The Need for the Natural Sciences

I just read an interview with the legendary Dr. Jane Goodall in the latest issue of the Sierra Club’s magazine and I felt simultaneously inspired and nostalgic. As a child, I grew up watching nature documentaries about her and other great naturalists and anthropologists, watching shows like “Nature” and David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth,” thinking that the world when I became an adult would be filled with people and a culture that loved nature, that put nature first. I loved my rock collections as a little girl, loved watching the bunnies in our yard, loved how my mother would point out birds in the ditches alongside the road. (Not surprisingly, my undergraduate degree was in Anthropology: Social Sciences, with a strong biological grounding.)

Sadly, I have found that it is not true, due to the advent of the Internet and an emphasis on the computational and mathematical sciences that have ensued. Everybody owns a smartphone, but how many people own a plant or belong to a nature organization or observe birds in the trees? Everybody wants to get rich quick not from dealing with plants or biology, but from the latest app or platform or computer technology in Silicon Valley. Think of all the expressions we have for people who are interested in nature, some more pejorative than others: “granola,” “tree-hugger,” “Nature Boy,” “eco freak,” et cetera. Technology and computer science are more quantifiable; they give us easier-to-classify results, quantitative data, can be understood by people all over the world with a minimum of common language. None of these are bad things, to be sure. The problem comes in that we are not putting nature first. We as a society are not deifying or idolizing (or at least putting as central) nature. Our natural world is looked on as somehow irrelevant or taken for granted. Surely that grass will grow and that squirrel is cute; now, gimme my Starbucks and I’ll send you a text. Look at the way universities have phased out natural science departments, as well as undergraduate requirements. The money is in computers, to be sure, because computers generate money and opportunities for money. It’s easier to shut your kid up with a DVD or iPad, but can you also get them to count the different varieties of birds in the yard?

Our hope lies in our future, in cultivating the love of nature in the very young. But, some might argue, children naturally gravitate toward nature. So then, let us revise our statement and say that is important to MAINTAIN the love of nature as children grow up into adults with other priorities. Should anyone think this is frivolous, I would direct him or her to numerous peer-reviewed studies by eminent scientists that point to the hard evidence of the tragedy of global warming and the shocking rise in natural disasters. We need to see ourselves as part of nature, and as mere keepers of nature for future generations.

Certainly, readers must appreciate the irony that I am blogging about this subject in front of my computer instead of being outdoors, and I must also confess that I do own an iPhone and various techno-gadgets. But these are not central to my life. To me, Mother Nature is top priority, the phenomenon for which I have the most respect. It is not a simple of issue of saying technology is bad and nature is good; in fact, we can forge links between the two (think Bjork’s Biophilia projects). Rather, to put it in Buddhist terms, it all starts in the mind, in our intentions, and there are a lot worse things to put in the center of our lives.

Science and Unreason: Richard Dawkins

This week, I had the opportunity to see renowned British scientist Richard Dawkins speak as part of his new book tour (his book is aimed at children and teens, and is quite creative and appealing). Dawkins is one of the most prominent thinkers in 20th-21 first century biology and natural sciences, and certainly, his contribution is indeed remarkable. But Dawkins is notoriously pro-science and anti-religion, to which I say—-why the schism? I myself am the daughter of a Hindu scientist, and am a very serious spiritual practitioner with a background in biological anthropology (though my degree was in Anthropology: Social Sciences). Why does he overlook the religious traditions that are pro-science, such as Buddhism?

Perhaps one of the most pro-science, high profile individuals in the world today is HH Dalai Lama, the great leader of (the Yellow Hat branch of)Tibetan Buddhism. He himself has said that, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” His Holiness has done much to assist with the field of neuroscience and the scientific study of the brain and mind; one need only do a Google search with the words “Dalai Lama” and “science” to see the plethora of articles on the interconnectedness of Buddhism and science. The basis of Buddhism is impermanence and change, the evolution of thought, and seeing what is—-all concepts that relates well to the fundamentals of modern scientific thinking and scientific methodology.

Dawkins fails to clarify that “religion” as he uses the word really refers to “Judeo-Christian” religion as well as more basic or fundamentalist types of ideas from any world religion. His thought processes reveal a narrow-mindedness that is a common process in any system of thought or philosophy or religion that bills itself as the ONLY way of thinking without any room for input from the opposite side, a dogmatism that one can see in fundamentalist Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, politics, or any culture. It is rather ironic that Dawkins himself is rather caught up in a rather emotional, dogmatic campaign to promote his brand of scientific rationality as the only answer.

Also frustrating about Dawkins is his mission to eliminate non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. It seems a bit like the schoolyard child with the pin trying to pop your balloon. There is nothing wrong about myths or non-scientific explanations to explain the wonders of nature; they simply need to be contextualized as such, and not taught as- and confused with scientific truth. And vice versa: scientific truth is (if we look at it very, very simplistically), a method-tested, results-repeatable, quantitative, analytical, logical explanation for the wonders of nature. It is a tool which has allowed us to manipulate the world to a degree deemed impossible for centuries if not millennia. It has allowed us to make exponential progress (and, if we look at the state of the environment, regress) and achieve advances in technology that have changed the course of human history in a very short time. Science and myth/religion/storytelling are perhaps two sides of the same coin, quantitative and qualitative explanations for life.

No, we cannot let the religious right prevent us from teaching evolution in schools. Yes, our politicians are generally very misinformed and fearful of science and scientific rationality. Yes, faith often gets in the way of rationality. But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater and completely dismiss religion as though it is all irrational, emotional, extremist poppycock. And for those of us not from the Judeo-Christian tradition, we cannot continue to allow the faith vs. rationality schism to persist.