A Short History of Nearly Everything, a recent release by the prolific travel writer Bill Bryson, is the fruit of three years of research into the cumulative discoveries of the scientific world, with the hope of re-presenting them in layman's terms to the general public. It began, as he tells in the introduction, during a flight over the Pacific, in which he was staring out the window of the jet down at that vast ocean and realized he knew nothing about it. At that point, he resolved to do something about it, and I rather enjoyed his efforts to remedy his ignorance.
Coming from the pen of a man accustomed to pleasing his readers, the book manages to hold one's attention throughout long periods of academic history in which aristocratic gentlemen in powdery wigs debate with great vigor the suitability of certain botanical categories or the possibility that our noses evolved downward-pointing nostrils to ward off the hordes of contagion that dropped onto our planet from outer space. Scientific history is one long list of characters, some immediately recognizable, and many others whose names were forgotten as I turned the page; some were noble, others shady; some were possessed of a broad mastery of numerous disciplines, and others were content to whittle away at some miniscule corner of the scientific edifice with no apparent concern for what was transpiring around them. All seem driven by some desire for recognition; few seem to have received what they deserve. Each of them stands out in a remarkable way as beloved forebears of a rich and massive heritage.
While the certainties of yesterday are almost always laughable, Bryson manages for the most part not to condescend when surveying the progress of human knowledge--a progress that has been slow and painful since the dawn of the modern scientific method. Consequently, the most consistent reaction this book produced in me was surprise. Of course, the "incomprehensibles" such as astronomical distances, the subatomic particles, the probabilities of life, and the age of the earth and of the universe never fail to impress; yet more than once I found myself swimming in a morass of incoherent hypotheses and data, only to be told by the author that my confusion was not unusual, as the experts themselves really had no idea, either. Apparently, the only thing more astounding than what we know about the universe is what we do not know, and how likely it is that some discovery will come along that will up-end whatever certainties the establishment operates upon. Bryson makes much of the conclusion of the scientific world at the turn of the twentieth century that very little additional investigation was necessary before a complete, airtight account of the universe would be well within its grasp.
It becomes abundantly clear that the history of science is one long story of "back to the drawing board." Theories about cataclysmic impacts from a prehistoric comet driving the dinosaurs to extinction circulate among incredulous geologists, full of disdain for such preposterous conjecture; it's a small but gratifying delight to look back with a knowing smile and think, "Just you wait." Being myself a student of Scripture, which in certain forms is to the neophyte the very province of uncertainty and hypothesis, it was a small consolation to discover that I have some unlikely comrades who share my pain.
Indeed, it is striking to note how the human mind is driven to reduce complex systems to simple ones and summarize them in an elegant whole. Human discovery has been almost exclusively powered by the conviction that given enough time, we will be able to sort the world out neatly and publish our findings in a sort of almanac. Experts almost to a man regarded theories that did not have concise and simple expressions as less compelling than those that did, and new theories were required when data arose that did not fit with existing formulae, thus rendering them incomplete. As I read and reflected on this point, there appeared a subtle correspondence with medieval thinkers on the beauty of truth. These thinkers saw a deep identity between what are called the “transcendentals”: the forms of truth, goodness, unity, and beauty, which are beyond any particular category of being, and for that reason can refer equally to all subjects in which they are found. This is to say, the truth is good, beautiful, and one; so also, the beautiful is one, good, and true. Beauty itself is the presence of integrity, harmony, and clarity within a creature; and, it might be said, any scientific theory that lacked these would have been dismissed out of hand as, in all probability, untrue.
Thankfully, Bryson waits to hammer home the obligatory moral until the last few pages of the book; it was brief enough that wasn't clear to me whether he thought it through or if it was tacked on to make sure it had a chance to get on the bestseller list. Human beings, he opines, are in a unique position to "make a considered difference" given our rapid rise to the top of the list of complex beings. This injunction makes its way onto the page after a long catalog of the species that scientists conjecture we may (or may not) have driven to extinction along the way. There seems to be an implicit appeal to a sort of "species-pride" that seeks to evoke vague sentiments of compassion for all the helpless animals that may (or may not) be crushed beneath the juggernaut of human success. Yet everything that precedes this appeal militates against it. Repeatedly, Bryson marvels at the precarious path life had to travel in order to arrive at its present state of rich variety, noting how tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of species have come and gone without our ever knowing it. If the planet is bountiful in its opportunities for life, it seems equally willing to rub out life forms with the impunity of a bored child. The forms now present happen to be well-suited to their environment and to their fellow creatures, and as the history of the earth has demonstrated, it is entirely possible that changes in climate, geography, the ocean temperatures or even the magnetic fields generated by the molten metal core may be disastrous to life as it exists now, just as such changes were disastrous to life as it has existed in the past.
My reaction to these conclusions is, so what? If man is nothing more than the latest, most successful instantiation of protein conglomeration, what justification is there to minimize our ecological footprint? If (as the argument goes) our presence on the planet has resulted in a significant loss in biodiversity, what ethics pronounces judgment upon it? What tribunal will decide our innocence or guilt, if not the Court of the Fittest? What, other than a howl of victory, could be its verdict upon the proliferation of the human species to the detriment of all others? What, other than a resigned shrug, could be its verdict upon the self-destruction that follows? Is there any warrant for the demand that the long history of life’s self-preservation should cease and desist?
