10. POETRY AND SCIENCE
“No barrier stands between the material world of science and the sensibilities of the hunter and the poet.”
In my basement office I’ve got two large book cases within a few steps of my desk. One contains books on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology; the other contains books of poetry—individual volumes by poets as well as anthologies of poetry. Between those two book cases, I sometimes get echoes. For example, I’ll read a poem that reminds me of something I’ve read in a book by, say, an evolutionary biologist; or I’ll read something in a book on evolutionary psychology that reminds me of a poem.
It’s commonly assumed that the realms of understanding represented by science and literature have little or nothing to do with each other. A man who distinguished himself as an immunologist and a poet, Miroslav Holub, said this about his two professions:
I could never quite understand people asking, How can you do both things that are basically so different? They are technically different, technically at opposite poles of the application of language, but emanate from the same deep level of human urge, and the application of all available forces.
“Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science,” wrote Henry Beston in The Outermost House. Consider the following lines and phrases from poems, just on the basis of observation:
Robert Jeffers describing an eagle, perched on a burnt tree limb after a forest fire: "Cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders"
Anne Sexton calling a moose's face "mournful as an ax"
Richard Eberhart calling cancer cells under a microscope "a virulent, laughing gang"
Karl Shapiro describing a fly as having "the fine leg of a Duncan Fyfe"
Dylan Thomas calling a shoreline in Wales a "heron-priested shore"
Of course poets don’t just observe and describe. They go a lot further. Here, in just two lines from his poem, “The Bloody Sire,” about how violence creates values, Robinson Jeffers captures the essence of an arms race between species over long periods of evolutionary time:
What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
the fleet limbs of the antelope.
What follow are some connections I’ve been aware of by moving freely between scientific and literary sources.
Several years ago I watched the British naturalist David Attenborough, on his public television show, speak convincingly of a connection between birds’ and other animals’ songs, and human music. Besides footage of birds and whales, there were scenes of Siamong gibbons attracting mates as well as announcing and defending territory; a painted, scary face of a rugby player on the New Zealand National Rugby team, in a game with territorial rituals that have their origins in a war dance; popular male rock stars displaying in front of thousands of young women; people singing national anthems, which also announce, defend, and celebrate boundaries between social groups.
A few days after the Attenborough documentary, with all that astonishing music and color still in my head, some lines from a sonnet by Robert Frost (who, incidentally, was quite familiar with Darwin’s writings) came to me—a poem that praises a woman’s voice, which is so beautiful that it leaves the confines of the house where it originated and goes outside, where birds are singing. The poem begins:
He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Over time, the woman’s voice merges with that of the birds. The poem ends with this memorable couplet:
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds is why she came.
Another passage from a Frost poem occurred to me after I attended a lecture on bonobos by the well-known primatologist, Frans de Waal, who showed pictures of the animals on a wide screen behind him. He spoke of the power that female bonobos exert over males—for example, trading sex for food. What he said reminded me of some lines from Frost’s poem “The Pauper Witch of Grafton,” about a witch who has enjoyed, over her lifetime, great power over a succession of men. But she is old now, and can no longer command as she once did. Near the end of the poem she refers to one of the men she once controlled with her charm and beauty:
Up where the trees grow short, the mosses tall,
I made him gather me wet snowberries
on slippery rocks beside a waterfall.
I made him do it for me in the dark.
And he liked everything I made him do.
A poem I read recently in an anthology called The Poets Guide to the Birds reminded me of a book by the ethologists, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi called The Handicap Principle, in which they discuss signaling among various species. The Zahavis define the handicap principle this way: “if a given signal requires the signaler to invest more in the signal than it would gain by conveying phony information, then faking is unprofitable and the signal is therefore credible.” They go on to say that “the cost—the handicap that the signaler takes on—guarantees that the signal is reliable.” So a gazelle that is stotting (taking intermittent, high leaps as it runs) is sending a message to a wolf that it (the gazelle) can afford to waste time and energy, and therefore is probably not worth pursuing. The handicap principle is applicable not only to predator-prey encounters but also in mate selection, as when a male peacock’s beautifully extravagant tail is fanned out and shivering before a female.
The poem, “Songbird,” by the contemporary American poet John Brehm, is in one sense an excellent dramatization of the handicap principle. A skylark fleeing from “a falcon’s quick pursuit” begins to sing, “as if to say, being/eaten by a falcon is the last thing/in the world I’m worried about.” Here are the last two stanzas of the poem:
And the raptor knows
it’s true, knows that anyone
foolish enough to sing in such
a circumstance is quite beyond
ever being caught, and that for all
his hunger he’ll be given just
a song, tumbling through the air,
as the body he desires disappears.
While reading the poem I wondered whether the poet was aware of the handicap principle. I have a strong hunch that he was, since his first two lines are: “Even though I have not seen it,/ I know how it could be.” In fact, what the poem dramatizes is true (and the Zahavis confirm it in their book): Falcons are more likely to pursue skylarks that don’t sing while they are fleeing than those that do sing.
