Floris Books, 2007
Reviewed by Christine Avery (abridged from the original)
It is unusual and inspiring to see Nature and Culture as “one continuous and unified creative process.” For Brian Goodwin, intelligence, meaning and subjectivity are inherent in nature, not restricted to the human realm. As a scientist, Goodwin is well equipped to show us how this can be so, though he calls on folk stories as well as scientific studies to help him convey the message. His argument equally implies that all our stories, arts and other cultural creations also arise from the endlessly inventive, emergent, unpredictable reality which is Nature.
The book’s seven chapters start with the familiar historical background. Modernity is seen as inaugurated by the work of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Newton, et al. bringing in the mechanistic worldview which has yielded enormous benefits in medicine, technology and the banishment of superstition. No reasonable person would wish to jettison these benefits. But mechanistic, reductionist science has run its course. Its discoveries are helping us to destroy the living world while its valuefree worldview cannot help us to save it. A leap forward is needed.
Goodwin illustrates the leap in various realms, starting with the medical. He marshals evidence that health depends most of all on relationships, social context and placing oneself within a pattern of meanings. For instance, a study is cited of men who had had heart attacks, where “the strongest predictor of death was social isolation and stress, irrespective of lifestyle”
A vital step in the argument is to advocate the inclusion of qualities, not just quantities, into science. A good idea, but I wonder how far it can go within the framework of science? A study is cited in which people were asked to judge the subjective states of various pigs, and this produced a consensus among the observers who tended to agree that a given pig was ‘nervous’, or ‘tense’, or ‘withdrawn’. Compared with the descriptions of pigs which a good poet or novelist could produce, perhaps this is a little banal? But the main point is that “Qualities capture essential aspects of the whole expressed in behaviour that quantities cannot describe.” And I was easily convinced by the claim that people who work with animals constantly use and need to use such subjective judgements.
Although the book is written in a clear, warm and personal style, a non-scientist will need to struggle valiantly with many of the concepts. References to “a very regular periodicity of action potentials in the heart”, for instance, sent me fruitlessly searching for a child’s introduction to electricity. Given the thesis that Nature is extremely complex, with all its webs of inter-relatedness, this taxing of the mind is unavoidable. Similar challenges arose when genes were being discussed, although certain facts stand out as perfectly clear, bright and fascinating. Contrary to expectations humans do not have many more genes than much simpler organisms: compare the human 30,000 genes with the 27,000 rejoiced in by a small plant called mouse cress. This is given a (so-far tenuous) connection with the proposition that simple organisms may have feelings and intentionality. The philosophical argument needs development. But in fact Brian Goodwin makes it clear that Nature’s Due is at the beginning of a great work, one foreshadowed by Goethe, and in our age carried forward by Thomas Berry and a gathering band of like-minded people.