The Sacred Depths of Nature – An Abstract

The Sacred Depths of Nature – An Abstract

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The Sacred Depths of Nature, by Ursula Goodenough.  Oxford University Press, 1998.  218 pages.  ISBN 0-19-512613-0

Table of Contents

How This Book Is Put Together
Origins of the Earth
Origins of Life
How Life Works
How An Organism Works
How Evolution Works
VI.              The Evolution of Biodiversity
Emotions and Meaning
Multicellularity and Death
Emergent Religious Principles
Notes and Further Reading

Abstract (from “How This Book Is Put Together”)

 “A Lutheran friend who read an early draft of this book remarked that it was set up like a Daily Devotional booklet.  A Daily Devotional, he explained, contains a collection of short stories, each story followed by a religious meditation on the story’s theme.  Not being Lutheran, I wasn’t familiar with the genre, but that’s basically how this book is constructed.

The text is divided into twelve chapters.  Each begins with a short story about the dynamics of Nature.  Most of these stories are about biology, since this is what I best understand, and most are about biology at the level of molecules and genes and cells, since this is what cries out to be understood.  The stories walk through the Epic of Evolution: the origins of the universe and the planet; the origins of chemistry and life; the        workings of cells and organisms; the patterns of biological evolution and the resultant biodiversity; awareness and emotion; sex and sexuality; multicellularity and death; and speciation.  Throughout, I have done my best to bridge the two cultures.  For readers not versed in scientific concepts and terminology, I have made every effort to render the accounts understandable, accurate, and meaningful.  Those who know the terrain will, I hope, find themselves engaged by the analogies and narratives that are used to explain the familiar.

Then, at the end of each story, I offer a short religious response, the analogue of the Lutheran meditation.  In some cases these responses draw on traditional religious concepts, most often from the Judeo-Christian tradition since that is what is most familiar to me.  But for the most part each response is personal, describing the particular religious emotion or mental state that is elicited in me when I think about a particular facet of the evolutionary story.  For example, the evolution of the cosmos invokes in me a sense of mystery; the increase in biodiversity invokes the response of humility; and an understanding of the evolution of death offers me helpful ways to think about my own death.  If religious naturalism is to flourish, it will be because others find themselves called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from their own cognitive, experiential, andreligious perspectives — in which case this book will become one of an emergent series of Daily Devotionals.

Human memory, they say, is like a coat closet: The most enduring outcome of a formal education is that it creates rows of coat hooks so that later on, when you come upon a new piece of information, you have a hook to hang it on.  Without a hook, the new information falls on the floor.  Some readers with scanty scientific backgrounds have told me that at the time they were reading one of my stories about Nature, they felt like they understood everything I said, but the next day they couldn’t remember a thing about it.  No hooks, I explain.  Then I remind them that there isn’t going to be a test, and that as they were reading the story they were in fact creating hooks for their next encounters with scientific explanation.  And then, the most important part: The point of hearing a story for the first time is not to remember it but to experience it.”

Portion of Reflection from Chapter V, “How Evolution Works”

“Life, we can now say, is getting something to happen against the odds and remembering how to do it.  The something that happens is biochemistry and biophysics, the odds are beat by intricate concatenations of shape fits and shape changes, and the memory is encoded in genes and their promoters.  We read the notes, we hear the emergent chords and harmonies, and we marvel at the emergent musical experience.

To understand how this all came to be, 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 good musicologist can go through a Brahms score and point out a Bach-like fugal texture here, a Handelian cadence there, a Hungarian fold melody somewhere else.  As Brahms composed, bits of the old were woven together with the new to generate the next musical legacy.

In the history of life, the evolution of life, it is the same.  A good biochemical idea — a protein domain that binds well to a promoter, 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 composition/organism but recognizable throughout evolutionary history.  These conserved ideas combine with novelty to generate new directions, newways of negotiating new environmental circumstances.

Evolution can be minimally defined as changes in the frequencies of different sets of instructions for making organisms.  So, to understand evolution, we need to understand how the instructions become different (mutation) and then how the frequencies of those instructions are changed (natural selection).  And then we can take in how this process has created a deeply interconnected web of life.”


“Fellowship and community are central to the religious impulse.  Children of Israel.  United in Christ.  Umma in Islam.  A friend who was raised Roman Catholic and who travels frequently to foreign cities tells me that she often seeks out the local church when she arrives, finding there the shared ritual, the known liturgy and prayers, the haven.  Those of us who find a religious home feel deep affinity with those who have moved through with us and before us, congregating, including, supporting.  We offer and receive sympathy and affection.  The musicians sing their hushed responses or chant their solemn rhythms and we breathe together, sense our connectedness, heal.

Religion.  From the Latin religio, to bind together again.  The same linguistic root as ligament.  We have throughout the ages sought connection with higher powers in the sky or beneath the earth, or with ancestors living in some other realm.  We have also sought, and found, religious fellowship with one another.  And now we realize that we are connected to all creatures.  Not just in food chains or ecological equilibria.  We share a common ancestor.  We share genes for receptors and cell cycles and signal-transduction cascades.  We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities.  We are connected all the way down.

I walk through the Missouriwoods and the organisms are everywhere, seen and unseen, flying about or pushing through the soil or rummaging under the leaves, adapting and reproducing.  I open my senses to them and we connect.  I no longer need to anthropomorphize them, to value them because they are beautiful or amusing or important for my survival.  I see them as they are; I understand how they work.  I think about their genes switching on and off, their cells dividing and differentiating in pace with my own, homologous to my own.  I take in the sycamore by the river and I think about its story, the ancient algae and mosses and ferns that came before, the tiny first progenitor that gave rise to it and to me.  I try to guess why it looks the way it does — why the leaves are so serrated and the bark so white — and imagine all sorts of answers, all manner of selections and unintended consequences that have yielded this tree to existence and hence to my experience….

Blessed be the tie that binds.  It anchors us.  We are embedded in the great evolutionary story of planet Earth, the spare, elegant process of mutation and selection and bricklayer.  And this means that we are anything but alone.”