At a glance, the only thing poetry and biology have in common is the tendency to break rules. Every time we think we have a definitive rule in biology, we find exceptions. Life is diverse and dynamic. Despite the extreme differences in each discipline, we should speculate that the study of life and the expression of life must have much more in common than just an affinity for free verse. Perhaps we can find deeper explanations of each by seeing them from the other’s perspective.
The key to understanding poetry, in my case, was learning how to analyze and evaluate it. I remember when I was very little, how I loved Dr. Seuss’ poetry, but didn’t really understand how the poems worked. Like most children, I loved nonsensical words and the rhyming nature of poetry. It wasn’t until I became acquainted with the poetry of Shel Silverstein that I was filled with inspiration and determination. His poetry appeared simple enough–formulated. I began writing poems for fellow classmates’ prompts. Over a few years of dabbling in poetry, I firmly established a preference for tetrameter, a habit that I would not break until high school.
It was in high school that I became formally introduced to poetry analysis. The poetry of Plath, Frost, and Emerson stood out, perhaps only by emphasis in the curriculum (though I must say I love their poetry). Arguably, the most appreciable aspect of poetry is the abstraction of superficial elements. The use of symbols, metaphor, and allusion can interlace to reveal hidden beauty. Every thing and place have emotion and ideas bubbling underneath them. Such is the effect of life. We imbibe objects with meaning.
Biology and the sciences have become an equal passion. I am captivated by science for its universal logic. Knowledge admittedly has been a golden calf of mine. I still catch myself occasionally discarding potential friendships if their brains lack intriguing information. Since I first noticed this, I have made considerable effort to appreciate people more, even if they don’t possess any useful input. I reserve my intellect in social circles so that I don’t come off as superior. I do not seek knowledge so that I can be better than others, but so that I can understand the world better.
Biology categorizes levels of complexity and attempts to understand each component individually and in relation. The realm of molecules (proteins, atoms, enzymes) eventually constructs and functions as cells. Cells organize into tissues, and tissues form organs. Complex combinations of organs make organisms, and organisms group to create communities. The sum of communities are known as ecosystems, and they exist in the biosphere. From a biological perspective, all fine arts are a phenomenon of individual expression (between organisms and ecosystems). A functional emergent property of neurology.
The evolutionary psychologist (EP) explains all artistic impulses as a result of romantic strategies (to increase reproductive chances). Evidence for this line of thought can be seen across the entire mammalian lineage. We see bizarre behavioral phenomena, oftentimes highly associated with external physical displays: mating calls, fights, dances, and nest building. EPs have elevated DNA to the level of complexity of organisms. They say that the ultimate purpose of life is only the replication of our genes. We are just necessary byproducts of genes’ desire to make more genes.
Evolutionary psychology relies heavily on the foundation of genetic determinism. However, the basic premise of genetic determinism is flawed. Whether genes have a causal relationship with behavior is variable. Brains are the most complicated thing in the universe (even more complex than the communities they form). Every level of complexity has thousands of composite factors which build the next level, hence a determinist perspective of any sort is impractical at best. The brain is just too malleable and creative to be explained solely by genetics. Instead the evolution of behavior belongs to memetic evolution (the change of culture and ideas), which occurs within the apparatus of the brain itself.
Genetics are a form of information–they cannot possibly exist without a functional system. Nor could a thought exist without some form of (neural) network. To place DNA as the primary determinant of everything is arbitrary and obstructive. EPs have become so enraptured with their scientific theory they have lost sight of the big picture.
A deeper reflection on poetry reveals the physicality underneath the subjectivity of its form. Of course we employ our brains when we write poetry. This means that there is definable connection between emotion and physicality. The feeling of sounds is important. Plosives are sounds which seem to explode from the mouth (b d k g p t). An advanced poet has an understanding of the effect of sound on an audience, and its effect on the mouth and breathing. He or she often unconsciously manipulates the time and spatial association between the visual presence of words. The structure of lines can even form noticeable shapes. In this manner, natural sciences can be an invaluable tool to the poet.
