My son, Andrew, is forty-six years old. Trained as a biologist with special emphasis on sustainable agriculture, he lives in the Virgin Islands where he divides his time between writing, (his passion), and working on a sail boat as first mate, (his current livelihood and his current curiosity). We often talk about poetry and science as different paths to the same discoveries.
Andrew has given me biology and science books to read since he was in college. I have become acquainted with a small pantheon of scientists whose work I sort of understand, at least in a beginning way. So whenever I am in a bookstore, whenever the occasion for a gift rolls around, I scan the science shelves for Murray Gell-Mann, Matt Ridley, or Edward O. Wilson.
And recently it was Wilson, well-known for his decades-long study of ants, whose new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, beckoned to me from the plethora of new titles. Wilson is an elegant writer – clear, concise, unambiguous, and brilliant – a formidable apologist for the advance of basic science knowledge in our world. This book contains, unexpectedly, something altogether new, and surprising. This oft-awarded scientist makes the case for the humanities as the reason we human beings are what we are.
In outlining how the scientist works – using few loaded words, but adhering to restrained and logical language based on demonstrable fact – he suggests the exact opposite is the case with regard to poetry and the other creative arts. “The metaphor is everything,” he writes. The creative writer, composer or visual artist, conveys obliquely by abstraction or deliberate distortion, his own perceptions and the feelings he hopes to invoke – about something, about anything, real or imagined. He seeks to bring forth in an original way some truth or other about the human experience. Unlike the scientist, the artist tries to pass what he creates “directly along the channel of human experience” without the intercession of verifying data. The success of this attempt is judged by the power and beauty of the metaphor she employs. The artist, not the scientist, embodies the notion once ascribed to Picasso: art is the lie that shows us the truth.
Wilson, the consummate scientist, then suggests if well-disposed aliens were to visit our fragile blue planet, what would most interest them is not our science, which would be old hat to them, but our music, our art, our poetry – in short, our metaphor. Not the shortest route to the truth, but the most inviting, the most consistent with our complex and unruly nature.
“After we have made all of [our] knowledge available with a few keystrokes, and after we have built robots that can outthink and outperform us, both of which initiatives are well under way, what will be left to humanity? There is only one answer: we will choose to retain the uniquely messy. self-contradictory, internally conflicted, endlessly creative human mind that exists today.”
What poet might the alien visitors Wilson posits find most attuned to their own experience? Sappho or Adrienne Rich? Alexander Pope or Michael S. Harper? Billy Collins of Mary Oliver? What would they be looking for except what we, were the tables turned, would seek as visitors to their planet? Complexity rather than certainty. The freedom of holding two truths simultaneously rather than the prison of single truth dogma. We would hope to be surprised, to look at what we think we know from a heretofore unconsidered angle. Poetry, metaphor, offers us, and our visitors, just this entry into the braided secrets of the universe…and ourselves.
ALL THINGS POINT
All things point to the mute, white moon. Leafless
trees, vacant stairways, flagpoles, the upraised
arms of children.
Like all creatures, we aspire to rise,
unbuckle from gravity, lift free.
Silent, serene, changing moon. Each night querying
another part of the dark sky. Each night a restless
but familiar shape.
One day you will receive each of us into your
orbit as we dissolve into that bright question
we drape over your silent stones.
Quotations from The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson
Liverwrignt Publishing Corp. / W. W. Dutton & Co. 2014