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The Great Chain of Life

Joseph Wood Krutch

Publication Year: 2009

Originally published in 1956, The Great Chain of Life brings a humanist’s keen eye and ear to one of the great questions of the ages: “What am I?” Originally a scholar of literature and theater, toward the end of his career Joseph Wood Krutch turned to the study of the natural world. Bringing his keen intellect to bear on the places around him, Krutch crafted some of the most memorable and important works of nature writing extant.

Whether anticipating the arguments of biologists who now ascribe high levels of cognition to the so-called lower animals, recognizing the importance of nature for a well-lived life, or seeing nature as an elaborately interconnected, interdependent network, Krutch’s seminal work contains lessons just as resonant today as they were when the book was first written.

Lavishly illustrated with thirteen beautiful woodcuts by Paul Landacre, an all-but-lost yet important Los Angeles artist whom Rockwell Kent called “the best American wood engraver working,” The Great Chain of Life will be cherished by new generations of readers.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Front Matter

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pp. vii-xii

WHENEVER men stop doing things long enough to think about them, they always ask themselves the question: "What am I?" And since that is the hardest of all questions to answer they usually settle for what looks easier - "If I...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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1. Basic Forms of Life

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pp. 1-18

EVERY SCHOOLBOY knows - or at least has been told - that our ignorant ancestors believed in "spontaneous generation." They assumed of course that all the nobler animals, including man, had to have a mother and, usually, a father as well...

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2. Machinery for Evolution

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pp. 19-38

ON THE SECOND of January 1700 Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, draper of Delft and self-taught Columbus of the littlest world, was writing to the Royal Society of London one of the many letters in which he described his voyages of discovery within a drop of water. To William Dampier and other such rovers he left the...

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3. The Animal's First Need

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pp. 39-58

IS A VOLVOX any less remarkable than a bird, or a bird any less remarkable than a man? Of course it is - in a sense. But miracles cannot be compared. One is quite as incomprehensible as the other and if man did not exist a Volvox or a robin would be as difficult to "explain" as man himself...

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4. Parenthood

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pp. 59-76

MOST PEOPLE are more interested in young animals than in grownups, and at any zoo the mother with her baby attracts the largest crowd. Parental concern is a touch of nature which even those usually indifferent to their fellow creatures...

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5. The Need for Continuity

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pp. 77-96

AT THE BEGINNING of the fifth chapter of Alice in Wonderland Alice has an important conversation with a caterpillar. Thinking of her own recent experiences, she complains that it is very confusing to change size and shape. The Caterpillar - brusque as all Wonderland creatures are - replies: "It...

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6. The Barbarian Mammal

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pp. 97-110

THE ANT practices his incredible agriculture almost at my doorstep. The caterpillar will be born again on my study table if I put him there. Yet both of them live in a universe so remote from mine that they are not aware of even physical propinquity and they go about their business as though...

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7. The Meaning of Awareness

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pp. 111-128

FOR NINE LONG YEARS a large salamander lived her sluggish life in a damp terrarium on my window sill. Before I assumed responsibility for her health and welfare she had lived through a different life - not as different as the life of a butterfly is from that of a caterpillar, but different...

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8. Undeveloped Potentialities

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pp. 129-146

"THERE ARE many arguments, none of them very good, for having a snake in the house." So Mr. Will Cuppy once wrote, though he was gracious (or is it cynical?) enough to add: "Considering what some do pet, I don't see why they should...

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9. Reverence for Life

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pp. 147-170

IT WOULD NOT BE quite true to say that "some of my best friends are hunters." Nevertheless, I do number among my respected acquaintances some who not only kill for the sake of killing but count it among their keenest pleasures....

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10. Devolution

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pp. 171-188

ON THE SPRING MORNING when I began writing this book I might have picked the illustrations for most of my themes within two hundred yards of my window. Just about that far away several colonies of ants were practicing their incredible...

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11. How Right Was Darwin?

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pp. 189-212

TO THE BANAL REMARK that "Life is strange" a wit once replied with the impudent query, "By comparison with what?" Nothing remains to be said if the orIginal remark was intended as a comment on some happy accident or unhappy contretemps of daily life. But if one is thinking instead...

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pp. 213-227

THE FffiST SENTENCES of this book were written nearly two years ago. Outside my window on that spring morning, as on this, a bird sang. Outside a million windows, a million birds had sung as morning swept around the globe. Few men and few women were so glad that a new day had...

E-ISBN-13: 9781587298806
E-ISBN-10: 1587298805
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587298202
Print-ISBN-10: 1587298201

Page Count: 245
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: paper