Biologist merges sciences and humanities

Professor, biologist and author David Haskell discussed the significance of taking a multidisciplinary approach to studying the sciences in a Tuesday evening lecture in Kroon Hall.

The talk, given as part of the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, also included a discussion of the merit and rareness of nature writing. Haskell told an audience of approximately 50 about his experience observing one square meter of wood in Tennessee from the viewpoint of a static, meditative onlooker. Haskell, a professor at Sewanee: the University of the South, also read passages from his award-winning book “The Forest Unseen,” which explores this experience in depth.

Haskell said he decided to write “The Forest Unseen” in order to describe nature in an intimate way, adding that by writing the book, he wanted to “step into a different mode.”

“I wanted to go [into] the forest without an agenda for a change,” Haskell said, explaining that he used to explore forests armed with a hypothesis or a lesson plan. “I wanted to leave those agendas behind, and see where observations might take me.”

Haskell compared his contemplative experience to the Mandala, a Tibetan symbol which he said both recreates the entire cosmos and recalls the impermanence of nature. Even though he did not anticipate that his experience would assume a religious context, Haskell said, he felt that his meditation ultimately proved as spiritual as it was educational.

He described his meditation as a period of silent awareness during which he paid close attention to the events in the woods as they were unfolding around him without making much movement of his own. The experience inspired him to take a humanistic approach when describing scientific processes in his writing.

During the lecture, Haskell defended his decision to study a small, local area. He explained that general biological processes — such as the biological network of chipmunks as they respond to the alarming sound of a startled deer — may be better understood from such close observation.

“Focusing on one square meter can help you get to the universal,” Haskell said, adding that stories of ecology and evolution can help people understand the beauty of the natural world.

In one of the passages Haskell read aloud, he described being in the woods on an unusually chilly day in the winter. Seeing how trees and other denizens of the forest were surviving the cold without any cover prompted him to impulsively take off his clothes in an attempt to understand their experience. Haskell reflected on the apparent irony of small animals coping with the cold better than humans and used this example to grapple with the complexities of evolution.

“We are condemned by our skill with fire and cloth to being out of place in the winter,” Haskell said.

Haskell highlighted the importance of merging first-person narrative and scientific knowledge in nature writing. He suggested that through nature-writing, humans may begin to care and understand more of their natural world.

An interdisciplinary approach to science, he explained, may help people foster such an understanding. He pointed to the example of Confucianism as an important philosophy which encourages individuals to think of themselves in relationship to others, much like in an ecological network. He even postulated that the Holy Trinity of Christianity — “three in one and one in three” — was itself a form of a biological network.

Haskell explained that the benefits of studying natural history — a field often left out from many scientific curricula — include not only the practical knowledge of preserving the environment but also can help in non-scientific fields such as politics. For example, he said, the study of natural history may foster an improved understanding of human sexuality.

He referred to certain laws and court justifications that defend heterosexual marriage as marriage founded in nature, adding that an observation of the natural world would easily disprove such a claim.

“I’m glad that FES is bringing this sort of dialogue together,” said Devin Routh FES ’15, adding that he is pleased the school invited a professor committed to interdisciplinary learning. “I feel like there’s not enough interdisciplinarity supported in our experiences here, with a few notable exceptions. So I think these sorts of dialogues are ones we should have more often, and that we should probably take them beyond the forum we have here.”

The next event in the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities will take place on Feb. 5.

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