The Eye of the Beholder

Author: By Chet Raymo '58, '64Ph.D.


Edward O. Wilson and Wendell Berry are unlikely opponents in the cultural war. Both men have roots in rural America. Both men are motivated by a love of nature. Both men are prolific writers whose work is represented almost side by side in the The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Both men see environmental catastrophe in the offing if humans continue their wanton ways. Both men champion conservation and biodiversity.

Yet they are at loggerheads on one of the oldest questions of philosophy: What is the nature of the human self?

Two years ago, Edward Wilson, Harvard professor, world-famed entomologist and a founder of the science of sociobiology, took his stand in the best-selling book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. He called for a coming together (consilience) of the arts and sciences on the basis of a scientific understanding of the self.

We are a species of animal that evolved in a particular environment, with behaviors and predispositions shaped for optimum survival in that environment, says Wilson. Even the crowning glory of our species – our large, aware and self-reflective brain – is a survival adaptation. There is no ghost in the machine, no survival of the self beyond the grave, he argues. Free will is an illusion. Our behaviors are constrained by a biological leash, but the leash is long enough to allow a generous measure of personal responsibility.

The most fruitful way to understand the human self is to work from the bottom up: physics, chemistry, biology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology. Even art, religion and morality might be understood as products of our genetic and cultural co-evolution, and therefore they are potentially open to scientific understanding. Explaining life and consciousness will be hugely difficult, but to say that they cannot be explained is defeatist, the lazy modern equivalent of “it’s the will of God.” Humanity, like all of life, is self-assembled, says Wilson. No one brought us here, and no one can help us but ourselves.

Wilson aligns himself with the Enlightenment ideal of reasoned progress. Passion and desire are not the same as truth, he says. The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth (miracles, gods, personal immortality) and discovered another. He reminds us that huge parts of reality are beyond access of our unaided senses, including the very large (the galaxies) and the very small (DNA): “No shaman’s spell or fast upon a sacred mountain can summon the electromagnetic spectrum,” he says. But with science and technology, we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely.

All of which drives Wendell Berry to distraction.

Berry is a farmer and a writer. After an early fling in academics, he returned to his native region of Kentucky in 1965, where he began cultivating the land and putting words on the page. His prodigious literary output includes novels and poetry. His essays on land management, economy and the environment have won him a reputation as one of the great spirits of the environmental movement.

His newest book, Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, is aimed directly at Wilson’s Consilience. Berry accuses Wilson of an arrogant and futile attempt to subjugate the humanities to science and to turn the transcendent human self into a machine. His argument is a passionate restatement of lines from the Romantic poet William Wordsworth: “Our meddling intellect/Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: – /We murder to dissect.” A mystery scheduled for explanation is no longer a mystery, Berry insists, and humans cannot live without mystery. Living creatures cannot be reduced to chemistry and physics, and they will never be fully understood by science. To experience life is not to “figure it out,” but “to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is” – and to be answerable to the claims of eternity.

Whereas Wilson’s view of the world is global and general, Berry opts for locality and particularity. We can be truly human only when we interact with particular people in a particular place; our humanity lies in our individual uniquenesses. He professes to allow science its proper realm but urges suppression of human curiosity – the driving force of science – in favor of folk wisdom.

As for the electromagnetic spectrum and the shaman on the mountain, Berry’s riposte is a little play:

Isaiah (finger in the air and somewhat oblivious of the historical superiority of the modern audience): The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as of the flower of the field.

Edward O. Wilson (somewhat impressed, but nevertheless determined to do his bit for “evolutionary progress”): But . . . but, sir! Are you aware of the existence of the electromagnetic spectrum?

Berry’s implication: What does knowing about the electromagnetic spectrum have to do with being human? We give up on life when we presume to understand it. The most pernicious influence of reductive science is to imagine no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation. Berry grabs his reader by the collar and gives her a hearty shake, shouting Edgar’s line to Gloucester in Shakespeare’s Lear: “Thy life’s a miracle!”

Wilson’s professed humility in the face of life’s complexity is only politeness, says Berry, a thinly disguised imperialistic design on the sovereign territories of art and religion. He accuses science of “proprietariness,” of assuming ownership of what it does not own. He calls instead for “propriety,” a sense of of limitations, of context and of conformity to the usages of traditional society.

Of course, “proprietary” and “propriety” have the same Latin root, meaning “ownership,” and Berry, like Wilson, stakes his own possessive claim for truth. His quarrel with Wilson is an old one: the Romantic versus the Enlightenment. Wordsworth drew the same line in the sand two centuries ago, to no avail; science and technology have enjoyed – and no doubt will continue to enjoy – unimpeded advance. And the gods will continue their retreat.

The stark black-and-white jacket of Wilson’s book suggests something of the hard-edged methodologies of science. The designer of Berry’s book jacket replaced the life-denying black and white with bright pastels and a detail of an Audubon painting of hummingbirds sucking nectar from gorgeous blossoms. The contrasting jackets stack the deck in Berry’s favor. The appeal of Romanticism has always been its hankering for an idealized past, an Edenic world where hummingbirds eternally suck nectar from blossoms, where sickness, violence, poverty and the exploitation of life by life do not exist. Wilson’s equally idealized future may not have the same pastel appeal, but at least it starts in the here and now, and embraces the hard-won knowledge of the galaxies and DNA.

What are we to make of the Wilson-Berry debate, and why does it matter?

