2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

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Vice President of Research & Collections, Denver Museum of Nature & Science; Dinosaur paleontologist and science communicator; Author, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life
Nature = Objects

One of the most prevalent ideas in science is that nature consists of objects. Of course the very practice of science is grounded in objectivity. We objectify nature so that we can measure it, test it, and study it, with the ultimate goal of unraveling its secrets. Doing so typically requires reducing natural phenomena to their component parts. Most zoologists, for example, think of animals in terms of genes, physiologies, species, and the like. 

Yet this pervasive, centuries-old trend toward reductionism and objectification tends to prevent us from seeing nature as subjects, though there's no science to support such myopia. On the contrary, to give just one example, perhaps the deepest lesson cascading from Darwin's contributions is that all life on Earth, including us, arose from a single family tree. To date, however, this intellectual insight has yet to penetrate our hearts. Even those of us who fully embrace the notion of organic evolution tend to regard nature as resources to be exploited rather than relatives deserving of our respect.

What if science were to conceive of nature as both object and subject? Would we need to abandon our cherished objectivity? Of course not. Despite their chosen field of study, the vast bulk of social scientists don’t struggle to form emotional bonds with family and friends. More so than at any point in the history of science, it's time to extend this subject-object duality to at least the nonhuman life forms with which we share this world. 

Why? Because much of our unsustainable behavior can be traced to a broken relationship with nature, a perspective that treats the nonhuman world as a realm of mindless, unfeeling objects. Sustainability will almost certainly depend upon developing mutually enhancing relations between humans and nonhuman nature. Yet why would we foster such sustainable relations unless we care about the natural world?

An alternative worldview is called for, one that reanimates the living world. This mindshift, in turn, will require no less than the subjectification of nature. Of course, the notion of nature-as-subjects is not new. Indigenous peoples around the globe tend to view themselves as embedded in animate landscapes replete with relatives; we have much to learn from this ancient wisdom. 

To subjectify is to interiorize, such that the exterior world interpenetrates our interior world. Whereas the relationships we share with subjects often tap into our hearts, objects are dead to our emotions. Finding ourselves in relationship, the boundaries of self can become permeable and blurred. Many of us have experienced such transcendent feelings during interactions with nonhuman nature, from pets to forests.

But how might we undertake such a grand subjectification of nature? After all, worldviews become deeply ingrained, so much so that they become like the air we breathe—essential but ignored.

Part of the answer is likely to be found in the practice of science itself. The reductionist Western tradition of science has concentrated overwhelmingly on the nature of substance, asking "What is it made of." Yet a parallel approach—also operating for centuries, though often in the background—has investigated the science of pattern and form. Generally tied to Leonardo da Vinci, the latter method has sought to explore relationships, which can be notoriously difficult to quantify and must instead be mapped. The science of patterns has seen a recent resurgence, with abundant attention directed toward such fields as ecology and complex adaptive systems. Yet we've only scratched the surface, and much more integrative work remains to be done that could help us understand relationships.

Another part of the answer, I think, is to be found in education. We need to raise our children so that they see the world with new eyes. At the risk of heresy, it seems that science education in particular could be re-invigorated with subjectification in mind. Certainly the practice of science—the actual doing of scientific research—must be done as objectively as possible. But the communication of science could be done using both objective and subjective lenses.

Imagine if the bulk of science education took place outdoors, in direct, multisensory contact with the natural world. Imagine if students were encouraged to develop a meaningful sense of place through an understanding of the deep history and ecological workings of that place. And imagine if mentors and educators emphasized not only the identification and functioning of parts (say, of flowers or insects), but the notion of organisms as sensate beings in intimate relationship with each other (and us). What if students were asked to spend more time learning about how a particular plant or animal experiences its world? 

In this way, science (and biology in particular) could help bridge the chasm between humans and nature. Ultimately, science education, in concert with other areas of learning, could go a long way toward achieving the "Great Work" described by cultural historian Thomas Berry—transforming the perceived world "from a collection of objects to a communion of subjects."