Recommended Reading: The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass

photo (69)This slim volume — beautifully designed, by the way — is the record of a conversation between two careful thinkers: Edward O. Wilson (better known as E. O. Wilson, perhaps), a biologist famous for his work on ants and his sometimes controversial theories about evolution, and Robert Hass, a highly acclaimed poet, essayist and environmentalist who is a former Poet Laureate.The event — think a long-form TED dialogue — took place in late 2012, was co-sponsored by Poets House and the American Museum of Natural History.

As Lee Briccetti writes in the Foreword to The Poetic Species*, “Poetry is not purely associative. Science is not purely analytic. All skilled human production depends on subtle networks of cognitive capacities and the ability to transition between them” (23). Professor Wilson and Professor Hass came together to talk about the ways that science and the humanities inform each other, and how thinkers in both disciplines might come together to protect the natural world.

The first part of the discussion traces Professor Wilson’s theory of the perpetual conflict embedded in human nature (and yes, the question of “human nature” is, as it’s often maddeningly put in the academy, “vexed”): a tendency toward altruism with regard to members of one’s social group (and concomitant hostility toward outside groups), and the impulse to act selfishly at the individual level. Professor Hass notes, “the dance of the tension between these two things must constitute something of what we mean by consciousness, by the experience of having choice and free will and moral life. A productive oscillation between a social self and a private, individual self, in each person and in the species” (40-41). He goes on to suggest that this kind of oscillation appears in art, between form and departure from form, between what makes us comfortable and what challenges us and makes us uncomfortable.

Professor Wilson, too, emphasizes the connection between biology and art: “I’ve suggested many times that the humanities, and especially the creative arts, are the natural history of Homo sapiens” (48). In his view, “The creative arts are the sharing of our inner desires and humanity’s struggle. The humanities are our way of understanding and managing the conflict between the two levels that created Homo sapiens” (53). Put another way, in Robert Hass’s words: “At a very simple level, poetry can give us someone to talk to. To read is, in that way, to have your inner life acknowledged by somebody else’s” (78).

(As you can probably tell, I’d love to quote great swaths of the dialogue in this review, but then I’d run the risk of quoting the whole book; every page offers something worth contemplating. I’d love to see more collaborations of this kind in print, and I’d happily read another conversation between E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass. While The Poetic Species takes the initial format of Professor Hass interviewing Professor Wilson about his work, and works from that point, I’d like to read another conversation in which Professor Wilson questions Professor Hass about the natural elements in his poetry (which is deeply rooted in the environment of northern California). Given Professor Wilson’s admission, in his own list of suggested reading, that he does not read literature for its own sake, perhaps this is wishful thinking.)

The last third of The Poetic Speciesis an impassioned plea for conservation of wildernesses, a plea to take the initiative to save places and species that are in danger of disappearing. Wilson says, “I’m spending more and more of the time I have left on national parks” (67). Both men encourage education of young people in both biology and the humanities to promote environmental stewardship; Wilson suggests that education should go beyond facts and terms — “it’s somehow got to be made into a story” (76). Common Core creators, take note.

Reflecting on elegant solutions in math and sciences, Hass says, “Beauty sends out ripples, like a pebble tossed in a pond, and the ripples as they spread seem to evoke among other things a stirring of curiousity. The aesthetic effect of a Vermeer painting is a bit like that. Some paradox of stillness and motion. Desire appeased and awakened” (79). That’s how science and poetry work — we solve one problem, come to one possible solution, and another question presents itself — like endless webs that spin outward and outward to gather us all in.

The Poetic Species is a fascinating foray into the ways we’re connected to each other and the natural world — highly recommended reading.

