There is a grandeur in this view of life…

7 09 2007

Gorilla
A female gorilla at the Bronx Zoo.

It is often all-too-easy to forget about the wonder that is in nature when one becomes embroiled in the culture war surrounding evolution and creationism. The battles are fought in public classrooms, sundry media outlets, and (perhaps most of all) the internet, but those who do recognize the intricacy and beauty of evolution should not forget to step back every once in a while and look at what so-inspired Darwin in the first place. Nature offers up more treasures and wonders than I could ever fully appreciate during my short tenure on this planet, and without this sense of unity and amazement science can quickly turn into a rather dry and forbidding set of mental exercises.

Aldo Leopold recognized this problem all too well. In his essay “Song of the Gavilan”, collected in the A Sand County Almanac (which should be required reading for any naturalist), Leopold tells of how bright minds are often told to ignore the “music” of nature;

There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for the dismemberment is called a university.

A professor may pluck the strings of this own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets.

Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands. One by one the parts are thus stricken from the songs of songs. If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content.

Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. The great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may. One of the facts hewn to by science is that every river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic. That the good life on any river may likewise depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive, is a form of doubt not yet entertained by science.

It would be a mistake to paint all practicing scientists with such a broad brush, but the danger of becoming so objective that the melodies of songbirds and the soft rushing of streams become muted is a very real one. This is strange, especially because it was from wonder that science was born, an attempt to explain what had hitherto been subjugated beneath superstition and religion as it exists, not how we may wish it to be. Still, despite the move away from superstition and natural theology, especially since the writings of Darwin came crashing into the public consciousness, religion attempts to retain a hold on “the birds of the air,” “the beasts of the field,” and “every thing that creepeth upon the earth.” In a recent post on the evolution/creationism debate, the author of the blog Doxoblogy opined;

I’ve got only this to say…looking at creation will inevitably point you to an ‘eternal power and divine nature’ that exists beyond us. Looking in Scripture will introduce this ‘eternal power and divine nature’ to you as the Creator God to whom we owe our love and worship (Romans 1:16-2:11). The God of creation is also the God of Scripture and He has a Son, Jesus.

Clearly there is a sense of awe operating here, and there are seemingly countless flash-animated greeting cards, books, videos, and other resources enforcing the notion that every aggregate of soil, blade of grass, or molecule of water practically screams that life was created by the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible. Such arguments have even become politically fashionable, allowing current presidential candidate John McCain, in an attempt to eat his cake and have it too, to say “I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also” when asked if he “believed” in evolution. Such a notion clearly points to subjective notions of beauty, as McCain did not say “When I look at a lamprey or a hagfish, I see the hand of God at work.” The overall association of God with the aesthetically pleasing could explain why Thomas Kinkade paintings, which differ so little that I can scarcely tell one from another, as a staple in evangelical Christian households. Perhaps there are some on the fringe that would prefer to think of a tapeworm or liver fluke when contemplating the glory of God, but the vast majority of creeping, crawling, sucking, oozing, and pulsating things on the planet are not generally thought of as being “first in the ways of God.” Even Darwin expressed his doubts about a Creator that was seemingly so cruel. In a famous letter to the American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin confided;

I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larvae] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

While generally forgotten today, the view that nature is filled with goodness or pleasurable things was, as far as I currently understand, put forth by William Paley in Natural Theology, one of Paley’s core beliefs being that the ability to feel pleasure (and not just pain) was evidence of a beneficent Creator. Still, the understanding that Darwin helped usher humanity, albeit kicking and screaming, into was an understanding of nature that is neither inherently good nor evil. The world is not “for” mankind just as it is not expressly for the benefit of water beetles, Cape Buffalo, or the Northern Flicker. If it were otherwise the world could perhaps divided into creatures that were “good” and others that were “evil,” but no clear distinction exists nor has it ever; attributing such labels to the world around us only speaks to our own ignorance and hubris.

