Photo: JOOIN Creative Commons
The word “Ridiculous” resounded across the barbecue table. George was now in a tricky situation. Should he continue to engage with his lively guest? Of course, after all, for George, engagement was the highest form of respect to anyone. Or should he try to get off this unexpected track, and save more embarrassment to his friends? George stayed calm and took a middle path.
“Interesting, very interesting Santiago” he said, in as sincere a tone as he could muster. “Four point five billion years of continuous struggle does make you wonder if there had been any time-outs along the ….”
“With all due respect” interrupted Santiago, “this is not a light matter. It seems to me that the ancients were much more developed in their biological thinking than we are, subjugated nowadays to the materialist hegemony,” he stated, huffing the words ‘materialist hegemony’. “To the ancients, the four humours”, he continued, “the four elements – fire, air, water and earth – and the aether and the soul were notions at the same time physical and metaphysical. They had an open world view, one that saw the Gods, Humankind and Nature as co-actors in an ebullient vision of life. Life for them was not just some debased scramble for resources.”
“But you seem to be suggesting that biological thinking has regressed, rather than progressed, in the last two millennia!” George sounded. “How can today’s science be all wrong?” he pleaded, trying to bring the conversation back to the present.
“Please don’t put words in my mouth, George. I never said today’s science was all wrong”, asserted the young man. “It’s just that the notion of society as progressing is hardly more than two or three centuries old”, asserted Santiago, doing nothing to reduce the tension. “Until the Renaissance, the path of mankind was seen as a descent from a Golden Age. Since the 1500s the only ascent that has been made is towards the illusion of that specious sense of wellbeing, which materialism brings.”
Michel was following the conversation with some concern. Just before leaving the house to come to the barbecue, he had remarked to Sophie how “Santiago does seem to have developed some challenging theories.” But, having known Santiago as ‘such a spirited child’ from the day he was born, he trusted that ‘the earnest lad’, as he liked to call him now, had something entirely valid to say.
“Santiago”, if I can help” Michel began, “let’s leave to one side for the moment whether the ancients or the moderns are right or wrong.” Michel’s remark had the effect of recentring the conversation. “From what you were saying the other evening, it seems to me that the issue at stake is whether biological thinking is qualitatively different from thinking in physics and chemistry, isn’t that it?”
The young man’s face relaxed. The pause now had a much less anxious air. “Thank you, Michel” he answered, adding “I guess I was getting a little carried away there”. He continued, but his body language showed it was with George that he still felt the greatest attraction. “Indeed, what so many scientists seem to miss nowadays is that when you contemplate Nature, as a living entity, Nature teaches you to take in the whole phenomenon. With biology it becomes possible to adopt a living way of theorising, which matches the characteristics of the object of study itself”.
There was silence again at the table. George was enthralled. “Go on, go on” he murmured.
“Observing Nature in this way develops a higher order of thinking than most reductionists would never dream of aspiring to, if they ever dream,” continued Santiago. “Take a wolf” he said, evidently beginning to enjoy the new freedom the space in the conversation had given him, “we can always take a reductionist path and treat the wolf only as a physical entity, as if it was a rock only subject to gravity!” At this point Patricia coughed uneasily. She never felt comfortable when George engaged in an excessively intellectual debate. “Or treat the wolf as the product of some sort of fur-coated chemical reaction, which limits our view of a wolf’s putatively aggressive behaviour to its hormonal patterns or its peculiar cellular metabolism. Such reductionism is so touchingly naïve, yet completely missing the point”.
“So what is the point?” interrupted George, feeling now a peculiar mixture of impatience, to find out what Santiago really thought, and the frustration his wife was showing that their quiet Friday barbecue was slowly being monopolised by such a heavy discussion.
“The point is the wolf lives as part of a dynamic ecosystem. Most people would say that as ‘top predator’ all the wolf really does is kill for a living, but the reality is so much richer than that”. A smoother tone came into Santiago’s voice. “Studies of reintroduced wolves in sub-Arctic regions have shown what a beneficent, harmonising effect the presence of a wolf has on the entire landscape.”
As Santiago began to describe the mountains and the forests, and the life in them, the vivacious gestures on his face seemed a perfect mirror to his animated inner thoughts. “Wolves in a vicinity keep the deer alert and on-the-move, which means they spend more time foraging in the open and less time stripping bark off trees”, he continued. “Less tree damage means more tree growth and more nutrients coming into the ecosystem. And that means more trees for beavers to eat, and more branches to make their dams with!”
