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Philosophy and the Environment

Thoreau on Science and System

Philip Cafaro

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ABSTRACT: Though best known as a literary figure, Henry Thoreau showed a lasting interest in science. He read widely in the scientific literature of his day and published one the first scholarly discussions on forest succession. In fact, some historians rate Thoreau as one of the founders of the modern science of ecology. At the same time, Thoreau often lamented science’s tendency to kill poetry. Scientific writings coupled with his own careful observations often revealed life to him, but in other ways rendered nature lifeless. Modern-day Thoreauvians are also aware that science has largely become a tool for control and increased consumption, rather than for the appreciation and protection of wild nature. This paper explores some of Thoreau’s reflections on science and "system," and presents his view of the proper role of science in our lives. As will become clear, Thoreau’s worries are occasioned by his own scientific endeavors. His responses to science’s insufficiencies are reformist, suggesting ways to improve and supplement science rather than discard it.

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Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world? Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors; as if nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice? — Walden (1)


Henry Thoreau, like Goethe before him, showed a lasting interest in science. (2) He belonged to the Boston Natural History Society from 1850 onwards, and read widely in the current scientific literature. Beyond this, Thoreau was intensely interested in the scientific puzzles suggested by his own rambles around Concord, Massachusetts. In the years following Walden’s publication he observed more systematically and tested his hypotheses more rigorously, and published one of the first scholarly discussions on forest succession. Some historians rate Thoreau as one of the founders of the modern science of ecology. (3)

At the same time Thoreau often lamented science’s tendency to kill poetry. The scientific writings of others and his own careful observations often revealed life to him, but at other times rendered nature lifeless. (4) Modern-day Thoreauvians are also aware of science’s role in the imperialistic conquest of nature. We love the wild, yet science has largely become a tool for control, commodification and increased consumption, rather than for the appreciation and protection of nature. (5) The proper role of science in human society and in our own lives is thus an important issue.

This paper explores some of Thoreau’s reflections on science and "system." As will become clear, Thoreau’s worries are occasioned by his own scientific endeavors. His responses to science’s insufficiencies are reformist, suggesting ways to improve and supplement science rather than discard it.

The Perils and Possibilities of "System"

Thoreau’s science grew naturally and necessarily out of his attentiveness to nature. Describing his early botanical studies, he later wrote:

My first botany [book], as I remember, was Bigelow’s "Plants of Boston and Vicinity," which I began to use about twenty years ago, looking chiefly for the popular names and the short references to the localities of plants . . . I also learned the names of many, but without using any system, and forgot them soon. I was not inclined to pluck flowers; preferred to leave them where they were, liked them best there . . . But from year to year we look at Nature with new eyes. About half a dozen years ago I found myself again attending to plants with more method, looking out the name of each one and remembering it . . . I remember gazing with interest at the swamps about those days and wondering if I could ever attain to such familiarity with plants that I should know the species of every twig and leaf in them, that I should be acquainted with every plant . . . I little thought that in a year or two I should have attained to that knowledge without all that [much] labor. (6)

The passage tells us much about Thoreau’s ambiguous attitude towards science. His initial impulse, common to many amateur naturalists, is to learn the plants around him. Of course he will look and note differences himself, yet there are patterns in nature, aspects of which the scientific manuals capture. They help us to sharpen our ability to find distinctions in nature ourselves and to see nature’s own order. So, to the books.

At the same time the passage shows a chafing at "system." At first Thoreau looks "without system." But without system he can’t keep distinctions or knowledge in his head. So looks more "methodically": observing carefully, taking detailed notes, rechecking his observations. (7) Back to the books, then, whose detailed distinctions he will note and often correct through his own observations. Yet, Thoreau tells us as the passage continues:

Still I never studied botany, and do not to-day systematically, the most natural system is still so artificial. I wanted to know my neighbors, if possible, — to get a little nearer to them. I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed, and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day. I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight, that I might know exactly when it opened, beside attending to a great many others in different directions. (8)

Thoreau does not study botany "systematically," he says, and offers as excuses that "the most natural system is still so artificial" and that what he really wants to do is "know his neighbors." He is making two important points here.

First, that we can pursue a basic knowledge of organisms up to the point where we may distinguish and appreciate them, note their main characteristics and seasonal changes — and that may be our goal. As Thoreau says elsewhere: "Botany cannot go farther than tell me the names of the shrubs which grow [in the surrounding swamps and forests]" (9) As he learns, the swamps he once saw as an undifferentiated green mass become individualized and he can meet new neighbors. The point now is to go out and do so — not to sit in a lab in Cambridge receiving plants from all over the world, as a systematic botanist might do, but to know his actual neighbors. Not to delve deeper into the structure of plants, but to enjoy them in their proper place. Not to dissect their flowers, but to go to see when they flower, allowing them to show themselves at their best.

