Quotes From the Book
A collection of quotes from the book can be found here.
Below I first offer a collection of paragraphs, scattered throughout the book, that develop what is called the Mozart metaphor to describe the workings of life.
I then offer some scattered paragraphs on the concept of ecomorality, a centerpiece of the religious naturalist orientation.
The Mozart Metaphor
For me, a helpful way to think about reductionism is to invoke what we can call the Mozart metaphor. A Mozart piano sonata is a wondrous thing, beautiful beyond belief, sonorous, resonant, transporting. But it is also about notes and piano keys. Mozart’s magnificent brain conceived the work, to be sure; he then transcribed it into black specks on white paper to be translated into strings hit by tiny hammers to create vibrations heard by ears. We can thrill to a sonata without giving a thought to its notes. But we can also open up a score and follow the notes, or play them ourselves, without having the music diminished or demeaned. It is another way of experiencing the whole and, indeed, the only way to have a full understanding of what the sonata entails and what Mozart had in his mind.
The notes are hammered by the piano keys and out flows the emergent sonata. Our attention might focus downward on the genome sequence of a wild rose, and then shift upward to take in some beautiful flowers, and then go back down to the cytoplasmic compartments swollen with red pigment to give the petals their flush. We reduce, and then we synthesize, and then we find another occasion to reduce. How did Mozart generate that modulation into B-flat? Ah, with that chord. How lovely.
The Mozart metaphor began with our delight in the sonata. We then acknowledged that the music was the consequence of notes and hammers and strings. Invoking the concept of emergence, we can now say that the music emerges from the notes. But there’s an intermediate level of emergence as well. From the notes emerge chords and phrases and tempos and melodies, and from these emerge the music as a whole. In the middle there are musical patterns.
In biology it is the same. The biochemistry and biophysics are the required notes; they combine, collectively, to generate the experiencing unit of life – the organism, the self. The intermediate level, the chords and tempos, relates to how the biochemistry and biophysics are organized, arranged, played out in space and time to produce an emergent creature who grows and propagates and is. In the middle there are biological patterns.
So we can return to Mozart and expand the metaphor. Patterns of gene expression are to organisms as melodies and harmonies are to sonatas. It’s all about which sets of proteins appear in a given cell at the same time (the chords) and which sets come before or after other sets (the themes) and at what rate they appear (the tempos) and how they modulate one another (the developments and transitions). When these patterns go awry we may see malignancy. When they change by mutation we can get new kinds of organisms. When they work, we get a creature.
The emergent outcomes generated by DNA-based organisms are called biological traits; collectively they constitute the organism writ large. It is traits that rule; genes follow in their wake. Traits common to all organisms include awareness and the pursuit of well-being; traits common to social organisms include cooperation and sacrifice; traits common to birds and mammals include bonding and nurturance; traits common to humans include the ability to acquire symbolic language and hence share subjective experience. Transmission of mutable genomes is the steady drumbeat that keeps the whole life thing going; organisms, embedded in their planetary contexts, are the rest of the music.
We can also offer a paean to cellular homeostasis. In a musical composition, the chords and melodies and rhythms create sub-wholes from which emerge the collective opus, the sonata, and during the composition process, ideas are discarded that imbalance the whole and ideas are added that help bring everything together. This same dynamic plays out continuously in every cell in every organism, and the cells don’t even need to “think it through”: excesses are pruned and shortfalls are replenished via a beautiful network of feedback and crosstalk to generate not only a viable cell but the best possible cell under the circumstances.
We can recite the Mozart metaphor and the paeans to matter and homeostasis, and we can develop a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life. As a cell biologist immersed in these understandings, I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a cascade as when I watch the moon rise or visit Machu Picchu. Same rush, same rapture.
We can compare the history of life with the history of music. The music of a composer like Brahms did not spring from his brain de novo. A trained musicologist can go through a Brahms score and point out a Bach-like fugal texture here, a Handelian cadence there, a Hungarian folk melody somewhere else. As Brahms composed, bits of the old were woven together with the new to generate the next musical legacy. The same process occurs in improvisational groups like jazz ensembles, where old tunes are remembered and embellished and brought together in new ways.
In the history of life, the evolution of life, it is the same. A good biochemical idea – an enzyme domain that binds well to a substrate, a channel that’s just the right size for a calcium ion – gets carried along through time, tweaked and modulated to best serve the needs of the current lineage but recognizable by its gene sequence throughout evolutionary history. These conserved ideas combine with occasional brand-new genes and with modulated patterns of gene expression to generate new directions, new ways of negotiating new environmental circumstances.
Damasio can help us here with his lucid version of the Mozart metaphor:
To discover that a particular feeling depends on activity in a number of specific brain systems interacting with a number of body organs does not diminish the status of that feeling as a human phenomenon. Neither anguish nor the elation that love or art can bring about are devalued by understanding some of the myriad biological processes that make them what they are. Precisely the opposite should be true: Our sense of wonder should increase before the intricate mechanisms that make such magic possible.
