|In reality, the relationship between nature and culture is much like the situation of the elephant and the mouse walking side by side over a rickety wooden bridge. Above the noise, the mouse shouts, ‘Hey, listen to us stamping together!’ People who claim that humans have left behind their biology suffer from the same delusions of grandeur as the mouse. They barely realize they are walking next to human nature, the elephant that sets the tone of everything we do and are.
—Frans de Waal
Recently I read an article in a newspaper with the heading, “Gorgeous Women Affect Men’s Brains like Cocaine.” The article told about a study that showed that looking at beautiful women activates the “reward circuits” of the male brain in the same way cocaine and food do. Beauty, the study concluded, is hard-wired and not, as many postmodernists assume, socially constructed. I wasn’t any more surprised by the finding than I was many years earlier when I was a jogger and read about the endorphins released in the brain during a good run, a phenomenon known as “runner’s high.”
I have a file folder in my home office labeled, Consilience. The word is the title of a book by the Harvard sociobiologist, Edward O. Wilson; it means the “jumping together” of knowledge from various disciplines to create, in Wilson’s words, “a common groundwork of explanation,” or a “unity of knowledge.” I’ve been fascinated by connections between science and literature for some time, but after reading Wilson’s book I’ve made a sort of hobby out of collecting examples of consilience. I’m especially looking for common ground between poetry and the biological sciences: a confluence of the intuitive knowledge of the literary artist and the empirical, quantifiable knowledge of the scientist.
One doesn’t have to read Darwin to know that the effect of beauty on a man has a strong biological basis. The results of the scientific study mentioned above could no doubt yield countless literary equivalents. One of my favorites is a one-line poem called “Poem” by Bill Knott, written in the 60s:
Your eyelashes are a narcotic.
I used to think of the word narcotic in this poem as a metaphor (no doubt Knott meant it metaphorically). But now—after reading about the study on beauty—I’m inclined to think of it as a hybrid made up of both metaphor and fact.
A few years ago in Tucson, Arizona I heard Frans de Waal, the well-known primatologist, talk about his studies of bonobos. He discussed their extreme sexuality, and especially the power that females exert over males.
As I was listening to him and looking at his pictures on the large screen behind him, I thought of a poem by Robert Frost called “The Pauper Witch of Grafton,” which is narrated by a woman who has enjoyed great power over men with her beauty and spirit. She’s no longer young, but she remembers one of her husbands:
|Up where the trees grow short, the mosses tall,
I made him gather me wet snow berries
On slippery rocks beside a waterfall.
I made him do it for me in the dark.
And he liked everything I made him do.
Another example in my consilience file is by the poet Robinson Jeffers, who in just two lines in his poem, “The Bloody Sire,” captures something of the essence of natural selection working over millions of years in what evolutionary biologists sometimes refer to as an arms race between species:
|What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
* * *
In 1970, at the age of 30, I wrote a poem I called “Football,” and published it in my first collection of poems, in 1976. Here is the poem:
|Consider the stoning of beasts:
the peppered mammoth slobbering in the pit,
the stunned boar,
the bear with crushed face advancing,
the crippled, skirling cat;consider the hands
groping along the hacked shores of rivers
how many dawns ago? for this shape of stone.
What I was trying to capture in this short poem is a scene in which Pleistocene hunters are killing animals. But more than that, I was remembering the violence of football, a sport which I played in high school and college.
Robert Frost, who also liked to refer to sports and competition in his poems—used to say that he wasn’t a poet as much as a synecdochist. My poem attempts, more or less, to define or suggest the game of football by focusing on the shape of the football itself. Of course the game has often been referred to metaphorically as war, with words and phrases that have become cliches: “bullet pass,” “blitz,” “defensive strategy,” “the bomb,” and so on.
In the opening line of the poem—“Consider the stoning of beasts”—I describe an ancient setting in which men are cooperating in the killing of a mammoth or a bear, for instance, and in one line in the first stanza I suggest the perils inherent in the hunt (“the bear with crushed face advancing.”) Then in the second stanza I imagine the hunters searching along the shores of rivers for stones they could use for killing or maiming prey. Again, it’s the shape of the stone that intrigued me, since it might be possible (I was thinking at the time) that the same stone used in the hunt was adapted, later on (when, say, there was more time for leisure) for games and sports. Is it possible that the first pick-up games took place thousands of years ago when, after a successful hunt, the guys chose up sides (skins and hides?) and started throwing around a seamless stone shaped like a football?
Over a decade after I wrote my poem I was pleased to come across an article in Discover (June, 1986) about a scientific hypothesis regarding the shape of stones used by ancient hunters. The article refers to some stones found by paleoanthropologists at early toolmaking sites, such as the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. These stones are “smooth and roundish,” and are “not suitable for flaking into tools.” They are also “lemon-shaped …which suggests that they were thrown with a spin—rather like tiny footballs,” and that they were perhaps used for throwing at enemies or animals. The writer goes on to suggest that because stone throwing comes so naturally to humans, it could have been an incentive for our forebears to walk upright; and that modern sports that involve throwing might be a way of “channeling aggressive behavior.”
My poem, “Football,” is just that: a poem. Unlike a scientific study, it’s not intended to convey factual information, the way science does, but rather to evoke a scene dramatically with words; to imagine what it was like to live for a few moments as Ice Age hunters, in a way of life that persisted for over 99 percent of our species’ history.
And yet, because, as E.O. Wilson puts it, “no barrier stands between the material world of science and the sensibilities of the hunter and the poet,” I was happy to learn that my poem tends to be consilient with a scientific hypothesis. After all, discussions of poetry and the other arts involve not only subjective elements but the same material world from which both science and art draw their explanatory and evocative power.