There is an ambiguity in the word ‘to know.’ It can mean personal acquaintance with something or someone. Or it can mean possessing a correct picture of the structure and true information of the history of a physical thing. This more rigorous knowledge can be pursued ever more deeply — causal chains wind, structure explored leads to the discovery of micro-structure. In the process, our general knowledge of nature improves. Yet the field biologist or amateur naturalist also engage in a basic meeting of things in their careful observations of the natural world, and accumulate much particular knowledge. Against philosophy’s tendency to equate real knowledge with general scientific knowledge, Thoreau asserts: (1) the existence and value of particular knowledge; and (2) the existence and value of acquaintance, irrespective of knowledge.

Thoreau’s second point, in his chafing at system, is that the botanists’ natural system is not accurate. A "natural" botanical classification, in the technical sense of Thoreau’s time and ours, is one which represents the actual structure or relations of groups of plants. It is opposed to an "artificial" system, which is put together for ease of identification or some other human purpose, and is hence arbitrary from the point of view of the organisms themselves. The Linnaean natural system of Thoreau’s time related organisms solely in terms of similarities of structure, which are often best analyzed through dissection in a lab. But in placing an animal on the dissecting table or pressing a plant specimen, we take it out of nature’s system, Thoreau believes. A plant makes sense in a certain habitat, flowering at its natural time. To systematize in this accepted way is to take the organism out of the natural order. It is these connections and histories that Thoreau is interested in, and he has an intuition that these relations make things what they are.

Rather than "systematizing" in this way, Thoreau "attends" to his neighbors. He takes detailed notes on plant phenology, for example. (10) He describes the behavior of the birds and small mammals surrounding him. (11) These are regularities in situ and thus more to his liking. (12) These observations will help him glimpse a natural order in the fields and forests of Concord which the science of his day devalued in its search for general law and system. Thoreau wants to know why this particular wood lot, a pine forest ten years ago, is coming up to oaks today. But insofar as this involves particular and unique causes, and insofar as it looks for order in ecological succession, this would not have been considered a scientific question in Thoreau’s day. Against this Thoreau asserts: (1) the importance of particular, historical explanation as contributing to scientific knowledge; and (2) the importance to him of knowing his place. (13)

Thoreau’s historical and ecological studies, in turn, allowed him to read Darwin’s Origin of Species with understanding and sympathy. (14) The Origin, of course, helped redefine biology’s natural classification system, so that a species’ evolutionary history (itself partly a product of its ecological relations) defines its place within the system. The modern Linnaean system incorporates the unique history of organic evolution, thus affirming Thoreau’s criticism of its predecessor. (15)

"A Friend Among the Fishes"

But while Thoreau strives for an holistic and "neighborly" science, he also collects specimens: pressing plants and occasionally dissecting animals. In 1858 for example, five years after the publication of Walden, Thoreau discovers a fish he has never seen before in Walden Pond, shaped like a bream but with markings like a perch. He collects several dozens of the little fish and makes a minute description in his journal:

They are one and one sixth inches long by two fifths of an inch wide . . . dorsal fin-rays 9-10 (Girard says 9-11), caudal 17, anal 3-11, pectoral 11, ventral 1-5. They have about seven transverse dark bars, a vertical dark mark under eye, and a dark spot on edge of operculum . . . They are exceedingly pretty seen floating dead on their sides in a bowl of water, with all their fins spread out. (16)

"Are they not a new species?" he wonders excitedly, and presents them at the next meeting of the Boston Natural History Society. Opinion is divided at the meeting, but subsequently the specimens are identified as the previously described Pomotis obesus.

Still, Thoreau has known the thrill of discovery, filled in a detail of the natural history of Massachusetts and seen new beauty in nature. All of this is a function of careful observation — and skill in field collecting and dissection. The passage reminds us of the aesthetic enjoyment we find in studying natural forms abstracted from context, such as flowers in a vase. It also reminds us of the role that such "abstraction" necessarily plays in furthering knowledge. Analysis and synthesis complement each other, furthering scientific progress. We cannot map out food webs, for example, without censusing the plants present in an area and determining what the animals are eating — sometimes killing them in the process.

