Excellent book: The Dechronization of Sam Magruder

28 06 2007

I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, but I have to say that G.G.Simpson’s novel The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I’ve ever read. I’ll get to my take on who the narrator and Sam Magruder actually are and why this matters, but first I wanted to share this particular passage dealing with evolution;

It has been said by some theorists that cases like that of the crocodile, virtually unchanged for 100 million years and more, represent a failure of the evolutionary force, a blind alley, or a long senescence. As I gazed at my antagonist, it occurred to me how false this is. Here was no failure but an adaptation so successful, so perfect that once developed it has never needed to change. Is it, perhaps, not the success but the failure of adaptation that has forced evolving life onward to what we, at least, consider higher levels? The crocodile in his sluggish waters had perfectly mastered life in an unchanging environment. No challenge arose. Our ancestors lived in a more evanescent world, where what was adaptation at one time became an inadaptive burden in 100,000, 1,000,000, or 10 million years. For them, their adaptation was always a blind struggle to keep up, to face new conditions, to exploit new opportunities. Only changing races met that challenge. Of the others, those to whom chance close the adaptive avenue of change, the unlucky became extinct and the lucky, like the crocodile, found and settled into some way of life where the challenge was absent, and there they stagnated.

Indeed, crocodiles are fortunate; adaptation and evolution has perfected them to exist in a niche that does not require major changes provided that conditions don’t drastically change overnight. Even before there were actual crocodiles, there were tetrapods essentially filling the same niche of aquatic ambush predator, and for one reason or another crocodiles beat them all out, so well-adapted to their role in the ecosystem that there hasn’t been much need for big-time evolutionary change. If there was anything like a communal memory of crocodiles, there wouldn’t be a memory of a time when there was not water to conceal themselves in, and they have been preying upon the various creatures that have visited the water’s edge the whole time. While there was once a greater diversity of crocodiles in type and habit, they have dominated their niche for so long that there is seemingly nothing they cannot handle.

This passage also speaks to what wrote in popular works like The Meaning of Evolution, in which he refutes the idea that life has some sort of vital force pushing it forward to be constantly evolving (or the idea that species, like individuals, had lifespans of birth, growth, and “senescence”), nor does evolution strive toward one perfect, unchangeable end (although crocodiles probably fooled many in this regard). While crocodiles will continue to change little by little through time, I can’t think of a reason why they should not continue to persist much as they are now for many millions of years to come.

As for the book itself, I feel that our protagonist Sam Magruder and the narrator are dual-voices of G.G. Simpson. Magruder, a scientist who is utterly lonely and stuck in a world where he feels he cannot make any lasting contribution to science, is the most powerful voice in the story, but I feel the narrator tells us quite about Simpson as well. Magruder’s story is told via 8 stone tablets that Magruder inscribed and buried, but not all the content of the slabs is shared with the reader; the academics who are disseminating the information have edited it, inserting lengthy footnotes, snide remarks, and editing what they deem to be distasteful. One such example is Magruder’s discussion of his sexual frustration, no female of his species existing for more than 65 million years into the future, but the editors decide this discussion is too frank and omit it from the public’s copy. Likewise, the narrator makes mention of, but omits, various footnotes of academics apologizing for Magruder’s behavior (such as using a colloquialism, which is apparently unbecoming of a scientist) and his ignorance of a topic (such as when sauropods became extinct in North America). These were Simpson’s little jabs at academia, perhaps venting his own frustration at fellow scientists who lacked imagination or developed a “holier-than-thou” attitude over the years.

While I did not know this about Simpson, the afterword by Stephen Jay Gould makes it clear that Simpson was a very lonely man despite his accomplishment. This was not for lack of company, but Simpson wanted so much to contribute something lasting to paleontology that he could seemingly could not bear much criticism or brown-nosing (which was worse), and the book makes it apparent that he was worried he would be forgotten. While Magruder buried his slabs, never knowing whether someone would find them (he’d be dead for at least 65 million years when they did), Simpson seemingly buried this bit of fiction, which did not come to light after his death. At the end of his life, perhaps Simpson felt like Magruder; contributing much to our understanding, but isolated from anyone who would study his work in the years to come, isolated from satisfaction and afraid that his work would be left to collect dust on a shelf somewhere. What gratification he might have gotten from people like me who are still impressed by his work, I don’t know, but it seems that intellectually Simpson felt he was stuck in the Cretaceous, never knowing what would become of the messages he left to future generations.

If you enjoy science fiction at all, and especially if you like tales about dinosaurs, I highly recommend this book; it can be read cover-to-cover in less than an evening and gives us a very personal look at one of the greatest paleontologists ever to have lived. Immediately after I closed Simpson’s book, I picked up Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, and it only furthered my enjoyment for the evening. I have absolutely loved the first 60 pages of Sapolsky’s book, and I can’t wait to get to the rest of it; it is another must-read if you’re looking for good books this summer.



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