The narrative of this book is set in the years from 1935 to 1972. It is written in an autobiographical mode to record some of the events that attended my efforts to learn what I could about what life on land was like during a remote time known as the Permian period. My studies led along two pathways, widely disparate in time but parallel and intimately associated. One followed the evolution of life through the 50 million years recorded in the rocks and fossils of the Permian, which began about 280 million years ago. The other covered the few decades during which people, places and mores, and ideas molded my views of life. The story of these pathways is simply one that I want to tell.
My account begins with what I have called "midpoint," the breakpoint between my work in the field and laboratories of the United States and my ventures in the museums of the Soviet Union. Texas is the setting of the first part of the narrative, with two "cowboys" — Ernest Cruthirds and Wade Barker — as central characters. There in Texas, I and my parties lived the life typical of fossil hunters of the mid-decades of the 20th century. We learned a lot about the ancient life of the Permian and its evolution. After the "midpoint", although the Texas work continued, the setting of the narrative is mainly the Soviet Union and the central character is Professor Ivan A. Efremov (pronounced Ye-FRE-mov). During this period, from 1959 to 1972, while fossils continued to play an important role in my life, more and more a shift to a new intellectual level emerged. The first part of the narrative, therefore, concerns events that were fairly simple and uncomplicated, whereas the second in places deals with more complex and elusive questions and thoughts, most of which are without resolution.
Basically, the story I want to tell ends with the death of Efremov in 1972. Although he is the central figure in the later chapters, probably few who read this will ever have heard of him and, even if they have, may know little about him. So why do I write about Efremov in what is otherwise a personal narrative? Partly because he has been important to me as a friend and scientist, and partly because he has been instrumental in expanding my intellectual horizons. But also, he should be much better known beyond the Soviet Union both as a writer and a scientist. I hope that what is included in this book will help to remedy this lack of knowledge of his works.
Professor Ivan A. Efremov was an outstanding scientist, one of the great paleontologists of the Soviet Union. Although he wanted to be known as a scientist, he would modestly cover his accomplishments with denials except when extolling them in off moments. Only since about 1960 has his work begun to be appreciated in the Western world, and I hope that my early efforts in making his studies more accessible have had some influence in this direction.
Professor Efremov's scientific studies were devoted primarily to the geology and the animal life of a time in earth history known as the Permo-Triassic, which covered some 60 million years between about 260 and 200 million years ago. Almost singlehandedly he revolutionized the studies of this time period in the Soviet Union.
During the Permo-Triassic, the ancient amphibians, which were very different from the frogs and salamanders of today, began their decline, after having reached great prominence. Reptiles, on the other hand, were casting off the old and bringing on the new. This transformation of reptiles culminated in two major lines, one leading to our own group, the mammals, and the other to snakes, lizards and birds of today as well as to the now extinct dinosaurs and flying reptiles. No satisfactory time scale had been developed for the fauna of the Permo-Triassic of the Soviet Union until Efremov provided one. Classifications of many of the amphibians and reptiles were chaotic. Efremov remedied this, though, of course, not to the satisfaction of everyone. He made detailed studies of the deposition and preservation of fossils under the heading of taphonomy, a term which he introduced. His studies were recorded in some 100 essays, treatises and books among which the following are particularly important:
The Fauna of the Terrestrial Vertebrates in the Permian Copper Sandstone of the Western Cisuralian Region. Trudy Paleon-tological Institute, volume 54, 416 pp. Academy of Sciences USSR, 1954. In Russian.
Catalogue of the Localities of Permian and Triassic Terrestrial Vertebrates in the Territories of the USSR (with B. P. Vjusch-kov). Trudy Paleontological Institute, volume 46, 147 pp. Academy of Sciences USSR, 1955. In Russian. (English Summary: E.C. Olson, Journal of Geology, volume 65, pp. 196-226,1975.)
Taphonomy and the Fossil Record. Trudy Paleontological Institute, volume 24, 178 pp. Academy of Sciences USSR, 1950. In Russian. (French translation: S. Ketchian and J. Roger,
Annalles du Centre d'Etude et de Documentes Paleontologie, no. 4, 164 pp., 1953.)
The Trail of the Winds. All Soviet Scholarly-Pedagogical Publishing House, Moscow, 1956, 366 pp.
