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Hardcover The Sacred Depths of Nature Book

ISBN: 0195126130

ISBN13: 9780195126136

The Sacred Depths of Nature

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Book Overview

For many of us, the great scientific discoveries of the modern age--the Big Bang, evolution, quantum physics, relativity-- point to an existence that is bleak, devoid of meaning, pointless. But in The Sacred Depths of Nature, eminent biologist Ursula Goodenough shows us that the scientific world view need not be a source of despair. Indeed, it can be a wellspring of solace and hope.
This eloquent volume reconciles the modern scientific understanding...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

There is wonder aplenty in nature and science

"But there must be something more" is a common refrain among those who believe that science robs the world of its meaning; those who cannot countenance that we are ultimately elaborate biochemical reactions, that life emerged from non-life, that stars are nuclear furnaces, that the universe began with a Big Bang. Ursula Goodenough answers this refrain with compassion, patience, poetry, and above all, a command of science and a gift for communicating its achievements and its excitement. In "The Sacred Depths of Nature", Ursula Goodenough, a research biologist, presents a series of meditations on the mysteries of nature. She argues passionately that there are mysteries aplenty within us and about us, and that we needn't invent a supernatural realm. How can one contemplate the exquisite workings of a signal transduction cascade within a living cell, or the grandeur of stellar evolution, or the complexity of biological evolution without a sense of awe? As Carl Sagan was fond of pointing out, these stories have far greater richness and beauty than do any religious myths, no matter how richly embellished.As Ms. Goodenough amply demonstrates in this unique little book, science needn't be devoid of awe; its language needn't be dry and unpoetic; its students needn't be deprived of feeling. In fact, quite the contrary. The intricacy and grandeur or nature, as revealed by science, is every bit as awe-inspiring as the greatest religious myths; indeed, even more so. Ms. Goodenough argues that understanding life is like understanding a Mozart sonata. As she puts it, "The biochemistry and biophysics are the notes of life; they conspire, collectively, to generate the real unit of life, the organism."Building on this theme, each chapter explores some aspect of biology, embracing the intrinsic beauty of some complex process, never shying away from accurate terminology, and always employing apt metaphors and analogies that make the concepts accessible to virtually anyone. For example, as Ms. Goodenough explains, "Patterns of gene expression are to organisms as melodies and harmonies are to sonatas. It's all about which sets of proteins appear in a cell at the same time (the chords) and which sets come before or after other sets (the themes) and at what rate they appear (the tempos) and how they modulate one another (the developments and transitions)." Each chapter ends with "reflections", in which the author grants herself greater poetic license to interpret the lessons of the chapter in a personal way, and to explore common intuitions about life, even as they have been sanctified in religious rituals. In one such reflection, Ms. Goodenough's declares "I have come to understand that the self, my self, is inherently sacred. By virtue of its own improbability, its own miracle, its own emergence."Even if the reader does not come away with the same sense of awe at the workings of nature as the author, there is one observation that will surely be impressed

Simple, beautiful

This book is a series of meditations. Each one begins with a well-informed, concise lecture on some aspect of biology. These come together for a charming overview of the subject actually; you can tell that she loves biology and you can feel why.Then, she shifts directly into spiritual reflection. Surprisingly, she was just as insightful in this area! She really has deeply considered the spiritual significance of biology, and her insights were inspiring and refreshing for me. She doesn't over-extend herself either; even as someone with a world-class education in philosophy and religion I found no weaknesses in her thought (and that is very, very unusual).Whether you are depressed by or afraid of science and naturalism, or if you are in love with them, this is a beautiful, profound (yet simple) book for you.


.....that is how I describe Ursula Goodenough's ability to explain science and her ideas to readers of all levels of scientific background (or lack of). The focus of this book is not only to introduce readers to some basic science (from the Big Bang to the origins of life to modern genetics to an analysis of our emotions), but to present the info in such a way as to intrigue the reader and to help him or her see the pure beauty of the subject she has dedicated her life to. One of Ms. Goodenough's theses is that most people are put off by science because they feel it violates what they feel is special and sacred about life and our world. This, she seems to say, often stems from a misunderstanding of the beauty of science and a lack of acknowledgement that our scientific understandings of nature are as beautiful as earlier, non-scientific explanations of the origins of the world and ourselves. She puts forth an approach she calls "religious naturalism" which reflects her belief that one can evoke a "religious" response in readers by explaining nature using our knowledge of science. She feels that this can be a unifying force in our world because of the way it honors nature and retains the view of humans as special. Truly a compelling read!

Religious Naturalism

Famous astrophysicist Fred Hoyle once said: "I have always thought it curious that, while most scientists claim to eschew religion, it actually dominates their thoughts more than it does the clergy." Ursula Goodenought is certainly amongst them! She is an international recognized cell biologist. Her book "The Sacred Depths of Nature," is a positive constructive contribution to the dialogue between science and religion, a bridge that brings reason and faith together. Using a simple (crash course in life sciences), direct style, and beautiful metaphors she explains the origins of live, evolution, sex, sexuality, cosmos, consciousness and death. Each chapter is divided into two sections: first, she stretches scientific explanations as far as she can possible go, and then she goes into a metaphysical meditation, into the Mystery of existence. Mystery is the realm beyond science, the home of emotions, wonder, gratitude, joy and awe, elicited by the beauty of nature, by Mozart's music, by hymns, prayers, and liturgy. The beauty of Goodenough is that she rejects nihilism, her scientifc mind answers "What," without bothering to answer "Why!" She emancipates herself by means of a "covenant with Mystery," whereby scientific knowledge brings hope and solace.This is indeed a most beautiful approach to both science and metaphysics, an attempt to work in unison in the quest to understand the Mystery. The mathematical quest to understand infinity parallels mystical attempts to understand God. There is no claim to supplant existent traditions but a plight for coexistence between science and religion. Many universities and theological institutions now offer courses interfacing science and religion. As Stephen Jay (President of AAAS - American Association for the Advancement of Science) said: "Science and religion should be equal, mutually respecting partners, each the master of its own domain and each domain vital to human life in a different way."Goodenough touches on the concept of planetary ethic rooted in a universal religion based on scientific knowledge. It is a utopian concept in a world characterized by significant social and economical differences and where only a tiny minority has access to advanced levels of education. But merit goes to her, for having brought some light at the end of the tunnel!

As good as the best of Loren Eiseley.

This book is a gem. Not only are the science passages an exquisite introduction to astronomy, cell biology (Goodenough's field of expertise), and evolution, but her reflections on the meaning she personally derives from such knowledge leave the reader yearning for more. Her passage on the meaning of death--indeed, a celebration of death, for the kind of life and love only it can call forth--is unsurpassed by all the outpourings of those who have ever written on this subject from the standpoint of the humanities. Most poignant are the places in which Goodenough transcends the innate human urge to find (or make) meaning--when she surrenders to the purest of all religious responses: simple assent. Taking science as far as it can go toward understanding the cosmos, life, and consciousness, she is moved by the wonder of it all to demand no more insight. She is fully, intimately, restfully at home in the universe, in her version of divinity: the sacred depths of nature. At these moments of surrender, the words she offers bring tears to this reader's eyes in their spare beauty. And then, able to draw no more from either the science or her own soul, she offers up a poem or psalm from various of the world's wisdom traditions. Some day, some day, this reader hopes--centuries from now, at best--a new wisdom tradition expressed in the time-tested artisty of poems and psalms will have emerged for those, like Goodenough, on the path of religious naturalism. But the words that will be metered will not be limited to those of Lao Tsu or the Hebrew sages. They will be drawn from the revered works of Eiseley, Leopold, and Goodenough.
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