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Breneman delivered his popular lecture to a standing-room-only audience of students (enrolled or not), professors, and other campus personnel. Photo credit: Courtesy of the IU Archives.
Breneman delivered his popular lecture to a standing-room-only audience of students (enrolled or not), professors, and other campus personnel. Photo credit: Courtesy of the IU Archives.

"Via Cadillac to Kalamazoo and You"

W. R. Breneman, Luther Dana Waterman Professor of Zoology

I am especially fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach Zoology because most of the students who took that subject had considerable knowledge of Biology before they enrolled. They recognized in themselves many of the biological conditions which are common in living systems. This knowledge, on the other hand, was also a source of vexation both to them and to me because there was a temptation to conceptualize man as a superior being about whom the universe revolves, particularly the biological segment of that universe.

Recently, Crisis Biology with its ever increasing concern about man’s exploitation and degradation of the environment has emphasized how untenable the concept of anthropomorphism really is. Modern man is not a supernatural being who can devise his own rules of biological conduct and be independent of adverse consequences. It is evident that man can survive on this planet only if he abides by the universal regulations imposed by nature.

Many years ago it occurred to me that it might be valuable pedagogically to attempt to place man and his accomplishments — as well as his shortcomings — in proper perspective. Students today probably would prefer the term “relevance” instead of perspective. That is, they would wish to know the relevance of discussing the interrelationship of human beings with the environment and with the past and future events on our planet. The primary difficulty in understanding such complex interrelationships pertains to the immensity of time. Human beings are newcomers on this planet which originated several billion years ago. Moreover, man is myopic and inclined to measure time primarily in terms of hours, days, or a few years rather than in eras or eons. The basic problem, therefore, is to equate the existence of humanoid individuals who appeared only about 3 or 4 million years ago to the events which occurred during the thousands of millions of years this spaceship earth has whirled about in interstellar space.

The first question in this analysis is: how old is our planet? Bishop Ussher in the 17th century proclaimed that the earth was created in the month of October in the year 4004 B.C. This determination was based on the venerable Bishop’s interpretation of the chronology of events in the Old Testament. This source of authority was not to be dismissed lightly in the 17th century but when Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin suggested in the 19th century that the age of the earth should be measured in hundreds of millions of years it was not surprising that many people condemned this idea as religious heresy. The early years of the 20th century, however, saw scientists in the diverse fields of Geology, Chemistry, Astronomy, Physics, and Biology, expanding Darwin’s estimate. One of the important definitive papers on this subject was written in the 1920’s by the late Professor Cumings of the Indiana University Geology Department in which he advanced the hypothesis that the earth was really an astronomical antique with an age which was in excess of two thousand million years. When I first presented this lecture, in the 1940’s, the calculation of the age of this planet had been pushed back to 3,500 million years and by the 1950’s this estimate was enlarged to 4.6 billion (4,600 million) years. Even this age may prove eventually to be a conservative figure. It is difficult to comprehend such a time-span and to associate biological and especially human events with the various eras which occurred within this immense period of time. A device was needed which would establish an interconnection between the passage of astronomical time and the sequence of biological events which ultimately relate to us. Fortunately, others have been confronted by this same dilemma and I can claim no special originality in the solution which follows. As a matter of fact, a lecture by Dr. G.W.D. Hamlett of the Indiana University Zoology Department in the 1930’s provided the framework from which my present lecture evolved. The presentation resolves itself into one of relativity in which we can take advantage of a time-space relationship which is pertinent to the time-space continuum in which our universe exists.

Will you, therefore, take with me an imaginary trip with a strong Hoosier flavor? The principle is simple inasmuch as this excursion will be based on the premise that if we assume that each inch of the road we traverse represents the passage of 200 years of time we can start at Cadillac, Michigan, travel to Bloomington and during the course of this journey cover 4,600 million years of time. Cadillac, accordingly, will be the point at which the events leading to the formation of the earth culminated and the end of the lecture will represent the present moment. The title for this lecture I hope is now explained, namely, Via Cadillac to Kalamazoo and You.

