Animal Writes
9 April 2000 Issue
Science From The Heart

by Marc Bekoff - [email protected] 

"Back off man, I'm a scientist." This bumper sticker has been percolating in my brain for many years. Here's why.

Science supposedly tells us why things are the way they are. However, science isn't value-free. Numerous prejudices are embedded in scientific training and thinking. Scientists, as humans, have individual agendas - personal, social, economical, and political.

I'm a scientist. I study animal behavior and am interested in the health and integrity of individuals, populations, species, and ecosystems. I love what I do; it's fun. Because I have a utopian dream of reconnecting humans with the souls, spirits and hearts of other humans, other animals (anima = soul), and with inanimate landscapes, and because I'm a sentimentalist, some think my science is flawed - too "soft," too subjective, not impersonal. I believe science should be more open to individual's world views. There's so many diverse problems it's unlikely there's only one sound scientific method.

Historically, scientists have been placed on pedestals by non-scientists and scientists themselves. Scientists were trusted, their autonomy and authority unquestioned. Most worked in a safe, insulated microcosm. Those who questioned science were considered anti-intellectual, perhaps Luddites. After all, scientists busily discover cures for countless diseases, the structure of the human genome, how to make weapons for global destruction, ways to get to the moon and elsewhere, how to generate and process information faster, how to engineer better food, how animals behave, and how nature works - alas, how to make our lives longer and presumably better. And indeed science has chalked up innumerable successes. But it can do better.

Nowadays more people, including some scientists, question science. Non-scientists are more aware and inquisitive, but aren't anti-intellectual. Rather, many feel science hasn't delivered. They're also concerned with the politics, economics (rush for patents, financial gains), and arrogance of science. Indeed, scientists make errors, and it's our fallibility that keeps science afloat. Increasingly science isn't seen as a self-justifying activity, but as another institution whose claims on the public treasury must be defended.

What about science and nature? While we've learned much about nature, one reason traditional science often falls short is that it fragments the world. Reductionistic science dissects, disembodies, and splits wholes into parts. It produces linear, mechanistic views of the universe and objectifies and devalues animals and nature. Science reduces the dynamic multidimensionality of our interactions with nature into static, dimensionless flatlands, rather than stimulating the understanding and appreciation of variegated landscapes. However, we aren't very good at reassembling wholes -- reconstructing Humpty Dumpty. We often discover wholes are greater than the sum of their parts and we're unable to understand how whole systems emerge from complex interdependent interactions among their constituents. Laudably, the National Science Foundation now supports a program in biocomplexity. Macroecology and the Biosphere project are good examples of large scale holistic thinking.

Reductionist science also misrepresents the world. This has serious consequences for the quality of knowledge we gather and for how we interact in and with nature. Reductionism promotes alienation, isolation, and disconnection. It forces a separation between the seer and the seen -- a false dualism. Science often makes nature less magical and impedes our truly sensing, feeling, and understanding the scope of the amazing world within which we live.

Holistic and more heart-driven science is needed, science that's infused with spirit and compassion. Holistic heart-felt science reinforces a sense of togetherness and relationship, family and community, and awe. It fosters the development of deep and reciprocal friendships among humans, animals, and other nature. It helps us resonate with nature's radiance and lessens our tendency to think, egocentrically, that we're at the center of everything. Theologian Thomas Berry stresses we should strive for a benign presence in nature. Native Americans are proud to claim that "animals are all our relations." Animals and inanimate landscapes need to speak for themselves. Trees need love too.

I often wonder what science might have become had its history not distanced and elevated humans from nature. My own idealistic dream is to live in a world in which humans perceive themselves as a part of nature and not apart from her, a world in which humans whose spirits have been robbed or squelched by living amongst steel, concrete, asphalt, noise, and a multitude of invasions of their private space reconnect with other humans and raw nature - with the fragrances of wild flowers, and the sounds, sights, odors, and touch of other animals and inanimate environs. A world in which sensing is feeling. We're an integral part of nature, one with nature, and have unique responsibilities to her. Nature has much to offer when we open our hearts to her boundless and breathtaking splendor. She's our unconditional friend and reconnecting can help overcome alienation and loneliness.

We need to be reinforce creative, passionate, and bold dreaming, and resist narrow thinking that claims there's only one way to do "good" science. Allowing individual idiosyncrasies, interdisciplinary collaborations, holism, and heart to inspire science will make it more exciting, creative, attractive to students, and likely better. All scientists should be open to this. But some still resist the notion that science is value-laden and some don't want to impregnate science with feeling. Nonetheless, the Nobel prize winning geneticist, Barbara McClintock, stressed that scientists should have a feeling for the organism with which they worked, and she worked on corn!

Questioning science will help insure that we won't repeat past mistakes, that we'll move towards a world in which humans and other animals share peaceably the beneficence of nature. Magnificent nature -- the cacophony of her deep and rich sensuality -- will be respected, cherished, and loveed.

*Marc Bekoff teaches in Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology at CU-Boulder.

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