Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2000. 153 pp. $21.00.
This elegantly, if somewhat emotionally, nostalgic book represents in large part a crusade against E. O. Wilson's recently published book, Consilience. Although the author claims to be a farmer, I note that he has published some nine pieces of fiction, more than a dozen poems and essays. He states his position early on (p. 4) "our starting place is always and only our experience." Does he consider that what we learn from reading and from school are irrelevant or are they part of our experience? If "experience" is sufficiently broadened then the statement becomes meaningless. I fear that Mr. Berry's science base is inadequate to his task as exemplified by his statement (p. 39) "It is a curious paradox of science that its empirical knowledge of the material world gives rise to abstractions such as statistical averages which have no materiality and exist only as ideas." The room temperature when he wrote this phrase was in fact a statistical average of the momentum of all the gas particles, largely nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide in the room at that time. Many molecules at any given instant were moving more rapidly than average and some more slowly. The measured temperature is exactly the average of them.
Then Berry's quote "stay out of the nuclei" (presumably both the cell nucleus and the atomic nucleus) appears to prevent us from using atomic power that civilization must eventually utilize or die, and biologically prevents us from any knowledge of genetics and hence any knowledge of diseases of genetic origin. Surprisingly, Berry has this to say about psychology: "The science closest to art (in the opinion, anyhow, of many artists) is psychology and especially psychoanalysis."
In another vein he states (p. 138) "One of the most significant costs of the economic destruction of farm populations is the loss of local memory, local history, and local names." Field names, for instance, even such colorless names as "the front field" and "the back field" are vital signs of a culture. On the farm I own with several colleagues, we have "the long field," "the dog leg field," and "the principle pasture."
But enough quibbles; Berry tenderly cherishes old and romantic notions and resolutely refuses to adopt a materialistic view of life. He writes lyrically about what he considers to be true values. The book is worth a read both for those who agree with this viewpoint as well as the most materialistic reductionists. Perhaps, however, a reread of Wilson's Consilience should go along with it.
J. Edward Roll, M.D.
Scientist Emeritus; National Institutes of Health; Bethesda, Maryland