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
A female gorilla and two babies at the Bronx Zoo