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I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There

ISSUE:  Spring 1995
Speaking As A Human

In describing the fishes’ Heaven, Rupert Brooke wrote:

And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially and fair,
Fat caterpillars drift around
And Paradisal grubs are found,
Unfading moths, immortal flies
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

Physicists often forget this poem: they forget that the meaning of any thing emanates from the beholder and not from the beheld. Physics has a tradition of trying to exclude people and their idiosyncratic, individual, anthropocentric viewpoints from science. And thus, the scientist has become the man who isn’t there. Even in explaining the unavoidable interactions of observer and observed, the physicist J.Robert Oppenheimer wrote: “When we speak here of observer and object, of instrument or probe and system to be probed, we are not talking of the mind of man. We are [merely] talking of a division between the object of study and the means used to study it.” And the logician Edmund Husserl said: “The system peculiar to science, true and correct science, is not our own invention, but is present in things, where we simply find or discover it.”

It is all well and good to say such things, but in fact scientists are people and not computers or ferns or fish. Scientists speak human language, they look through human eyes, and they cannot help introducing the human perspective and the human vantage point into every aspect of science. Even the driest catalogues and lists of objects of study are human at base. Consider taxonomies, for instance: often these are weighted anthropocentrically. In a taxonomy the “importance” of an organism is usually assigned by its relations to humans.(Basic textbooks say such things as: “Of the many thousands of known micro-organisms, less than 300 have acquired the ability to produce disease in humans,” and “Probably the most famous nematode in the United States is Trichinella spiralis, the causative agent of [the human disease] trichinosis.”)

Scientists are humans. Scientific explanations and understandings are inseparable from the human language of which they are built. As the mathematician Karl Menger said: “The way in which a man combines immediate sense data or elements in constituting complexes is profoundly influenced by others: mainly by those who, long since, taught him to speak; then by his teachers and educators; and finally by people with whom he exchanges information and views. He is, in other words, strongly influenced by language and all the wisdom and all the folly which, since time immemorial, his ancestors have stored in that means of communication.”

The language of science is the human language. Moreover, the substance of science is ultimately the human being. Physics, chemistry, and biology are made most palpable when they are phrased in human terms. Typical is this example from a histology textbook, where the discussion of the protein collagen is quickly turned toward direct human experiences: “Collagen is a tough protein. Hence if meat contains a high proportion of collagen, it is tough to eat. Lengthy cooking nevertheless produces a tender stew because prolonged boiling eventually converts all the collagen into a much softer hydrated product called gelatin. Furthermore, collagen [of animal hides] can be made into leather.”

This biological description follows the general rule: even a dry scientific description can be made vivid and memorable when it is related directly to the human sensory experience—as one scholarly scientific monograph points out: “Living sponges resemble pieces of raw liver. They are drab colored, slimy to the touch, and usually have an unpleasant odor.”

If It Were Human

People pervade all aspects of science. Biology is rife with examples. Animals are given the behavior of people—dogs whine, birds sing, and squirrels scold. Scientists cannot resist identifying other organisms with people, and they imbue their objects of study with human characteristics, as in this monograph on micro-organisms: “[The single-celled ciliated protozoan] Tetrahymena setifera [that lives] in defined medium has an absolute [metabolic] requirement for either methanol or ethanol. [It is] an alcoholic among ciliates!”

People are interested first and foremost in people, and the human interests in other animals and in plants radiate out from more immediate, parochial, anthropocentric attractions. Much of the passion and emotion with which scientists invest nonhuman objects comes from clear human identifications with these objects. “Mammals are of particular interest to man, not only because they include many of his animal friends and enemies and much of his food supply, but also because he himself is a member of this group,” wrote the paleontologist A.S.Romer. Similarly, the biologist Lewis Thomas confessed that he is interested in ants because they “are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. [Moreover,] they exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”

A human orientation makes for colorful and memorable natural histories, and this vantage point has given rise to those parts of the scientific literature that are easiest to read. Listen, for instance, to this exposition: “In order to understand the mole’s habits, it is necessary to know something about its special adaptations, particularly those of the sense organs; one can then try to imagine what a mole’s view of the world might be like. Much has been written about the dangers of indulging in anthropomorphism, that is, of interpreting an animal’s behaviour in terms of one’s own similar circumstances. But if we appreciate the nature of the differences between the perceived environments of moles and men, there will be far less danger in a little anthropomorphism than in regarding the mole simply as a complicated little digging mechanism.”

