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Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“The universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” the trailblazing astronomer and leading Figuring figure Maria Mitchell wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century as she contemplated science, spirituality, and the human hunger for truth. Every great scientist in the century and a half since has been faced with this question, be it by personal restlessness or public demand. Einstein addressed it in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray. Quantum theory originator Max Planck believed that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” His fellow Nobel laureate and quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr defied the sentiment in his incisive distinction between subjective and objective reality, noting that religions have always addressed the former, while science addresses the latter, which is measurable and therefore knowable. Wolfgang Pauli, whose groundbreaking scientific ideas were greatly influenced by Bohr’s, concluded that the effort to reconcile science and religion “will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it.

That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:

For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.

With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:

I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.

[…]

One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.

I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.

Illustration by Garry Parsons from George’s Secret Key to the Universe — Hawking’s children’s book, co-written with his daughter.

But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

[…]

Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances.

The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.

So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it.

Half a century after Nabokov’s poetic admonition against common sense, Hawking echoes Carl Sagan’s observation that common sense can blind us to the realities of the universe and addresses this deeply counterintuitive notion of generating something out of nothing:

As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.”

To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space.

So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.

This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:

Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.

Another painting by Francisco de Holanda from Cosmigraphics.

Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:

Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.

This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:

Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.

To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.

[…]

As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.

Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:

It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Rather than dispiriting, this lucid awareness of our ephemerality can be the wellspring of our noblest, most deeply spiritual and spiritualizing impulses — a catalyst for finding holiness in the richness of life itself, in the splendor of this peculiar and irreplaceable planet, rooted in the awareness that, in the poetic words of naturalist Sy Montgomery, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.” Hawking channels this orientation of mind and spirit in a stirring passage from the book’s introduction:

One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.

Complement this particular portion of Hawking’s altogether magnificent Brief Answers to the Big Questions with Carl Sagan on science and mystery, Alan Lightman on nonreligious divinity in the known and the unknowable, and Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of “The Lord’s Prayer,” then revisit poet Marie Howe’s gorgeous tribute to Hawking.

BP

Shelley’s Prescient Case for Animal Rights and the Spiritual Value of Vegetarianism

“By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system.”

Shelley’s Prescient Case for Animal Rights and the Spiritual Value of Vegetarianism

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life, adding: “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Since the dawn of our species and its consciousness, we have reverenced other animals and incorporated them into our myths and our metaphors, into the basic fabric of our stories. But we have also eaten them — we may be the storytelling animal, but we are fundamentally animal.

One aspect of being primates endowed with higher consciousness and creators of culture is the will and willingness to transcend our primal impulses and regard that which is other with the dignity and respect we grant ourselves. And one existential expression of that willingness, not suited to all human animals but chosen by more and more in the past century, is the choice not to eat other animals.

Two decades before the word vegetarian was coined and two centuries before some of the world’s most prominent scientists signed the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, acknowledging definitively that many non-human animals are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions, and a world order before science demonstrated unambiguously that animal agriculture is the third leading cause of climate change, vegetarianism found an improbable and impassioned champion in one of humanity’s most beloved and influential storytellers in verse: the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792–July 8, 1822), who was among the first to present a reasoned philosophical argument — as opposed to a purely emotional appeal or political stance — around the ethics of meat consumption.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint

Together with his wife, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — herself a creative visionary and intellect ahead of her time by centuries — Shelley advocated for ideas and practices utterly countercultural in his day: sexual liberation, atheism, individual freedom. Signing a hotel guestbook among the sheepishly pious inscriptions left by other guests, he declared himself a “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist.”

Central to his credo was the insistence that eating other animals was antithetical to the moral and spiritual enlightenment of human consciousness. In his first literary masterpiece, the 1813 philosophical poem Queen Mab, Shelley envisioned a world in which “man has lost his terrible prerogative, and stands an equal amidst equals.” He expounded on the then-radical ideas presented in the poem in a set of notes later published in the 1893 book The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating by the English humanitarian Howard Williams, republished in the twenty-first century under the more palatable title The Ethics of Diet: An Anthology of Vegetarian Thought (public library) and presenting a case for vegetarianism drawn from the lives and writings of such famous proponents as Plato, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Schopenhauer, and Gandhi.