The animal body-plan theme has been subjected to countless variation for more than 500 million years: in each animal lineage, the Hox genes have divergent sequences, and are expressed at distinctive rates and in all sorts of temporal and spatial combinations, to produce all manner of embryos, and hence all manner of adults. As in the musical form called theme and variations, the core Hox theme is always present: there’s always a head, a middle and a tail end, be it worm, fly, fish, bird, or human. Hence our bodily differences with chimps – foot anatomy (Figure 13), arm length, jaw size, hair distribution – represent recent riffs on the theme called the great-ape body plan and, more deeply, the animal body plan.
Fortunately for us, most of the neural circuits that are set up during our brain development govern decisions that we never need to make and indeed are never even aware of. Brains process enormous amounts of physiological information to generate such results as appropriate blood pressure and breathing rate. Were it necessary to think about these matters, no poems or sonatas would ever have been written. Indeed, the processes that produce our conscious selves constitute but a small fraction of what our brains are doing; the cerebellum (Figure 11), for example, an ancient module that is deeply involved in “running the store,” has about four times as many neurons as the rest of the brain.
The development of multicellular organisms has everything to do with the timing and spatial segregation of gene expression in the embryo; the genes themselves, and the proteins they encode, usually have ancient histories. Same piano keys, different melodies and chords.
And a few thoughts on the centrality of music and the arts to religious sensibility.
Throughout the ages, the weaving of our religious wefts has been the province of prophets and gurus and liturgists and elders and shamans and a panoply of artists and musicians. The texts and art and ritual that come to us from these revered ancestors may include claims about Nature and agency that are no longer plausible. They used a different warp. But for me at least, this is just one of those historical facts, something that can be acknowledged and then put aside as I encounter the wisdom and imagination embedded in these traditions and the abundant opportunities that they offer to experience transcendence and immanence and moral clarity.
I love traditional religions. Whenever I wander into distinctive churches or mosques or temples, or visit museums of religious art, or am invited to participate in indigenous ceremonies, or hear performances of sacred music, I am enthralled by the beauty and solemnity and power they offer. Once we have our understandings and feelings about Nature in place, then I believe that we can also find ways to call ourselves Buddhist or Christian or Confucian or Daoist or Hindu or Hopi or Jew or Muslim. Or some of each. The words in the traditional texts may sound different to us than they did to their authors, but they can continue to resonate with our religious selves. We know what they are intended to mean.
Our cultures are fully embedded in the natural world, and it is our relationship with the rest of the planetary matrix — our ecomorality — to which we now turn. As we do so, it is essential that we keep in mind and heart the words of Pope Francis:
We cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships…. A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings…. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.
Ecomorality can be thought of as a reconfiguration of our inherited and cultivated pro-social sentiments, an enlargement of our moral vision, such that we come to care not just about the well-being of family and village and tribe but also about the rest of the natural world. We are asked to respect, cherish, nurture, and celebrate that from which we have come and upon which we depend, to consider it sacred. The moral challenge is to forge relationships with Nature that sustain and enhance both our human cultures and the planetary matrix within which these cultures are embedded.
Traditional ecomoral sensibilities have in recent times been provisioned with understandings of the sacred depths of the natural world, its molecular and genetic and atomic and cosmic underpinnings, understandings that were birthed by human curiosity, developed by science-based inquiry, and validated by their countless technological applications. These science-based understandings, many narrated in this book, fully confirm longstanding perceptions that we originated from the Earth, that we are interrelated with all living beings, and that we are fully dependent on our shared planetary matrix.
The Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum can summarize: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Hence the goal of a present-day self is not only to be fit, to thrive within the physical parameters of its environment. Its goal is also to fit in, where thriving plays out in the context of the playing out of other lives. Our planetary matrix teems with the interactions and the interdependencies of selves within their geological habitats. The purpose of it all is that it that the selves – and hence their habitats– continue to flourish, where I, for one, would spell purpose here with a capital P.
Once we experience a solemn gratitude that we exist at all, share a reverence for how life and the planet work, and acknowledge an imperative that both continue to flourish, our conversations will be infused with intimations of the sacred depths of Nature and our responsibility to nurture that which we deem sacred.
This is how the religious naturalist thinks of our human advent within the planetary matrix. We arrived but a moment ago and found it to be perfect for us in every way. And then we came to understand that it is perfect because we arose from it and are a part of it. Hosannah! Not in the highest, but right here, right now, this.
It is as we can imagine being the least of these that we can begin to experience the anguish of poverty or deprivation. It is as we are able to identify with the oil-soaked shore bird and the bewildered moose and the stranded polar bear that they come to embody our environmental concerns. And accompanying our sense of compassion, often as variance with our self-focused aims, is our haunting sense that things should be fair.
We humans would do well to keep lichens in mind as we envision pathways to planetary co-habitation and sustainability. An ecological concept called “niche partitioning” describes the differential use of resources and space by the various creatures in an ecosystem, allowing for their coexistence and their mutual flourishing. Countless billions of lichens have figured out how to do this in 20,000 different ways. We should be able to figure it out as well.
And so, I profess my Faith. For me, the existence of all this biological complexity and awareness and intent and beauty and relationship, embedded in its wondrous planetary matrix, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no Creator, no superordinate Meaning, no Purpose other than that the continuation continue until the Earth collapses into the sun or the final meteor collides. I confess a Credo of Continuation.