Who better to engage intellectually with nature-inspired poet Robert Hass about the intersections of poetry and the natural world than Edward O. Wilson, a career myrmecologist? (Myrmecology, for laypeople, is the study of ants.) How often does the average person stop and consider the ants? Wilson is acknowledged as the world’s leading authority on the subject.
Wilson’s focus also extends much further outward, however, to the sociobiological complexities of humans. If ants occupy one end of the “self vs. group” mentality spectrum, humans present a more dynamic and conflicted range of experience, which Wilson finds endlessly fascinating and unrelentingly ambiguous. As we evolve there’s a constant tension, he explains, between the selfish desires of the individual and the altruism one extends toward his contained group.
Selfishness, altruism, choice and free will, as they pertain to the conservation of nature, was the tenor of the evening last week at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where E. O. Wilson and Robert Hass engaged in lively discourse.
The sociobiology of humanity has a certain poetry to it. According to Wilson, “homo-sapiens are the poetic species because our cognition is dependent on analogy and metaphor.”
This has its dangers, however, as when we impose our own symbolism on the natural world and it becomes nothing more than metaphor. Both Wilson and Hass emphasize a return to the spirit embodied by myrmecology -- reverse the notion of nature as merely symbolic and appreciate it for its own vastness and foreignness.
“Animals see infrared and ultraviolet,” explained Wilson. “They use frequencies we can’t hear...these creatures live in an entirely different universe.”
He asked: “What’s the real life of an ant?”
As last night’s conversation highlighted, in moments of environmental crisis, we must play to humans’ cognitive complexity and how much is still unknown about the natural world; we must rouse people’s emotions to encourage a more active role in environmental conservation.
While introducing the conversation, Poets House executive director Lee Briccetti noted when poetry was incorporated in several zoo exhibits throughout the U.S., conservation IQ was actually heightened, based on exit surveys.
Poetry has the potential to surprise and delight when it comes about unexpectedly, but the general public is nervous about approaching it. The same, she noted, appears to hold true when it comes to conservation. Yet together these two overlapping realms have the potential to be a perfect storm for revitalizing compassion for the natural world.
Her point is a valid one. As Wilson offered, just as in literature, there are multiple schools of conservation. There are those who believe the best policies are to “let go” of certain endangered species and focus resources elsewhere. There are those who believe parks and natural wilderness reserves are no longer relevant, simply a “cultural concept,” and should be mingled with the rest of society.
Then there are people like Wilson who say we must be as proactive as humanly possible about defending and expanding our natural wilderness reserves.
“There’s a hopelessness in science and artist groups,” added Hass, describing an overwhelming sentiment that there is little left to save, that we must find hope by “giving up.”
“There’s this idea that nature is over, nothing is left untouched,” said Hass. Wilson noted the idea was an accurate one.
Conservation, Wilson emphasized, is the only way to teach and encourage our future generations to care about the world around them. Teaching is not about telling anyone what to do; it’s about exploration, discovery and imagination. This unrestrained capacity for discovery -- and a willingness to get in trouble here and there -- is, after all, how he became a world-renowned myrmecologist (and biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist, etc.).
“Good scientists are most likely to get in trouble,” said Wilson, a sentiment many poets, including Hass who was beat up by police during an Occupy Berkeley protest last year, will readily echo. (Wilson, who has pioneered certain prominent ideas about fundamental human nature, has himself been accused of being a eugenicist.)
Discovery, imagination and mystery as they pertain to nature are at the basis of what is explored throughout poetry’s history, explained Hass.
“Humans are struck and enlivened by this dynamic,” he said, of the notion that the selfish vs. altruistic debate about humanity is projected onto nature as well.
He pointed out Robert Frost has a dire view of nature, while Wallace Stevens said nature was ultimately unknowable, but humans would learn all they could about beauty from it.
“We move among great powers and mysteries,” said Hass. “Humans have been paying attention forever.”
He added, while science progresses, art eternally remains the same, endlessly addressing the same forces which push and pull back and forth, in varying permutations of style.
“Science progresses, but just increasingly reveals the roots of ambiguities,” responded Wilson.
Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, explains science does the important work of disenchantment that is needed to temper the dark side of fervor which arises with the mystification of power.
Another view is science has killed the spirited and allows for certain manipulation, explained Hass.
Whatever an individual’s view of contemporary science, Wilson urges a renewal of the “Rooseveltian spirit” of holding on to National Parks, with a mind toward research and study.
“That’s holding on to the rest of life,” said Wilson. “I say save them all.”
Hass added much like storytelling is a product of group social evolution, as people slowly evolved to develop language and call the world into being, so is teaching our children to be caretakers of the natural world.
Education must be made into a story, which is where humanities have an incredibly powerful role in conjunction with science.
“The intimate magic of the world is there,” said Hass. “It’s not how we get it, it’s how we lose it.”