The Blind Men and The Elephant from “Basin and Range”

This anecdote from Annals of the Former World serves as a metaphor for all knowledge:

Geologists mention at times something they call the Picture. In an absolutely unidiomatic way, they have often said to me, “You don’t get the Picture.” The oolites and dolomite—tuff and granite, the Pequop siltstones and shales—are pieces of the Picture. The stories that go with them—the creatures and the chemistry, the motions of the crust, the paleoenvironmental scenes—may well, as stories, stand on their own, but all are fragments of the Picture.

The foremost problem with the Picture is that ninety-nine percent of it is missing—melted or dissolved, torn down, washed away, broken to bits, to become something else in the Picture. The geologist discovers lingering remains, and connects them with dotted lines. The Picture is enhanced by filling in the lines—in many instances with stratigraphy: the rock types and ages of strata, the scenes at the time of deposition. The lines themselves to geologists represent structure—folds, faults, flat-lying planes. Ultimately, they will infer why, how, and when a structure came to be—for example, why, how, and when certain strata were folded—and that they call tectonics. “First you read ze Kafka,” I overheard someone say once in a library elevator. “Ond zen you read ze Turgenev. Ond zen and only zen are—you—ready—for—ze Tolstoy.”

And when you have memorized Tolstoy, you may be ready to take on the Picture. Multidimensional, worldwide in scope and in motion through time, it is sometimes called the Big Picture. The Megapicture. You are cautioned not to worry if at first you do not wholly see it. Geologists don’t see it, either. Not all of it. The modest ones will sometimes scuff a boot and describe themselves and their colleagues as scientific versions of them characters in John Godfrey Saxe’s version of the Hindu fable of the blind men and the elephant. “We are blind men feeling the elephant,” David Love, of the Geological Survey, has said to me at least fifty times. It is not unknown for a geological textbook to include snatches of the poem.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The first man of Indostan touches the animal’s side and thinks it must be some sort of living wall. The second touches a tusk and thinks the elephant is like a spear.The others, in turn touch the  trunk, an ear, the tail, a knee—“snake”, “fan”, “rope”, “tree”.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly right,
And all were in the wrong!

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