UPDATE: Haskell has responded to this blog piece on his own website, “Ramble.” I’ve posted a question, asking him directly if he dissed RD.
Reader Diane G called my attention to a piece in the New York Times about David Haskell, an evolutionist and ecologist at The University of the South: “Finding Zen in piece of nature” (the author of the piece is James Gorman).
Over a year, Haskell monitored 13,000 acres of woods owned by his university and has produced a book (The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature) in the tradition of lyrical nature writing. A snippet of his observations, these about an emergence of 13-year cicadas:
But to him, the noise is biological alchemy, sunlight into sound. “These guys have been feeding on roots for 13 years. And so it’s 13 years of combined Tennessee forest productivity being blasted out.”
It is this kind of perception, halfway between metaphor and field note, that makes his voice a welcome entry in the world of nature writers. He thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist. He avoids terms like “nature deficit disorder” and refuses to scold the bug-fearing masses. His pitch is more old-fashioned, grounded in aesthetics as much as science.
“You can live a perfectly happy life never having heard of Shakespeare,” he says, “but your life is in some ways a little diminished, because there’s such beauty there.
“And I think the same is true of nature. Much of it is useless to us, and that’s O.K. It’s not true that every species that goes extinct is like another rivet off the plane and the plane’s going to crash. We lost the passenger pigeon and the U.S. economy did not tank. But we lost the passenger pigeon and we lost some of this remarkable music made out of atoms and DNA.”
Although I haven’t seen the book, I appreciate Haskell’s emphasis on the intrinsic value of nature rather than trying to sell it by arguing for its pecuniary value to humans. The analogy to literature is apt. We don’t need to show people how saving the rain forest will make them healthier or wealthier to justify conservation. That is one reason, of course, but animals and plants have intrinsic value, both aesthetically and simply because they have a right to live. We have no right, as just one evolved species, to destroy every other species on our planet.
Sadly, though, about halfway through the article comes what Diane calls “the drive-by Dawkins diss,” in which someone attempts to gain credibility by denigrating the prominent biologist/atheist:
Dr. Haskell wanted to tell the story of forest ecology and also to refresh himself with a kind of natural history meditation, as opposed to goal-directed scientific research. He has a daily practice of sitting and concentrating on his breathing (he doesn’t use the word “meditation”) of no specific religious bent. He does, however, set himself apart from crusading atheists, like Richard Dawkins, saying he harbors a “deep suspicion that the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves.”
I’m not sure what relevance this has to his thesis, nor what his evidence is that “the world is more than atoms rearranging themselves,” which is an explicit denial of materialism. If he’s not religious, what more is there than “atoms rearranging themselves”? Granted, the way those atoms have arranged themselves, though the process of natural selection, has created structures that inspire wonder and awe—an awe, by the way, that I suspect is expressed much better by Dawkins than by Haskell’s breathless lucubrations.
What galls me is the increasing desire of people to gain credibility by a drive-by snipe at Dawkins’s materialism and atheism. There’s no need for that here, and no need to mention the man. Haskell is going for readership, pure and simple, and wants to get it by criticizing a well known atheist.
It’s totally gratuitious, and spoils an otherwise okay article. There is nobody on this planet who has awakened more awe and appreciation at the products of evolution than Richard Dawkins.
UPDATE: As one reader notes below, there’s a Templeton connection here (I should have guessed). As the Amazon page for Haskell’s book notes:
David Haskell’s work integrates scientific and contemplative studies of the natural world. His research and teaching examine the evolution and conservation of animals, especially forest-dwelling birds and invertebrates. This research is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Templeton Foundation. In addition to numerous scientific articles, he has published essays and poems about science and nature.
No wonder the drive-by diss.