More than two millennia after Pythagoras pioneered the notion of a vegetarian diet as a pillar of his model of wisdom, Shelley begins by posing a fundamental question about the costs at which the benefits of so-called civilization come:

Man, and the other animals whom he has afflicted with his malady or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased. The Bison, the wild Hog, the Wolf, are perfectly exempt from malady, and invariably die either from external violence or from mature old age. But the domestic Hog, the Sheep, the Cow, the Dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers, and, like the corruptors of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries. The super-eminence of man is, like Satan’s, the super-eminence of pain; and the majority of his species doomed to poverty, disease and crime, have reason to curse the untoward event that, by enabling him to communicate his sensations, raised him above the level of his fellow animals. But the steps that have been taken are irrevocable. The whole of human science is comprised in one question: How can the advantages of intellect and civilisation be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system which is now interwoven with the fibre of our being? I believe that abstinence from animal food and spiritous liquors would, in a great measure, capacitate us for the solution of this important question.

Nearly half a century before Darwin revolutionized our understanding of the biosphere with his theory of evolution, Shelley observes that we humans have developed in such a way as to lose our survival advantages as carnivorous predators — we can’t really kill large prey with our clawless appendages or devour carcasses with our small, blunt teeth — and have instead come to resemble herbivores far more closely. Pointing out that our cellulated colons are present in no carnivores and that the animal most akin to us is the orangutan, which is an herbivore, he writes:

Comparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in every thing, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre. A Mandarin of the first class, with nails two inches long, would probably find them alone inefficient to hold even a hare. After every subterfuge of gluttony, the bull must be degraded into the “ox”, and the ram into the wether, by an unnatural and inhuman operation, that the flaccid fibre may offer a fainter resistance to rebellious nature. It is only by softening and disguising, dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror, does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust… The structure of the human frame then is that of one fitted to a pure vegetable diet, in every essential particular.

Art by Ralph Steadman from the special 50th anniversary edition of Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Shelley brings into sharp relief the central psychological dissonance of considering oneself a good human while eating animals:

Let the advocate of animal food, force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it, and say, Nature formed me for such work as this. Then, and then only, would he be consistent.

A vegetarian diet, Shelley notes, is no silver bullet for the superficial symptoms of societal ills. Rather, it is a curative refinement of the very character of human beings, which would in turn effect a healing of the underlying maladies rotting the marrow of civilization. Building his ardent case upon a rhetorical foundation of logical reasoning, he exhorts:

Crime is madness. Madness is disease. Whenever the cause of disease shall be discovered, the root from which all vice and misery have so long overshadowed the globe, will lay bare to the axe. All the exertions of man, from that moment, may be considered as tending to the clear profit of his species. No sane mind in a sane body resolves upon a real crime… The system of a simple diet promises no Utopian advantages. It is no mere reform of legislation, whilst the furious passions and evil propensities of the human heart, in which it had its origin, are still unassuaged. It strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies, families, and even individuals. In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury; in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial. Should ever a physician be born with the genius of Locke, I am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits, as clearly as that philosopher has traced all knowledge to sensation.

[…]

By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system. Reasoning is surely superfluous on a subject, whose merits an experience of six months would set for ever at rest. But it is only among the enlightened and benevolent, that so great a sacrifice of appetite and prejudice can be expected, even though its ultimate excellence should not admit of dispute. It is found easier, by the short-sighted victims of disease, to palliate their torments by medicine, than to prevent them by regimen.

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

Shelley concludes with a crowning argument of even greater relevance today. Writing during the final chapters of the First Industrial Revolution, he notes that meat-eating is part of the power structure — only the wealthy of his era could afford feasts of flesh. But while the Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism have seemingly equalized and even inverted this symptom of the system, the foundational malady remains just as true, perhaps even more grimly so: In most industrialized countries today, commercial agriculture subsidies have made cheap meat more accessible to the poor than healthy produce — animal flesh is now baked into the most elemental political and governmental structure of our society. Shelley’s impassioned plea to citizens as agents of change sounds suddenly not out of time and place but all the more urgently relevant to our world:

The advantage of a reform in diet, is obviously greater than that of any other. It strikes at the root of the evil. To remedy the abuses of legislation, before we annihilate the propensities by which they are produced, is to suppose, that by taking away the effect, the cause will cease to operate.

[…]

I address myself not only to the young enthusiast: the ardent devotee of truth and virtue; the pure and passionate moralist, yet unvitiated by the contagion of the world. He will embrace a pure system, from its abstract truth, its beauty, its simplicity, and its promise of wide-extended benefit; unless custom has turned poison into food, he will hate the brutal pleasures of the chance by instinct; it will be a contemplation full of horror and disappointment to his mind, that beings capable of the gentlest and most admirable sympathies, should take delight in the death-pangs and last convulsions of dying animals… How much longer will man continue to pimp for the gluttony of death, his most insidious, implacable, and eternal foe?

