Friday, August 2, 2019

Gift about Life on a Deathbed

What would you want to be given as a gift if you were not likely to live much longer?  Of course, if in pain, medicine to alleviate that suffering would be welcome.  But in this instance, the bedridden man -- Charles Darwin -- had learned to live with a chronic illness through most of his adult life (even during his most fruitful years of scientific research and writing).  So, what turned out to be a welcome gift was a book to read.  And the book was on Darwin's favorite subject:  Nature.

Ancient (but not perfect) knowledge passed down.
in an
old Latin translation
The gift, from William Ogle, was his new translation of a work by Aristotle titled The Parts of Animals.  That ancient Greek scientist's collection of observations about animals would have been of particular interest to Darwin.  Even though Aristotle's way of doing science was not grounded in the experimental methods of modern science, Aristotle's collection of investigations about animals had been part of the corpus of Western education for centuries.  Aristotle recognized the temptation researchers might have of not investigating animals they might consider useless, ugly, or even disgusting.  Therefore, in the book Darwin had received, Aristotle cautioned:
"For this reason we should not be childishly disgusted at the examination of the less valuable animals.
For in all natural things there is something marvelous."
Those words would have gone straight to Darwin's heart because they mirrored his own endless fascination with Nature's intricacies (something Darwin had commented on in the eloquent closing passage of his own book Origin of Species).

Thanks to the rapid growth of the railway system in England during the 19th century, frequent correspondence by mail had become a mainstay of life among many Brits, and Darwin had throughout his career relied upon a network of correspondents (some of whom became good friends) in order to ground his scientific studies.  Darwin always wrote cordially, expressing his appreciation.  And now, he did so again, expressing how even near the end of his own life he was grateful for the new perspective the gift of a book had provided.  Darwin wrote to Ogle, who had sent him the book:
"From quotations I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle's merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was.  Linnaeus and Cuvier
 [two pivotal 18th-century biologists] have been my two gods... 
but they were mere school-boys to old Aristotle."

William Ogle, upon receiving Darwin's letter with its complimentary remark about Aristotle, wrote back, saying:
"Thank you for your kind and eulogistic letter re [Aristotle's book].
It gave me much pleasure.  I am glad also to have added a third person to your gods."

Darwin died only three days after Ogle sent off his letter.  But Ogle's, Darwin's, and Aristotle's lives had all become tied together through a chain of correspondence.  And also through a mutual fascination with the forms of animal life in which Aristotle had found "something marvelous."

Virtually countless animals to see!

Are there any animals you find particularly fascinating?  Which ones?

(All of the quotations are taken from the "Aristotle" entry by James G. Lennox in
Evolution:  The First Four Billion Years, ed. Michael Ruse, et al., © 2009.  p. 427.)
(The images are in the public domain.)

Friday, July 5, 2019

A Better Question about Beauty

What do we see?
If anywhere today the matter of beauty comes up for discussion, almost inevitably someone asks, "Is beauty just in the eye of the beholder?"  (Sometimes, that question will be simply implied by someone repeating the stock phrase that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder.")  In our heavily scientific age, that phrase -- "eye of the beholder" -- casts a cloud of suspicion over beauty.  Modern science seeks empirical observations that can be made by multiple scientists.  In contrast, two people observing the same object can disagree about whether that object is beautiful.  And so, there is an air of suspicion about whether beauty is "really out there" or is just something our minds project upon the world.  Beauty is not easily nailed down.

Philosophers today spin in circles asking questions about beauty.  And most modern theologians usually don't even address the matter.  Meanwhile, ordinary people throughout the world make beauty a part of their lives.  And find beauty in Nature, and are inspired by it.  They pick flowers and make art.  They listen to birds and create songs.  They are not fooled by philosophical questions.  The contemporary writer Elaine Scarry makes a critical point:
[Beauty] seems to incite, even to require the act of replication.... It makes us draw it,
 take photographs of it, or describe it to other people."
Perhaps we would get deeper into appreciating and understanding beauty if instead of the usual question about "eye of the beholder" we asked why beauty entrances us.  And why we humans are drawn toward imitating it.

Another stock phrase that can be a stifling cliche is that "beauty is only skin-deep."  Admittedly, that phrase can remind us that we can be misled by some person's superficial beauty.  But the phrase "skin-deep" can discourage us from looking more deeply into the nature of beauty's power upon us -- including it's ability to bring us closer to our best true selves.  And its ability to draw us closer to the Divine.

Forgotten thoughts about beauty.
Before modern times, the eighteenth-century Christian theologian Jonathan Edwards believed that beauty was an essential part of his experience of God, who was revealed through the natural world.  He wrote:
"When we are delighted with flowery meadows and
 gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that
 we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ ... his love and purity."

A few contemporary theologians are beginning to wake up to the fact that in modern times their field of theology has neglected the topic of beauty.  One such writer is the contemporary religion professor Frank Burch Brown.  He emphasizes that:
"Aesthetic experience is a pervasive factor in our sense of the sacred,
[and] in our delight in creation."

