Seeing Nature Whole — A Goethean Approach
If we want to attain a living understanding of nature, we must become as flexible and mobile as nature herself. - Goethe
Many of us were introduced to biology — the science of life — by dissecting frogs, and we never learned anything about living frogs in nature. Modern biology has increasingly moved out of nature and into the laboratory, driven by a desire to find an underlying mechanistic basis of life. Despite all its success, this approach is one-sided and urgently calls for a counterbalancing movement toward nature. Only if we find ways of transforming our propensity to reduce the world to parts and mechanisms, will we be able to see, value, and protect the integrity of nature and the interconnectedness of all things. This demands a new way of seeing.
We develop ways of thinking and perception that integrate self-reflective and critical thought, imagination, and careful, detailed observation of the phenomena. The Nature Institute promotes a truly ecological understanding of the living world:
We study the internal ecology of plants and animals, elucidating how structures and functions interrelate in forming the creature as a whole. Our interdisciplinary approach integrates anatomy, physiology, behavior, development, genetics, and evolution.
We investigate the whole organism as part of the larger web of life. By creating life history stories of plants and animals, we open up a new understanding of our fellow creatures as dynamic and integrated beings.
Through this approach, the organism teaches us about itself, revealing its characteristics and its interconnectedness with the world that sustains it. This way of doing science enhances our sense of responsibility for nature. No one who has read, for example, Craig Holdrege's paper on the sloth, thereby coming to appreciate this animal as a unique, focused expression of its entire forest habitat, will be able to tolerate the thought of losing either the sloth or its habitat.
As Goethe so beautifully expresses it, all of nature's individual aspects are interconnected and interdependent:
We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect....
Goethe's Delicate Empiricism
Curious about Goethean science, a special interest group of the New York Academy of Sciences invited Craig Holdrege to speak on the topic in October, 2013. Craig has expanded that talk into an essay, Goethe and the Evolution of Science. It is perhaps the best place to start for anyone curious about what we mean by “Goethean science”.
Also, a special issue of the interdisciplinary journal Janus Head focuses on Goethe's approach to science. Fourteen essays discuss Goethe's “delicate empiricism” from a variety of perspectives. This is the most thorough collection of papers on Goethe's way of science that has appeared in recent years. Nature Institute director Craig Holdrege was one of the volume's guest editors. The volume is available online at http://www.janushead.org/8-1/index.cfm and the bound version may also be ordered through the website.
To read Goethe’s seminal essay on the nature of scientific knowing and experimentation, “The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject” click here.
The following publications, written by Institute Director Craig Holdrege, illustrate the Goethean approach within the life sciences:
The Giraffe's Long Neck: From Evolutionary Fable to Whole Organism
This 104 page booklet is part of our Nature Institute Perspectives series.
This book provides a comprehensive picture of the giraffe’s biology and ecology and also discusses the complex and controversial issue of its evolution. It gives a unique portrayal of the giraffe while also exemplifying the Goethean approach to understanding animals and evolution. Click here for more information about this booklet
The Flexible Giant: Seeing the Elephant Whole
This 65 page booklet is part of our Nature Institute Perspectives series. Doug Groves, Chairman of Living with Elephants Foundation in Botswana, Africa wrote:
"Your marvelous mini-monograph on "the Flexible Giant" is momentous and inspirational! Please accept my wholehearted congratulations and thanks. For the past thirty plus years I've been sharing my daily life with elephants which I think puts me in a pretty good position to appreciate your fresh, succinct, thoughtful, holistic and principle-centered approach to seeing the elephant. By taking small groups of international visitors, local village children and school kids for interpretive walks in the bush with three habituated African Elephants we try to achieve what you have managed to do very nicely with words in your booklet."
"Phenomenon Illuminate Phenomenon" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #26, Spring 2011
"The Story of an Organism: Common Milkweed" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #22-24, Fall 2009 - Fall 2010
"The Forming Tree" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #14, Fall 2005
"The Giraffe in Its World" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #12, Fall 2005
"The Giraffe's Short Neck." In Context #10, Fall 2003
"How Does a Mole View the World?" In Context #9, Spring 2003
"Portraying a Meadow." In Context #8, Fall 2002
"What Forms an Animal?" In Context #6, Fall 2001
"Skunk Cabbage." In Context #4, Fall 2000
"Where Do Organisms End?" In Context #3, Spring, 2000
"Genes and Life: The Need for Qualitative Understanding." In Context #1, Spring/Summer 1999
"Science as Process or Dogma? The Case of the Peppered Moth." Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, Vol. 70, 1999: pp. 39-51
"Seeing the Animal Whole: The Example of the Horse and Lion." In Goethe's Way of Science, edited by D. Seamon and A. Zajonc Albany: SUNY Press, 1998, pp. 213-232
"Pharming the Cow." NetFuture #43, March 20, 1997 (Also published in Orion Winter 1997)
For articles about the methodology of the goethean approach see:
"Learning to See Life: Developing the Goethean Approach to Science", Renewal, Fall 2005.
"Doing Goethean Science" Janus Head, Vol. 8.1, 2005
- We also have a Portuguese translation of the article
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