Breneman’s imaginary trip from Cadillac, Michigan, to IU’s Bloomington campus envisioned each inch of the road travelled as representing 200 years of earth’s history. Photo credit: Courtesy of the IU Archives.
Breneman’s imaginary trip from Cadillac, Michigan, to IU’s Bloomington campus envisioned each inch of the road travelled as representing 200 years of earth’s history. Photo credit: Courtesy of the IU Archives.

We have only indirect evidence how it was “In the Beginning” at Cadillac. The two major theories of origin: the Superdense or “Big Bang” theory, and the Steady State theory both lead us, however, to a comparable condition at Cadillac. That portion of the Universe of which our solar system is but an infinitesimal speck would have evolved from a fireball with temperatures in the millions of degrees centigrade and would have contained “dust” clouds of hydrogen and heavier atoms. During our rapid southward trek from Cadillac to Big Rapids, Michigan, at 200 years to the inch, a series of small but important changes occurred. Cooling was rapid and larger elements were “shadowing” smaller ones to slow them and thereby augment the cooling process. There were condensations, aggregations, and chemical reactions among sub-atomic particles and atoms which produced heavier elements and created huge masses of diffuse matter. Perhaps, at first, these masses were disc-shaped but gradually they became spherical and the form of the earth and the planets was slowly established. These spheres were being constantly bombarded by particles from space and their volumes earth gradually increased. Furthermore, as the cooling continued, the chemical reactions led to the formation of molecules and at Grand Rapids the temperature had dropped to only about 500°F. A thin crust developed about this earth of ours and our present-day Mariner space probes suggest that in many respects the current conditions of Venus may be similar to those on earth in the neighborhood of Grand Rapids.

The continuation of our journey to Kalamazoo would be accompanied by additional influential events. Rapid cooling continued, folds and cracks appeared in the earth’s crust, mountains and valleys formed, more complex molecules appeared, water vapor began to condense into clouds and rains began to fall. The surface of the planet was a bubbling molecular cauldron with chemical reactions of fantastic variety being stimulated by the intense unfiltered energy which attacked the earth’s surface from interstellar space.

How far have we travelled on the road to You? At least 1000 million years have slipped away and, although our earth was now in a form which would be recognizable to us, there were only inorganic molecules and complex carbon-chain compounds on earth and very little or no free oxygen was present to oxidize these. We are dependent on indirect evidence concerning the next events that eventually will lead us to life itself. Experiments by Dr. Stanley Miller, however, have demonstrated that if ammonia, methane, and cyanates (which were common at Kalamazoo) are mixed and subjected to continuous electric discharge amino acids can be formed. Dr. Sidney W. Fox, in slightly more elaborate experiments, showed that these amino acids can be bound together into polypeptide chains and, therefore, the macromolecular building blocks of life can be manufactured under oxygen-free conditions comparable with those of the primordial earth.

Our trip from Kalamazoo to Three Rivers, Michigan, and the Indiana state line shifts into high gear through an area in which multitudes of chemical reactions of the Miller-Fox type were taking place. In the relative absence of free oxygen the larger compounds formed were stable and undoubtedly “cannabilized” smaller ones created even larger more complex molecules. Finally, we reach the “Land of Goshen” about 2,200 million years away or half way in our journey to You and here we encountered very complex molecules with some attributes of life. These are virus-like particles composed of proteins and nucleic acids with both the ability to grow and to reproduce. The reproductive potential was particularly important because they could produce new matter like themselves and they also had the ability to mutate or change. Elements of change and chance, therefore, were introduced. If a change —mutation — enabled a virus to adapt to alterations of earthly conditions, there was a greater chance that the virus would survive.

Proceeding southward to the outskirts of Wabash we find an environment on earth which is radically different from the conditions we encountered at Cadillac. Now free oxygen was present and the temperature dropped from millions of degrees centigrade to only about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The mutations which had been occurring since Goshen produced a radically new type of matter. The nucleic acids became encased in a membrane to form a nucleus with layers of phospholipids accompanied byproteins which developed a selectively permeable envelope about this living matter. These were animals! They were not impressive but would be recognizable as related to Protozoa. They were similar to modern organisms with the ability to grow, reproduce, move, and respond to stimuli.