Science is unabashedly a human creation and our anthropocentrism weights science. Scientists emphasize those features that bend their discipline toward a peculiarly human view of the world. For instance, here are two passages from a contemporary biology text:

In this chapter, we will describe those sensory systems that are presently best understood. Human beings have always been interested in their own perceptions and have wondered how faithfully those perceptions reflect the outside world. As a result, research has concentrated on the systems most closely resembling our own.


Communication consists of behavior that functions to convey information from sender to receiver. . . . Since human beings are especially dependent on vision . . .visual communication among animals has attracted the attention of both human scientists and amateur observers.

Human Hopes and Human Aspirations Drive Science

Each human lives in a world that he has mentally fabricated, and people’s rational minds are inextricably entangled with their emotional, limbic systems. The shades and the colorings of the objects, the unseen connections between things and between phenomena, and the unspoken, implied words—these are all figments of the human imagination. The building blocks of science—the words, the ideas, the concepts, the hypotheses—are rarely logical, explicit, and cleanly separate from emotion. Much of scientific discourse is built of concepts largely innate and subconscious, filled with vague feelings, vaporous visions, and primal wishes.

For example, humans hope for economy, parsimony, and rationality in Nature, and this hope appears throughout science: “[Algal] energy consumption [for cytoplasmic streaming],” wrote one group of researchers, “is [about one thousandth] of that used for cell respiration [and about one hundredth] of that used for chloride [ion] transport, but one would [nonetheless] not wish [even this small energy] to be expended to no purpose.” The human’s hope for parsimony extends to our own scientific theories: “Although we have been unable to make any useful suggestion about the function of the action potential in [the green algal] charophyte plants, we may hope to do so for [another basic metabolic process, namely] cytoplasmic streaming.”

We human scientists are ever hopeful. One can almost hear Professor Romer sigh as he writes: “In many areas of paleontology the known fossil record agrees well with the evolutionary story that might have been inferred from a study of recent types alone; here, the ancestral forms, when found, have proved to be those which could reasonably have been expected from our knowledge of existing types. But it is quite otherwise with the story of the placoderms. . . .

“The placoderms are the oldest of all jawed vertebrates. They appear at a time—at about the Silurian-Devonian boundary—when we would expect the appearance of proper ancestors for the sharks and higher bony fish groups. [Thus,] we would expect “generalized” forms that would fit neatly into our preconceived evolutionary picture. Do we get them in the placoderms? Not at all. Instead, we find a series of wildly impossible types which do not fit into any proper pattern; which do not, at first sight, seem to come from any possible source, or to be appropriate ancestors to any later or more advanced types. In fact, one tends to feel that the presence of these placoderms, making up such an important part of the Devonian fish story, is an incongruous episode; it would have simplified the situation if they had never existed!”

Human Values in a Natural World

Beside the anthropocentrism, the human-based perceptions, and the wishes and whims, science cannot escape the human judgments. Are certain plants or animals intrinsically good or bad, beautiful or ugly, valuable or worthless? Perhaps some fictional idealized cosmic observer may see organisms as neutral, but humans cannot help taking a stand. People judge plants:

Pennycress (Thlapsi arvensis)has a reputation as a very hardy weed. . . . Amateur gardeners groan at couch-grass, goosefoot, and pennycress, and it is difficult to find anyone who has a good word to say for them. But as far as pennycress is concerned, I must say that it has its good points. Although not especially beautiful when in flower, it is attractive when it has grown tall and displays its many flat fruits.[And] it is most striking when the seeds are ripe and the pods turn pale

We judge animals:

The spider may be encountered in mythology, in history, in art, in literature: its reputation is not unspotted and its merits are seldom recognized. But if goddesses, saints, and kings have found cause to be thankful for its existence, humbler mortals may well find in the study of Spiders some help in bearing those trials which are the common lot.


What makes us so uncomfortable is that [the ants] and the bees and termites and social wasps seem to live two kinds of lives: they are individuals, . . .and they are at the same time component parts, cellular elements, in the huge writhing, ruminating organism of the Hill, the nest the hive. It is because of this aspect, I think, that we most wish for them to be something foreign. We do not like the notion that there can be collective societies with the capacity to behave like [individual] organisms. If such things exist, they can have nothing to do with us.

