August 10, 1980

Reflections following a visit to Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Science is an ethos. Although scientists like to think of their investigations as independent of moral, aesthetic, or religious considerations, the actual activity of the scientific community is the outward expression of a world-view. Moreover, each independently designated branch of the sciences, Biology, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, maintains a distinctive world-view, as opposed to all others as Marxism is to organized religion, Catholic to Protestant, Shiite to Sunni, or phenomenology to empiricism.

Biology in particular is far more than a simple accumulation of data, or the neutral designation of a learned discipline: the community of biologists, (which define what 'biology' is by doing it), participates in an ideology which, despite controversies and differences, is remarkably uniform. After disposing of the niceties, this ideology takes to the field against mathematics, physics, history, psychology, even philosophy which, in the minds of its practitioners, is also a science. Among European scientific creeds, the one closest to Cartesian mechanism is Biology. This is because "biology" per se, restricts itself to the classification and study of living forms, divested of all the attributes that structure living consciousness. Thus it has been since the time of Aristotle. Biology is therefore closer to philology and elementary particle theory than it is to say history, psychology, and philosophy, even medicine - whose goal is to sustain life, itself, and not its outward form - or any other human science . Biologists are fascinated with the exotic diversity of living forms as forms, of living machines and systems as machines and systems. They concern themselves little with the attributes of life itself. Phenomenology, claiming to be a scientific analysis of the ontology of consciousness, is its polar opposite .

To this traditional perspective of biology, genetic engineering has added a new dimension, something like Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel , in some sense the highest game: Recombination.

It is now possible to reassemble genes, the microscopic units of living machines, to create prodigies and monsters, organisms which, unlike the familiar ones that have emerged through the long process of Evolution, have no functional relationship to their survival, no capacity for adaptability, serving only the purpose of gratifying the strongest force in the human psyche, and, when unprincipled, the most destructive: curiosity.

The village of Woods Hole at the southernmost tip of Cape Cod is the apotheosis of the biological world-view. It is an international center for biological and oceanographic research. Among its institutions one finds: the Marine Biological Laboratories (MBL); the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), now with its own college campus in neighboring Quisset; the US Marine Wildlife and Fisheries ; the United States Geodetic Survey; New Alchemy , a private research institution for alternative energy sources; the Woods Hole Research Center ; the Children's Science School ; and others.

At the same time it is one of those cherished places which, for me, evoke an inexhaustible nostalgia of tender recollection. Rich in charm, dream-laden, idyllic cradle of my student years, I return to fondly regard it from the vantage of an absence of 20 years. Beneath my sympathetic gaze the village spreads open like a book, its pages inscribed with thoughts, memories, people, landscapes, its theme 'biology' as world-view and life-style. The very flowers in its shadow-streaked, bariolated gardens appear to regard one another mockingly in self- conscious recognition as distinct life-forms.

Pay a visit to Stony Beach, half a dozen blocks away from the MBL. Observe the preening, the gawking, the bartering of the sexual dance. One finds this sort of thing on all beaches; only at Woods Hole one notices a curious innovation: that the scientists, in the very act of exhibiting their bodies, are also promoting a theory of sexuality, a private interpretation of Darwinism. One is observing the eternal mating game; yet one is also receiving a lecture on the philosophy of science.

To the outsider a typical Woods Hole day in summer may appear devoid of interest. The only moments of real excitement come with the raising of the drawbridge on Water Street to allow for the passage of small craft between the harbor and the Eel Pond. In fact the town lives at a feverish boil day and night through the endeavors of scientists and students, goaded by their fascination for intricate toys that happen to be living.

This is the contrast I seek to evoke, this the perversity that spurs my imagination, this the paradox issuing forth in endless trains of meditation whenever I wander or come to rest in the romantic town, on the beaches, in the shops and restaurants, at the lectures given at the MBL, talking with students, strolling the stone embankments, cushioning my soul in the rhythms of the fog.

.... On the one hand the indolent sea-coast resort, sluggish as the tides, its old mariners seated on stoops, moulting adolescents chasing their desperate yet predictable desires, vacationeers fleeing the harried life of the cities, seeking blessed immersion in wind, ocean, sand, sky, the unalterable cycles of the miniature world of the harbor, the departure and return of ships and boats, the lazy blasts of the fog-horns, the creeping of the mists over the quais , the immobilized lighthouse on the point under the phases of the moon...

On the other, the daemonic, terrifying greed for knowledge, encompassing the slaughter of countless living creatures, the obligatory lie that deems consciousness a second-order aberration, an inconsequential error term, in order that the industry of science may continue unperturbed; the landscape of human relations, loves and friendships; the torrid climate of scientific investigation blanketing the village like the smoke of a conflagration....

... Lastly the tug of war between alien conceptions of the world, so closely interwoven in the sociology of the village that one cannot say where one begins and the other leaves off: so that the waiter at one of the small cafˇ-restaurants may be the son of a senior scientist; so that the old fishermen sign on as crew for the research vessels of the Oceanographic Institution, which will take them to distant places for purposes they cannot divine; so that a provincial local population which has lived most of their lives on the Cape on a daily basis, cross as they walk the streets scientists from Tashkent, Nairobi, Tel Aviv, Beijing....

For those who understand it, Woods Hole is an exciting place. For me it is a mirror of poetry, an eternal lyric, a perpetual baptism in the waters of rejuvenation.