Berry sees the split this way: “It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” He casts the debate into religious terms and asks for science to back off and let be. Religion should not attempt to dispute what science has actually proved, he writes, but science should not claim to know what it does not know and should not lay claim on what is empirically unknowable.
Wilson will have none of it. According to him, the great division is between those who try to find order within disorder (the empiricists) and those who upon encountering order try to protest it by creating disorder (the transcendentalists). As for the ultimate outcome of the debate, he is in no doubt: “In the Darwinian contest of ideas, order always wins, because – simply – that is the way the real world works.”

For many of us, negotiating the divide between Wilson and Berry means weighing conflicting demands of the head and the heart. Our intellects are impressed by the headlong successes of science, and we see no intrinsic reason why the empirical method will not continue its triumphant march into the “sovereign” territories of consciousness and will. At the same time our hearts shout “No! Enough.” We recoil from the idea that life and consciousness are merely mechanical, no matter how complex and contingent those mechanical processes might be. We have lived with gods and miracles for so long it is almost impossible to imagine living without them.

The essential tension between Wilson and Berry is suggested by the S word in Berry’s subtitle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Berry’s “superstition,” of course, is Wilson’s assertion that every aspect of human experience is open to empirical study. Wilson does not use the S word, but he might have; Berry’s gods and miracles, he would say, are Paleolithic adaptations that increased our ancestors’ chances of survival in a dicey environment but which have been rendered superstitious by the progress of science.

Voltaire wrote this of superstition: “A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians.” As Voltaire suggests, it isn’t easy to draw the boundaries between wisdom and superstition. One person’s dogma is another person’s nonsense. “Superstition” is about the best word we have for looking down our noses on those who believe something other than what we believe ourselves.

The Romans, who gave us the word, knew exactly what they meant by it. A superstition was anything strange and foreign to the Romans. The Roman writer Plutarch suggested that superstitious people did not use their intelligence when thinking about the gods, which led to fanaticism, and fanatics made bad citizens of the Empire. Christianity was the superstition par excellence, especially as Christians started to become more numerous within the Empire. Of course, when Constantine led the Empire toward Christianity in the 4th century A.D., suddenly superstition was on the other foot. The Greek and Roman gods – Dionysus, Athena, Jupiter, Mars and all the Olympian pantheon – became the new superstition, and it was as superstition that many of us learned the Greco-Roman myths in school.

In these more ecumenical times, we are less inclined to dismiss religious faiths other than our own as superstitious. We tend to reserve the “S” word for such things as black cats bringing bad luck or, in the case of Berry, for the reductionist beliefs of overreaching scientists. Wilson probably considers Berry’s belief in miracles superstitious, although he is too polite to say so.

A little caution is in order on both sides. Even in Roman times, the physician Galen warned his students and colleagues how easy it is to believe merely because we inherit the religious or philosophical beliefs of our parents, teachers or native city. Each of us will be inclined toward the view of either Wilson or Berry at least partly because of accidents of birth, experience or education – even, perhaps, the influence of our genes.

Is there a way to know the truth of the human self that is free of the constraining influences of our personal, cultural and genetic histories? Yes, says Wilson, and that’s what science is all about. Double-blind experiments, reproducible experiments, peer review, unrelenting skepticism and all the rest of the tricks-of-the-trade we call the scientific method are ways to avoid the trap of particularity. No, no, shouts Berry. Explanation is a bucket, not a well. Most of the time, when we have explained something scientifically, we discover leftovers, and those leftovers include most of what is ultimately important.

And so it goes, our heads with Wilson, our hearts with Berry. I’ve always liked the metaphor of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. Increasing the size of the island does not deplete the sea; rather it increases the length of the shoreline along which we might encounter mystery. I am not afraid of the proprietary reach of scientific understanding, nor do I cling to those transcendentalist notions that Wilson considers Paleolithic adaptations. My reverence and awe for nature and for the human self are excited by what we have learned about these things; my humility is sustained by what we have yet to learn. Pope John Paul II said of the relationship between science and religion: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition, and religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” If we take him at his word, we can find a way between the two worlds described by Wilson and Berry. And maybe we will muster the wisdom and the courage to embrace what science tells us about the human self, while at the same time preserving our sense of individuality and self-respect.

Wilson and Berry agree that we need a sacred narrative – a sense of larger purpose – as a guide to the future. Berry looks to narratives that have come down to us from the artists, poets and sacred writers of the past. Wilson, like the Roman Catholic prophets Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry, wants to find our sacred narrative in the history of the universe revealed by science: an evolutionary epic retold as sacred poetry. For myself, I find a more cogent and edifying epic in the evolutionary drama of creation than in the transcendentalist and human-centered cosmologies of the past, and I am prepared to surrender some of the more consoling aspects of the traditional stories in order to find my place in the grand unfolding of the material universe. Yes, the world is mechanical (for want of a better metaphor), but the machines (those creative whirlwinds of stars and molecules) are miraculous.

Consilience and Life Is a Miracle are two brilliant books, by brilliant men, that cast into sharp focus one of the most important debates of our time, or any time. Edward Wilson and Wendell Berry are worthy opponents. But in the only battle that really counts they are natural allies – two life-affirming humanists who speak for knowledge and generosity in the face of the always-present powers of ignorance and greed.

Chet Raymo teaches at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. His latest book is An Intimate Look at the Night Sky.

Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 2002