Asking the more productive question about beauty -- the one about our desire to replicate beauty -- is not just an academic matter.  It is a critical matter because we are confronted daily with so much ugliness.  Especially in the way humans often behave toward one another.  Everything from terrorists to ugly internet comments.  That gives us even greater reason to cultivate forms of beauty.

Beauty is not just something we perceive (or don't perceive).  It can also be something we do. A person can display beauty through loving and giving.  When we create beauty, and when we act in beautiful ways, we align our lives with the natural beauty in the world.  And thus transform ourselves.
~ ~ ~

What experiences of beauty in Nature linger in your memory?

(The Elaine Scarry quotation is taken from her book On Beauty and Being Just, © 1999, p. 3.)
(The Edwards quotation is taken from Open Secret by Alister E. McGrath, © 2009, p. 284.)
(The Frank Burch Brown quotation by is from “Aesthetics” in the New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology,
 Donald W. Musser & Joseph L. Price, eds. © 2003. pp. 19 & 21.)
(Both pictures are in the public domain.)

Friday, June 7, 2019

As Busy as... You Know What

The artist's and scientist's eye as one.
Melissographia (1625)
Our contemporary academic fields chop our one world into many pieces.  We classify a matter as falling within the area of history or biology or religion.  But such categorization can obscure the wholeness of our complex lives.  I was reminded of that drawback when I read the news story about three beehives of honeybees having survived the terrible fire in Notre-dame Cathedral in 2019. As the beehives on the roof had been part of a project to restore Paris's  population of critical pollinators, was the news story about environmentalism?  Or was it a story about biology because it testified to bees' natural durability?  Or, given the centuries-long history of that cathedral -- involving religious, political, and secular events -- does the bee story fall within the category of "history"?

Even within our category of "history," we create sub-categories.  And textbooks on the history of Christianity will be employed more often by religion professors than by the history department.  That sidelining of church history in our secular age means that the historical contributions of the church to preserving bees might go overlooked.  But monks and other church employees whose names have been forgotten cultivated bees for both tasty honey and the tallow to make church candles.  The environmental writer Paul Shepard informs us that:
"In Wittenburg, Germany, before the [Protestant] Reformation, some churches used 35,000 pounds of wax a year. On Candlemas Eve, hives were decked with ribbon and a song...beginning, ' Bees awake.' [was] sung as people carried wax candles,"

Bees have also navigated their way into the field of literary lore.  Many a Sherlockian enthusiast knows that Sherlock Holmes dreamed of eventually leaving stimulating London to retire to the English countryside -- where he would enjoy taking care of honeybee hives.

Bee geometry.
We also need to reserve a page in the mathematics textbook for bee geometry.  That is because the distinctive six-sided perimeter around each cell of honeycomb fits the greatest number of those tiny compartments into a hive.  It requires some higher mathematics to prove that an equivalent number of eight-sided cells would require greater space.  How do the bees "know" to go for hexagons? What pressures drive them?  To answer that puzzle, we would also need specialists in animal behavior.  And maybe a physicist too.

Bees also show up in the field of genetics.  Forget the familiar picture of two sexes coming together to create offspring with a 50-50 chance of being male or female.  In the peculiar world of honeybees, only the queen lays eggs, the numerous worker bees are undeveloped females, and the very few males that exist come from unfertilized eggs!

Bees have also buzzed their way into art books.  The complicated clash of circumstances and
personalities that occurred between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII is too often misrepresented
Golden bees survive grace a tomb.
 as a stereotyped battle of truth vs. ignorance.  But if we follow the path of bees, we would find that before their conflict, Urban had praised Galileo's scientific writings and was a promoter of the arts and architecture.  Urban was from the Barberini family, whose signature symbol was bees.  A triad of bees mark many buildings in Roman built under that Pope's patronage; and golden bees grace Urban's tomb.

So numerous have been bees interconnections with the human race that we could develop a course titled "Honeybee History."  But then we'd have to argue over whether it should be handled by the history, biology, or environmental studies department.  Any professors up for co-teaching an interdisciplinary course?
~ ~ ~

Specialization suits bees quite well. Do you think it suits humans?

(The Paul Shepard quotation is from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, © 1996, p. 124.)

Friday, May 3, 2019

Is there a Purpose for a Porpoise?

"Being put under water is fine for fish but bad for zebras."

A philosopher with perceptive insights.
Mary Midgley
That example, presented by the philosopher Mary Midgley, was such an unexpected scenario that it brought a smile to my face.  Although humorous, what she states is obviously true once it is stated.  And that was her intent -- to provide an example so obvious that it would support a more general point.  As she put it before giving her zebra example:
"Our own full of organisms,
beings which all steadily pursue
their own characteristic ways of life,
beings that can only be understood by grasping
the distinctive thing that each of them
is trying to be and do."
And behind that statement (which could be demonstrated by taking a tour of a zoo) lay Midgley's even broader philosophical point:
          "It is obvious that our own riddled with purpose."

