Shakespeare’s unhappy King Lear was friendless but for the Duke of Kent, who, armed only with “the modest truth,” patiently steered the benighted king back to his wits. A similar work of intellectual charity needs to be taken up today with modern biology, which, like King Lear, has become old without becoming wise. It was four centuries ago that Harvey proved the circulation of the blood; cell theory is a century and a half old; the knowledge of the mysteries of DNA is already the age when our hairs turn gray. Yet our biology is far from wise, indeed it is deeply troubled in mind. We should indeed be grateful that day after day patient researchers follow the truth wherever it leads them in laboratory and observatory, forest and field. But day after day the grim scythe of abortion mows down lives deemed unworthy or undesirable with the complicity of that same biology, while our political preoccupations prove that our culture’s understanding of nature’s goodness—shown forth most surely in the fruitful love of a man and woman—is tragically on the wane.
Can such a modest work as a middle-school natural history text hope to make headway against these lashing winds and dark clouds? Perhaps not, but then, the Duke of Kent did not stop to ask whether he would in the end be effective, he simply sought to bring succor to his king.
Nature’s Beautiful Order is the work of two educators who love nature and God and who have also long loved the great human quest that is biology. We are both amateurs in that sense: it is love, not expertise, which is our essential qualification. Yet, like the Duke of Kent or Cordelia caring for King Lear, it may be that our love is in the end what makes us most suitable for the work. For what ails modern biology is its pride and consequent confusion. Although the authors of major biology textbooks are almost certainly kind and appropriately humble people who wish to serve the truth, the science that they have received is full of self-importance and arrogance. It is not willing to speak in a language that others can understand. It makes its claims in the name of its own authority rather than on the basis of evidence that all can assess. It refuses to define its terms. It tolerates no judge and hardly any critic. It insists that its own standards of significance and goodness be adopted without discussion. And, most tragically, it gallops forward to ever-new experiments without making good the ground it has already covered or asking whether it may be going too far, too fast. How is one to reason with such a force? How is one to curb such a juggernaut?
The task is overwhelming, but Nature’s Beautiful Order takes a first step. In its pages, you will find humble descriptions of the parts of animals, measured accounts of their causes, and loving reflections upon their goodness and their ends. Each of the eighteen lessons is built around a series of quotations from one or another classical naturalist, a biologist who wrote prior to the twentieth-century. With the help of John-James Audubon, Jean-Henri Fabre, St.-George Mivart, Georges Cuvier, and Aristotle, the middle-school readers of Nature’s Beautiful Order will be encouraged to attend with care to the phenomena of animals that are revealed by our own senses. In its pages, they will meet the Bee and the Lobster, the Cat and the Groundhog, the Cow and the Canada Goose, among many others, and from these friendships they will learn the principles and methods of true biological inquiry.
The great and principal truth of any authentic biology is that the individual living animal that we see is the basis of our science. Not the cell. Not the molecule. And certainly not the population, the ecosystem, or a hypothetical tree of ancestors. Nature’s Beautiful Order begins and ends with our unshakeable confidence that “thy life is a miracle”—to borrow again from Shakespeare’s King Lear—a lovely, intelligible, wonderful overflowing of the life of God.
There is much excellent information to be gleaned from standard high-school biology textbooks, but it must be gleaned, and it ought to be carefully weighed and measured against another standard. Nature’s Beautiful Ordersets out that standard. The student who has worked through its pages thoughtfully and embraced its doctrine will have been taught to distinguish between fact and ideology, observable reality and theory, well-framed definition and metaphor, illuminating generalization and blustery narrative. The text is only an introduction to biological inquiry, but in the hands of competent teachers who love nature and God, its modest truths will, we are convinced, do real good to encourage students in a proper love of biological science and, most especially, of the living things that are its object.
Christopher O. Blum (B.A. Biology / Ph.D. History & Philosophy of Science) is Professor of History & Philosophy at the Augustine Institute. John A. Cuddeback (Ph.D. Philosophy) is Professor of Philosophy at Christendom College. Both are long-time students of Aristotle and avid outdoorsmen, gardeners, and naturalists. Their new book Nature’s Beautiful Order is now available from Memoria Press.