The Optimism of the Oyster – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

“If you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster,” Eleanor Clark wrote in the book that won her the National Book Award, published exactly 100 years after On the Origin of Species. For Darwin, these strange and quietly wondrous creatures furnished a different kind of enjoyment. He had come under their spell as a college student, accompanying two of his mentors as they waded into tidal pools to collect oyster specimens. By twenty-five, having fused the enchantment of oysters with his growing passion for the deep time of geology, he was rejoicing to a friend:

When puzzling about stratifications, etc., I feel inclined to cry “a fig for your big oysters, and your bigger megatheriums” [extinct prehistoric giant sloths].

As natural history, evolution, and anatomy began revealing the unsuspected complexity of this organism long perceived as incredibly simple and, in consequence, treated more like a lifeless rock than like a creature — to “enjoy” an oyster in the culinary sense became a less carefree endeavor. The biologist and anatomist T.H. Huxley — Darwin’s greatest champion against the first tidal wave of dogmatic attacks on evolutionary theory — captured the dismantling of the convenient delusion:

I suppose that when the sapid and slippery morsel — which is gone like a flash of gustatory summer lightning — glides along the palate, few people imagine that they are swallowing a piece of machinery (and going machinery too) greatly more complicated than a watch.

oyster1 sm
Art from “The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study,” 1891. (Available as a face mask and stationery cards, benefitting the Billion Oyster Project.)

From the dawning scientific knowledge of the oyster, a different kind of enjoyment arose — a kind consonant with Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower. Here was a creature at once rugged and tender, like life itself. Here was an emissary of a primordial Earth that carries the ancestral root of consciousness — that crucible of our capacity for enjoyment — in its tiny brain and nervous system fringed with a dark mantle of myriad nerve endings ceaselessly scanning the environment for threat and dispatching signals to the brain to slam the shell shut.

Out of such simplicity arose cognition, consciousness, the emotional machinery of love. All these billions of years of evolution, and we still the same impulse animates our days and our songs — what to seal in, what to keep out, what to trust.

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