The Poetic Species: Legendary Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in Conversation with Poet Laureate Robert Hass on Science and Poetry
By Maria Popova
“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,” William Wordsworth wrote in 1798; “it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.” And yet, perhaps short of Diane Ackerman’s gorgeous poems for the planets and a few scientific papers published in stanzaic form as a prank, the interplay of science and poetry in the pursuit of human knowledge is far from obvious, let alone celebrated, in today’s culture.
One of the most beautiful celebrations of this invisible mutuality took place on December 6, 2012, when literary nonprofit Poets House and the American Museum of Natural History hosted an unusual and wonderful event exploring the intersection of science and poetry — a dialogue between legendary Harvard sociobiologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Their wide-ranging conversation is now collected in The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass (public library), titled after Wilson’s famous description of Homo sapiens as “the poetic species” on account of how heavily our cognitive infrastructure relies upon metaphor and associative thinking.
Since the conversation took place shortly after Wilson’s controversial — highly acclaimed and highly criticized — book The Social Conquest of Earth, Hass begins with a tongue-in-cheek question about how Wilson manages to get in so much trouble. The celebrated scientist answers with extraordinary elegance, speaking to the crucial role of science in opposing dogmas — a task never met without resistance:
Good scientists, like good innovators of any kind, are entrepreneurial, and they’re the ones that are most likely to get into trouble. And I’ve always enjoyed being in trouble. In science, trouble means progress.
One of the most fascinating and timelessly urgent inquiries the two discuss is one of equal concern to science and the humanities — the question of free will. Hass reflects:
On the literary and the philosophical side of things, this debate is about the question of free will, about the relation between human choice and the idea of fate. So many of the old stories are about fate being fulfilled or frustrated. It has always been an intense human fascination, how much freedom we have and whether we have any at all. I remember at a poetry reading in San Francisco once, during the question and answer period, an earnest young woman — she was quite pregnant, I remember—raised her hand and asked if there was such a thing as free will. The old poet Kenneth Rexroth looked at her as if he were a little ashamed of himself for having given the impression that he could answer such a question, and then said, very kindly, “We can’t know, and we have to act as if there is.” I thought that was a good answer.
Responding to Wilson’s assertion that “the deadly violence … seems to be a hallmark of our species” and “it’s our basic nature to be conflicted” — an assertion Stephen Pinker has famously defied — Hass echoes Alan Shlain’s exploration of how the invention of writing usurped female power in society and shares an observation:
For poets it’s always been interesting to notice that the culture that showed up when humans passed over the event horizon of writing was a male warrior culture.
Reflecting on Wilson’s extensive work on the evolution of culture, Hass adds to history’s greatest definitions of art by considering the creative impulse:
One of the interesting things about this idea is that it has so many echoes in art making. Artists almost always start with a kind of play based on elements that are fixed and variable, things that conventions express, set forms in music, set patterns in comedy, fixed rhythms in poetry, on the one hand, and, on the other, departures from those conventions that lead to new ways of seeing and feeling. In a way, it’s the same oscillation, between sensations that make us feel safe, part of the group, and sensations that make us feel free and on our own. The formal imagination in art — the half-conscious shaping that occurs when an artist is at work — is always working on this problem.
Wilson, who has long advocated for the importance of imaginative thinking in science and has previously argued for the cross-pollination of science and the humanities, speaks to the power of art in shaping the evolutionary history of culture:
The humanities, and especially the creative arts, are the natural history of Homo sapiens. The descriptions based on them describe the human condition and human nature in exquisite detail, over and over again in countless situations. When verbal descriptions are novel in style and obedient to the most basic principles of human nature, when they connect old memories, create new images, and stir emotions all together, we call that great literature. The important innovator produces a tableau of relationships in a story that describes not just the particularities of a place in time, but something that is true for humanity as a whole for all time.
Hass considers the social wiring of our brains and how the science of the social imperative, which Wilson has spent decades studying, feeds into the creative heart of our humanity:
The social drive shaped the uses of imagination. It made it possible for humans to share their invisible inner worlds with each other. I often think of this in relation to dreams. Once they could speak, humans could tell each other their dreams. They could find out that everybody has dreams, that there is this parallel world of meaning-making or traveling that goes on in the resting mind.
Wilson agrees, building an elegant bridge back to biology to illuminate the human paradox:
We dream together, and as a result the cultural products of human nature are vastly expanded and enriched. And approaching from the other side of the divide, biology progresses and connects with the humanities. What biology seems to be doing at the moment is to reveal the roots of ambiguity that define human nature. We’ve been talking, for example, about the eternal confliction of the human mind, between self-serving behavior for the individual and for its offspring, versus service to the group. This clash of evolutionary forces can never result in an equilibrium. If it goes too far toward individualism, societies would dissolve. If, on the other hand, it goes too far toward obedience to the group, the group would turn into an ant colony. So, we’re creatively conflicted, moving back and forth between sin and virtue, rebellion and loyalty, love and hate.
