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Life is a Miracle

I am not at all a scientist. And yet, like every human inhabitant of the modern world, I have experienced many of the effects (costs and benefits) of science; I have received a great deal of hearsay of it; and I know that I am always under its influence and mercy. Though I am unable to comment on its methods or the truth of its discoveries, I am nonetheless appropriately interested in its motives--in what it thinks it is doing and how it justifies itself. I agree with the proposition that science (or "science-and-technology") has become a sort of religion. I want to know by what power it has crowned itself and mitered itself.

Reductionism (ultimately, the empirical explanability of everything and a cornerstone of science), has uses that are appropriate, and it also can be used inappropriately. It is appropriately used as a way (one way) of understanding what is empirically known or empirically knowable. When it becomes merely an intellectual "position" confronting what is not empirically known or knowable, then it becomes very quickly absurd, and also grossly desensitizing and false.

There obviously is a necessary usefulness in the processes of reduction. They are indispensable to scientists--and to the rest of us as well. It is valuable (sometimes) to know the parts of a thing and how they are joined together, to know what things do and do not have in common, and to know the laws or principles by which things cohere, live, and act. Such inquiries are native to human thought and work.

But reductionism also has one inherent limitation that is paramount, and that is abstraction: its tendency to allow the particular to be absorbed or obscured by the general. It is a curious paradox of science that its empirical knowledge of the material world gives rise to abstractions such as statistical averages which have no materiality and exist only as ideas. There is, empirically speaking, no average and no type. Between the species and the specimen the creature itself, the individual creature, is lost. Having been classified, dissected, and explained, the creature has disappeared into its class, anatomy, and explanation. The tendency is to equate the creature (or its habitat) with one's formalized knowledge of it.

The uniqueness of an individual creature is inherent, not in its physical or behavioral anomalies, but in its life. Its life is not its "life history," the typical cycle of members of its species from conception to reproduction to death. Its life is all that happens to it in its place. Its wholeness is inherent in its life, not in its physiology or biology. This wholeness of creatures and places together is never going to be apparent to an intelligence coldly determined to be empirical or objective. It shows itself to affection and familiarity.

The frequent insultingness of modern (scientific-technological-industrial) medicine is precisely its inclination to regard individual patients apart from their lives, as representatives or specimens of their age, sex, pathology, economic status, or some other category. The specialist to whom you have been "referred" may never have seen you before, may know nothing about you, and may never see you again, and yet he (or she) presumes to know exactly what is wrong with you.

Science speaks properly a language of abstraction and abstract categories when it is properly trying to sort out and put in order the things it knows. But it often assumes improperly that it has said--or known--enough when it has spoken of "the cell" or "the organism," "the genome" or "the ecosystem" and given the correct scientific classification and name. Carried too far, this is a language of false specification and pretentious exactitude, never escaping either abstraction or the cold-heartedness of abstraction.

The giveaway is that even scientists do not speak of their loved ones in categorical terms as "a woman," "a man," "a child," or "a case." Affection requires us to break out of the abstractions, the categories, and confront the creature itself in its life in its place. The importance of this for conservation can hardly be overstated. For things cannot survive as categories but only as individual creatures living uniquely where they live.

We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love. To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know. The abstract, "objective," impersonal, dispassionate language of science can, in fact, help us to know certain things, and to know some things with certainty. It can help us, for instance, to know the value of species and of species diversity. But it cannot replace, and it cannot become, the language of familiarity, reverence, and affection by which things of value ultimately are protected.

Directly opposed to this reduction of abstraction of things is the idea of the preciousness of individual lives and places. This does not come from science, but from our cultural and religious traditions. It is not derived, and it is not derivable, from any notion of egalitarianism. If all are equal, none can be precious. (And perhaps it is necessary to stop here to say that this ancient delight in the individuality of creatures is not the same thing as what we now mean by "individualism." It is the opposite. Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed "right" of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals.)

