I remember reading that Aristotle believed that the key to human happiness was the development of the mind. He argued that this was because human beings have unique intellectual abilities that the other animals do not have. Thus he studied physics, biology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. Of course, he did not do equally well in each field. His physics would outlive its usefulness, but Darwin would admire both his biology and his ethics, “We are all mere schoolboys next to Aristotle.” (I think that is a direct quote. His ethics foreshadowed J.S. Mills, even if, as Will Durant put it, “one longs to roll Leaves of Grass in his writings.” This is not totally Aristotle’s fault: what we have are his lecture notes. Yet I have heard it said, “The last person to know all human knowledge was Aristotle,” and I suppose it is possible. It is not possible to know all there is to know about physics and poetry at the same time today.
Yet I would love it if it were so of me that I would have not just a talent for studying literature and history (including each of those fields in the Bible), but also some knowledge of the sciences. Of course, I have to admit the tragic (for me) truth: I have no real gift in either math or science. That said I have made it an avocation to read about animals whether they be birds, dogs, wolves, wildcats, deer or rabbits. On my “to-read” list are The Soul of the White Ant; The Soul of the Octopus; and The Secret Life of Lobsters. I have read Origin of Species once and hope to read it again. I also have Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring and a few books by Franz de Waal. One of the magazines I subscribe to is Birds and Blooms.
I have a friend who is more science-directed in her studies. She got her MBA in environmental sciences. I don’t blame her for what I always wonder. It is not her fault that I think it. Her work to save the environment is necessary. Yet if I had her mind for the sciences instead of my mind for history and literature, I would shoot for work with dolphins.
With that in mind, a book I read was Bobcat: Master of Survival. In it I learned that bobcats are related to lynxes but exist only in the New World; eat rats and are sometimes cannibals; are physically dangerous to humans (one person received a major injury after mistaking a litter of bobcat kittens for a family of domestic cats); and are nowhere near going extinct in the wild, the way some of the big cats are.
I mentioned this book to a friend’s daughter at my synagogue. She explained, “The truth is that science focuses less on individual species than on the web in which they are a part. In particular, for instance, if a particular predator goes extinct, what animal will come to replace it in the wild?” It took me a few minutes to digest this. Then I told her–she was planning on teaching grade school children–that she should teach this to the children she had in her classes.
I think she thought this information would be unduly difficult for a grade school age children to understand. I don’t blame her; I remember in the 8th Grade I tried to read The Scarlet Letter, convinced of its profundity. Alas, I did not understand the book: it was too adult a subject for me. Just so, too complex a mathematical or scientific idea might baffle a child. Yet children have a right to understand the fundamentals (it is an unfortunate word choice, I know) of math and science even when they are young.
Either way, I still believe reading Bobcats: Master of Survival enriches my life. It may be a little simple to real scientists, but it is written at a level which I am able to understand. It is true that my historical readings–Thucydides; William Prescott; David McCullough; and Norman Davies–are more sophisticated from the stand point of my own field. It is true that I have read Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Hawthorne, Twain, and Willa Cather (and even James Joyce and Hemmingway). Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the Brownings are among my favorite poets. I also read T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore. Yet I believe Aristotle about the idea that a person should develop her mind to its full capacity. It is a uniquely human thing to do.