Thoreau’s journal for the next week is filled with pleasure over his discovery. Significantly, as he considers its meaning, he imaginatively places the fish back in the pond:

I cannot but see still in my mind’s eye those little striped breams poised in Walden’s glaucous water. They balance all the rest of the world in my estimation at present, for this is the bream that I have just found . . . But in my account of this bream I cannot go a hair’s breath beyond the mere statement that it exists, — the miracle of its existence, my contemporary and neighbor, yet so different from me! I can only poise my thought there by its side and try to think like a bream for a moment. I can only think of precious jewels, of music, poetry, beauty, and the mystery of life . . . I want you to perceive the mystery of the bream . . . I have a friend among the fishes, at least a new acquaintance. Its character will interest me, I trust, not its clothes and anatomy. (17)

Thoreau’s pleasure, as he realizes, is a function of the novelty of what he has uncovered. Walden Pond has surprised him with something new, after all these years. Yet nature is filled with such wonders; familiarity breeds indifference. The value of the scientific enterprise lies partly in renewing our excitement about nature. But if this is so, then aspects of science which detract from this excitement are suspect. And unfortunately, explanation itself can do so.

A scientific curiosity motivated Thoreau’s interest in the bream and his presentation of an account to the natural history society. Yet considering what science would make of such a discovery, he is unhappy:

A new species of fish signifies hardly more than a new name. See what is contributed in the scientific reports. One counts the fin-rays, another measures the intestines, a third daguerreotypes a scale, etc. etc.; otherwise there’s nothing to be said . . . A dead specimen of an animal, if it is only well preserved in alcohol, is just as good for science as a living one preserved in its native element. (18)

One may read this as an unyielding indictment of analytic science. Yet given Thoreau’s own use of analysis and the obvious need for analysis in science, I prefer to take it as pointing up (1) the need for a more complete science and (2) the need to supplement science with other forms of knowing and being with nature.

(1) Picking apart nature — literally and in thought — is crucial to individual understanding and scientific progress: "the intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things." (19) Those, like Thoreau, who are committed to knowing nature cannot jettison analysis — despite its inherent violence. (20) Still, the zoology of Thoreau’s day slighted ethology. (21) Anatomy and physiology are important — and sometimes beautiful, on Thoreau’s own account — but so is "character" if by character we mean behavior and an organism’s relation to its environment. Its behavior links the fish to the rest of the pond community (community ecology was another undeveloped field in the science of the day).

Truly, to understand the fish we must put them back into Walden Pond (and observe them). The holism advocated by Thoreau has clearly been incorporated into modern science, which seeks to explain the workings of evolution and the evolutionary histories of particular species. For ecology and ethology a dead specimen is not as good as a live one "preserved in its native element."

(2) But even a complete science should be supplemented. First, by personal acquaintance with our own neighbors. Second, by "friendship." Or, if that seems too strong a word for any possible relationship to something as cold-blooded as a fish, then by "appreciation." Third, by poetry and celebration. Fourth — and this is implicit in what has already been said — by protection.

I say that science should be completed in this manner, but what is the force of this ethical judgment? Half comes from the goodness of the bream itself: its integrity, its beauty, its complexity, its ancient and unique natural history. (22) Half comes from the goodness of a full, rich human life, which includes both knowledge and personal connection to nature: its superiority to lives of mere knowledge or of ignorance. (23)

Science must put the fish back in the pond, in order to understand its role in the larger systems of which it is a part. It remains perfectly still for a moment, poised in the water — then rushes off and out of sight, into the system of the pond and down the stream of evolutionary history. Before it does, Thoreau poises his thought next to it. And holds it there. At that moment "the bream, appreciated, floats in the pond as the center of the system." (24) From there, the knowing subject may write a poem which fixes the bream in the center of its own symbolic system. Or, she may fit the fish into our evolving system of objective, scientific knowledge. Or, she may continue to watch, appreciatively.

The jaundiced eye may see here a degeneration into willful obscurantism. A scientific account, after all, does go beyond the statement that the bream exists, telling us what it is and how it got here. Granted that science’s account is necessarily incomplete, it seeks to dispel "mystery" and "miracle," replacing ignorance with knowledge. A naturalist who disparages anatomy and advocates "thinking like a bream" might be suspected of deliberately misdirecting us, blocking the sometimes pedestrian but reliable road to knowledge in favor of a fruitless attempt to achieve the impossible — "perceiving mystery."

