The way of a naturalist

Idries Shah’s observation that humility is not merely a virtue but a technical requirement points to the deep kinship between authentic self-knowledge and empirical knowledge about the so-called mundane world. (See the quotes from conservation biologist Reed Noss from one of the entries on December 17.) Islamic mathematicians, geographers and scholars of a thousand years ago made much of this kinship, of course; when Western European naturalists picked up the torch half a millennium later, however, initial allegiance to a kind of decayed theosophy quickly faded. For whatever reason, the greatest revolution in human thinking the world had ever seen bequeathed to us the modern view of a universe in which almost everything is dead, inert, or at best robotic. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the majority of behaviorists continue to assert that only humans possess “consciousness” (continually redefined to exclude other species that are strongly suspected to dream, anticipate, mourn the dead, experience joy, etc.). Even fellow humans can be shown to operate mostly on the basis of self-centered urges and instincts. It is commonplace to speak of DNA as “programming” – never mind that this completely ignores the role of chance (or God, if you prefer) in shaping all outcomes.

Originally an elite, minority view, this way of looking at the world has become dominant even among those who consider themselves to be most in revolt against modernism (or postmodernism, which is a fairly undistinguished offshoot in my opinion). “Scientific creationism” is an obvious example. But I would go even further: I don’t believe there’s any evidence that literalistic interpretations of religious texts and traditions held any sway before the modern era. Yet today such interpretations are at the root of a worldwide phenomenon – religious fundamentalism – and it isn’t hard to see why. Humans are an intensely visually oriented species; the overwhelming material and technical elaboration of modern societies and the raw power that that confers adds up to an argument that is extremely difficult for the adherents of more traditional worldviews to confront head-on. Even without the direct experience of conquest and slavery or debt-peonage, folks living more-or-less contentedly for centuries on subsistence and gift economies now suddenly understand themselves to be impoverished. Lacking. Inadequate and inferior. (Helena Norberg-Hodge writes movingly about observing this process in the kingdom of Ladakh, where India has been the direct source of the modernist malaise, in her book Ancient Futures.)

A generation or so later, the reaction sets in. But power once gained is difficult to give up, and where the modernist project is concerned that power is expressed in stark, shameless reductionism. The world is nothing more than a grab-bag of resources to be exploited for human use; human beings are nothing more than consumers/taxpayers/voters whose well-being derives ultimately from adequate access to resources. Fundamentalists – be they Christian, Muslim, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Hindus, even American Indian – in asserting the validity of their own traditions, attempt to exploit the power of reductionism rather than to challenge its primacy. (They are after all reactionaries, not radicals.) The materialist’s simple-minded dichotomy opposing objective, concrete reality to subjective, imaginary interpretation – “just the facts” vs. “just a myth” – has already insinuated itself into their thoughts and their language.

But all this has been a digression from what was to have been my main topic today. I want to look at a few of the ways in which a modern scientist might cultivate what a Sufi (or Zennist, or Christian mystic) would recognize as authentic ways of knowing. Our guide will be the late Lawrence Kilham.

Lawrence Kilham was a distinguished virologist who also wrote extensively about woodpeckers and crows for the ornithological journals. He is a relatively rare example of a laboratory scientist who also honored – and employed – the skills of a field naturalist. (As most readers are probably aware, the culture of modern science fetishizes laboratory work and, even more, the ‘pure’ theoretics of physics; biologists who engage in such lowly tasks as observation and systematics are near the bottom of the totem pole, along with anthropologists and other unworthy aspirants to the testosterone-charged arenas of Pure or Hard Science.) In the introduction to The American Crow and the Common Raven (Texas A&M Press, 1989), Kilham discusses the kinds of intellectual tools necessary for the scientific enterprise, mostly by quoting others. (Honoring the chain of transmission, as a Sufi might say.) Here, in quoting Kilham, where he simply lists author and date in parentheses, I’ll include the titles of the works referenced.

“‘Each scientist,’ wrote Agnes Arbor (The Mind and the Eye, 1954), ‘should be able to say to himself, like Descartes, that his intention is to build upon a foundation that is all his own.’ This may seem difficult when one is starting out, but it is the only way likely to be enjoyable. There is no such thing as one scientific method that all must follow (J.B. Conant, Two Modes of Thought, 1964). As Nietzsche said of philosophy, ‘This is my way. What is yours? As for the way, there is no such thing.’ Each must find or invent techniques best suited for his individual approach.’ . . .