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage edition of Aesop’s fables

Complement with Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell’s subversive message of animal rights and a little boy’s touching case against eating octopus — a case any adult can’t help but make for themselves after reading Sy Montgomery’s masterpiece The Soul of an Octopus.

BP

The Year of the Whale: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to Our Planet’s Largest-Brained Creature

“Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.”

The Year of the Whale: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to Our Planet’s Largest-Brained Creature

“The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he would dedicate the novel, “and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”

A century later, marine biologist and author Victor B. Scheffer (November 27, 1906–September 20, 2011) would make that white colossus of wonder the subject of his short, lyrical book The Year of the Whale (public library) — a forgotten gem I discovered through one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, in which author, historian, and anthropologist of science Laurel Braitman recounts the formative influence of Scheffer’s quiet masterwork, bequeathed to her by her father.

With an eye to the ancient enchantment of this unusual and inadequately understood creature, Scheffer writes in the prologue:

The sperm whale has held for mankind a special, mystical meaning from the time of Moby-Dick down to today. Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.

Published in 1969, the book emanates Rachel Carson’s influence. Three decades earlier, Carson had pioneered a new way of writing about the natural world with her masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had long ago called “the world below the brine,” a world more mysterious then than the Moon. Carson invited the human reader to fathom the most enigmatic recesses of Earth from the perspective of nonhuman creatures. Nothing like this had ever been before. She eventually expanded the essay into the stunning book Under the Sea-Wind, exploring each of the three main areas of marine life through the eyes and senses of a particular, personified creature in order to avoid the human bias of popular books about the ocean, always written from the perspective of a human observer — a fisherman, a deep-sea diver, a shore wanderer.

Carson modeled not only this novel perspectival lens on the natural world, but also a new aesthetic of science as a literary subject. She would soon become the most esteemed and influential science writer in the country. “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” she would assert in her 1951 National Book Award acceptance speech. “And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

It is with this dual Carsonian influence of a nonhuman perspective lyrically conveyed that Scheffer approaches his inquiry into the world of this enormous and enigmatic mammal. Alongside beguiling illustrations by artist Leonard Everett Fisher, winner of the Pulitzer Art Prize, he tells the story of a mother whale and her baby, Little Calf. Fittingly, he chooses as the book’s epigraph Henry Beston’s poetic insistence that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”

Scheffer limns the moment of birth, itself a miracle of nature as this fourteen-foot baby that weighs one ton takes its first breath of weightless air:

It is early September when for the first time the Little Calf sees light — a blue-green, dancing light. He slips easily from his mother’s body beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean two hundred miles west of Mexico, on the Tropic of Cancer. He trembles, for the water is cold and he has lain for sixteen months in a warm chamber at ninety-six degrees. He gasps for air as his mother nudges him anxiously to the surface with her broad snout. He breathes rapidly and desperately for a while, puffing with each breath a small cloud of vapor down the autumn breeze.

Already at birth, Little Calf has overcome immense peril. Together with sea cows and hippopotamuses, whales are the only mammals born underwater. Unlike a human baby, a whale is born tail first, backing into the outer world. Its enormous, awkward head — a head that would grow to hold Earth’s largest brain, fivefold the size of a human’s — follows the comma of its tadpole-shaped body, narrowly escaping the noose of the five-foot umbilical cord.

Scheffer writes:

As mother and calf roll in the wash the cord snaps. The baby opens a pink mouth with knobby, toothless gums and seems suddenly to smile, for the upturned corners of his mouth break into a satisfied smirk. This is illusion, of course; the smile of a whale is a built-in feature with which it is endowed at birth and retains throughout life.

[…]

Little Calf… is far more advanced in body development than any newborn human child. He is wide-eyed, alert, and fully able to swim. Every whale of every kind is in fact precocious at brith; it has to be, for within brief moments it finds itself awash in the grown-up world — no nest, no den, no shelter except the dark shadow of the mother floating beside it.

By the following summer, this precocious baby has begun mastering life in the open ocean. Scheffer describes the beautiful dance between Little Calf’s fledgling independence and the deep bond with his mother:

In the year of the whale there are days when nothing is new. One such a day in July the air is filled with a monotonous hissing of sound as one rain squall pursues another across the dappled sea. The Little Calf swims beneath his mother’s body in a dark shadow illuminated at the edges by a blue-gray light from above. Subconsciously he tries to match the rhythmic undulating sameness of her body, for the beating impulses of her flesh and the suffocating water have been one great throbbing part of his life from its beginning. In trying to keep pace, he sometimes falls behind and must sprint for a dozen strokes to re-enter the comforting zone of the shadow.

