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 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."
What Frog Development and Evolution Can Teach Us (a 3-part series)
Part 1: "Do Frogs Come From Tadpoles? Understanding Development as Creative Activity" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #33, Spring 2015
The life of the organism is a continually unfolding activity. There is nothing in the organism that simply is, arising through a kind of causal intertia from the past. There is a creative element at all times — an element that, while conditioned by the past, is not simply a product of it.
Part 2: "Is a Science of Beings Possible?" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #34, Fall 2015
Craig here continues his portrayal of the frog. He describes its way of life and situates it within the larger group of amphibians — all while asking how we can understand it as a being, which is also to say: as a characteristic activity — a being-at-work-expressing-itself. This is a question generally ignored within biology.
Part 3: "Creativity, Origins, and Ancestors: What Frog Evolution Can Teach Us" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #35, Spring 2016
Craig concludes his portrayal of the frog. The focus here is on the frog’s evolution — a story that tells us a good deal about evolution generally. “Instead of looking for causes in the past — instead of trying to explain evolution through speculative mechanisms,” Craig writes, “we can shift the focus of research to building up a picture of the immensely creative processes, relations, and patterns that the study of evolution reveals.”
"A Day in the Life of a Chicory Flower" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #35, Spring 2016
Throughout the summer, along roadsides near The Nature Institute, the radiant blue flowers of chicory are in bloom. Craig follows the story of a single plant from well before dawn until sunset and beyond. It’s a story of beauty and evanescence.
"DNA and the Whole Organism" by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #34, Fall 2015
Excerpts from a much longer article, “Genes and Organisms: Improvising the Dance of Life,” which attempts to show the place of DNA within the context of the cell and organism as integral unities. A key lesson: the organism knows what it is doing with its DNA.
"Let’s Loosen Up Biological Thinking!" by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #32, Fall 2014
Thinking in biology hasn’t caught up with the results of contemporary research. In particular, an apparent taboo against any explicit acknowledgment of intention and agency in the cell and organism is a serious block to further progress in understanding.
"From Mechanistic to Organismal Biology" by E. S. Russell. In Context #30, Fall 2013
Part of a book published by a marine biologist in 1930, this article contains some remarkably up-to-date understanding of what a whole-organism biology needs to look like. In this excerpt the author begins with the provocative assertion: “Biology occupies a unique and privileged position among the sciences in that its object, the living organism, is known to us not only objectively through sensory perception, but also in one case directly, as the subject of immediate experience. It is therefore possible, in this special case of one’s own personal life, to take an inside view of a living organism.”
"Rebirth of the Type: Notes on a Recent Paper by Mark Riegner" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #30, Fall 2013
Review of a recent paper by whole-organism biologist Mark Riegner, who tackles the once-dismissed question whether organisms can be thought of as having an essential nature—that is, whether they exemplify a type or archetype. Riegner suggests that the time is ripe for revival of this concept, if only it is understood correctly. And he turns to Goethe for such an understanding, arguing that recent developments in the biological and evolutionary sciences point toward a serious place for typological thinking of the sort Goethe advanced. Craig offers a few notes on the paper here.
"Rooted in the World" by Craig Holdrege In Context #29, Spring 2013
Craig’s 2013 book, Thinking Like a Plant, is written as a practical guide for learning to think the way nature lives. In this excerpt, Craig closely observes plant germination and seedling development to provide an overview of the intimate relation between plant growth and human thinking. The metaphor relating the plant to thinking is neither casual nor arbitrary, but is founded upon our objective rootedness in the world.
"Phenomenon Illuminates 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" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #10, Fall 2003
"How Does a Mole View the World?" by Craig Holdrege In Context #9, Spring 2003
"Portraying a Meadow" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #8, Fall 2002
"What Forms an Animal?" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #6, Fall 2001
"Skunk Cabbage" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #4, Fall 2000
"Where Do Organisms End?" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #3, Spring, 2000
"Genes and Life: The Need for Qualitative Understanding" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #1, Spring/Summer 1999
"Science as Process or Dogma? The Case of the Peppered Moth" by Craig Holdrege. Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, vol. 70, 1999: pp. 39-51
"What Does it Mean to be a Sloth?" by Craig Holdrege
"Seeing the Animal Whole: The Example of the Horse and Lion" by Craig Holdrege. In Goethe's Way of Science, edited by D. Seamon and A. Zajonc Albany: SUNY Press, 1998, pp. 213-232
"Pharming the Cow" by Craig Holdrege. 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" by Craig Holdrege. Renewal, Fall 2005.
"Doing Goethean Science" by Craig Holdrege. Janus Head vol. 8.1, 2005
- We also have a Portuguese translation of the article
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