“Preferring to be a free agent, I have always shunned the idea, whether with birds or viruses, of starting with a hypothetical problem and sticking to it. The challenge is to get from the known to the unknown. Almost any problem can set the wheels in motion. But once under way, I know I can do best by observing all that birds do, taking notes, then reviewing and reflecting on them when I get home. Persisting in this pedestrian fashion I find that something exciting almost always turns up. It is the chance discovery that makes science exciting. As [Konrad] Lorenz (Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, 1970) states in a chapter entitled ‘Companions as Factors in the Bird’s Environment,’ ‘The factual data upon which all of the following investigations are based derived almost entirely from chance observation.’ The chance experiment, he thinks, assures an impartial observer freedom from any initial hypothesis. I have long found such ideas congenial. They echo Louis Pasteur’s dictum, enshrined at the Harvard Medical School . . . that ‘chance favors the prepared mind.’
(Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven, 5-6. Emphasis mine.)

Whether in the lab or in the field, Kilham preferred to keep it simple: “I like to work with a minimum of apparatus,” he admits, and quotes Rousseau: “The more ingenious and accurate our instruments, the more unsusceptible and inexpert become our organs: by assembling a heap of machinery about us, we find afterwards none in ourselves.”

For behavioral studies in particular, Kilham says, “All one needs is a pair of field glasses, a notepad, and an open mind. One cannot, at least I cannot, study bird behavior and be occupied with a complicated piece of apparatus. Observing is a full-time occupation. You have to have your mind on what you are doing. Important bits of behavior – a copulation, a glimpse of a passing predator, or something new and unexpected – can take place in seconds. If one’s mind is on a camera, wondering how to get a good picture, one’s mind is not on what a bird is doing; being a good photographer is also a full-time occupation.” And he goes on to describe how one attempt to bring a tape recorder into the field caused him to miss a distressing amount of crow behavior.

“If one concentrates on producing a statistically sound publication, one may overlook much of what the birds are doing. Emphasis will be on covering as many nests or pairs as possible. But in trying to study birds as whole, living entities, noting everything they do, I find that two pairs of woodpeckers or, with crows, two cooperatively breeding groups, is the maximum I can study effectively. I am committed to this approach and thus feel that simple narration, or an anecdotal style, is the soundest way of presenting how animals live.” (Ibid, 7)

One problem with his kind of approach finding a wider acceptance among scientists, Kilham recognizes, is the mechanistic biases of the reigning “scientific” worldview. He quotes the ornithologist Olas Murie, who complained in a 1962 journal article that “we are extremely timid about assigning to other animals any of the mental or psychological traits of man. One would think that the scientist is the perfect fundamentalist, carefully maintaining a wall between man and other animals.”

The problem is that individual observations are hard to quantify. Even the most fascinating or tantalizing observation is likely to be dismissed by the worshippers of Hardness and Purity as anecdotal. Kilham again quotes Lorenz to the effect that the supposed centrality of quantitifiable methods is “one of the dangerous half-truths which fashion is prone to accept.” “The fallacy,” Kilham adds, “is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead referred to as ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.'” He quotes a biologist named Donald Griffin, who thinks that the mechanistic view of nature is in error not only “because it belittles the value of animals, but because it leads us to a seriously incomplete and misleading picture of reality.”

After a paragraph on statistics and its lack of utility in either of the disciplines which formed his life-work, Kilham concludes, “There is much that is enjoyable in thinking for oneself and studying birds in one’s own way. Few seem to realize that even an ordinary person can make discoveries. The hitch is, as Polanyi (The Study of Man, 1959) pointed out, that ‘you cannot discover or invent anything unless you are convinced that it is there ready to be found. The recognition of this hidden presence is in fact half the battle. It means that you have hit on a real problem and are asking the right questions.’ This book is mainly an account of my search for the ‘hidden presence’ in crows and ravens. There has been no magic involved. Only the thousands of hours of watching, none of which has been dull.” (Ibid, 9-10. Emphasis added.)

We might argue with Kilham’s limited definition of magic, but never mind. The immense significance attached to birds in many different cultures is another topic to reserve for fuller treatment some other time. But I can’t resist closing once again with the motto to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (invoked also in one of the foundational entries for this weblog):

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

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