The earliest part of the time represented in Efremov's principal studies overlapped that of the last part of mine, and it was this common interest in the paleontology of the Upper Permian that first brought us together. As our scientific contacts enlarged and a personal association emerged, another facet of Professor Efremov came to my attention. Beyond his science, he was a dreamer, and he found an outlet for this facet of his personality in fictional writing — science fiction, fantasy, romance and novels. Ironically, Efremov is better known outside of the Soviet Union for his science fiction writings than for his science. Many of his stories and books have been translated — one, "Andromeda," into 35 languages. In English, most of these stories give a somewhat false image, for some of the translations are less than adequate, and two works which I consider among his best — The Razor's Edge and The Hour of the Bull — are available only in Russian. Many of Efremov's social and philosophical concepts appear in these works, couched in a Russian that is difficult reading for a non-Russian, with its bows to the "older" language which he revered and use of words that are found only in the most inclusive dictionaries.
This, then, is the man who came to mean so much to me as our friendship developed and whose ideas and musing, both scientific and philosophical, formed a mirror that reflected the dialectic of our development in the 1960s as we came from disparate cultures and circumstances to reach a common understanding in both social and philosophical realms. How this came about is a main theme of later parts of this book.
The pathways to our coming together were diverse and, for both of us, somewhat bumpy. By the time I had attained my Ph.D. and begun to teach geology and paleontology at the University of Chicago, in 1935, the world was engulfed in a major depression. During the ensuing three and a half decades covered in this book, the world remained in turmoil, with short periods of seeming stability interspersed freely with wars, drought, famine and immense restlessness and danger. Relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union, rarely untroubled, went from cool to cold, ameliorated only by short warming spells. Life in academia, where I was, had a degree of stability that was seriously disrupted only during World War II and in the McCarthy era of the early and middle 1950s.
During most of the years from about 1935 to 1965, and those earlier in which I was a university student in geology and paleontology, the intellectual world of earth scientists was cradled in a comfortable framework of uniformity, fixed continents and the Neodarwinian theory of evolution. This last paradigm — formed by a fusion of Darwin's concept of natural selection and 20th century genetics — provided the structure within which most paleontologists interpreted the fossils preserved in the rocks deposited during some three billion years of the four and a half billion years of the existence of the earth.
Cracks in the structure of the intellectual framework of earth scientists had begun to appear in the late 1950s at about the time that I first began to recognize a close relationship between the animals of the Permian of North America and those of Russia. This relationship became a crucial focus of my later studies. A developing, dynamic point of view about the earth and its continents presaged the oncoming revolution. It dispelled the notion that the "self evident" processes of slow contemporary change, as then known, could provide a framework that could be cast back to give explanations of ancient life. The intuitive human time frame was inappropriate.
In contrast to the established point of view, the continents came to be seen as restless, drifting islands carried on rigid plates that made up the outer part of the earth. Disturbingly new ways of looking at the fossil record began to appear. Even by the late 1960s, however, the impacts of such "unorthodox" ideas were just starting to be felt by the majority of paleontologists.
In a sense then, this story starts in an "age of innocence" and ends as the protecting cover of a comfortable paradigm is rudely peeled away. But the eventual effects of any such changes are hard to evaluate as they are taking place. Drastic as they seem today, they may appear quite differently tomorrow. Also, as the vast reorganization of geological thinking was taking place, the complacency about the sufficiency of the Neodarwinian theory of evolution, or the Synthetic theory in its broad guise, was being questioned, even as its position hardened. This theory in its simplest terms combines Darwin's natural selection and the data of modern genetics into a coherent explanation of evolution. Over the last two decades some scientists have been probing the outer shell of this paradigm. Will this basis for interpretation also be shattered?
It was matters such as these that Professor Efremov and I pondered from our diverse backgrounds. Over both of us the "old guard" had held tight sway and taught those of us who entered geology during the "age of innocence" to follow their ways. I and my generation of the "middle guard" of the time wavered, but with some reluctance, and formed, we would like to think, a balance wheel to even younger scientists who, as we before, knew little of the past and began with the bright confidence that what they had been taught about the new interpretations was the final truth. So at about the time this narrative ends, an exciting new stage was beginning under circumstances far different from those that existed in 1935, but the "new guard" entered "its" stage with no less confidence than that felt by those of us who began about then only to be rudely wrenched from our complacencies.
At the very end of my story of travel through time I speculate about what the central figure of the last part of the story, Professor Efremov, might have thought had he lived until now. Would he have been a dour rejector of the new or would he have adjusted and set his sights anew, starting from his unique base of dialectical thought?