Two unrelated items popped up on the laptop screen recently. No, that’s wrong. They’re not unrelated at all.
The first was a report in the Brunswick News that a young humpback whale had been spotted off the Georgia coast. Humpbacks, an endangered species, are not indigenous to this region, but a Department of Natural Resources biologist was quoted in the paper as saying one or two show up every year.
The other item came from one of those “Quotations” websites where you can find interesting observations attributed (sometimes accurately) to famous people. This one was from Walter Gilbert, an American biologist and biochemist who won the 1980 Nobel in chemistry. “We are embedded in a biological world,” Gilbert said, “and related to the organisms around us.”
It’s not a profound or original observation, even from a Nobel laureate. It wouldn’t have been profound to Native American, Asian or African peoples of millennia ago for whom the interconnectedness of the natural world was a practical and spiritual given.
But profound or not, Gilbert’s observation was a reminder of our curious, selective relationship to science, especially natural and environmental science. ...
Star Trek “science” is in some ways an oxymoron, but the movie’s fundamental premise is sound: The natural world isn’t somehow separate from the human world, our stubborn Flat Earth denials to the contrary.
You’ve heard a lot of the latter, for instance, in debates over the quality and quantity of water in the Chattahoochee River. When biologists pointed out that a certain downstream mollusk is a key indicator of the river’s health, the phrase “people versus mussels” became the simpleminded sound bite of choice for politicians whose principal interest was, well, let’s say something other than the long-term health of the Chattahoochee River.
Every living thing is in some ways the proverbial canary in the coal mine — an indicator, and sometimes a dire warning, that human beings and human consumption and human comfort and human profit don’t exist in a bubble impervious to the natural world around us. Phony either-or choices like economy “versus” ecology or people “versus” environmental health are worse than just cynical lies — they’re lies that deliberately nurture the most dangerous kind of willful ignorance. ...
But there’s a scary, dismissive contempt for natural science in this culture, and it seems to be getting worse. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but if that baby whale off the Georgia coast is having problems it shouldn’t have, in a place where it shouldn’t be, we should want to know why.