REVIEW: Life is a Miracle
Due reverence
Wendell Berry challenges scientific hegemony

Reviewed by Adam Grybowski


Life is a Miracle: An essay against modern superstition

Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, 2001, ISBN 1582431418; 176 pp.; $14.00

July 16, 2004: Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more? The Beatles “When I’m Sixty-Four” evokes an older couple’s hands in the dirt of their own garden. This is a scene Wendell Berry would treasure. For Berry, the familiar and intimate experience is always valued over novelty. This principle has shaped his life—he left his academic career behind to live, farm, and write in his native Kentucky—and his lifestyle promotes fulfillment over detachment, veneration in lieu of consumption. Life is a Miracle is a taut, relevant, and convincing essay that argues life must be revered, not reduced. The fruitfulness of Berry’s own life—that prolific writer with his hands in the dirt—always seems to shimmer behind his argument as proof of what he’s proposing.

The essay’s title comes from Shakespeare’s King Lear. It means simply that our existence is inexplicable; unexplainable; marvelous. Reductive science proposes another ideology—one, according to Berry, whose mechanical and oversimplified explanations wrest the life out of the living. Its reach includes a conglomeration dubbed ‘science-technology-industry,' whose adverse and widespread influence upon our cultural institutions is laid bare. In higher education, for instance, the contemporary trend is to devote more time and money to research than to ensuring a quality education for students. Thus the modern university strays from its ideal purpose of learning and teaching to that of “industrial economic ideals of high productivity and constant innovation.”

Berry uses some controversial topics, such as cloning and genetic engineering, to illustrate the folly of treating life as predictable and knowable, but more widely accepted beliefs and practices are rebuked as well once they fall under his examination. Berry observes, “The media, cultivating their mediocrity, seem quite comfortably unaware that many of the calamities from which science is expected to save the world were caused in the first place by science…. Nobody, so far as I have heard, is attempting to figure out how much of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net”. Common sense is a weapon Berry wields with devastating effect. It’s tough to dispute the point that we have yet to find a satisfactory way to dispose of rubber tires.

A genuine concern for the health and beauty of our planet and its citizens imbue these pages; yet miraculously, it avoids sentimentality. It is equally impressive that the critique is never vicious. Berry acknowledges the usefulness and value in the work of science while critiquing the misalignment of its present goals. Like a hired consultant, Berry enters this conversation because standards are down and the whole enterprise may soon be awash in failure.

The essay’s heart is a critique of Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience, a book that endorses the already widespread belief in science’s ability to solve all of humanity's problems. Wilson believes the world can be empirically known once it is reduced to its physical laws. According to Berry, the abstractions inherent in such scientific proofs underestimate the uniqueness of living things. The result is “to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.” If this conclusion seems unclear or illogical, you can usually depend on Berry to deliver a lucid explanation or example to support his argument.

At times Berry mocks Wilson’s way of thinking with undertones of pity instead of contempt. Ironically, Wilson pities unscientific minds in the same manner. Both thinkers view each other as fundamentally ignorant of certain aspects of the world. In fact, Berry is overtly concerned with what Wilson does not know and dubious of how complete knowledge can ever be (the first chapter is entitled “Ignorance”). Directly opposing Wilson’s proposed theory of total understanding, Berry believes our knowledge has always been incomplete, and there is no reason to predict it will become significantly more complete. He says, “What we have come to know so far is demonstrably incomplete, since we keep on learning more…. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount."

This approach to living is full of humility and appropriate caution. The poet e.e. cummings wrote that “progress is a comfortable disease." On occasion, unfortunately, we are poor critics of our own thoughts and intentions. At a time when we are able to dominate and manipulate life more than ever, certain standards and practices of science must be rigorously criticized and defined. Life is a Miracle refreshes ideals—local adaptation, elegance, thrift—equally conducive to human and ecological health in Kentucky as in the rest of the world.

Adam Grybowski is a former farmworker and a lover of good books.