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From his boyhood, Niles Eldredge took a shine to the trumpet and then cornet. Today, he displays the best of his collection of more than 700 cornets on a wall in his Ridgewood home. (Photo by Anne-Marie Caruso)
Posted: Thursday December 20, 2012, 3:38 PM
By Amelia Duggan - (201) Magazine

A tarnished 19th century cornet, full of bumps and dings, might not correlate to scientific theories about evolution to the average Joe, but for Ridgewood's Niles Eldredge, the connection is apparent.

With a collection of more than 700 silver, brass and copper cornets, the retired paleontologist from New York's American Museum of Natural History finds inspiration in the beauty and complexity of his tubular belles.

For Eldredge, who earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, evolution isn't a slow and steady stream of change, one that can be smoothly charted on a graph. He believes evolution has a flair for the dramatic – occurring in fits and starts. In his theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he co-authored with the late Stephen Gould some 40 years ago, Eldredge asserts that a species might be dormant with regard to change for a long period of time and then might burst with change suddenly. He composed this theory after studying trilobites, a fossil group of extinct marine arthropods that thrived in the Paleozoic Era some 300 million years ago.

On many levels, it's easy to get lost in the complex science of Eldredge's theories. Then again, they make perfect sense. Students today have no trouble grasping the concepts. He finds harmony in the cacophonous history of the earth and its diverse – albeit extinct –species. He makes the natural (for some) and quantum (for others) leap into the relationship between the evolution of extinct species and the improvements in musical instruments – especially his beloved cornets.

Eldredge's passion for the historical evolution of the cornet as a musical instrument parallels his scientific theories. He painstakingly analyzes the changes to the instrument over time, searching for patterns in its evolution. His love affair with the cornet began as a youth, when he was introduced to the instrument by his trumpet teacher.

"Cornet players were the first rock stars," Eldredge says. "I myself have never been more than an average player, but I used to play Christmas carols on one of my old school horns."

Cornets are disparate, he says, and no two look the same. They play in the same pitch and yet look so different.

"My wall of horns is paleontology at work," Eldredge says. "It represents a chronology of evolution in design."

In explaining how biological species relate to cultural artifacts, he examines the frequent "improvements" that have been made to the cornet over the past century.

"There was always the goal to present the Ônew and improved' for marketing purposes," Eldredge says with a smile. "But did the so-called improvements actually change the quality of the sound produced by the instrument? Not necessarily."

How the evolution of a trilobite or other species differs from that of a musical instrument is that in living things – or biological species, change is passed on ancestrally, in a strict line of descent. Adaptations in a cornet can occur more laterally, for example, when they are copied by other manufacturers, spreading them faster and more spontaneously.

Eldredge points to the sudden decline in popularity of the cornet in the 20th century as an illustration of extinction and innovation.

"Louis Armstrong switched from the cornet to the trumpet in the 1920s, making a band mainstay a thing of the past," Eldredge says. "So went the dinosaur, replaced by mammals."  

On Darwin

DarwinWhen it comes to the discussion of evolution, for many, Darwin is the man. Eldredge tends to agree, pointing to the expansive perspective of that groundbreaking scientist, but still he redirects attention to even more prospective theories. Eldredge has lectured extensively on Darwin and his theories, and he developed an exhibit on the visionary during his tenure at the Museum of Natural History, which can be viewed on the museum's website today. (amnh.org/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/Darwin)

Eldredge has authored scores of books on evolutionary theory and biodiversity, including The Pattern of Evolution, Life in the Balance and Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life.

When asked whether humans are a blip on the screen in the cycle of the earth's life, Eldredge says yes, but that we should not be alarmed.

The Horn Blows at Midnight

Of course, one has to ask whether Eldredge's fascination with cornets is limited to their history and anatomy.

Eldredge truly finds distinct beauty in each and every one of his cornets but is considering editing his collection and selling off some of the less historically significant instruments. He also says he leaves them in their natural state – for polishing would remove some of the silver.

"I love them all," he says, "but perhaps it is time to review the collection and make these treasures available to others."

A Real Hoot

During an interview with Eldredge, the phone rings and an exuberant neighbor explains that male and female screech owls can be heard hooting in the woods beyond the back yard. Eldredge steps outside to listen, and his eyes twinkle with the excitement of hearing "the couple" communicate beyond. An avid birdwatcher, he is equally fascinated with nature in its environment. Once a scientist, always a scientist.

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