The Sacred Depths of Nature

Barbara Smuts is a professor in the psychology and anthropology departments at the University of Michigan. This review was originally published in The Scientific American.

Several years ago I took a day off from research on wild dolphins to walk miles of remote Australian beach. To the west, the meeting of sea and sky was barely discernible; to the east, searing desert extended 2,000 miles. For hours I walked through this exquisite but barren landscape in utter silence, mourning a recent personal loss. Suddenly, with no warning, the hollow feeling within merged with the emptiness all around into a singular, stunning void that engulfed me with dizzying speed. I collapsed to the ground, reduced to a tiny, isolated speck in a vast, impersonal universe. I struggled to a sitting position, blinking in the midday glare, searching for something, anything, to bring me back to my ordinary self. Nothing. Despite the sun's heat, I felt cold and I was afraid. Then, as if from a great distance, I heard a faint, familiar sound that brought immense relief. A few hundred yards away a dozen cormorants were gathering at the sea's edge to dry their wet, oily wings, squawking and scrambling as they settled into their places on the sand. I drew closer, hoping fiercely that they wouldn't rise up in flight, and beheld the luminous surface of their dark feathers. Those birds could have been anywhere, but instead by some miracle they were right there, then, with me. I felt wave upon wave of gratitude for their existence and for the existence of all sentient beings.

In The Sacred Depths of Nature, Ursula Goodenough, one of America's leading cell biologists and a professor of biology at Washington University, gives voice to many such moments of communion with nature. The recognition of nature's power to evoke emotions such as awe and gratitude is, of course, not new, as Goodenough acknowledges in her introduction. Two aspects of her approach, however, are novel.

First, Goodenough's "nature" encompasses not just our direct experience of the natural world but also our scientific understanding of it. She argues eloquently that such understanding, far from provoking detachment or despair, can be a wellspring of solace and joy. The second novel aspect is Goodenough's definition of religious experience. For her, experience qualifies as religious if it entails emotions like awe, wonder, gratitude or joy, regardless of whether or not the person associates such emotions with traditional religious creeds, deities or supernatural phenomena. Goodenough, who professes no belief in a god, describes a profoundly religious relationship with the cosmos rooted in her detailed understanding of phenomena such as atoms and stars, the complex workings of a cell, and the astonishing evolutionary emergence of a mind capable of inquiring into its own nature. Such understanding can give rise to what she calls "religious naturalism," a scientifically based reverence for every aspect of the natural world, including ourselves.

Goodenough aims to "present an accessible account of our scientific understanding of Nature and then suggest ways that this account can call forth appealing and abiding religious responses."She does this by beginning each chapter with a factual description of a phenomenon critical to life, such as how DNA codes for proteins or how natural selection works, and concluding with a briefer section labelled "Reflections,"in which she shares the thoughts and feelings this scientific knowledge stirs in her. I found this format effective. Her separation of the science and the religious emotions gave me the freedom to first absorb the science as fact, without being distracted by her responses. The "Reflections" were unabashedly personal and gently encouraged me to contemplate my own responses. For a book about a new kind of religion, there is a striking absence of preaching.

The Scientific and the Sacred

Goodenough presents her scientific knowledge as stories, with plot twists and turns that trigger a "what's next?"curiosity. I assigned several chapters of the book to undergraduates with minimal background in biology, and they found them intelligible and informative, so one does not need to know much about science to enjoy this book. For a scientist like myself, Goodenough's elegant narratives provide a refreshing way to encounter familiar material. I was especially impressed with her ability to cut right to the quick, so that within a few short pages the reader is whisked from the big bang to the emergence of our planet and the birth of life on earth. The factual sections of the book are valuable enough to stand on their own as a brief, highly engaging introduction to the epic of evolution. Would that all scientific texts were so carefully conceived and beautifully written.

But the "Reflections" are the best and by far the most original part of the book. Goodenough's luminous prose evokes images and feelings more commonly associated with poetry than science, and her meditations on meaning are infused with wonder and joy. She acknowledges, however, that for many people scientific accounts of nature's workings are more likely to evoke alienation than religious awe.

In the first set of reflections, she shares her own encounter with nihilistic despair when, as an adolescent, she pondered the night sky. She thought about how each star is dying and the fact that "Our sun too will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its heat-death, spewing its bits and pieces out into the frigid nothingness of curved space-time. "Such thoughts overwhelmed her: "The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again.... A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out in the cosmos or deep in the atom. So I did my best not to think about such things."

How she came to terms with such feelings reveals the personal foundations of her religious naturalism:

But, since then, I have found a way to defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal. I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don't have to seek a point. In any of it. Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery.... Inherently pointless, inherently shrouded in its own absence of category. The clouds passing across the face of the deity in the stained-glass images of Heaven.... The realization that I needn't... seek answers to the Big Questions has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures. I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.

Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate.

Goodenough's emancipation, through what she calls "a covenant with Mystery,"represents her very personal, hard-won experience of the Divine. One prime reason Goodenough's covenant with mystery is so emancipating is that it allows her to revel in, rather than retreat from, the paradoxes she encounters everywhere as both a scientist and a mortal being. Her articulation of one such paradox, in the chapter on "Multicellularity and Death", offers a striking example:

" ... it is here that we arrive at one of the central ironies of human existence. Which is that our sentient brains are uniquely capable of experiencing deep regret and sorrow and fear at the prospect of our own death, yet it was the invention of death, the invention of the germ/soma dichotomy, that made possible the existence of our brains...."

Does death have any meaning?

"Well, yes, it does. Sex without death gets you single-celled algae and fungi; sex with a mortal soma gets you the rest of the eukaryotic creatures. Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love.

"My somatic life is the wondrous gift wrought by my forthcoming death."

Goodenough's religious naturalism is inspired by the scientific account of cosmic evolution, a story that has important things to say about the universe, where we came from and our place in the larger scheme of things. This particular story is brand-new in the timescale of human life on earth, but, as Goodenough points out, all people feel compelled to develop accounts of the cosmos that tell them "how things are" and which things matter. Although we refer to such stories as myths, in a prescientific world these accounts did exactly what science does for us today: they provided a conceptual framework within which people could comprehend and relate to a mysterious universe. But myths were not just helpful stories; they also served to sanctify the cosmos and our place in it, thereby eliciting a direct experience of the sacred.

An Inherited Awe

Perhaps an imperative to experience our world as numinous lurks deep within us all, a legacy of tens of thousands of years of ancestral religious practice. The Sacred Depths of Nature can thus be viewed as an invitation to bring together aspects of experience only recently rendered separate by the rise of modern science--but to bring them together in a new way, based on an account of reality potentially shared by people everywhere. Although the emergence of a universal religion based on a shared scientific worldview seems like a distant dream, Goodenough might be right that this is our best hope for a desperately needed global ethic dedicated to the preservation of life on earth.

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