[…]

As the year ends, the form of the Little Calf leaves a thin track on the flat immensity, a swirling punctuation, a blend of liquid and life. A cool wind moves. The red light gleams on the wave at his brow. Then the sun sinks below the sea, and the tiny whale is gone.

Following Little Calf month by month, as different constellations come to populate the season’s skies, Scheffer goes on to explore the courtship of whales, the fascinating science of their underwater communication, their ferocious protectiveness of one another, the courageous battles they wage against the unforgiving ocean, the dynamics of a whale “family” — a loose social group of thirty or so individuals — and various other aspects of lives so wildly and wondrously different from our own, yet so strangely kindred, evocative of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s lovely observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom… far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Underlying Little Calf’s story are the subtle but palpable pulses of an environmental conscience, wistfully aware — even in 1969 — that unless we radically reform our civilizational regard for the natural world, this remarkable creature may vanish forever. Scheffer opens the first chapter with the cautionary words of former United States Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall — one of Carson’s most spirited champions and a fierce conservation advocate himself:

This decade may go down in history as marking the end of life for the largest animal ever to inhabit this earth. If so, it will be another morbid monument to man’s short-sighted exploitation of the world’s wildlife bounty.

Complement The Year of the Whale with this poetic stop-motion animation about the afterlife of the whale, the illustrated story of Mocha-Dick — the real-life sperm whale who inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick — and this lovely picture-book about the blue whale, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery — one of the most lyrical science writers of our own time — on how to be a good creature.

BP

Otherness, Belonging, and the Web of Life: The Great Nature Writer Henry Beston on Our Fellow Creatures and the Dignity of Difference

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

“Our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom,” naturalist Sy Montgomery wrote in her lyrical reflection on what thirteen animals taught her about how to be a good creature. And yet, for millennia, we left this old, shimmering world unfathomed — for all but the last blink of our species’ history, non-human animals have been little more than a preying feast for the human body and fertile metaphors for the human mind. Not until Jane Goodall upended the conceit that we are the only tool-wielding animals, against enormous tides of resistance from the scientific establishment, did we slowly and reluctantly begin shunning the specter of Descartes, haunting us for centuries with the haughty dogma that we alone are in possession of minds, while other animals are mere automata — moving machines, governed by instinct alone. Our definitions of what it means to be human have always perched atop a constructed hierarchy of beings, casting the otherness of other creatures as inferior. And yet even Darwin, who radicalized our understanding of nature by demonstrating the evolutionary ladder of life, scribbled in the margins of a natural history book: “Never say higher or lower. Say more complicated.”

The beauty of that unfathomed complexity and its attendant cry for a new way of apprehending non-human animals are what Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968) — one of the most lyrical nature writers our species has produced, and Rachel Carson’s greatest literary hero — examines a lovely passage from his 1928 classic The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (public library).

In a chapter titled “Autumn, Oceans, Birds,” Beston writes:

No aspect of nature on this beach is more mysterious to me than the flights of these shorebird constellations. The constellation forms… in an instant of time, and in that same instant develops its own will. Birds which have been feeding yards away from each other, each one individually busy for his individual body’s sake, suddenly fuse into this new volition and, flying, rise as one, coast as one, tilt their dozen bodies as one, and as one wheel off on the course which the new group will has determined… By what means, by what methods of communication does this will so suffuse the living constellation that its dozen or more tiny brains know it and obey it in such an instancy of time? Are we to believe that these birds, all of them, are machina, as Descartes long ago insisted, mere mechanisms of flesh and bone so exquisitely alike that each cogwheel brain, encountering the same environmental forces, synchronously lets slip the same mechanic ratchet? or is there some psychic relation between these creatures?

From this constellating marvel bordering on magic, Beston wrests a poetic antidote to our anthropocentrism — part requiem for our misplaced millennia-old hubris, part prescient and largehearted invitation to regard the otherness of this living world as a sovereign splendor measured not against but alongside and apart from our own.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage edition of Aesop’s fables

Nearly a century before the poet Mary Oliver insisted that “the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion [and] standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart,” Beston writes:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

Complement this fragment of The Outermost House — which also gave us Beston on how the beauty of night nourishes the human spirit — with poet Campbell McGrath’s stunning tribute to Jane Goodall’s revolutionary work and Christopher Hitchens on animal rights, then revisit Beston on seasonality and the human spirit, the limits of scientific knowledge, happiness, simplicity, and the sacredness of smallness, and his beautiful manifesto for relearning to be nurtured by nature.

BP

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