It is appropriate at Wabash, 1,500 million years from You, that we make a turn in our road and proceed in a new direction toward Peru, Indiana. This deviation in direction was significant because plants appeared. These organisms had the ability to take simple chemicals such as CO2 and H2O and combine them into glucose and to trap sunlight as the source of energy for the reaction. Cannibalistic animals could not have survived were it not for the appearance of these new productive organisms which took their energy from interstellar space, and continue to be the ultimate source of food for all living things. Furthermore, in and about Peru, the advantages of colonial existence became evident. Plants and Animals began to live in clumps or colonies in which mere size improved the opportunities for feeding and provided greater protection. A few of the colonial beings continued westward to form Sponges at Logansport but this proved to be a dead-end and no further progress was made in that direction. Another change in the direction of our journey occurred, however, and this was a left turn to the south. A short distance beyond Peru the colonial organisms began to show notable specializations. Individual cells of Volvox-like organisms begin to perform only limited functions and the various cells of colonies become interdependent. Appropriately, one of the most exciting of the new developments, that of sex, occurred at Grissom Air Force Base.

The population of Kokomo may not appear at first glance to be especially imposing. The town was inhabited by Jellyfishes and their more obscure relatives. Actually, however, these inhabitants were progressive and made important structural advances. The cells of their bodies now were arranged in layers; there was greater specialization than was present in any of the colonial organisms, and some of the Kokomo-ians, the corals, even formed protective outside skeletons.

Road 31 south from Kokomo is straight and four-laned and we can move rapidly. It would be nice if we could actually observe the happenings at this time instead of being forced to speculate because all the major groups of animals except two appear during our jaunt from Kokomo to Westfield. One interesting form, the Trilobites, came into existence and in its meek retiring way will accompany us as far as the city limits of Martinsville. Somewhere on the north side of Indianapolis we encountered some giant forms of life — the early ancestors of the Octopus, Snail, and Squid. These large aggressive animals dominated animal life for a few million years but as we move down Meridian Street we would find giant Sea Scorpions ruling the ever increasing oceans of the world. We also observe that the coral were creating reefs and islands composed of their calcified skeletons.

Let us take a moment to locate ourselves relative to the passage of time and distance. At the south side of Indianapolis on Indiana 37, we are only 400 to 500 millions of years away from You and would have covered roughly 9/10ths of our excursion via Cadillac. Several long-awaited and memorable events now rapidly come to pass. A few plants adapted themselves for the first time to live on land and their survival in this harsh dry environment provided food for any animals which dared to emerge from the oceans into the air. Furthermore, the last of the major groups of animals — the Chordata — was born. Some of these animals developed backbones and soon were recognizable as Fishes. The fishes also became quite varied, some became gigantic and a few tentatively stuck their noses out of the water. Although they “go wild” for a few millions of years they were superseded by the more versatile air-breathing Amphibia — the progenitors of our present day toads and frogs. At Waverly giant armored amphibians dominated the earth, coal and oil deposits were forming, the Appalachian Mountains began to rise, and insects with wing spans of three feet flit about. Unfortunately for the giant amphibians, a new group of rugged characters — the Reptiles — quickly became the ruling organisms and the monstrous and awesome Dinosaurs evolved. Some of these weighed many tons and thrived as long as there was a lush growth of plants upon which to feed. In Martinsville, only a little more than 200 million years ago and 18 miles away the dinosaurs were sovereign. They were interesting inasmuch as they were so strikingly physiological rather than psychological. Some flew like birds and others swam the oceans like huge sharks. One of the largest of the dinosaurs actually had a brain which weighed only a few ounces whereas at the base of the spine there was an enlargement of the spinal cord which weighed several pounds and was needed to coordinate the activities of its huge tail and derriere. This fact led an anonymous author to compose the following poem:

Editor’s Note: Credited to Bert Leston Taylor, circa 1912, by the online poetry archives, Poetry X (

Behold the mighty dinosaur
Famous in prehistoric lore
Not only for his weight and strength
But for his intellectual length
You will observe from its remains
The creature had two sets of brains
One in the head, the usual place,
The other at the spinal base.
Thus he could reason a priori
As well as a posteriori.
Since he could think without congestion
Upon both side of any question,
No problem bothered him a whit:
He made both head and tail of it.
So wise was he, so wise and solemn,
Each thought filled just a spinal column.
If something slipped his forward mind
‘Twas apprehended by the one behind.
And if in error he was caught
He had a saving afterthought.

