“By pleasure drawn from discovery of new truths, the scientist is part poet, and by pleasure drawn from new ways to express old truth, the poet is part scientist. In this sense science and the creative arts are foundationally the same.” (101)
- E. O. Wilson Letters to a Young Scientist (2013)
“We are walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes. This Darwin has taught us. The human eye, the brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past. And this biological inheritance has enabled us to build a new inheritance: a cultural ascent, the collective endowment of generations.” (3)
- Helena Cronin The Ant and the Peacock (1991)
Walking in the woods this evening I was struck by the stark beauty of the leaf-less trees, ready to bud, and the dry ground waiting for its next watering; ‘patient’ (so I imagined it) for the wetting that will bring forth a new crop of lichens, mosses, flowers and seedlings. The browns were prevailing. Little green leaves were just stretching out from their buds on the low bushes and middling sized trees. These always leaf out before the woodland canopy, and so get a jump start on the summer’s rites of greening.
As I walked, I thought how much I love the word ‘earthen.’ It reminds me of my connection to the soil beneath my feet; to dust and clay and mud and – at a level much further down – all of the basic elements out of which the cosmos is made. Thinking of myself as ‘earthen’ aids my reflections on being a manifestation of those same elements – Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Calcium, etc. – for in this awareness I have a poetic and psychological link to the depths of Nature and my own being-in-becoming. For me, ‘meaning’ is rooted in the soils beneath my feet and, by extension, in the most fundamental ‘stuff’ of Earth & Cosmos. I am earthen.
An earthen meaning flows from one’s consciousness of being “of the Earth” and is given context by learning, understanding and meditating on the ‘Big Story’ of the Cosmos and the Epic of Evolution.[i] As science now reveals it, the universe began with an event called ‘The Big Bang’[ii] – the whole of space and time in a singularity – which expanded, cooled, gave us the universe as we now perceive it and led to the emergence of life; if not on many worlds, at least on this one green planet. Life on Earth has evolved over the course of billions of years into the diversity of life forms now alive on the planet with us. We are one manifestation of this process. To explore the particulars of the science of the various stages of this ‘Big Story’ is to come to stand in wonder & awe of what-is—without need for superstitions, myths or cults.
We each have a part in this Story. Every living thing, every inanimate object, every phenomenon in the universe exists as an expression of the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe according to the laws of Nature. The evidence we have now points to an age of the universe as about 13.5 or so billion years. The age of our planet is around 4.5 billion years, and life has been evolving for about 3.8 billion years.[iii] To meditate on the universe and the evolution of life according to these revelations is to experience an earthen humility in the face of grandeur, mystery and possibilities as yet beyond reckoning! _For we don’t know everything, and probably never will; thus the process of discovery will be ongoing until we eventually exhaust the limits of our own abilities as human animals to explore, discover and understand anything new. Yet the Universe – and ourselves as well – will always be a Mystery; no matter how much we come to understand.
Science has discovered and will continue to disclose the universe and the evolution of life on Earth as we proceed with rigorous data collection, exploration, theorizing and experiments. The Cosmological Tale – which arises from this process – provides a context in which to set our lives, thus giving us a framework for meaningful action and self-reflection. It also provides a reason for mutual love, care and responsibility toward all living things. From the Big Bang to our own humble existence on this planet, everything is linked. We are all a part of one huge tapestry of being-in-becoming. The inanimate stuff in the universe ‘evolved’ and is connected through the basic physical laws; the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism and gravity. Life emerged from these laws as they acted upon the physical conditions of the early Earth. As Ursula Goodenough so elegantly put it:[iv]
“Life can be explained by its underlying chemistry, just as chemistry can be explained by its underlying physics.” (28)
My life has broader significance to the extent that I understand it within the framework of cosmological and biological evolution. It is meaningful to contemplate our place in Nature and the Cosmos, and our place provides a basic ground for ethics; We are all earthen. We are all connected. Every human being and all living things subsist on this planet together, and our survival is interconnected. Self-understanding – in these scientific terms – is the beginning of wisdom, and as E. O. Wilson has so succinctly said:[v]
“Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.” (15)
As I meditate upon the Cosmic Tale I realize that this Grand Story is not just ‘for me.’ It is available to every human being on the planet; in any culture—regardless of gender, nationality or creed. Science – as a method of discovery; revealing the nature of Nature as it is in-itself, persistently causing us to cast off once treasured ideas of what it ‘should’ be or what we would ‘like it to be’ – is transcultural. While ‘invented’ in the ancient world and while having been developed and advanced in the West from the Renaissance onward, it is now practiced internationally and is seen by many people in various cultures around the world as a liberating force, helping its practitioners and those who learn from them to jettison superstition and false beliefs in favor of an understanding of how the world really is and how it really works.[vi]
The Cosmic Tale – as generated out of the revelations of science – is ever open to being narratively tinkered-with as science progresses in its understanding of Earth & Cosmos. It is the ‘largest’ Story our species has ever constructed. No matter how deep I go into the story of how the Cosmos began and has evolved, no matter how deeply I explore the evolutionary history of life and our own evolution as a species, no matter how far I go into understanding myself as a human animal through cognitive science, neurology and genetics, I never come up against that deadening sense that the story is too limited; as I did, repeatedly, when immersed in the mythologies of various religions. _And the scientific “Tale of Creation’ is confirmable based on evidence. It is not promulgated or enforced by authority. The evidence for it can be learned by anyone willing to take the time to study and learn its narratives and discover the facts grounding it. It is also not an ‘absolute,’ a story ‘written in stone for all time’ – because new evidence can always change the narrative.