Biology as a topic in poetry is still reflecting on components of life, just with a scientific perspective and terminology. Poetry sees biology as just another subject to consider, another facet of life’s quirks. Scientific poetry is not generally the most popular, because most people are not interested in science. They trust science insofar as their phones and computers keep improving. They do not understand its terms or its goals.
If scientists were better acquainted with poetry, they would have a better appreciation for life, as well as a more honed attention for abstraction. This could be of great assistance to them in the formation of theories. If poets devoted some time to research in the sciences, they would be satisfied to find a plethora of complex perspectives. They would better understand the world which they so avidly explore. In their hearts, both poets and scientists are explorers of the world, they just use different methodology. They appear diametrically opposed because the poet has vitality, whereas the scientist attempts to eliminate his or her bias.
By divorcing themselves from blatant subjectivity, scientists mask their prejudice by ‘authenticated hubris.’ They have replaced the (Catholic) Church as the anti-progress institution which they continually degrade. Science has become its own impediment to true freedom of thought. (Let’s be careful not to confuse this idea with the politically-infused term “liberal”).
My hope is that scientists would not forfeit themselves for the notion of objectivity. The greatest scientists of history were unique and confident in themselves. They escaped the confines of what was ideologically acceptable, and blossomed inherently because of that freedom. Innovation is by definition counter-intuitive. Science’s rejection of innovation has produced an impediment to progress, a problem which science has not addressed in its methods, whereas innovation is constantly explored in art and fuels its accomplishments.
The practical method derived from this new perspective is that scientists should engage in and be encouraged to participate in artistic expression. We should not abandon empirical methods, but allow them to mingle within our expressive tendencies. In such a breeding ground for ideas, I believe the crucible of new and better sciences may form. The significance of creative thought cannot be ignored.
Philosophy means “love of wisdom”; its practitioners are by their nature champions in the search for knowledge. Therefore, what better discipline to judge this matter? Among philosophers who would advocate for the integration of sciences and arts are Wordsworth, Hume, Freud, and Jung. We might choose this grouping for their respect for humanity separate from their fascination with science. They had a grasp of many of the principles I have explained in this essay, and I believe that they would approve my recommendation.
Jung and Wordsworth were both deeply involved with poetry and science. Jung’s work was focused primarily on the reevaluation of psychology as a field of study which cannot be dissected. He was equally concerned with science as art, and believed they were both fascinating subjects of psychological investigation. “The psychologist is thus faced with two separate and distinct tasks, and must approach them in radically different ways” (217, Creative Process). Jung promoted a vision of the soul within the human psyche.
Wordsworth likewise believed in a deep internal quality of humanity which escaped qualification. “Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, has also thought long and deeply” (82). This illustrates the dependency on higher thinking that both fields require.
Hume and Freud were not necessarily artists or poets in the usual sense. They were scientists. But I think they would attest to the amazing flexibility of the human mind. The science of human nature was apparent to them. In regard to the human urge to wage war, Hume contemplates, “The rage and violence of public war; what is it but a suspension of justice among the warring parties, who perceive, that this virtue is now no longer of any use or advantage to them?” (206, Abel). Hume further addresses the emergence of property and justice complicated by human nature. He recognizes that reason is not strong enough to contain the human condition, and so an application of heart is necessary.
Freud was perhaps the first to adequately articulate the pliability of the brain. “[Complex symptoms are] usually brought about by the convergence of several traumas, and often by a repetition of a great number of similar ones” (286). Thus, compounding factors exert a severe impact on the mind. Freud would have been keen on my proposal to integrate the arts and sciences, because he would have understood the enormous benefit to scientific methodology.
It is fairly obvious that modern proponents of science may remain resistant to an acceptance of the subjective as a valuable analytical tool. However, I believe that their arguments to the contrary will not stand the test of time. As institutions begin to accommodate divergent thinking, the benefits will be enormous, and contribute greatly to the unification of academia.
Donald C. Abel, Ed. Theories of Human Nature: Classical and Contemporary Readings. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1992.
The Creative Process. ed. Brewster Ghiselin. New York: Mentor/Signet/New American Library.