One of my favorite poets, Don Marquis, proposed an appropriate addendum:

He failed to see the rocks ahead
That round them he might steer
And so he met the fate of all
Whose brains are in the rear.

The dinosaurs were so specialized and so competitive with each other that when climatic changes brought an end to the lush jungles on which they depended directly or indirectly for sustenance and egg sucking mammals appeared they disappeared from the earth. Flowering plants appeared almost simultaneously and appropriately marked the reptilian graves. It was in the area of Turkey-track hill that the first animals with hair and mammary glands — the Mammalia — slipped unobtrusively upon the scene. The Rocky Mountains began their rise here and Birds also made their colorful aerial entrance. Ants began to live in colonial city-states with all the complications of urban existence and the rapidly eroding Appalachians are succeeded in Asia by the rising Himalayas and in Europe by the Alps. As we approach the northern outskirts of Bloomington, giant birds — the Dodo and the Moa, giant Mammoths and Mastodons, and Saber-tooth tigers romped about the Cascades. It would seem that on north College Avenue various types of “monkey shines” occurred.

We began our journey 4,600 million years ago and finally at about the Monroe County Courthouse would encounter 3 or 4 million years ago, humanoid individuals. They were not stately beings by modern standards but as the late Professor Hooten of Harvard once described them they are “low-brows who took a chance on the ground.” What is more important, however, is that an abrupt evolutionary left-turn onto Kirkwood took place and survival emphasis was now depended on brains rather than on brawn. The notable failures of the giants along our journey: the mollusks, scorpions, amphibia, reptiles, birds, and mammals are mute testimony that brute strength and massive size were not enough. In the natural sequence of events, it now became a question whether the newly developed brain would have greater survival value than sheer mass.

Our progress along Kirkwood was accompanied by the appearance of various prehistoric men. One hairy little creature, the Neanderthal man, reposed at Nick’s Old English Hut, the more impressive Cro-Magnon man had emerged by Dunn Street and the first modern man haunted the old library. Please observe that from our beginning at Cadillac, and moving at 200 years to the inch, we are now little more than a stone’s throw from stone-age man to You. In the woods we find Adam and Eve near Kirkwood and Lindley. In the short hop, skip, and jump that remained, man became successively a herdsman, an agriculturalist, and an industrialist. But what about his place in the natural progression of animals that began at Wabash? We can pause to look at him in perspective and perhaps evaluate him objectively.

The Phylum Chordata, of which man is a member, is the most recent animal phylum on this planet. Modern man — Homo sapiens — is only one of more than four million species of animals. He constitutes a minority group; very aggressive, and often very destructive, and not necessarily good for the neighborhood. Mark Twain in one of his more somber moods once noted that it might have been better “If Noah had missed the boat.” Should we agree with Mark and be disgusted with man’s performance or should we be proud of his accomplishments? Should we be — optimistic or pessimistic about his future? The last few inches of our trip may enable us to construct a balance sheet and compare man’s debits with his credits. Perhaps also we can gain some additional insight into his possible social as well as biological evolution.

If we measure only slightly more than 40 inches backward on the road from Cadillac to You, we will cover all of man’s recorded history. Fifteen inches away from us Moses led the Israelites from Egypt and if we mark off only ten inches into the past we arrive at the time of the birth of Christ 2000 years ago. In spite of the variety of religious beliefs today, of which Christianity is only a minor component, no one can doubt the tremendous sociological impact of the teaching of the Nazarene and it is most remarkable that his teachings spanned only three years and occupied less than 1/70th of an inch of our journey from Cadillac. Three fourths of an inch away was the founding of Indiana University, one third of an inch ago saw the advent of the automobile and the airplane. One-eighth of an inch the release of atomic energy; less than one-fifth of an inch the development of the concept of DNA and RNA as the hereditary materials, and one-tenth of an inch recombinant DNA. These are tremendous accomplishments in a few inches of man’s existence especially when we remember the eons of time which were available to dinosaurs and dodos. A pertinent and relevant question confronts us — is reasoning man a reasonable organism, or has he now irrevocably sown the seeds of his own destruction. Obviously, he must watch his P’s and Q’s: because Population, Poverty and Pollution threaten his existence and Quixotic solutions are not adequate to succor him.

