Science and the Humanities

At a National Conference of Wildlife Biologists at Stanford University, Michael Soulé suggested that the future of wildlife biology must be interwoven with the future of the humanities. Why would he say this? Science (including Wildlife Biology) is becoming value driven, especially in a volatile climate of reduced research funding. In the synthesis of these two disciplines, our impulse towards excellence in work and deed can be achieved.

Soulé offers teachers something vital: an increased capacity for awareness. Through my fieldwork in Idaho's wilderness as a biological technician, I have witnessed more readily the ancient interrelationship between literature and the "sciences" of the natural world, therein discovering diverse pedagogical intentions that will help students thrive even more by seeing the points of convergence between science and literature. I have extended the physical reality into the classroom as metaphor to explain the perplexities of myths and archetypes. But more so, the bringing together of seemingly binary disciplines has helped me--in pragmatic ways--to create topics for student study that are relevant and compelling rather than perfunctory and nostalgic.

For instance, Ovid's Metamorphoses is a collection of stories that allegorically represents the diverse ways we tend to regard the natural world. In addition to the conquest motif--apparent in "The Story of Apollo and Daphne"--we read about the ancient cult of Diana and Themis, which gives shape to human experience in the wild as tragedy, containing the elements of Greek dramatic art (as defined by Aristotle) in his Poetics. In the forest, Diana transforms Acteaon, the sportsman-like hunter, into a deer. He is then hunted down by his own hounds and consequently goes through a rather brutal process of recognition and death. The reversal and subsequent recognition is synonymous with the changes in perspective between the erotic and the pornographic, as defined by Terry Tempest Williams in her essay "The Erotic Landscape."

In Aldo Leopold's "The Land Ethic," we see our relationship with the natural world explained in a similar way. The difference between thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem and thinking of land use as managing these same lands to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community is representative of the ongoing struggles between industry and commerce and the doctrines of conservation.

When I ask my students to think about our relationship with the natural world, I include a dialectic between ancient Roman epic poetry and the ideas of writers like Mary Shelly, Charles Darwin, Bernoulli, Gregor Mendel, Thomas Malthus. I include texts like "The Tragedy of the Commons" by Garrett Hardin, and (in contrast) other seminal texts like the writings of Herbert Spencer. My intention--the design of the course content--is to bring together the study of literature and science in ways that mimic Soulé's philosophy. As a result, I think students develop larger sensibilities about the world they live in and therein make connections between the language and mythologies of science and the language and mythologies of poetic narrative.


Collin Hughes: