Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World
- ISBN: 9780520294998
- Published By: University of California Press
- Published: August 2017
Lisa Sideris’s Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World is a rich and deeply insightful analysis of a family of ambitious historical narratives, each of which is vying to become the new myth everyone lives by. Through careful textual study, Sideris convincingly argues that despite their stated goal of promoting a deep respect and care for the natural world, these narratives may inadvertently undermine development of the environmental ethic they seek to foster.
The stories on which Sideris focuses are a range of large-scale histories of the universe that have been appearing in English since the 1970s, although, as historians have argued, the genre to which they belong has its origins in nineteenth-century Germany and England. They go by various names—Big History, Universe Story, the Great Story, the New Story, the Epic of Evolution, and others—and they share the conviction that twenty-first-century human beings need a new story. We moderns, it is claimed, no longer have a communal story, founding myth, or orienting narrative that tells us which way is up or what we should cherish. Where religions once provided what we needed in this regard, the justification goes, modern science has exposed the bankruptcy of religions and their associated stories of origin and meaning, so their stories can no longer satisfy our deepest needs. The new cosmologies (as Sideris calls them) claim to do a better job by capitalizing on science and deploying it in the service of a new universal history, one that will give our lives the significance and purpose that we long for. In place of the old backward-looking stories, proponents of the new cosmologies consecrate science in the pursuit of a new and forward-looking myth, one that tells us—finally—the truth about what human beings really are, what is genuinely real, and what is actually valuable.
Consecrating Science demonstrates how misguided, and potentially dangerous, these efforts are. In the central chapters of the book Sideris looks in painstaking detail at the writings of a slew of the new myth-makers—E.O. Wilson, Loyal Rue, Ursula Goodenough, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd, Connie Barlow, and two of the movement’s major influences, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry—and finds many aspects of their respective projects seriously wanting. Chief among those shortcomings is the very thing that supposedly gives the new cosmologies great advantage over the old religious stories: their mythopoeic appropriation of science, by which Sideris means their “recasting of scientific information as a consecrated narrative or poetic vision” (5). By elevating science to the extent they do, the new myths either conflate science and religion or turn science into a kind of religion. This sacralization of science is troubling because it can lead to unwillingness to grant legitimacy to other disciplinary approaches to knowledge. It is dangerous because contemporary science’s technologically mediated and heavily theorized engagement with nature might replace direct, sensory engagement with nature of the kind Sideris believes is crucial for sustaining an environmental ethic that supports nature’s flourishing.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the book is Sideris’s perceptive criticism of the new cosmologies by viewing them through the prism of wonder. Sanctified science directs wonder not at science’s object—nature—but at other things: at science itself, at the human mind (for having the power to scientifically work out how the world operates), and at scientists (for being the ones who have worked it out). By lauding science to the extent they do, proponents of the new stories exalt human beings and human abilities to understand and control nature at a time in history when precisely this exaltation of human powers—and of our scientific and technological means of controlling nature—have led to the precarious environmental situation in which we find ourselves. Asking where the new stories direct our wonder allows Sideris to expose their profoundly anthropocentric biases. Attending to their descriptions of the experience of wonder similarly reveals the impoverished forms of wonder that the new cosmologists—along with one of their chief influences in this regard, Richard Dawkins—peddle. Dawkins’s wonder is the momentary kind that is cured by curiosity: one wonders at a phenomenon only until one’s curiosity prompts one to secure a scientific understanding of the causal mechanisms responsible for it. Such short-lived wonder aggrandizes human knowledge and the human knower at the expense of sustained attention to, and reverence for, nature itself.
Throughout the book Sideris instead encourages a ceaseless, deep-seated kind of wonder such as one finds in the writings of Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, and other naturalists. Their recognition of the limits of science, of the complexity and unpredictability of nature, and of the contingency of the world is accompanied by a durable existential wonder that Sideris judges to be far superior to anything the new cosmologists seem able to imagine. Crucially, Carson’s wonder is accompanied by a range of other attitudes—“compassion, generosity, vulnerability, openness, empathy and respect for otherness, and … humility” (172)—that together Sideris thinks are much more likely to generate positive attitudes and behaviors toward the environment.
Consecrating Science is not a quick read, but it is a rewarding one. Sideris’s analysis of wonder is extraordinarily illuminating, and it provides a valuable angle from which to critique what might otherwise seem to be projects whose environmental goals match her own. The lack of empirical data about whether the new cosmologies have actually generated real anti-environmental attitudes or consequences makes the urgency of the specific problem against which Sideris is fighting unclear. But even if these new myths never become especially prominent or generate on a large scale the kinds of attitudes Sideris criticizes, the penetrating insights offered in Consecrating Science, and the tantalizing glimpse of a better way of life—a life soaked in wonder—it contains, make the book well worth the time and effort.
Peter Jordan is Research Coordinator at the University of Oxford.Peter JordanDate Of Review:January 30, 2018