Yet Thoreau has himself written a scientific account of the bream and reads the accounts of others. So his reservations about what his own account achieves cannot be read as denying science or scientific truth. Rather, they assert the relative unimportance of any account — scientific, poetic or some combination of the two — compared to the bream itself. The existence of this "other" is more important than any account we can give of it. (25)

This is Thoreau’s bedrock position and he judges the giving of accounts accordingly. Scientific accounts should be as accurate as possible. "To know is to know good," and accurate knowledge brings us closer to the things themselves. (26) At the same time, any account which does not point to the goodness of that of which it speaks — through rhyme, exclamation points or a frank avowal of love — is suspect.

"I wish to speak a word for Nature," Thoreau begins one of his final essays. (27) The impulse to speak for nature comes from the realization that nature itself speaks (a recurring conceit in Walden). I may tell the story of the evolution of the bream, or the story of its life in Walden Pond, because nature writes or has written them. At a deeper level, I may be moved to speech or to silence, simply by the existence of the fish or the pond.

It is no dream of mine,
To ornament a line,

no matter how many afternoons I have dreamed away in my boat or how many poems I have written along its shores. (28) It is the source of life. It is life itself. May I write an account which accurately, lovingly and respectfully tells its story. May my account lead the reader to the pond itself in appreciation and help to preserve it. May my story allow its story to continue in its own way, harmonizing with and completing it, in concord.

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(1) Henry Thoreau, Walden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 225.

(2) Parallels between the two romantic naturalists are extensive. Like Thoreau, Goethe was suspicious of "systems"; noted the falsification inherent in all abstractions; objected to the woodeness and stasis of the Linnaean system; harbored moral worries about dissection (while continuing to practice it); and complemented analysis with a search for synthesis: for wholes, analogies, and relations. At the same time, both men shared an optimism concerning scientific progress; searched for general truths while appreciating nature’s variety; and did not let a keen understanding of the limits of knowledge interfere with their lifelong efforts to better understand nature. See Johann von Goethe, Goethe’s Botanical Writings (Woodbridge, CN: Ox Bow Press, 1989), 21-26; 81-85; 116-118; 149-157; 172-174; 242-245.

(3) Important accounts of Thoreau as scientist and naturalist are Reginald Cook, Passage to Walden 2nd ed. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966); James McIntosh, Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist: His Shifting Stance toward Nature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977); John Hildebidle, Thoreau: A Naturalist’s Liberty (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1983); Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 57-111; and Laura Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995). See also Raymond Adams, "Thoreau’s Science," Scientific Monthly 60 (1945), 379-82; Philip and Kathryn Whitford, "Thoreau: Pioneer Ecologist and Conservationist," Scientific Monthly 66 (1951), 291-296; Charles Metzger, "Thoreau on Science," Annals of Science 12 (1956), 206-11.

(4) Thoreau, "Natural History of Massachusetts," in Thoreau, The Natural History Essays (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1980), 28-29; Thoreau, Journal I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 3-4; Journal IV (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 46; Journal X (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 293-295 (March 5, 1858); Journal XIII (Boston), 154-156 (February 18, 1860); Journal XIV (Boston), 117-120 (October 13, 1860). All subsequent references to Thoreau’s journal are to the 1906 edition.

(5) Our own time sees these trends accelerating, with large-scale industrial agriculture and forest management, and biotechnology firms creating new organisms and tampering with old ones. It should be noted, however, that a minority of scientists, particularly biologists, are working to reverse these trends. In particular, the growing discipline of conservation biology seeks to develop the knowledge necessary to conserve biological diversity; to teach students to love and appreciate it; and to make the case for its protection to governments, industry and the general public. See Michael Soule, "What is conservation biology?," Bioscience 35 (1985): 727-734; and Richard Primack, Essentials of Conservation Biology (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1993), 5-7, 17-20, 507-510.

(6) Journal IX, 156-7 (December 4, 1856).

(7) See for example Thoreau, Faith in a Seed (Washington: Island Press, 1993), 54.

(8) Journal IX, 157-158.

(9) "Walking," in Thoreau, Essays, 115.

(10) Journal IX, 50-56 (September 1-2, 1856).

(11) Journal XIII, 98-116 (January 22-30, 1860); Walden, 211-212; 225-228.