Why was Mary Midgley having to jump through so many argumentative hoops (such as imagining zebras under water) in order to support her main point that there was purpose on our planet, and therefore purpose to be found in the universe?  It was because so many scientists with high media-profiles over the past few decades have been claiming that the world is without purpose.  One of the most quoted of such claims has been that of the atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, who wrote:
"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect
if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good,
nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

The whole problem can be traced back to the limitations our modern form of science placed upon itself as it began to develop in the 17th century: In order to obtain objective information that was clear and precise, it set out to exclude questions about value, meaning, and purpose.  The consequence is that if you more and more view the world solely through the lens of science’s knowledge, the world can easily come to look as if there is no purpose in it.  Similarly, it can come to look as if the world contains no values, consisting of only those objective facts science extracts from it.  But again, as Midgley points out:
"Value, in fact, is not an extra feature pasted onto the facts by human observers. 
It is a real emergent property of situations in the world. 
Each kind of organism acts according to its own values,...
the characteristic pattern of needs and capacities which determines its direction."

How many pieces?
What can make an overall pattern hard to discern is that there is such a multitude of entities in the world, each with its own capacities and direction.  Even though science can provide us fascinating and sometimes useful information about the world, we have to enlarge our vision beyond the limitations of science to perceive the larger patterns of the world.  We need more than scientific facts.  We also need a philosophical or spiritual vision that discerns a larger pattern in which facts and values coalesce, allowing meaning to emerge.

Another philosopher, Max Oelschlaeger, provides an example, writing:
"By using the telescope, Galileo’s eyes gathered additional light,
and the telescopic image itself was magnified, thus extending his mental vision....
What he lost was the sweeping field of view of the naked eye astronomy....
And perhaps, in his intense concentration,
he lost also the sounds and smells of the night
and the awareness of himself as a conscious man
beholding a grand and mysterious stellar spectacle."

~ ~ ~

(Do you have a way of "stepping back" to gain a broader, more meaningful perspective on our world?)

(The quotations by Mary Midgley are from "Why The Idea Of Purpose Won't Go Away,"
originally published in Philosophy, Oct., 2011. pp. 558 & 559.)
(The quotation by Richard Dawkins is from River Out of Eden, © 1995. p. 155.)
(The quotation by Max Oelschlaeger is from The Idea of Wilderness, © 1991. p. 78.)

Friday, April 5, 2019

Waste Not, Want Not

It's hard not to make jokes about it . But many of the jokes cannot be repeated on this website, given the respectful tone toward readers it aims to maintain.  We do have a high-sounding word for those low jokes: "scatological."  Yes, I'm talking about feces, manure, dung.

Not trying to be a clown.Perhaps a courteous way to begin to talk about it—especially in a website about Nature—is to talk about dung beetles.  When observing them, the comedy, instead of being scatological, can become lighthearted.  And, indeed, it is hard not to make jokes about dung beetles once you know that the oversized ball they comically struggle to take home is made out of manure.  When the manure the dung beetle locates is rolled in the usually sandy soil in which the beetle lives, it usually becomes a perfect sphere, sometimes larger in diameter than the beetle in length. As if to add another gag to its comic act, the beetle will often walk on its forelimbs, pushing the ball backwards with its rear legs.

There is, however, a seriousness of purpose behind the act.  The aim of the beetle's often difficult struggle is to get the ball into a burrow, where the beetle's eggs laid into the sphere will incubate in the decomposing heat of the manure. That choice of a material for a nursery also means that there will be ready-made food right at the mouths of the larvae once they hatch.

The most famous of entomologists.It is so fascinating for naturalists (or Nature lovers) to watch the dung beetle's maneuvering that they inspired the classic opening essay in Jean-Henri Fabre's ten-volume book on entomology, the study of insects.  He wrote of a group of them:
"What excitement over a single patch of Cow-dung! 
Never did adventurers hurrying from
the four corners of the earth
display such eagerness
in working a Californian claim."

Now that I've coyly talked about insects, I can return to my more delicate subject.  Viewed from a wider perspective than the several square yards a dung beetle inhabits, the matter of manure takes on larger implications.  Life on this finite planet could not exist if one species' waste did not become another species' raw material.  Moreover, the long-term quality of human civilization will depend in part upon how adept we become at recycling what we would have otherwise considered to be just trash or waste.

Given the critical nature of caring about where things go once we think we have gotten rid of them, the content of that beetle's prized ball might not be a bad place to begin our reflections. We humans, for good reason, do not talk too much about what we flush down the toilet. (One TV talk-show host in the early days of television even got disciplined for making a joke about what was demurely called a "water closet.")  Nevertheless, much could be revealed about the practical challenges of building a human civilization if we examined how humans have dealt with such waste.  Although I've never encountered a copy of the book, I do know that the nonfiction writer Lawrence Wright has written a book titled Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water Closet.

Being economical.
house in Tibet with manure-brick wall
People who have economically poorer lives in traditional cultures live out the meaning of "Waste not, want not."  In some societies, animal dung is even shaped into bricks, dried in the sun, and used as fuel.  Or even to make houses!  Mind you, I'm not suggesting that such a method of house-construction be widely adopted.  But such ingenious uses of even the most distasteful waste (as that little beetle knows) can help remind us that Nature is the Great Recycler. And it must be.

~ ~ ~

Have these reflections lead you to any thoughts about life?

(The quotation by Fabre is from his Souvenirs Entomologiques.)