Part II. Science
Q: Do you think we’re always looking for metaphors to write about science?
A: I’ve given talks on the bond between science and poetry. And the reason why what you just asked is really prescient is that poetry is about building a bridge via metaphor from some complex recondite, muddled mixture of emotion and thought. You’re building a bridge out of metaphor, back to sense, to understanding. Science now is defined by all these recondite, arcane, unbelievably complex and often invisible worlds. There’s microbiology, for instance, one of the new landscapes of discovery, from which we need to build a bridge of metaphors back to understanding.
So if someone goes on to me about, for example, chromosome 13 and this whole series of numbered codons on that chromosome, how do you describe that so it’s not just codons? Suddenly you’re thinking of chromosomes as a suburban culdesac with all these mailboxes lining them, the specific addresses of the residents that dwell with our cells and make us us who we are..
You come up with metaphors to give a physical shape and look to these unseen landscapes. And because the world, the visible world, has been fully discovered, and mapped, the next “as yet to be” discovered landscape is our own inner biology. We need armies of writers to build metaphors back from such largely invisible worlds. That’s my feeling.
Q: And what do you think are the biggest challenges of building those metaphors?
A: The challenge is it’s hard. It’s a challenge for the actual scientists, which, in turn, makes my job easier. Because, you know, they need idiots like me to come and ask them the questions, over and over, so even I can begin to understand it. At least enough to build the bridge of metaphor back.
That takes patience on the part of the writer. For an actual scientist—and there are some who are brilliant at doing the very thing that I do—they have the information at their disposal. But it’s hard to be a scientist and hover above your material and all that minutia and be a good writer too.
Examples of these are Oliver Sacks, the British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who writes so poetically and beautifully about science. So there are some out there. Lewis Thomas was one of the forerunners of that, a doctor who could also write very poetically. I think the challenge is just finding the right language to express the poetry. The mandate should be, if you ask me, to make people feel the poetry. Because I believe science is supplanting the old stories now, the creation myths, all the Bible stories, and all the old religions.
I think it’s telling a new story that’s just as wonderful and mysterious. And that is what people who write about this stuff need to try to do, to slowly, incrementally get people not to fear science, and to see how lovely it is. I mean, it confounds me that we live in a time where people are still staring up to the heavens and believing in nonexistent beings, when the real story is looking downward and inward, in the opposite direction, looking into the details of where all biology came from, including us.
That story is the new creation story, and it’s a story that doesn’t preclude people’s religion. It doesn’t shove anybody’s God out the door. But I don’t understand for the life of me why human beings can’t embrace that story for its coolness and its wonders.
Look in that direction: you’re gonna find everything. You’re gonna find everything that people thought they were gonna find looking up there. Eternity exists in the details, or as Blake said, in a grain of sand, right?
Q: But don’t you think scientists have been too intent in killing mystery?
A: Well, no. I think that’s a common belief about what science does. That Oh shit, love is caused and can be traced sometimes to chemical reactions. Everything is explainable. Or the moon’s not made of cheese. It was the physicist Richard Feynman who said something to the effect of “Why is the moon any less poetic because we know it is comprised of methane and ammonia and so on and not cheese” .
So it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean science is reductive. It means it’s reinventing mystery in explosively, excitingly new way. Take consciousness, for example. Are we ever gonna totally explain consciousness?
No, because it will be a million times harder than explaining a great Beethoven symphony. In fact, I believe that those kinds of creations so move us precisely because they open up the biggest and longest window that we can get on the true underlying complexity of our biology and of how we got here. Four billion years of things happening, from the atomic level to the cellular level and, you know, that’s a lot of history. And people just dismiss that. don’t think there’s anything there? And that’s where it is. If you just look back at that stuff, if you find out where the first complex nucleated cell came from. It’s just ridiculous.
The other day I went to Jack Szostak lecture, Nobel Laureate, on the origins of cellular life. That’s the kind of lecture I go to. It’s crazy. I’m fascinated by that stuff because, when you know the true story of how those cells first assembled, the very beings that allowed us and every other living thing to be here at this moment, it’ll knock your socks off, how it happened.
