The Mind's Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context
Ten years ago I visited a friend on Cape Cod and took my one-year-old daughter to the beach. She had never seen the ocean. We got out of the car about a hundred yards from the water. Holding her in one arm, I pointed to the ocean. My daughter’s eyes followed along my arm, across the sand, to the breaking waves, and then outward to the sea. Suddenly her face lit up, and she began giggling with delight. It seemed that there was nothing I needed to explain. Was she simply responding to the unexpected panorama? Or was this a renunion for her, a primal reconnection?
I thought of this visit when reading Timothy Ferris’s book The Mind’s Sky, for a central theme of his book is the quest to find unity in nature, a quest that begins with personal yearning. Throughout history, in every endeavor, human beings have searched for connections, for ways to make a harmonious whole out of parts. Laotze writes, “Through possession of the One, the Heaven was clarified/Through possession of the One, the Earth was stabilized.” Aristotle talks about unity of plot in his Poetics. Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “This world is called one by the unity of order.” Copernicus, after removing the Earth from the center of the universe, invokes cosmic harmony to explain why the sun should now occupy that privileged location: “Lastly, the sun will be regarded as occupying the center of the world [universe]. And the ratio of order with which these bodies succeed one another and the harmony of the whole world teaches us their truth.” Emerson writes, “So poor is nature with all her craft, that, from the beginning to the end of the universe, she has but one stuff—but one stuff with its two ends to serve up all her dream-like variety.” Harold Speed, the turn-of-the-century British academic painter and teacher, said: “Unity is concerned with the relationship of all the parts to that oneness of conception that should control every detail of a work of art. All the more profound qualities, the deeper emotional notes are on this side of the subject.” And the Holy Grail of modern physics is the Grand Unified Theory.
The quest for unity has taken on new poignancy in recent years, as the unstoppable sledgehammer of specialization pounds the world into smaller and smaller pieces and as humankind grows more estranged from nature. For example, the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that the Earth is a single living organism, has attracted a devout following far beyond the scientific community. Introduced in its modern version in the 1970s by the British naturalist James Lovelock and the American biologist Lynn Margulis, and articulated more fully in Lovelock’s books Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) and The Ages of Gaia (1988), the Gaia hypothesis claims that the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, climate, land, and living creatures are part of a giant feedback loop, which attempts to maintain conditions suitable for life. William McKibben’s recent…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.