Ancient societies had their Big Stories; the mythologies of all major religions have had ‘creation’ or ‘origin’ stories that framed the known universe and gave their participants a sense of belonging; allowing them to relate to and understand the world around them in ‘cosmic’ terms. But these stories were not grounded in an understanding of the Earth & Cosmos that was confirmable; nor were their claims for the most part demonstrable. Perhaps they were the best stories people could come up with at the time, based on non-rigorous or testable observations, but they do not stand up to scientific scrutiny; at least in terms of their cosmological claims. As science progressed, these ancient cosmological stories have turned out to be fiction rather than history; and while it is as fiction that their truest value can be relished—as I’ve suggested in other blogs at this site—they must take a supporting role within the larger Cosmological Story if we are to wisen with regard to how Nature really is. That is, what they might reveal about human nature and our existential situation can still be embraced, once they are set within the New Story of Cosmological and Biological Evolution.[vii]
Where the Scientific Tale is concerned, there is always more to explore, more to discover and more to know. I am continually challenged to change and grow and deepen as I discover more and more about Nature as it is in itself. As a Poetic Naturalist – as someone living by an aesthetic immersion in life, informed by the revelations of science and therefore aware that I am made of the same elements as everything else in the universe – I live a meaningful life in a way comparable to that of practitioners of mythological poetics and religious believers who often experience their life’s meaning through their ‘Big Stories,’ however now out of date. Yet the Cosmological Tale is bigger than those stories, and while it ‘disproves’ them as empirical accounts of the world, it can also be a ground through which all of the various mythologies and religions of the world could be brought together and affirmed; the truths of one another's stories being admitted—if their adherents could but get over their narrow-minded, tribal self-understanding and the erroneous belief in the ‘necessary historicity’ of their ancient cosmologies.
The Cosmological Tale – from the Big Bang to us – is a ‘Big Story’ about the objective dimension of the Earth & Cosmos; the physical world—what I have long called ‘The Given’ because we cannot change it just by thinking about it differently. (Though, as a friend once pointed out, thinking about it differently – i.e., as when science makes new discoveries and we accept them – changes our perception and understanding of it, though it doesn’t change.) If we allow that the mythological stories – exp. creation tales, etc. – of the plenitude of cultural traditions around the world in which people are invested – are fictional and not historical accounts of the world (though they may make some legitimate historical references), then these stories can still legitimately function as literary and poetic texts and tales that may reveal various degrees of inter-subjective (at the social and cultural level) and subjective (at the personal level) wisdom about human existence, derived as a culmination of a cultural tradition’s living and lived experience.
Thus there can be a more local, historical, cultural and even religious sense of meaning set within the larger felt-meaning gleaned from meditating upon the Earth & Cosmos as understood in scientific terms. I would also affirm that there can be a sense of meaning derived from participating in fictional literary and filmic worlds; such as Middle Earth (Tolkien’s world), the universe of Star Wars or Star Trek or the worlds derived from superhero narratives. Many people’s personal stories come to be deeply inter-linked with these literary and fictional worlds, as presented in novels, films and other narrative media. They derive a sense of meaning from them as well as gaining wisdom in living out their lives with exemplars of ‘how to be human’ such as Gandolf, Ob1 Kenobi, Wonder Woman, Captain Picard, and so many others, as their imaginary mentors and companions. The tales of these characters lives – just like those found in traditional mythologies and religions – explore the human condition; its strengths and frailties, the possibility of goodness and all of the ways people can go wrong in life or else make something of their brief existence.