We simply cannot separate ourselves from our inherent emotional responses. Scientists voice disapproval:

Another substitution for the usual pattern of incubation, and one much lazier than that of die incubator birds, is brood parasitism. This method involves an escape from the chief duties of raising a family—building the nest, incubating the eggs, and rearing the young—through the simple expedient of imposing them on another bird, usually one of another species. This characteristic, a nasty and subversive one by human standards, but perfectly natural and biologically “moral” by avian standards, is practiced by representatives of five [bird] families.

and empathy:

It is really touching to see how affectionate these two wild creatures [—a pair of mated jackdaws—] are with each other . . . In fact the love-whispers of the couple consist chiefly of infantile sounds, reserved by adult jackdaws for all these occasions. Again, how strangely human! With us too, all forms of demonstrative affection have an undeniable child-like tendency—or have you never noticed that all the nicknames we invent, as terms of endearment for each other, are nearly always diminutives?

And, of course, this human judgment extends beyond biology. “Einstein,” wrote the Nobel physicist P.W.Bridgman, “recognized that in dealing with physical situations the operations which give meaning to [the] physical concepts [held by people] should properly be physical operations, actually carried out [by a person]. . . . [In general,] meanings are determined by operations—operations are performed by human beings in time and are subject to the essential limitations of the time [and the state] of our experience.”

Bridgman goes on to emphasize that every aspect of our world is determined primarily by human conceptions. “The common sense notion of “object” with its reality and individuality apart from any frame of reference, is a concept of stark simplicity. [In fact,] the concept of “object” is palpably a construction, and as far as we know or can give meaning, [it] is a construction only of the human nervous system. . . . If one examines the range of practical conditions within which the concept of “object” is known to be valid, it will appear that the range is exceedingly narrow. It occurs as far as we know only in connection with human nervous systems, which [themselves ] occur only in comparatively narrow temperature ranges, on the surface of a particular planet, in an approximately constant gravitational field of low intensity, in organisms that never have relative velocities of more than an infinitesimal fraction of the velocity of light, and which have not existed for an interval of time long enough for the planet on which they live to have moved through more than an infinitesimal fraction of the sidereal universe. Yet we are apparently so convinced of the necessity for the universal validity of this so complicated concept, checked under such a narrow range of conditions, as to use the assumption of its validity as a tool to determine the behavior under unknown conditions of such comparatively simple things as a light ray in a gravitational field.”

Science Comes From Human Brains

Humanness is woven deeply into science. Strong currents of the peculiarly human run through even the most logical, formal, and objective scientific statements—the scientist can never be separated completely from his intellectual abstractions. “Newton’s Hypotheses non fingo [—I formulate no a priori hypotheses—] was a proud boast, but it rests upon an entire misconception of the [operations and] capacities of the mind of man in dealing with external nature” said Alfred North Whitehead. A direct human-centered philosophy underlies all science. In fact, the physicist Ernst Mach reminds us that such a philosophy “is involved in any [humanly useful] view of the relations of special knowledge to the great body of knowledge of large.”

For this reason, intellectual constructions—theories, diagrams, formulas, explanations—change with societies, with cultures, and with the times. Science is contextual, not universal. Human society changes. A science lives in a particular time, with its own contemporary language, ideas, and temperaments, and natural philosophy must be reworked again and again for each new locale and each new era. As Karl Menger said: “There are relations between certain hypotheses and modes of inference on the one hand and certain rather vague psychological phenomena like inner conviction or intuition on the other . . .and such phenomena change with time, and depend upon history and practice. [For] the methods of inference and construction which are self-evident to an intuitionist in 1930 are [not] identical with the methods of inference and construction which were self-evident to Pythagoras to Archimedes or to Euler, or which will be self-evident to a mathematician in [the year] 2930.”

The Direct Human Sensorium

Human intellectual activities, such as science, are never fully writ in books or computers. Science is embedded in human brains. Science begins with perception. And, in the end, scientific observations must all be tied to direct, immediate human sensory experiences. The ultimate raw data is always the human sensor contact with the world. Although a number in a graph, in a chart, or in a laboratory notebook can be a pointer reading from a machine, all machines are calibrated ultimately against the human nervous system.

Ernst Mach—a philosopher whose questioning of the most basic physical principles gave heart to Einstein while he was formulating his vision of Relativistic Physics—wrote: “We should beware lest the [human] intellectual machinery, employed in the representation of the world on the stage of [human] thought, be regarded as the basis of the real world. Mechanical principles [in Physics] give . . .only some combination of touch, sight, and time sensations. They possess intelligible meaning only by virtue of the sensations they involve, the contents of which may of course be very complicated. . . . The science of mechanics does not comprise the foundations, no, nor even a part of the world, but only an aspect of it. . . .[In fact, to begin our explanations with mechanics] is the equivalent of explaining the more simple and immediate by the more complicated and remote . . .[and we must always remember] that the notions of mechanics are economical implements or expedients perfected to represent mechanical and not physiological or psychological facts.”