We now have the phenomenon of "mitigation banking" by which a developer may purchase the "right" to spoil one place by preserving another. Science can measure and balance acreages in this way just as cold-heartedly as commerce; developers involved in such trading undoubtedly have the assistance of ecologists. Nothing insists that one place is not interchangeable with another except affection. If the people who live in such places and love them cannot protect them, nobody can.

It is not quite imaginable that people will exert themselves greatly to defend creatures and places that they have dispassionately studied. It is altogether imaginable that they will greatly exert themselves to defend creatures and places that they have involved in their lives and invested their lives in--and of course I know that many scientists make this sort of commitment.

I have been working this morning in front of a window where I have been at work on many mornings for thirty-seven years. Though I have been busy, today as always I have been aware of what has been happening beyond the window. The ground is whitened by patches of melting snow. The river, swollen with the runoff, is swift and muddy. I saw four wood ducks riding the current, apparently for fun. A great blue heron was fishing, standing in water up to his belly feathers. Through binoculars I saw him stoop forward, catch, and swallow a fish. At the feeder on the window sill, goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and cardinals have been busy at a heap of free (to them) sunflower seeds. A flock of crows has found something newsworthy in the cornfield across the river. The woodpeckers are at work, and so are the squirrels. Sometimes from this outlook I have seen wonders: deer swimming across, wild turkeys feeding, a pair of newly fledged owls, otters at play, a coyote taking a stroll, a hummingbird feeding her young, a peregrine falcon eating a snake. When the trees are not in leaf, I can see the wooded slopes on both sides of the valley. I have known this place all my life. I long to protect it and the creatures who belong to it. During the thirty-seven years I have been at work here, I have been thinking a good part of the time about how to protect it. This is a small, fragile place, a slender strip of woodland between the river and the road. I know that in two hours a bulldozer could make it unrecognizable to me, and perfectly recognizable to every "developer."

The one thing that I know above all is that even to hope to protect it, I have got to break out of all the categories and confront it as it is; I must be present in its presence. I know at least some of the categories and value them and have found them useful. But here I am in my life, and I know I am not here as a representative white male American human, nor are the birds and animals and plants here as representatives of their sex or species. We all have our ways, forms, and habits. We all are what we are partly because we are here and not in another place. Some of us are mobile; some of us (such as the trees) have to be content merely to be flexible. All of us who are mobile are required by happenstance and circumstance and accident to make choices that are not instinctive, and that force us out of categories into our lives here and now. Even the trees are under this particularizing influence of place and time. Each one, responding to happenstance and circumstance and accident, has assumed a shape not quite like that of any other tree of its kind. The trees stand rooted in their mysteriously determined places, no place quite like any other, in strange finality. The birds and animals have their nests in holes and burrows and crotches, each one's place a little unlike any other in the world--and so is the nest my mate and I have made.

In all of the thirty-seven years I have worked here, I have been trying to learn a language particular enough to speak of this place as it is and of my being here as I am. My success, as I well know, has been poor enough, and yet I am glad of the effort, for it has helped me to make, and to remember always, the distinction between reduction and the thing reduced. I know the usefulness of reductive language. To know that I am "a white male American human," that a red bird with black wings is "a scarlet tanager," that a tree with white bark is "a sycamore," that this is "a riparian plant community"--all that is helpful to a necessary kind of thought. But when I try to make my language more particular, I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And that is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.

We are alive within mystery, by miracle. "Life," wrote Erwin Chargaff, "is the continual intervention of the inexplicable." We have more than we can know. We know more than we can say. The constructions of language (which is to say the constructions of thought) are formed within experience, not the other way around. Finally we live beyond words, as also we live beyond computation and beyond theory. There is no reason whatever to assume that the languages of science are less limited than other languages. Perhaps we should wish that after the processes of reduction, scientists would return, not to the processes of synthesis and integration, but to the world of our creatureliness and affection, our joy and grief, that precedes and (so far) survives all of our processes.

Wendell Berry has contributed to all incarnations of Whole Earth for two decades. We find him the great subversive, the straight talker who disarms the urban sophisticate. From the Unsetting of America to A Timbered Choir, his latest book of poems, he has offered up sharp Montaigne-like essays and poems of tilth and reverence.