And it’s full of every symbolic significance that you can think of. If you really know how a cell first came together, and what the first cell was, you go, “Oh, that’s the blueprint for the first city. That’s the first cooperative. Those early cells were the first cooperatives. I had a biologist say to me once, during an interview, he said, “You know the best way I can describe what the inside of a cell looks to you like?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “You know the opening to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the movie, where those cars and trains are going by and little airplanes are flying and everything’s doing this little mission on monorails?.That’s what the inside of a cell looks like. All the parts in our cells are all, like, ‘Oh, I gotta deliver this message,’ ‘I gotta take the trash out. I gotta do this.'”
But originally on Earth there wasn’t any of that. There were just vast slime mats of singlecelled bacteria burping oxygen into the air, giving us the oxygen we now breathe. But because they lacked a cell nucleus, they kept making one version of themselves over and over and over and over and over again, for billions of years. For billions of years it was a onenote planet. And then something happened where one bacteria got inside the cell wall of another and got gobbled up by it, but didn’t get fully digested. So the history of life forming on earth is really a story of indigestion Which ins kind of cool. The life-form that got inside the other one, you know, persisted there and started to perform a function for its new host. And symbiosis developed. And then another thing got inside. And it started contributing its particular functions to the workings of the host, it started to cooperate. And that’s how cells got more complicated. In fact, some scientists now think that the cell nucleus, which contains DNA and RNA and controls cell division and the emergence of complex multicellular lifeforms was originally a virus that insinuated itself into an early cell and began to direct its functions. And so that one one cell went over to two and then to three and then to four, and from a onenote planet, a symphony began to emerge, one that would build over the next 3billion years. And that’s why I went back to Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and others. I always think what geniuses like them do is lay bare some of the true fabric of that massively complex original composition called life. That’s my theory.
Q: In many of your pieces about animals, the message always seems to be something along the lines of ‘hey, we should care about these guys too, right?’ But there are many stories out there about human beings that also need empathy, right? And that’s when the choice to write about animals, as opposed to writing about people, strikes me as a little odd. Is there something about that choice that actually makes it easier to care for our own?
A: Absolutely it does. Absolutely. See, because the conceit behind that oft asked question is, “Well, fine to write about animals, but there are bigger problems in the world.” And one of the things that I’m proud of about my animal writing is that this dignifies human beings as well as animals. Because it can only help us to know our bond with the nonus. It extends our understanding. And it especially extends our empathic reach. How could it hurt for us to be more understanding of the commonality, the common bonds we have with all these animals? How could that hurt human beings, even if I’m also getting you to care about the plight of the animal?
I mean, let’s face it. Most of these animals I write about are doomed if not for a fence that we put around them and that means that they’re doomed anyway, because they won’t have any genetic diversity. But most of my pieces stress how there but for the grace or accident of a few neurons go we. That we are them and they are us. And especially with pieces like the one about elephants, the whole dynamic of the piece was you see what’s happening here to them, wilding bands of young elephants raised without the usual parental care because we destroyed the complex social fabric of traditional elephant herds? That’s exactly what happens to war orphans when they’re not raised correctly. Elephants not raised correctly, children who are disconnected from correct parental and societal upbringing, they become wilding bands. Now, that’s not just some bleeding heart animal tights story about save the elephants. That’s a piece about stretching the definition of humanity and the embrace of that.
There are pieces that bring that out more clearly, our commonality with nonhuman animals. I think that’s why this recent parrot piece touched so many people. Because there are cocharacters here. There are wounded war veterans. These guys who go off to war and are just shunted in America afterwards. I mean, they get it twice. They get the trauma of the war and then they come home and they’re just forgotten. And then you have these parrots who are twice traumatized. Traumatized first by being deprived of their flock and their flocking instinct. And then again by being abandoned by the humans who kept them. And now these two entirely different and yet mutually offended beings are helping one another.
So I think that’s why that story helps to dissolve the phony human/animal divide. I’ve learned to not even regard it anymore. I’m not saying we’re elephants. We’re not as good as elephants in a lotta ways. They’re more devout than we are about things. And we’re not whales. But, you know, we sure share a lot with each other. We sure have common motives and makeups. We do.