

Technology may finally be catching up with Hooke’s prediction. Recent observations indicate that there may be as many as 17 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy which are orbited by Earth-sized planets at life-friendly temperatures. Within 10 years, the James Webb Space Telescope may be able to tell us if the atmospheres of those nearby exhibit the chemical signatures of a biosphere.

If extraterrestrial life does exist, how “weird” might it be? The adjective can be used in a semi-precise way to mean any life form with which, unlike everything we know of on Earth, we do not share a common ancestor. On the principle that life can evolve or endure where there is a flow of energy to be harvested, one of the most statistically likely places is in the vicinity of white dwarf stars—common enough objects in the universe—where collisions with dark matter will continue to provide a steady trickle of energy until the universe is 1025 years old, or about 10,000 trillion times long as it took life to appear on Earth. Life on these stars, if it were to exist, would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.

For the moment, we have a sample size of precisely one from which to draw conclusions. Seeking to anticipate just how different life might look, however, requires us to look again at what we think we know—and, often, realize just how little we understand so far. There is no such place as home, and we live there.


Here and now on Earth, life itself may be facing a frontier unlike any other it has known before. The manipulation of organisms to forge “creatures born from an idea, not an ancestor,” as an editorial in Nature put it just before the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, challenges the foundations of the distinction between organic and inorganic forms. Genomics and genetic engineering have made it possible to swap traits and capabilities between species, or insert them into newly created species, to spur adaptation at vastly quicker speeds that has ever been possible.

In 2010 a team headed by Hamilton Smith and Craig Venter announced, to much fanfare, that they had created life from scratch. The claim was not entirely as it seemed: What they had done was to make a copy of the genome of a pre-existing microbe, and put it inside the cell walls of another one. Their experiments are the most visible of those pointing the ways in which it might be possible to reprogram the code of life. An inventive riff on DNA and RNA molecules, known as “xenonucleic acid” or “XNA,” can, it is claimed, carry genetic information and do all the things its organic counterparts can, and more. The physicist Freeman Dyson has dreamed of a future in which anyone and everyone is able to manipulate the building blocks of life, and a new generation of entrepreneurs and artists who will be “writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses,” making the planet “beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.”

Influence is not the same as control. Humans are no more in control of the planet than a heavy smoker is in control of his lungs.

Whatever one thinks of the plausibility and desirability of Dyson’s vision, the artists and inventors who are exploring this biological boundary herald a growing awareness of the fact that life’s borders are shifting beneath us. Artistic collaborators Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr have made Guatemalan worry dolls out of “semi-living” human tissue. Dutch designer Joris Laarman has built a lamp illuminated by hamster cells modified with firefly DNA. Christian Bök, the Canadian poet, aims to engineer a life-form so that its genetic code becomes “not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing” one, generating a protein-based “literary” product he calls the Xenotext.

Humans need not be exempt from this tinkering, although proposals to adapt our minds and bodies have proved controversial. Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, advocates intervening chemically and neurologically to mold personalities into forms that are more conducive to civilization’s survival. “Unless you believe that evolution provided just the perfect number of psychopaths in our community and just the right level of selfishness within different individuals,” he writes, “you should believe that we should change that natural distribution for the better.” Savulescu’s detractors counter that the triggers for antisocial behavior lie in social and political conditions, and it is there that the interventions need to be made.

How far could this go? A recent report from the U.S. National Science Foundation suggests that by 2020, not only will we be fitter, happier, and more productive, but that people from all backgrounds and of all ranges of ability will “acquire valuable new knowledge and skills more reliably and quickly.” By 2030, “fast, broadband interfaces between the human brain and machines will transform work in factories, control cars, and enable new sports, art forms, and modes of interaction between people.” Most of us will probably welcome many of the foreseeable changes. Who would object to 100 or even 120 years of healthy, “augmented” life?


A human/post-human frontier may now be coming into view. Those who support the idea of “the singularity,” the emergence of man-machine hybrids with vastly greater intelligence than our own, tend to believe that humanity will imminently and irreversibly cross that threshold. Nietzsche, for one, would be happy: “What is glorious in Man is that he is only a bridge.” What is notable about the post-human frontier is that the very thing that keeps us on this side of the divide—our limited cognitive capacities—makes it impossible to know what lies beyond it once it is crossed. Perhaps the view would be different from the other side; perhaps it would not seem like a side at all, but rather the commencement of a history for which humanity is prehistory.

For now, however, we have no choice but to live within the bounds of what our minds allow, limited by our ability to grasp the mathematics in which the universe appears to be written. In many respects, our frontiers as conscious individuals and as communities are and will remain extremely circumscribed. For all the miracle that is the brain, with each of its 85 billion neurons connected to an average 7,000 others and collectively performing several hundred trillion operations per second, our attention is necessarily finite. Vladimir Nabokov put it well:

Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information: and as specialization… Take a lily[,]... more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with the botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know every- thing about one thing…So we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects.