I appreciate the fact that Brehm’s fine poem agrees with facts established by scientific study—whether or not he was actually aware of those facts—and I enjoy the strictly poetic detail of the skylark speaking to the falcon, saying that the falcon may “well enjoy” the song, “before I vanish into air.”
In my early 30s I wrote a poem I called “Football, which was published in a 1972/73 edition of a journal:
Consider the stoning of beasts:
the peppered mammoth slobbering in the pit,
the stunned boar,
the bear with crushed face advancing, m
the crippled, skirling cat;
Consider the hands
groping along the hacked shores of rivers
how many dawns ago? for this shape of stone.
In the first part of the poem I pictured the stoning of animals by ancient hunters. I was also suggesting a connection between one kind of violence and a tamer kind that takes place in modern American football, which is sometimes referred to as warfare with terms such as “bullet pass,” “defensive strategy,” “blitz,” “the bomb,” and so on. I remember that around the time I wrote the poem I had read Konrad Lorenz’ book, On Aggression, and was struck by his idea that sports provide a safety valve for what he called our “collective militant enthusiasm.”
In the second part of my poem, I pictured hunters gathering stones on the shores of rivers, and here I was interested in the actual stones themselves. My lines imply that the shape of a stone used in hunting was similar to that of a football.
Many years after I published my poem, I read an article in Discover (June, 1986), with the title, “One, Two, Three Strikes You’re Dead in this Old Ball Game.” The article is about a scientific hypothesis regarding the shape of stones used by ancient hunters. It refers to some stones found by paleoanthropologists at early toolmaking sites, such as the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. These stones, the author said, are not the kind used for tools. Instead, they are shaped in such a way that suggests that they were thrown with a spin, like footballs, and that they were perhaps used for throwing at enemies or animals. The writer went on to say that modern sports that involve throwing might be a way of channeling aggressive behavior—the same point made by Lorenz in his book.
In an interview in SKEPTIC MAGAZINE in 1996, the anthropologist Robin Fox was asked why people have such a “gut level” response to the matter of race, and he spoke of our innate xenophobia:
. . . we have a similarity detection mechanism built into us—and even if nature doesn’t provide the cues to familiarity, like skin color, for us, we provide it for ourselves with things like costumes, haircuts,tattoos, headdresses, things through the nose, or anything that distinguishes who we are from who they are.
The us-versus-them dichotomy that Fox describes is expressed well in a poem by the contemporary American poet, Thomas Lux. The title, “The People of the Other Village,” is also the first line of the poem; here are the first eight lines:
hate the people of this village and would nail our hats
to our heads for refusing in their presence to remove them
or staple our hands to our foreheads
for refusing to salute them
if we did not hurt them first: mail them packages of rats,
mix their flour at night with broken glass.
We do this, they do that.(3)
E. O. Wilson believes that human beings have an innate need to affiliate with other life, and calls the need biophilia. To him, “organisms are the natural stuff of metaphor and ritual,” the human brain has “kept its old capacities, its channeled quickness,” and “we stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.” Poets of course have long been aware of our tendency to identify closely with nature.
The British poet John Keats, in a letter to friend in 1817, said: “. . . if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” And Loren Eiseley, the anthropologist/nature writer/poet, expressed an even stronger kinship with other creatures when he wrote, in the 1960s: “One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.”
Anyone familiar with fairly recent American poetry about animals will probably have noticed a type of poem that describes and celebrates a particular species’ uniqueness. Ethologists speak of animals as possessing their own, species-specific way of perceiving and adapting , referred to by ethologists as a species’ umwelt. In the words of the well-known ethologist Nikko Tinbergen, “Though all share one world, all may be said to live in different worlds, since each perceives best only that part of the environment essential to its success.”
The recognition and understanding of an animal’s peculiar world informs some first-rate contemporary American poetry. Consider “Hermit Crabs” by Margaret Renkl:
Drop them on the dock, they lean
into cracks between the boards,
their shells large
and hard. Lift them in your hand,
their rough legs stab between
your fingers to grasp at water.
Put them on the boat deck, they pull
forward, clawing polished wood,
formica, metal for any grip,
knowing water dull green then dark
then nothing, unerring
every time as though rehearsed,
every single time without a pause,
knowing what we know, faithful:
home the easy way. Down.
What comes through strongly in Renkl’s poem is the umwelt of the hermit crab. For instance, given its habitat, surely this animal must have an “unerring” understanding of what it feels like to drop through water; in fact, crabs must no doubt always be, as the poet says, “grasp[ing] at water.”
I believe that all poets and writers could benefit from reading some scientific writing, whether it comes from scientists themselves—many of whom are writers as well as scientists (Darwin, E.O. Wilson, Steven Jay Gould, for instance)—or science writers. It’s good not to only look inside your heart and write, as a writer once put it, but to look outside your heart, at the actual, physical world that we all inhabit and share.