Science informed by feeling: Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl”

I ran across an old email from a friend, who is in a scientific field, ranting about the admonition to “trust in science,” as if it were an actual thing with power, rather than a rational method for taking data into consideration and making new discoveries. She references C.S. Lewis, who said that the “scientific habit of mind” is a truncated one that developed “during the same period men of science were coming to be metaphysically and theologically uneducated.”

My friend takes this meaning from Lewis: “Science is a wonderful discipline to describe what we observe, but many treat science as the actual power that caused the phenomenon it merely describes. Science describes ‘how’ but not ‘why’, and unless the ‘why’ is being contemplated, thought is truncated.” We have, she observes, “a wealth of knowledge and a poverty of wisdom.”

I’ve been listening to Hope Jahren’s recording of her beautiful, fascinating 2016 memoir, “Lab Girl.” Her thirst for, and love of, science shines through on every page. I don’t think Hope Jahren would say that science causes the phenomena she observes. She connects the knowledge she has painstakingly gathered over decades in the field and in the lab, with the wisdom of wider, even ethical, perspectives.

“Planet earth is nearly a Doctor Suess book made real. Every year since 1990, we have created more than eight billion new stumps. If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than six hundred years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump. My job is about making sure that there will be some evidence that someone cared about this great tragedy that unfolded during our age.”

The book is delightfully structured. Every other chapter is a brief dissertation on some obscure and marvelous bit of natural history. These discussions about plants and trees are both interesting and hopeful. I am in awe of the incredible strategies that plants have adapted over millions of years to survive and even thrive. And those are just the ones that Dr. Jahren studies and the few that she includes in the book. The vast majority of plant strategies are unknown to us, mostly because few have asked the questions that she does. Also, her type of science, “curiosity-driven research,” does not necessarily lead to material gain, so it is seen as a low priority for the U.S. national budget.

The simple fact alone that green plants are the only beings on earth that can make sugar should inspire awe. Years ago, during my first Natural Step training, I experienced a profound shift in my understanding of who I am. Human beings are fundamentally, biologically, consumers. I tend to think of myself as a creative person, but I am not, truly, a creator. In the closed system that is Earth, plants are the only beings that can take the one input—sunlight—and turn it into food.

“The leaves of the world comprise countless billion elaborations of a single simple machine designed for one job only. A job upon which hinges humankind. Leaves make sugar. Plants are the only things in the universe that can make sugar out of non-living, inorganic matter. All the sugar that you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf. Without a constant supply of glucose to your brain, you will die. Period. Under duress your liver can make glucose out of protein or fat, but that protein or fat was originally constructed from a plant sugar within some other animal. It’s inescapable. At this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”

And yet, instead of worshipping plants for their life-giving properties, we treat them as commodities or ignore them or bulldoze them for being in the way of our schemes. Dr. Jahren puts this behavior into perspective:

“Our world is falling apart quietly. Human civilization has reduced the plant—a four hundred million year old life form—into three things: food, medicine and wood. In our relentless and ever-intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not.”

For a memoir about a life in science, this book is full of humor. Irony, absurdity and silliness serve to bind Dr. Jahren and her lab partner, Bill, together through their exploits, failures, personal losses, accidents, hardships and breakthroughs. She has a deft way with language and metaphor that I both admire and envy.

Her career is nothing short of heroic: the late nights, the never-ending hunt for funding, the sexism and judgment of peers. Dr. Jahren’s approach evolved during the early years of her career into one of taking the plant’s point of view. Her unique perspective has yielded many fresh questions and insights. It’s not surprising that her male colleagues mostly wrote her off or mocked her. The profession of science is no more immune to our culture’s hyper materialism than any other, including architecture as I well know. Just ask Rupert Sheldrake.

Dr. Jahren asks questions like, “Can plants recognize their offspring?” Why shouldn’t plants “care” about details, especially those that help them to survive and/or reproduce? What does it profit us to continue to insist that plants are mere things, dumb stocks of paper pulp, wood and medicine? Especially when our own anthropologists, scholars and philosophers have documented many human cultures who had a very different understanding of plants and animals. Who are we to say that they held primitive beliefs that we moderns have transcended? As we wreak havoc on our atmosphere, rivers and soil, as we push more and more species to extinction, we are well advised to consider other contexts for our purpose and our actions.