Michel and Sophie glanced at each other, reassured that, peaking through Santiago’s stubbly beard, the impish expressions of the ‘spirited little boy’ they knew were still there. For their part, George and his wife had started to become more than a little fascinated by Santiago’s eloquence and enthusiasm for his subject. Santiago continued.
“And beaver dams mean one thing to an ecosystem: more life-giving water and more wetland, which means much more wildlife. More invertebrates, more amphibians and reptiles, more everything.”
George aligned with the sensitive flow the conversation had now taken and gently interjected: “I see what you mean. So, it’s not just dog-eat-dog, or should I say wolf-eat-deer. It’s interdependence then. Am I right?”
“Exactly” retorted Santiago, with a sureness in his voice previously undetectable. “Interdependence, and inter-relation. The beaver needs the wolf. The beaver’s life relies on the presence of the wolf. And in the same way the frog needs the beaver and all the animals need the plants, and so on, in all directions, all spreading out in one glorious web of life.”
Santiago paused. By now the others at the table had lost sense of the time this apparent side-track the conversation had taken. “But there’s more.” Santiago was now fully aroused. Gone was any sign of Santiago the nervous interloper. In was Santiago the Nature poet. “You see the role of the wolf is manifold. The parts of each deer carcase, which the wolf cannot pry off with his own teeth, serve as carrion for crows and ravens, eagles and even bears. And all this activity means release of nutrients, especially nitrogen, slowly accumulated in the body of the deer, back into an ecosystem. What is called a trophic cascade takes place and the stimulating effect on plant and animal growth, in time, spreads over hundreds and hundreds of hectares. All thanks to the…”
“Oh, Santiago,” interrupted Patricia excitedly, but quite uncharacteristically. “Listening to you speak like that, why, it reminds me so much of a D.H. Lawrence poem I once had to read, at school.” Santiago’s face shone back towards her. “It was something about a nightingale singing at the top of his voice, and tigers and camouflage” she intimated, searching for her words. “I just remember the feeling it gave me, not the details. Lawrence was such a marvellous rebel, after all.”
Santiago was watching her, intently. He waited for her to finish before replying. “Yes, yes, Lawrence, he has been such an inspiration to me. And it’s wonderful that you remember that poem from so long ago! Lawrence says the nightingale, when he sings, ‘is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself, nor propagating his species,” began Santiago. “This is just what I mean. We need to get out of the materialist mindset. Lawrence is showing us that the nightingale ‘is giving himself away in every sense of the word, and obviously it is the culminating point of his existence’. No ‘survival instinct’ as the nightingale’s raison d’etre. Instead, something much nobler and more beautiful!”
The engagement of Patricia, in what otherwise could have deteriorated into a ping-pong conversation between himself and Santiago, came as a relief to George. George was starting to reflect that there was “quite a little Romantic amongst us tonight,” though he had to recognise that Santiago’s views had a cogency he rarely encountered. “Certainly not in the workplace, and seldom outside, for that matter”, he thought. But he couldn’t resist challenging Santiago on one more point and leaned forward, once again, for what he hoped would be to pose his last question in the conversation.
“I begin to see what you mean, Santiago. Like ‘there’s more to Biology than meets the eye, eh?”
“Precisely” came back Santiago, “that’s what I have gleaned from my research, for me the history of biology shows just that.”
The pained look on George’s face lingered, as he slowly retraced the stages of that peculiar barbecue conversation. “Why didn’t you just shut up at that stage and realise you had some learning of your own to do?” The pit of George’s stomach ached with his growing sense of regret for the past. For a moment, the fine wine he was drinking seemed uncharacteristically tart. “He was trying to tell you something, George, and you wouldn’t listen”.
George’s mind drifted momentarily from how busy he was in this ‘terrible COVID crisis’ to how busy he had been at the time of his encounter with Santiago; how busy he had been regulating Europe’s finances; how busy he and his wife had been bringing up the kids and getting them so successfully to university; and how busy he had been in the Societé Géologique, and the La Hulpe junior football team and the church choir, and all that. “Life – and Death,” he repeated to himself, “as simple as that” and the realisation of the ignorance he had shown before Santiago swelled sourly inside him.