He then returns to the reconciliatory power of the humanities, but he echoes Rilke’s famous counsel to live the questions as he adds:
The creative arts are the sharing of our inner desires and humanity’s struggle. The humanities are our way of understanding and managing the conflict between the two levels that created Homo sapiens. The conflict can never be resolved. And we shouldn’t try too hard to reach a resolution. It defines our species and is the fountain of our creativity.
Hass makes a beautiful aside — then again, the entire conversation is a string of asides, which is precisely what makes it so enchanting — about the question of animal consciousness and how it first rattled poets’ belief in human exceptionalism, then enabled an embracing of science as a complementary celebration of the existential mystery:
The idea that every creature has its own reality scared poets at the beginning of the twentieth century, made some of them feel we were groping blindly — it in effect kicked us out of a comfortable anthropocentric community — but it also allowed some modern poets this sense of absolute mystery at the core of existence. It came of knowing that we would never know exactly what a bird’s experience is, or what an ant’s experience is. It has been an unhousing of the imagination, and it was brought on by the thrust of science to be at home in the world by understanding it. It said we move among great powers and mysteries and only glimpse their meanings, the meaning of what it’s like to be another creature, and therefore also the meaning of being a self, a person.
(For more on the history of this inquiry, see Joanna Bourke’s excellent What It Means To Be Human.)
Describing the powerful experience of seeing remarkably accurate 3,000-year-old carvings of birds and fish in the tombs of Cairo, Hass considers once again how science and the arts converge in our quest for meaning and sensemaking:
Science, partly by the kind of patient observation that noticed the hump on the Nile crow’s back and partly by leaps of imagination and by shared testing and dialogue, has made enormous progress in understanding certain things about the world, but the skill of those artists made me feel that we have always been pretty much in the same place with the same kind of knowledge and the same pull back and forth between ways of seeing.
But the sameness of these fundamental ways of seeing is being threatened as these seemingly eternal objects of our fascination — the wild creatures that inspired artists and scientists alike to look closer, to gasp, to wonder — are facing a heartbreaking fate. Wilson addresses this with a naturalist’s cool rigor and a moral philosopher’s passionate conviction:
I am an extremist. I believe in wildernesses. I’ve been there. I’ve studied thousands of species living there, in ecosystems much the same as they were millions of years ago. I believe, I think, in reference to the species that we might still save — and a growing number of them are endangered — that we need parks, big ones, lots more of them. I think we should be thinking about giving a large part of the world’s surface to wild land. To do so is not just being a conservationist — not just saving species — we must hold on to the rest of life… I don’t mean to make a political statement. I’m making a moral statement. We have to develop a new and better ethic to save the rest of life.
And therein, perhaps, lies the great power of poetry as an ally to science — the power to mobilize people’s imagination and open up their hearts for “the rest of life,” for our intricate connection not only with one another but also with all of Earth’s creatures. Hass captures this capacity beautifully:
We have to work at it. Wonder is one place to start. I was asked to go to my granddaughter’s kindergarten class and to talk about poetry. And I didn’t know if I would know how to do it, but I brought the book I had with me—which was the collected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, and there is a poem of hers called “The Fish,” and it begins, “I caught a tremendous fish.” So I opened the book and said to these little kids, “Just say this poem with me, okay? ‘I caught a tremendous fish,’” and this group of kids all on the floor looked up at me and said, “I caught a tremendous fish.” And — I simplified the imagery a bit — I said, “It was very old and its skin,” and they said, “It was very old and its skin,” and I said, “Looked like roses on old wallpaper.” And they said, “Ooh.”
And I thought, this is a cinch.
Indeed, this is the broader power of art. Riffing off pioneering modernist architect Louis Sullivan’s assertion that art doesn’t fulfill desire but creates it, Hass reflects:
The way in which art creates desire, I guess that’s everywhere. Is there anyone who hasn’t come out of a movie or a play or a concert filled with an unnameable hunger? … To stand in front of one of [Louis Sullivan’s] buildings and look up, or in front, say, of the facade of Notre Dame, is both to have a hunger satisfied that you maybe didn’t know you had, and also to have a new hunger awakened in you. I say “unnameable,” but there’s a certain kind of balance achieved in certain works of art that feels like satiety, a place to rest, and there are others that are like a tear in the cosmos, that open up something raw in us, wonder or terror or longing. I suppose that’s why people who write about aesthetics want to distinguish between the beautiful and sublime… Beauty sends out ripples, like a pebble tossed in a pond, and the ripples as they spread seem to evoke among other things a stirring of curiosity. The aesthetic effect of a Vermeer painting is a bit like that. Some paradox of stillness and motion. Desire appeased and awakened.
Wilson sums up with a beautiful — sublime, really — parting thought that captures the heart of the conversation:
Science and art having the same creative wellspring, which I believe can be expressed aphoristically: the ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.
The Poetic Species is a wonderful read in its entirety, short yet infinitely simulating. Complement it with Wilson’s advice to young scientists and Dorion Sagan on why science and philosophy need each other.
Published June 17, 2014