Even our most precise conceptions of reality are only fleeting glimpses of what Richard Feynman called “the inconceivable nature of nature.” But this can be a counsel of joy, not despair. Over time we can nurture a consciousness that is open to perception of the most beautiful and surprising patterns around us.

Preserving a capacity to appreciate wondrous phenomena, however, demands facing up to urgent ecological challenges, for which individual enhancement will not suffice. An enhanced jerk, after all, is still a jerk. At a time of proliferating discoveries and innovations, humanity’s most important frontier is not scientific or geographic, but moral and political.

The concept of the Anthropocene, as many geologists now call the epoch in which we live, distills the dilemma. It proceeds from evidence that humans now exert a massive and decisive influence on the planet and its ecosystems, with consequences that will reach far into the future. People sometimes object to the term on the grounds that it suggests humans are in control. But influence is not the same as control. Humans are no more in control of the planet than a heavy smoker is in control of his lungs.

The Anthropocene is likely to be a time of rapid and unpredictable environmental change. Rapid, because the conditions that underpin all life are changing faster than they ever have at any point over tens or even hundreds of millions of years. Unpredictable, because we struggle to foresee the likely consequences of these changes, and because we cannot be sure how people will react to them in the future. We don’t know where some tipping points may be or, indeed, whether they will really unfold as models predict. Such future calamities are Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns.”

We should not dismiss our potential to innovate more intelligently and benignly in the future than has been the case in the past.

One way to get a handle on how things might go, however, is to look at times in the past when the Earth system has been subjected to considerable pressure. Paul Wignall, professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds, says that humans are adding greenhouse gases at a rate and for a duration that are similar to the massive burst of volcanic activity that kicked off the end of the Permian period some 252 mil- lion years ago. On that occasion, about nine-tenths of life on Earth was destroyed. The event has been called “The Great Dying” and it was the greatest catastrophe in the history of life. Ecosystems took more than 10 million years to recover afterwards, with a very different mix of plants and animals.

Today’s world is very different, and disaster on such a scale is not inevitable. But there are other factors besides greenhouse gases to think about. The degradation and erosion of fertile soil, on which civilizations throughout history have depended, is a huge problem in many parts of the world. Toxics, plastics, and other man-made chemicals are likely to have damaging, long-term effects on human and animal health. In the global ocean—seven-tenths of the planet’s surface and 90 percent of its habitable space—acidification, pollution, temperature rise, overfishing, and other stresses may, singly and in combination, prove highly destabilizing. Most scientists think a global mass extinction of species is already underway. Loss of biodiversity is a systemic phenomenon; focusing conservation efforts on residual pristine landscapes, protected areas behind artificial frontiers, treats the symptoms and not the causes.

Yet technological advances may open new ways to intervene and even to revive what has disappeared. The technical hurdles to recreating recently extinct animals, and even those that died out longer ago, such as the mammoth, have largely been solved. But de-extinction efforts raise more questions than they answer. However powerful our astonishment, delight, or horror at what may be technically feasible, we should not lose sight of the context in which such experiments, if they ever happen, will take place. Species only thrive in an appropriate environment, and individuals from highly social species need a pre-existing social group. “It’s the ecology, stupid,” might be an appropriate mantra for our times. Ignorance is unavoidable, but willful ignorance and reluctance to perform careful experiments is not. As the physicist John Archibald Wheeler said, “our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible.”


Once upon a time the Earth really was elephants all the way around. Straight-tusked elephants, closely related to the Indian elephant, roamed all over Europe and much of northern Asia until about 50,000 years ago. Ancient mastodons and gomphotheres—members of the same order of creatures as living elephants—were widespread in the Americas until the arrival of man. The extirpation of elephants from China occurred at the dawn of the historical period. Today, African and Asian elephants are increasingly endangered in the wild. Perhaps, one day, an abundance of elephants in the most surprising places will be part of our world again. Elephants do not always make easy neighbors, and can crush crops and people with their bulk. But their intelligence, compassion, and playfulness are a reminder that there are other worlds beyond humanity’s din.

Perhaps all that we are and all that we treasure exists at a frontier. Humans are creatures of uncertainty, created—at least to date—largely by natural selection acting upon random mutations. Yet here and now on Earth, we should not dismiss our potential to innovate more intelligently and benignly in the future than has been the case in the past. We may yet find a sense of dwelling and celebration, through art and story, and what they have to teach. In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, Marco Polo concludes his tales to the Great Khan:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. To escape suffering in it ... seek and learn to recognize who, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Medieval Europeans believed the universe to be much smaller and of vastly shorter duration than we now know it to be. But some of them still dreamed magnificently, devoting their lives to the construction of great cathedrals that, for the most part, they would never live to see completed. We can recreate something of their world in ours. A replica of a 12th-century mappa mundi was recently made in England using gold leaf, black ink derived from oak galls, and paint made from ground-up lapis lazuli, malachite, and dragon’s blood, the red extract of a plant root. The gold was formed within stars; the rest by great, creating nature here on Earth. Today, with our vastly greater knowledge and capabilities, what else might we yet conceive?


Caspar Henderson is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary (2013, Chicago University Press).


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Nautilus Quarterly