This is the value of mythology – especially religious mythologies, i.e., those from the great World Religions as well as ancient Pagan religions – and it is as fictional guides to life that these stories can be embraced within the broader narrative of Cosmic and Biological Evolution. So long as a person doesn’t mistake their mythologies or fictional stories for historical accounts (as Fundamentalists do), these stories can function to give insight, contribute to an understanding of the human condition and facilitate wisening in the midst of life. Being earthen and understanding oneself as a manifestation of Earth & Cosmos in scientific terms; being connected to the rest of life and the universe and its origin, becoming and destiny in objective terms—does not preclude fictional literary and mythological stories from consideration, so long as those stories are set within the Cosmological Tale and are understood to be fictional. Earthen meaning can be derived from the objective story but also from many of those more local stories from human cultural traditions, once they are ‘de-historicized’ and set within the current ‘Big Story’ of Earth and Cosmos as revealed by science.
While I am an amateur science enthusiast – being into science and mathematics over the last 15 years has so changed my life; it has made such a positive difference in the quality of my existence – I am also an enthusiast of the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of experience and self-understanding. I have learned a great deal from the religious stories and mythologies in which I have believed, once upon a time, and in which I participated for about 30 years of my life. I have imaginative worlds in which I play and go adventuring (as can be seen in my blog from last December, “The Winter Nemeton”). I enter into filmic worlds – when the characters engage me and the story is well constructed and seems significant to me – and glean as much insight from them as from dreaming in my own created worlds (like Ross County and the Whittiers, including the tales of the Dier). But I am grounded in the Scientific Cosmological Tale and I understand enough about it – from an amateur enthusiast’s point of view – to embrace it be transformed by it. My own fictional worlds help me flesh out my path through life, but they are always, now, set within the larger Scientific Story of Creation, which is my primary guide to earthen meaning.
And when I walk in the woods or go hoofing it off-trail along streams and marshes, I experience the beauty of Nature according to my knowledge of the Scientific Cosmological Tale and reflect on what I see along the way and my own experience within that ‘Cosmic’ framework.[viii] For me, it also takes imagination acting upon my scientific knowledge to experience Nature and understand it locally in terms of the 13.5 billion year history of the universe. Imagination grounded in devout study and regulated by earthen humility; this makes possible a deepening sense of wonder & awe as I walk along the trail or step wisely through the mud at the edge of a swamp. All along the way, my experience is informed by my understanding of the revelations of science and is then fleshed out through my aesthetic sense. And in that experience I am enlumined and transformed; in this I experience an earthen sense of meaning. From the particular experience of the soil beneath my feet to my observation of the night sky, I know that I am Here.
Earthen Meaning flows from scientific understanding of self and others and the world and then from the poetics of experience and the aesthetic engagement with existence. The world is an aesthetic phenomenon as well as an objective, physical phenomenon.
[i] There are many good overviews of the Scientific Cosmic Story. My favorites include Eric Neil Shubin’s The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets and People (Pantheon Books, 2013), Eric Chaisson’s The Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Universe (Columbia University Press, 2007) and, for a history of the Earth in one volume, Robert M. Hazen’s The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet (Viking, 2012).
[ii] There are also too many good books on the Big Bang, but again among my favorites are Simon Singh’s Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (Harper Perennial, 2005) and The Illustrated A Brief History of Time & The Universe in a Nutshell (Sterling, 1996; Unabridged) by Stephen Hawking.
[iii] Three books that have deeply impacted me with regard to the origin and history of life are: Robert M. Hazen’s Gen-e-sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin’s (Joseph Henry Press, 2005) and Christian de Duve’s Life Evolving: Molecules, Mind and Meaning (Oxford, 2002) and Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).
[iv] The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford: 1998)
[v] The Meaning of Human Existence (Liveright; W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)
[vi] For an example: Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backwards: Post Modern Critiques of Science and Hindu nationalism in India (Rutgers, 2004). Nanda extols the virtues of science in overcoming age-old rivalries and cultural fragmentation, as well as the liberating effect it can have on the lives of people in cultures still struggling to be emancipated from superstition and religious oppression.
[vii] A great book on the relationship between evolution and personal understanding is Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon Books, 2008)
[viii] See my blog from last September – “Nature, Music and Transcendence” – for an example of this.