In his prophetic essay The Abolition of Man (1944), C. S. Lewis asked whether the triumphs of modern science “may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price.” Already by the middle of the twentieth century, Lewis had sensed the threat that genetic engineering would pose to mankind, and he called for “reconsideration, and something like repentance” with respect to our approach to nature, a conversion that could bring us a “regenerate science” that would “not even do to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.”¹ This study of natural history is a response to Lewis’ call.
Natural history is the branch of biological science that aims to give a descriptive account of plants and animals and the world in which they live. Although it has been neglected in recent decades, it has traditionally been understood to be a necessary preliminary to biology because, as Aristotle explained in his treatise On the Parts of Animals, only “after considering the phenomena presented by animals, and their several parts,” can a student profitably “treat of the causes and the reason why.” Indeed, the way we learn best in any subject is to begin with things that are more familiar to us and afterwards to look into things that are hidden from view. To Aristotle, and to most generations of our ancestors, what was most familiar was precisely the created world: our own bodies, animals and plants, the features of the landscape, and the patterns of the weather. In our day, by contrast, we tend to be more familiar with things made by man, especially automobiles and hand-held communication devices. We live apart from nature and consequently have little appreciation for the diversity and order of living things. The study of natural history helps us to deepen that appreciation, or, in the words of the philosopher Joseph Pieper, to “learn how to see again.”²
The beginning student of biology should be instilled with a love for the beauty and intelligibility of animals. In Nature’s Beautiful Order we aim to achieve this by introducing the study of animals through the eyes of the classical naturalists, scientists who always kept before them the fundamental truth that it is the whole animal, and not some tiny part of it like a cell, that is both best known to us and also the principal reason for our interest in the first place. The writers whose works are presented in that book—chiefly John James Audubon, Jean-Henri Fabre, and St-George J. Mivart—were in this respect followers of Aristotle, the first and greatest of biologists. Even Charles Darwin, who was not otherwise sympathetic to Aristotle’s way of thinking, had to bow before the facts, calling him “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, observers that ever lived.”³
The Aristotelian understanding of living things remains just as valid today as it was in ancient Greece. Aristotle was himself familiar with the crude forms of reductionism that characterize much contemporary biological theory and teaching, for these theories may be traced back to the earliest generation of philosophers in ancient Greece. He patiently responded to the challenge of Empedocles—that there might be a “man-faced ox-progeny”—and also replied to the theory of Democritus that the soul is nothing other than the element fire. In both cases, he thought his precursors mistaken, and regrettably so. For, in the case of Democritus, if some material thing sufficed to account for organic activity, then every such thing would be alive. And, to Empedocles, he observed that attempts to explain the integrity and activity of organisms by reference to inert matter moved by chance “tell us in reality nothing about nature.” The reason is that “the nature of an animal is a first principle.”⁴ In other words, the unity and integrity of an organism is a fact that we must take as a starting point for our investigation of the world, not a truth that can be established by proof. Our confidence in this truth is absolute. We all know what is the difference between alive and dead, and, accordingly, we instinctually and vigorously repel even slight attacks upon our persons. The hand is no hand once severed from the body, nor is our DNA, the proteins it codes for, or the cells in which it is found capable of living apart from us. When biological theory attempts to explain away the existence of living things by an appeal to brute matter moving at random, it brings us harm, for such theories cut at the root of an attentive inquiry into living things and ultimately make us out of tune with both the world and ourselves.
The purpose of Nature’s Beautiful Order is to provide an introduction to the study of animals for today’s youth that will nourish in them a love for nature’s beautiful order, as the title indicates. Nearly all introductory texts in biology today begin with the cell and its parts and frame their discussions with evolutionary theory. Even worse, these books proceed without any real concern for the way in which we best learn about organisms, which is by reference to our common experience of the world and, especially, to our own bodies. Instead of making the lives and the bodies of animals more intelligible to us, today’s biology textbooks make them more foreign. It is because the classical naturalists of the Aristotelian tradition approach organisms as living wholes to be understood with respect to our common experience of them that they remain useful guides, in spite of advances in biological science that have happened in the decades and even centuries since they wrote. What is more, they are gentle and appealing guides, just as capable today of instilling a love for biology as they were when they initially wrote.
¹ S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944; reprinted, New York: Harper Collins, no date), 78-9.
² See Pieper, “Learning How to See Again,” in Only the Lover Sings (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 31-36.
³ In a letter of 1879, quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (New York: Norton, 1959), 169.
⁴ Parts of Animals 1.1.642a16-17.