Sometimes I have to wonder if those who propose to have seen God in nature have truly spent any time out in nature or studying its diversity. A poster of some far-flung locale at sunset with one of the Psalm’s printed on the bottom is not understanding nature, a motley organization of life that (try as we might) we are still very much a part of, and even the most repulsive or disgusting of creatures has a worth that does not rely on our “refined” tastes. When an animal dies, insects and bacteria take advantage of the bonanza, putrefying and decomposing the body , beginning the process that will return the creature to the earth. If special circumstances occur, it may well see the light of day again as a fossil, but more likely than not it was be completely broken up, the accumulation of energy and elements in its body being transferred into other organisms and into the ground, allowing different forms of life to flourish. This does not make a maggoty, decomposing carcass any more attractive (or smell any more fragrant), but if we divorce it from our rather superficial requirements of beauty, we can gain an understanding of nature that previously eluded us.

Perhaps my words are only those of a young man, “green” in terms of experience and landlocked in a land of impervious surface and strip malls. Such inexperience may hinder my perceptions, but when I look closely at nature I see neither angels nor demons, God and the Devil being absent from the crashing of the waves along the shore or the lighting strikes of a late-August thunderstorm. This does not mean, however, that I view nature divorced from any sense of awe or deeper emotional feeling, and I would imagine that many of my readers here would tell you the same. When I was covered in wet muck of the Inversand Marl Pit, my heart skipped a beat as a pulled out a chocolate-colored bone fragment that had been kept snug in the greensand for at least 65 million years; my mind reeled at what I could have discovered (and what else might remain buried), and I had to hold back my excitement as I asked my professor if I had really found bone or not. Any book describing the adventures and work of a more professional and seasoned paleontologist or field scientist will reveal much the same thing; objectivity is necessary for the sake of accuracy, but it often comes after a rush of excitement or amazement at a new observation or discovery.

This post is a bit of a throw-away, however, as Charles Darwin long-ago succinctly summed up the thesis of my long argument;

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. – Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection

Gorillas
A female gorilla and two babies at the Bronx Zoo

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18 responses

7 09 2007
Dan

Wow – great posts lately, between this and your post on convergence!

7 09 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the compliment, Dan. I actually thought that this one was a bit off-the-cuff being that I didn’t really research anything for it, but I’m glad that so many people have been enjoying it. I definitely appreciate the kind words, although I must say that you, by far, have the coolest little comment icon I think I’ve ever seen.

7 09 2007
Dan

True, but sometimes prose (as opposed to the technical science we usually read/write in the sciences) is best written off the cuff.

Thanks on the icon!

8 09 2007
John Pieret

the view that nature is filled with goodness or pleasurable things was, as far as I currently understand, put forth by William Paley in Natural Theology

While Paley’s book was, as Francisco Ayala called it, “the most extensive, authoritative and beautifully written argument from design,” the design argument for God goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas’ “Fifth Way” and, in some ways at least, to Aristotle.

And people were refuting Paley even before he wrote Natural Theology, most notably, David Hume. I happen to have written a post about Hume’s demolition of the argument from design that touches on the ugly aspects (from our viewpoint) of the universe and what it might say about the nature of God.

Let’s see if I can get your link thingie to work:

8 09 2007
John Pieret

Let’s see if I can get your link thingie to work:

Nope. Ah, weel. It’s called “Anthropomorphites Strut Upon the Stage.”

8 09 2007
laelaps

John; I definitely agree that the “argument from design” was not unique to Paley and was contentious long before Darwin, I just had never heard the “argument from pleasure” previously. Everyone has heard of the watchmaker argument, but until I read Natural Theology I didn’t know that Paley’s most aesthetic arguments seem to be just as important to him (even though they’re largely forgotten, at least conciously, today).

For anyone who wants to read John’s excellent post (and you well should), just click here.