*My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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15 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass

  1. This is exactly the kind of thing I think about all the time! It sounds dumb to say that I think about nature, but I do, and I think nature’s greatest hope lies in teaching our children about how wonderful it is. The best way to do that, is to take them to nature so that they can experience it and learn to love it, but reading is another way. I love that Wilson suggests that education should be made into a story. Everyone loves stories. And, so many people are not able to take themselves or their kids out to experience nature (other things, too, that are important to preserve, like other cultures and history), so it makes sense to let them learn through stories instead. Those of us who love to read already know how powerful stories can be. Okay, I’m done now, but I will probably think of something else to say as soon as hit the ‘post comment’ button. A good indicator of whether or not someone has loved a book is by how much they want to quote it- I know I am that way. Thanks for this review!

  2. Sounds like a great read! I am also someone who doesn’t understand how science and the arts got all separated when all subjects are the studies of a curious mind. Why this big “arts vs science” business started, I’ll never know. Oh, wait! Could it be because science makes more money and then arts got under-funded? Thus the competition and then the cultural shift to believing they opposed each other inherently, not just fiscally? Sigh.
    Also, like Naomi, I believe books can help us appreciate nature. I myself am obsessed with reading novels set in Japan with all the cherry trees, there is something about those images that totally captivates me. When I was living in Europe, it became apparent to me how many Europeans read Canadian books simply because of the descriptions of our natural environment (in my experience, the Germans are the most voracious readers of the Canadian nature adventure book). Europe has plenty of great forest spaces, but reading about our ridiculously underpopulated country and the people who explore it was, for those I talked to, a way to really engage in a more vast landscape. Thanks for the review! -Tania

      • Oooh, that’s a toughie. I’m going to with Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (it has a confusing past as came out as non-fiction but was later revealed to be fiction, it’s still a great read).

        Icefields by Thomas Wharton is also a great one for the mountains.

        And for non-fiction, Curve of Time by Wylie Blanchett is a riveting tale of a widow who takes her 5 kids to live on a boat off the Pacific Coast using only an old guide to the area.
        What about the US – what are you favourite nature/adventure stories from your neck of the woods? -Tania

      • I’ve never heard of any of these books — thanks for educating me. As for American nature/adventure books . . . I’m coming up blank for some reason. I like A Walk in the Woods, I suppose. But some of the classics — Thoreau, Jack London — leave me cold. I’ll ask my mom and my brother, who are much better read in the subject.

  3. E. O. Wilson has long been a scientific hero of mine. I’ve read most of his work and have always hoped to be as broad and open in my scientific understanding as he is. Robert Hass is a newer favorite, but I clicked on some of his work on the poetry foundation website about a year ago and now have a couple of his volumes, which I love for his natural depictions. I am ECSTATIC about this collaboration and can’t wait for it come out in paperback so I can add it to my collection. I feel like you concierged this just for me, Carolyn. Thanks!

      • That’s a tough one. One of the best things about EO is he comes at science writing from a humanities point of view. I started close the beginning – which is mostly science, such as Ants, The Biodiversity of Life, but his more recent stuff is excellent from a humanities perspective and is more accessible, I think. I’d recommend Letters to a Young Scientist, Anthill (fiction!), Consilience, The Future of Life. I have not yet read Creation, but I’m really really interested in that one so hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

  4. Neat! I did not know this book was coming out, and I will have to look for it (though I am already behind where I want to be in my Wilson reading). Thank you for the review.

    If the gap between science and the humanities as academic disciplines (which I would argue affects how the two are seen by the general public and in K-12 education) is something interesting to you, you should look for The Two Cultures, an essay by C.P. Snow. I have found a pdf copy of the text online. It is an old essay, at times dated, but still broadly relevant. A good quotation from early on: “This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss, and I repeat that it is false to imagine that those three considerations are clearly separable…”

    Snow’s essay was originally given as a lecture, and this book is a dialogue. Maybe it is time to get people talking about these issues again.

    • Thanks for the recommendation — I’ll look for it! And yes, I think you’re right that the gap between disciplines at the higher-ed level does affect K-12 education. And the gap is particularly insidious when it comes to funding.

  5. Pingback: A Selection of Great Blog Posts April 2014 | Consumed by Ink

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