Humans in Scientific Explanations

An innate, selective, and human vision filters what one notices. People are animals with a particular physiological window of perception. For instance, an insect biologist points out that “colours are interpreted in terms of human vision, but their appearance, and hence significance, may be different for other animal groups. For instance, the male brimstone butterfly, which to us appears uniform yellow, has markings on the forewing which become visible in a photograph taken on film which is sensitive to ultraviolet . . . At least some insects are sensitive to ultraviolet so that the appearance of this butterfly to them might be quite different from its appearance to humans.”

In addition, people notice what interests them. Consider Trichoplax—it is an organism that appears to be “so obscure that there is no common name either for it or for the phylum to which it belongs. It was discovered in the seawater aquarium of the Graz Zoological Institute in Austria in 1883, but it has been seldom seen since except by ardent zoologists who have searched for it.Trichoplax has always been found in sea water—from the Red Sea, the Plymouth Marine Station on the southern coast of England, the Rosenstiel marine station at Miami, Florida, and on the walls of the marine aquarium at Temple University in Philadelphia.[However] this distribution undoubtedly better reflects the distribution of interested zoologists than the distribution of the little trichoplaxes.”

Then, too, people judge the world by its effects on themselves. Margulis and Schwartz’s general biology text reminds us that “When environmentalists mourn the destruction of habitats by pollution, they are usually thinking of the loss of fish, fowl, and fellow mammals. If their sympathies were with the cyanobacteria and other bacteria instead, they would perceive eutrophication of lakes, for example, as a sign that life is flourishing.”

The Color and Substance of Science

Is the scientific world then a distortion? Is it only dreams and musings? Could it be that all scientific pronouncements are less poetic but equally human statements as Loren Eiseley’s description of birds: “Birds are intense, fast-living creatures— [they are] reptiles, I suppose one might say, that have escaped out of the heavy sleep of time, transformed fairy creatures dancing over sunlit meadows.”

In some sense, scientific abstractions are mere human fancy at base. “It seems to me,” wrote Bridgman, “that the very nature of meaning itself makes it impossible to get away from the human reference point, and that to attempt [a nonhuman reference point] or to set it up as a goal betrays a fundamental misconception [in the physical sciences].” And, when explaining why he chose to use the color of the sky as an example in his textbook, the physicist Max Born said: “A number of other phenomena can be used for the same [illustrative] purpose. But they are incomparably less poetical in their associations than the blue of heaven and the crimson splendours of the sunset; they smell of nothing but the laboratory.”

This, then, is the honest justification. Scientists are people: they live in a universe defined by humans. “The problem of knowledge,” wrote the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, “is an outer shell underneath which lies another philosophical problem—the problem of [human] values. It cannot be pretended that the understanding and experience gained in the pursuit of scientific epistemology is of much avail here; but that is no reason for trying to persuade ourselves that the problem does not exist. A scientist should recognise in his philosophy . . .that for the ultimate justification of his activity it is necessary to look away from the knowledge itself, to a striving in man’s nature, not to be justified of science or reason, for [the innate drives of humankind are in themselves ] the justification of science, of reason, of art, of conduct.”

The attachment of human values to objects gives them the color of life. The sky is something above our heads, but because of our dreams, wishes, and values the sky is vast or close or thick or thin. Plants are green sticks, but because of human dreams they are soft and inviting or they are harsh and briary. Bread is baked grain, but because of dreams it is warm, satisfying, and happy or it is dry and stick-in-the-throat and distasteful. Air is wind, but because of dreams it is gentle and caressing or it is cold and damp and foreboding.

Without some attachment to human feelings, the whole scientific understanding threatens to dissolve if we look aside for just a moment. Alfred North Whitehead worried: “The independence ascribed to bodily substances [in modern physics has] carried them away from the realm of values altogether. They degenerated into a mechanism entirely valueless, except as suggestive of an external ingenuity. [In this way,] the heavens had lost the glory of God.” However, Professor Whitehead need not fear. Human emotional currents do pervade science: they give substantive meaning to scientific concepts. Scientists are people, and they manage to imbue even vapid thin number-laden formulas with a magical lightness. In this way, like soap bubbles, the airy abstractions of science can at times carry us with them into the pale blue skies of Heaven.


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