(12) "I deal with the truths that recommend themselves to me, — please me, — not those merely which some system has voted to accept" Thoreau writes. (Journal II, 403; August 19, 1851)

(13) In an interesting, complex passage, Thoreau criticizes science and aspects of nature itself which are simple and lawlike, stating his preference for complexity, proximity and novelty: "I am somewhat oppressed and saddened by the sameness and apparent poverty of the heavens . . . I pine for a new world in the heavens as well as on the earth, and though it is some consolation to hear of the wilderness of stars and systems invisible to the naked eye, yet the sky does not make that impression of variety and wildness that even the forest does, as it ought." (Journal IV, 469; January 21, 1853)

(14) See Walls, 189-199; 275, notes 21 and 24; Thoreau, Journal XIII, 77-78 (January 4, 1860); Journal XIV, 146-147 (October 18, 1860).

(15) "No science does more than arrange what knowledge we have of any class of objects," Thoreau objects in one journal entry (Journal X, 294; March 5, 1858); but modern biology moves beyond this to describe and explain biological processes, species interactions, and the unique history of organic evolution on earth. Modern biology thus reaffirms the importance of the particular and the unique to science. Biological species are the creation of "chance and necessity": the laws which we believe constrain organic evolution tell us how evolution works, but do not show us deterministically that trilobites or hyenas had to come when they did. At the same time, our most sophisticated understandings of biological adaptations (such as the mechanisms and patterns of seed dispersal) and ecological regularities (such as the tendencies of bog communities to develop in certain ways) are of limited predictive power in explaining how seeds will disperse or particular plant communities will develop. While molecular and cell biology uncover structural and functional similarities across wide areas of organic life, evolutionary biology and ecology remind us of the diversity and complexity of life and the ineliminable importance of history.

(16) Journal XI , 346-9 (November 26 and 27, 1858).

(17) Ibid., 358-9 (November 30, 1858).

(18) Ibid., 359-60.

(19) Walden, 98.

(20) Thoreau never completely accepts this, however, writing a year after the publication of Walden: "The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge." (Journal VI, 311; May 28, 1854). Of course, post-modern critics of science with no interest in knowing nature can easily write off scientific killing, analysis and science itself as simply forms of imperialism; see for example Val Plumwood, "Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism," Hypatia 6 (1991): 3-27.

(21) In his words, it "left the anima out of animals. " Journal XIII, 154 (Feb. 18, 1860).

(22) Strong arguments for the intrinsic value of wild nature are Paul Taylor, Respect for Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Holmes Rolston, III, Environmental Ethics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); Keekok Lee, "The Source and Locus of Intrinsic Value," Environmental Ethics 18 (1996): 297-309. Influential works denying such intrinsic value are John Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1980) and Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). See also The Monist 75/2 (April, 1992), a special issue titled "The Intrinsic Value of Nature."

(23) For the past twenty years, the discipline of environmental ethics has focused on the issue of the putative rights, intrinsic value, or moral considerability of non-human nature, and on the development of a non-anthropocentric ethics. In recent years there has been increased interest in developing an environmental virtue ethics, which incorporates a respect for nature, conceives "human interests" broadly, and argues that environmental protection is in our enlightened self-interest. See Bill Shaw, "A Virtue Ethics Approach to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic," Environmental Ethics 19 (1997): 53-67; Stephen Kellert, The Value of Life: Biological Diversity and Human Society (Island Press: Washington, 1996); John O’Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World (London: Routledge, 1993); Geoffrey Frasz, "Environmental Virtue Ethics: A New Direction for Environmental Ethics," Environmental Ethics 15 (1993): 259-74; Thomas Hill, Jr., "Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments," Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 211-24.

(24) Journal XI, 359 (November 30, 1858).

(25) Similarly Thoreau’s relationship to nature is more important to him than his attempt to know nature, as the following journal passage suggests: "The secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Science requests me, as he probably has thousands of others, by a printed circular letter from Washington the other day, to fill the blank against certain questions, among which the most important one was what branch of science I was specially interested in . . . How absurd that, though I probably stand as near to nature as any of them, and am by constitution as good an observer as most, yet a true account of my relation to nature should excite their ridicule only! If it had been the secretary of an association of which Plato or Aristotle was president, I should not have hesitated to describe my studies at once and particularly." (Journal V, 4-5; March 5, 1853). Note how Thoreau reframes the issue of his scientific studies in terms of a relationship to nature.

Reginald Cook, author of an excellent study of Thoreau as naturalist, states flatly that "Thoreau did not [primarily] aim at being a scientist . . . He aimed at being a human being who realized as completely as possible . . . the correspondence of nature and himself." (Cook, Passage, 204)

(26) Thoreau, "Natural History," 5.

(27) Thoreau, "Walking," 93.

(28) Thoreau, Walden, 193.

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