This is why the sentimentalism of the environmentalist cause rings so hollow. It parades the long, loveless history of the universe before us, ever to remind us that we are dust, to dust we shall return, being no more than a blip on the cosmic radar. Yet when a nameless beetle may (or may not) have disappeared without ever having been known to science, there is an equally earnest appeal made to the "responsibility" humans have to care for this planet and the potential for its rapid and disastrous deterioration, an appeal that parades an equally long and much more lovely history (quite in contradiction to the first) in the hope that this panoply of variety and marvelous complexity in harmony with itself could provoke a middle-class American to “think globally, act locally”—or at least act in his own self-interest.
The question then arises of whether it is even possible to rise above an enlightened self-interest, given the parameters of the issue. It's not clear that these apocalyptic prophecies will come true in our own lifetime, or in the lifetime of the youngest of our children. Is it for the good of the human species, as such, that sacrifice is necessary? Or is it for some unknown future generation that may (or may not) benefit? Entreaties in behalf of abstractions or faceless non-beings are hardly the most compelling imaginable. In fact, they are nonsensical, as Henri de Lubac lays out in a pointed refutation of humanitarian optimism:
... it is not really for humanity [itself] that sacrifice is made; it is still, despite assertion to the contrary, for other individuals, who in their transitory outward form contain nothing that is absolute and do not stand for any essentially higher value than those who are sacrificed to them; in the last resort, it is all for one generation of humanity—the last—which is yet no greater than the others, and which will pass away like the others.*
Erazim Kohak skewers this perspective even more pithily, saying, “Only in a most myopic perspective does life become meaningful by virtue of being used as a means to something whose value is in turn solely instrumental.”** Sustained reflection gives the lie to environmentalist importunities. Yet they are, I believe, indications of a deep-seated disorder awaiting diagnosis.
Before delving into what that diagnosis might be, it is necessary to clarify that we have long ago left behind Mr. Bryson in his own right; his well-researched, thoughtful, and informative book have served as a springboard for further reflection. My comments are not directed at him, nor do I wish to burn him in effigy. Furthermore, I should mention that in no way do I mean to be dismissive of the importance of ecological responsibility. Humankind has certainly been a destructive influence upon the integrity of this planet. That something must be done is clear; what we are not agreed upon is why it must be done, and my hope is to shed a little light upon that chain of reasoning.
What, then, permits the environmentalist movement to make such groundless and self-contradictory demands, and what conclusions can we draw regarding them? I suggest that it is fundamentally a profound discomfort with the truth of who man is and his flight from God. These two are tightly interwoven. As a professor of mine puts it, to turn one’s back on God is to assume God’s stance towards reality. Thus, any rejection of one’s own identity demands a turning of one’s back upon the ground of all identity, and to turn away from that ground is to reject one’s own identity and deepest source of meaning. In place of them, a surrogate destiny must be found, one that reaches into the depths of one’s being and makes the sort of practical demands on one’s life that the innate desire for the infinite requires. In a series of retreats he gave before being elevated to the papacy, a certain German theologian captured the essence of this attitude as it is exemplified in the ecological movements:
Man sees himself as the enemy of life and of the balance of creation, as the great disturber of the peace of nature (which would be better off if he did not exist), as the creature that went wrong. His salvation and the salvation of the world would, on this view, consist of disappearing, of his life and soul being taken back from him, of what is specifically human vanishing so that nature could return to its unconscious perfection, in its own rhythm and with its own wisdom of dying and coming into being.***
Trace the contemporary green movements to their roots, and this is what you will find. There once was a time when it was believed that we could harmonize our presence in nature; one is hard-pressed to find such hopes among the die-hard today. Eradication of the human footprint is the only way we know how to convey respect.
Ratzinger goes on to uncover the foundations of this desire to disappear, and discovers there a circular paradox not unrelated to the discomfort with man’s identity described above. Originating in the desire “to be like God” and become his own creator, man refuses to acknowledge his dependence on God and asserts his freedom from him; man claims to rule in God’s place. Yet this is a rejection not of God’s dominion, but of his life, and soon the fascination with death supplants the fresh acquaintance with liberty. Soon, this liberty is consumed with the“flight from God, the wish to be alone with oneself and one’s finiteness and not to be disturbed by the presence of God.” **** What an accurate description of the clamor of secularism, anxious above all to be rid of this inescapable presence.
What is the antidote to this malady? At the risk of being facile, it must be an acceptance of true identity. With respect to the created world, this identity has long been spoken of as ‘the recipient of a gift’. By gratuitously bringing into existence all that is in a free act of good will, the Creator gives to each creature the gift of itself, a gift that is constrained by no one and surpassed by no one. Humanity, moreover, is the recipient of all else that is, and is situated within an ordered cosmos. Man has power and authority over this cosmos, given by the one who is its maker. A gift given so freely and with such perfect and unselfish correspondence to our good can only be called ‘love,’ and the only proper response to love is love itself. Neither paralyzed by sentimentality nor greedy with the possibilities for exploitation, as stewards we must step boldly forward into our position of responsibility. With love comes vulnerability, and in our stewardship we will find it necessary to execute the bitter works love at times requires.
Perhaps we will also ask ourselves if we have not settled for too simple a solution; yet, perhaps it also takes courage not to dismiss what satisfies that desire for the integrity, harmony, and clarity of the beautiful--ultimately, for the truth.
* Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, p. 353
** The Embers and The Stars, p. 101
*** The Yes of Jesus Christ, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, p. 74
**** Ibid., p. 75