8 09 2007
John Pieret

Ah! I started off on one thought and wound up finishing another. I’m not sure either how old the argument from pleasure is but Hume did discuss the “necessity” for it to maintain God’s beneficence, with Cleanthes stating:

The only method of supporting divine benevolence (and it is what I willingly embrace) is to deny absolutely the misery and wickedness of man. Your representations are exaggerated: Your melancholy views mostly fictitious: Your inferences contrary to fact and experience. Health is more common than sickness: Pleasure than pain: Happiness than misery. And for one vexation which we meet with, we attain, upon computation, a hundred enjoyments.

Hume has Philo say that Leibnitz was the first to deny the misery of humans. Leibnitz did maintain that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, which got him parodied as Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s novel Candide. No doubt Paley used his considerable talents of persuasion to convince his readers that Leibnitz was right.

10 09 2007
Hasufin

I’d like to think that a wise person can step back, and recognize that one’s own concept of “beauty” doesn’t necessarily apply to the world at large, and that one might realize the… damn, I’m utterly failing to find non-cliche adjectives here… the just plain coolness of a system that balances itself so perfectly.

Objectivity doesn’t have to mean a failure to appreciate beauty, but rather the ability to change criteria at need.

However, try as I might, lampreys still look nasty.

11 09 2007
Ed Darrell

Aldo Leopold recognized this problem all too well. In his essay “Song of the Gavilan”, collected in the A Sand County Almanac (which should be required reading for any naturalist), Leopold tells of how bright minds are often told to ignore the “music” of nature

Heck, it ought to be required reading for all theologians, for all creationists, and standard study in Sunday school classes, too.

Here’s a scary test: Check your local library, see if they have a copy. If they do, see how often it’s checked out.

Scarier test: See if they’ve got a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The explanations exist, but often anti-science groups have succeeded in censoring the facts.

11 09 2007
Paul

And yet, someone, somewhere, created NSync to be pleasing to the eye and ear of somebody. Perhaps God works the same way, and lampreys are the NSync of the animal world – not to everyone’s taste, but someone has to love them…

Could that be the worst analogy in history? I think so…

The beauty is in the balance and the fact that it all works. Even the maggoty carcasses – circle of life and all that.

I don’t think Leibnitz ever denied the misery of humans, just maintained that this was the best of all possible worlds – “best” not implying goodness, merely superiority – that out of all the possible worlds that could exist (a concept ahead of it’s time surely – parallel universes?) a benevolent diety would choose the best one that could exist, and therefore this world is the best of those available (the best of a bad bunch?), warts (and lampreys) and all!

Although looking at the state of the world, this does become akin to asking what is the best of all possible body parts to have chopped off…

(Another truly lousy analogy – I am on fire today…)

11 09 2007
laelaps

Ed; Good idea, although I’m not too hopeful about Leopold’s or Carson’s books getting the attention they deserve. In fact, because I buy most of my books used, I know that many libraries have actually withdrawn or thrown out absolutely wonderful books that could do a lot to illuminate young minds. Just yesterday I received two that had been discarded from libraries in Texas, the book Bones for Barnum Brown being an oft-forgotten gem of a book that is an excellent addition to any library. Even at the public library in my own city of New Brunswick, the science/nature section is small and a bit outdated, which is why I started trying to make up my own instead of having to wait 3 weeks for an inter-library loan whenever I wanted something.

Paul; Thanks for the comment. You’re right that there is a beauty in nature in that everything works together, despite the violence (or even grotesqueness) we often find. Some aspects might be repulsive, but they are all integrated, and even though I’m loathe to use the phrase “circle of life” such a concept does hold true. Still, I think the overall appreciation of nature is sometimes a bit superficial; while I don’t think lampreys (to continue with the example) are beautiful like a sunrise is beautiful, I do appreciate them for what their are and their history. If they are divorced from their ecology and history, however, they seem to be little more than a scourge on their prey, and the phrase “rasping tongue” is enough to turn most people off to agnathans in general.

11 09 2007
Paul

Lampreys, rasping tongues…

The NSync analogy might not be that bad afterall…

22 10 2007
tiefer blogroll | tiefes leben

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