October 5, 2020

Nature, we have been told, is indifferent toward us. Its fundamental structure as we know it through physics and biology puts to shame our most cherished intuitions about our place in the universe and the meaning of life. Life itself is best understood inertly, physically, mathematically, on the level of information, genetic codes, and evolutionary forces — remote from colloquial notions about the happiness of the chaffinch or the ingenuity of the otter. Science, conceived in this way, is a kind of myth-busting, a project of eroding our folk mythologies about nature and ourselves, of busting anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. It is a method for getting ourselves out of the picture and seeing nature itself.

The primatologist Jane Goodall seemed to think otherwise. When she gave the wild chimpanzees she observed names like David Greybeard, Freud, and Frodo, she opposed the scientific convention of merely numbering animals as a way of securing the researcher’s objectivity. While academic scientists frowned upon her talking about the chimps’ distinct personalities, their mental activities, and emotions, to her this was simply a natural way of relating to the animals and of describing what she saw.

Goodall’s intuition, which is today more widely accepted, reminds us that there may be something unnatural about taking pains to describe nature as unlike us, about seeking to perfect our knowledge of nature by eliminating the knower. Joe Sachs, a translator of Greek classics, approaches the problem like this:

If a bird lands on a branch near us and cocks its head in our direction, chances are we will smile and say ‘hello.’ This is sometimes described, dismissively, as anthropomorphism, sometimes, with more approval, as empathy. Both descriptions seem off base to me. Both imply that I already know what I am; they disagree about whether I am entitled to project that known nature onto the little bundle of bones and feathers in front of me. But is it not possible that this unguarded encounter might be of a more original significance? Might not the bird be one of many mirrors in and through which I begin to encounter myself?

By breaking asunder nature and humankind, we are left on the one hand with a science that seeks to eliminate human subjectivity, casting us as insignificant specks, and on the other hand with a view of humans as “masters and possessors of nature,” on the cusp of escaping evolution’s grasp, endowed by nature with the power to overcome it and bend it to our wills. The two projects are related, as mathematical science offers us the tools for manipulating nature.

A more natural science seeks to heal this fracture. It acknowledges, with Loren Eiseley, that unlike the animals that are “locked safely within their particular endowed natures,” we are in some sense free, for two opposing ends: Man “may give wings to the spirit or reshape himself into something more genuinely bestial than any beast of prey obeying its own nature.” We stretch “beyond visible nature into another and stranger realm.”

And yet, even while we stretch, we are in some sense also at home in the natural realm. “We are protean in many things, and stand between extremes,” writes Eiseley. While nature, in turn, is a realm of its own, and we come to know it sometimes only through feats of self-denial and abstraction, we are also from it and part of it.

We are in need of a more natural science, to borrow a phrase from Leon R. Kass — a science that should illuminate these difficulties rather than seeking to dismiss or finally conquer them. For in trying to overcome them we risk losing not only our own place within the whole but also the sensibilities by which we recognize that perhaps elephants, too, have souls and that all and every life is a precarious miracle.