Let us examine the population problem first. An estimate of the number of people on earth in 1 A.D. was 100 million and by the year 1000 A.D. this had increased to only 275 millions. In 1800, however, there were 1.6 billion people and today we have a population of 4.0 thousand millions. A projection for the year 2000 A.D. is that human beings will number 7.5 thousand millions. The passage of a mere 1000 years, or 5 inches on our road, therefore, will have seen an increase in the number of Homo sapiens of almost 6 thousand millions of individuals. Another illustrative statistic is that only one inch ago in 1770, the thirteen colonies had a population of 3 million whereas today there are approximately 220 million people in the U.S.A. What are the consequences; is man exempt from the laws which govern populations of other species and the balance of nature for other living things? His technology has made possible fantastic improvements in food production but the quantity of food is not keeping pace with the explosive increase in the numbers of people. His technology has made it possible for man to live in the more hostile environments on this planet but living space on earth is rapidly being depleted. His technology produces labor saving devices undreamed of 1000 years ago but in the process he is poisoning the air, contaminating the waters, creating acid rain, and destroying the critical biological balance with unregulated use of pesticides and insecticides. He has not learned to distribute food and the material wealth of the world equitably among his fellow man. Abject poverty is the bedfellow of imposing affluence. Tensions lead to wars and the threat of intraspecific destruction haunts mankind. We have a dilemma inasmuch as the lesson of the Nazarene of 2000 years ago, in which he taught us that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us, is in danger of being lost in our materialistic society. We are confronted by a schism between generations in which unfettered idealism and crass materialism are generating conflict. There is the demand that corrective measures should be instituted in the space of the next 1/500th or 1/1000th of an inch. Most disturbing is the fact that much pessimism has been transformed into contempt. Have we any reason for optimism?

The optimist says: “This is the best of all worlds.” The pessimist replies: “I am afraid you are right.” My own opinion was rather well summarized by the Reverend Stephens of Cheshire, England:

“Our forefathers did without sugar until the 13th century, without buttered bread until the 16th century, without tea or soap until the 17th century, without gas, matches, or electricity until the 19th century, and without cars, canned goods or frozen foods until the 20th century — now, what was it you were complaining about?”

I believe that man can “dream the impossible dream.” Astronomers inform us that barring some improbable interstellar catastrophe there are hundreds of miles of road ahead. Although man has been exploiting his environment as though there were no tomorrow, he also has demonstrated that he has the knowledge and ability to regulate its use and to correct his past errors. He has the time. Moreover he has the intelligence to do so if he will generate self-discipline. Man has solved many “impossible” biological and technological problems: all major diseases except cancer have been conquered, the mystery of the mechanism of inheritance has been unraveled, recombinant DNA offers unlimited possibilities for genetic improvement, all areas of the earth are within a few hours journey, the atom has been tapped for energy, and man has walked on the moon. Tools are now available to solve all major physical and physiological problems. Only the evolution of a society capable of utilizing knowledge for the good of all people is now required. Those who dissent and find no good in society today should be reminded that mankind stands on the threshold of excellence where the only major enemy is man himself. Fortunately, nothing appears to be impossible for Homo sapiens in the future; he simply must believe that the impossible can be done and do it, but this must be done sociologically as well as scientifically. An apt analysis of the situation can be illustrated by a conversation between Alice and the Queen as related by Louis Carroll.

Alice laughed, “There’s no use trying,” she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I am convinced that man can solve his seemingly impossible sociological as well as biological problems but to do so he must substitute consideration for contempt, dissent for destruction, and reason for rhetoric. Inch by inch the road continues to stretch ahead from You. It is my belief that future generations will determine that the road is paved with more than good intentions.

A single person may seem insignificant and unable to contribute to the solution of the monstrous problems that exist. You and I often feel helpless and hopeless but one can take heart, however, from the contribution of one solitary individual:

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from “One Solitary Life” by Dr. James Allen Francis (1866-1921)

All the armies that have ever marched
and all the navies that have ever sailed
all the parliaments that ever sat
and all the kings that ever reigned have not affected the life of man on this earth as that one Solitary Life.

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