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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Dispatch From Chautauqua

FROM BARBARA KING: Greetings from the shores of Lake Chautauqua in southwestern New York, where I'm at Chautauqua Institution for part of "Darwin and Linnaeus" week. Today was my first day in residence, and as I see it, the theme was the importance of, and wonder in, all creatures of our Earth, from the perspectives of religion and science both.
In the 9 a.m. chill, people gathered in Chautauqua's amphitheatre for a morning religious service. Right near the start came these words: "We need today, more than ever, a common language, a common intention to communicate and listen across differences in worldviews, cultures, classes, religions, and species."
To communicate and listen across species! I felt at home with this net cast wide into the natural world. This week's visiting pastor, Bruce Sanguin from the Canadian Memorial United Church and Center for Peace in Vancouver, British Columbia, took this idea further in a sermon that focused on the Pentecost story in ecological and evolutionary perspective. In a reversal of what happens with the Tower of Babel, the Pentecost story tells of visitors from farflung cultures who had come to Jerusalem and were able miraculously to understand each other's native language.
The allegory is powerful, for if seen in an evolutionary light it can urge us to think about how we relate with other species who communicate differently than we do. Sanguin says all of us must "fall back in love" with our planet, and work for its healing, because the current ecological crisis is "the fundamental challenge facing human beings today." Of course, he speaks from within the Christian tradition, but I heard his call as one that goes out to all people, at a time when our species seems to speak "only the dialect of domination." This needs to change, as Sanguin put it, "for our children, and for the children of all species."
The urgency facing us, the need to get into gear and take concrete steps to save the habitat, is often framed in terms of the need to save mammals (great apes, elephants, dolphins, whales, pandas) and birds. As a biological anthropologist who has studied primates, I sometimes promote this focus myself. But the morning's embrace was in no way so limited, and by the time the afternoon rolled around, it had broadened further in a startlingly specific way.
The department of religion's guest speaker today was science writer Carl Zimmer. Zimmer brought the clarity of his journalism to the task of discussing Darwin, Linnaeus, and microbes to a good-sized audience. His compare-and-contrast discussion of Linnaeus and Darwin was useful. For instance, with his new system for classifying the world's plants and animals, Linnaeus felt he was revealing the order of God; by contrast, Darwin, with his grasping of the concept of common ancestry, offered a specific way to understand why species are grouped as they are.
Zimmer's skills in communicating science were most evident when he told tales of microbes, those single-celled organisms that have accounted for seven-eighths of the timeline of life on Earth. Following the thesis of his new book Microcosm, Zimmer discussed a creature most of us give no second thought to, unless we eat a bad cheeseburger: E. coli. These micro-organisms are wildly successful and key to our ecosystems' health: They recycle nutrients, pull pollutants out of the wetlands, produce oxygen, anchor the food chain, and for that matter anchor our "internal jungle," our digestive system. Scientists, through lab experiments, observe them evolve generation by generation and in so doing, come to better understand the workings of evolution and genomic change.
To start the day with Sanguin's sacred species and end it with Zimmer's evolved species made for a resonant mix. In each case, the emphasis is off humans, but with an underlying urge to understand our own species better.