Dr. Jahren provides her own, carefully scientific, view of this:

“Perhaps I was destined to study plants for decades only in order to more fully appreciate that they are beings we can never truly understand. Only when we begin to grasp this deep ‘Otherness’ can we be sure we are no longer projecting ourselves onto plants. Finally, we can begin to recognize what is actually happening.”

And she offers a modest suggestion:

“Every single year, at least one tree is cut down in your name. Here’s my personal request to you: If you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there. Throw in a bit about how exceptional he is for caring about the environment to have put it there. If he takes the bait, go plant another one.”

She advises to select your tree with care and to choose something sturdy and long-lived like one of the many varieties of oak native to this country. And suggests checking if your local city or state has any tree-planting programs that give away tree seedlings. TreeBaltimore is one of these. I’ve planted Redbuds and a Black Gum in my back yard, and although we lost one of the Redbuds, the others are doing well. Dr. Jahren says to check your young tree daily, because the first three years are critical. “Remember that you are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world.”

“If you do own the land that it is planted on, create a savings account and put $5 in it every month, so that when your tree gets sick between ages twenty and thirty—and it will—you can have a tree doctor over to cure it, instead of just cutting it down. Each time you blow your account on tree surgery, put your head down and start over, knowing that your tree is doing the same.”

I am all for planting trees and contributing to the ever-expanding body of scientific knowledge, for those who are so inspired. I do wonder whether she focuses her prescription so narrowly that literalists may see it as an absolution, a ticket out of the wildly materialistic and wasteful lifestyle to which we Americans are accustomed. I have to believe that Dr. Jahren isn’t so naïve as to suggest that planting a tree is going to fix everything.

Then again, there is no downside to heeding her advice and planting a few trees when we can. I hesitate to be one of those people who say, “And there is so much more we should be doing,” which just ruins the mood and makes tree planting seem futile. That is certainly not my intention.

As people plant trees, they might also spend more time around mature ones. They might get to know a grandmother poplar or a grandfather oak. Not to anthropomorphize them, but to meet them as full-on Others worthy of time, respect, attention and awe. My own experiences tell me that these Others have much to teach us about our place in the world and our role in the vast community of life. If only we come with humility and curiosity to listen and to feel.

The great Jungian lecturer and analyst, Robert Johnson, wrote a book about the centuries-old stories of the Fisher King and the Handless Maiden to help modern people understand the wounded feeling function in masculine and feminine psychology. He describes the four faculties with which human beings navigate and make sense and meaning of our world:

“Thinking is that cool faculty which brings clarity and objectivity—but provides no valuing; sensation describes the physical world—but provides no valuing; intuition suggests a wide range of possibilities—but provides no valuing. Only feeling brings a sense of value and worth; indeed, this is its chief function. Without feeling there is no value judgment. To lose one’s feeling function is thus to lose one of the most precious human faculties, perhaps the one that makes us most human.”

He goes on to define feeling as “the capacity to value or to give worth to something.” Since thought is the dominant function in our culture—and, by extension, science—it follows that feeling is inferior, subordinate and repressed. Johnson says that, “The feeling function is a casualty of our modern way of life.”

Before reading Dr. Jahren’s book, I would have said that the scientific mind, as the epitome of cool objectivity, is part of this exile of feeling and therefore cannot be part of the solution. This way we have of breaking things down into tiny atomic and sub-atomic parts and flogging the secrets out of them. I often come back to Audre Lourde’s observation: “The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.” We cannot rely solely on rational mind to bring us to a feeling understanding. Knowledge does not necessarily lead to wisdom.

I was delighted to find that Dr. Jahren clearly does care about the subjects of her research and that she has found a way to bring her feeling function into her work. At the risk of sounding sexist, it is perhaps one of the greatest contributions that a woman in science can make, this willingness to let caring inform her investigations. To let feeling guide questions and methods. I like to think that Hope Jahren is well aware of how subversive this is. I’m glad to know she is out there doing her research. She has much to teach us about the wondrous world of our green kin, plants.

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