Real poets, eco-poets

Green Space, Green Time
May 1, 1998

Our old myths are no longer much use, but living without myths seems impossible - so it is up to us to create new ones. A plausible claim perhaps, as one watches myths being spun all around.

But Connie Barlow goes a step further. Science, she argues, far from negating myths, is the best grounding for new ones fit for the times. Specifically, Darwinian theory and geophysiology offer inspiration for new stories about nature, stories that impart meaning to our lives by placing them in a larger scheme. Geophysiology, under the banner of Gaia theory first unfurled by Jim Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, has always had a semi-mythical aspect that repels as many scientists as it attracts. Darwinian theory, although it seems to induce a near-religious fervour in some of its modern adherents, is less obviously a source of such stories. But they are there, in the form of what writers such as Edward O. Wilson have self-consciously fashioned as the epic of evolution.

Barlow, whose two previous books were collections of writing about life and evolution, applauds all of this as an appealing way of developing a new ecoreligious movement. She sees it as complementary to more traditional modes of consciousness raising - tapping ancient wisdom, seeking personal transcendence or making mystical contact with nature. To these three she seeks to add another, what she calls the way of science. To point the way, she reviews the work of writers who have written about their science in ways accessible to lay readers, as in Wilson's Biodiversity, or who have tried to interpret aspects of science in ways that relate to broader concerns. In their hands, the history of the universe becomes a scientifically based story, from the big bang (or the great radiance, as one of Barlow's favoured authors dubs it) through the formation of stars and planets, the origins and evolution of life and the development of conscious minds.

As bearers of such minds, we find ourselves in a position to appreciate all this and to fathom the way the planet seems to constitute a self-regulating system, in which the totality of life helps maintain its own environment. For Barlow, this offers a creation story as capable of expressing key values as any that has been told before, in this case values centred around the richness of life's diversity. This, in turn, can be used to evoke responses as varied as new religious rituals and practical work to preserve or reconstruct local bio-regions. But above all, it is a damn good story.

One could regard all this simply as an impressive exercise in marshalling rhetorical resources in favour of a particular brand of conservationist politics. It is certainly open to relativising responses of various kinds. And although Barlow is in effect proposing a hermeneutics for a new age, she explicitly repudiates postmodernist attitudes to science: it is necessary for her story to be true in a scientific as well as a spiritual sense. Finally, though, her message about science and values invites a more personal response. I approached the book convinced the signs were bad - something about the title and the acknowledgement to "the trees whose once-living fibres now support this sharing of ideas". But I found it carefully argued, charmingly written and well aware of the objections to attempts to harness science to values. Not all the people one meets in these pages are as impressive as Wilson or Lovelock. One or two of the "scientist-poets" strike me as people no one outside California would mistake for a poet.

However, the overall message Barlow distills from her many conversations seems a fine one for popular science writing to convey. If one sticks resolutely to the principle she affirms towards the end of the discussion, that the scientific story can always change and the current version of the myth would then have to change too, there is nothing here to disturb a realist epistemology. And as a secular rationalist who has always felt allergic to other belief systems, I warm to the effort to make more sense of the unfolding of science than Steven Weinberg's dictum in The First Three Minutes that the more we understand of the universe, the more meaningless it becomes. After all, everyone needs some kind of story to tell their children. But that, I think, is Barlow's point.

Jon Turney teaches science communication at University College London.

Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science

Author - Connie Barlow
ISBN - 0 387 94794 9
Publisher - Copernicus
Price - £18.50
Pages - 329

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