The Music of What Happens*
Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society
May 4, 2008
Presented by Christina Klock

    • Introduction/2001 A Space Odyssey
• Science and Art: Detailed Observations
        o A Shropshire Lad (AE Housman)
o Arts and Sciences: Finding Designs (Dorothy Sutton)
o On First Looking into Chapman's Homer (John Keats)
o To See the World in a Grain of Sand (William Blake)
   • Evolution and Poetry
        o Homeobox Genes
o Darwin's prose
o Consolation (Wislawa Szymborka)
o Darwin's Ark (Philip Appleman)
• Conclusion: Our human side
        o The Great War: A Christian ponders his legacy (Dorothy Sutton)
o The Song of the Fish People (Pat Boran)
* I would like to send a special thanks to Dr. Dorothy Sutton of Eastern Kentucky University.
With her generous permission, I borrowed heavily from a similar talk she authored in 2001.

I. Introduction:

Before we begin today, I'd like to share a very short story regarding how I learned about Unitarian Universalism on the Internet. About a year ago, I came to a meeting of the Humanist Union, and quickly realized that the founding members were something called Unitarians.

Well, I didn't know anything about Unitarians, so of course I went to that font of all knowledge, Google, and typed in 'Unitarian Universalist' and started reading. I ended up more confused that ever: I read things like "Unitarians believe that everyone should develop their own personal philosophy of life", "Unitarians believe that truth changes over time", "Some Unitarians do not believe in god but some do".

All this sounded intriguing but I still couldn't put my finger on who these people were. Then I came across the following quote "UU's have small shabby churches full of wise, witty, warm and devilishly handsome people; the kind of people you'd like to have over for a potluck dinner."

Well that did it - I wanted to be part of that and now that I've been a UU for almost 6 months, I can personally vouch for the validity of that statement especially the parts about handsome, wise, and lovers of the potluck.

I want to thank you all for allowing a new member to share a program with you. Now let's get started with a short music clip that you may just recognize.

   • MUSIC CLIP: Thus Spake Zarathustra

That is the opening of Richard Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathustra," and so begins our correlation between Science and the Arts - the philosophy and the poetic literature of Nietzsche, and Strauss's symphony, which he called an attempt "to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race." Strauss did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of something wonderful happening. The music was used for the theme of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODDESSY, whose catch-phrase was "Something is about to happen - something wonderful." Now, there are different interpretations of Kubrick's film, but my personal interpretation is that the 'something wonderful' was the immanent progression of humankind to our next phase of evolution in the universe symbolized by the Starchild.

The title of this presentation, "The Music of What Happens," is the title of one of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's books of poetry. He took the phrase from an ancient Irish description of poetry - "Poetry is the music of what happens." I think that poetry AND evolution are BOTH the music of what happens. Poetry is the music of the human spirit and evolution is the music of biology.

II. Scientists and artists have in common their close observation of detail to see what the world has to tell us.

Both start with sight. And both use the imagination to go beyond that to insights, putting ideas together, achieving illumination.

"From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I
Now - for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart -
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way."

That was an excerpt from A. E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad" written in the 1890's. Housman didn't know that the stuff of life to knit us might have literally blown in from the twelve-winded sky. There is a controversial theory that life on earth might have been kick-started billions of years ago when organic compounds landed on this planet aboard comets, meteorites or interplanetary dust. What's most important about the poem, however, is that he has us helping each other the brief time we're here. It shows the human response, the music of our lives within the here and now.

The poem, "Arts and Sciences: Finding Designs," by Dorothy Sutton, deals with the many qualities the arts and sciences have in common. She's even incorporated several lines from Richard Dawkin's book Unweaving the Rainbow. I'm going to have more to say about Dorothy Sutton a bit later. Here is an excerpt from her poem:

The art of science, the science of art:
both to perceive and to mastermind
these scattered patterns we call design.
Mapping the paths we've traveled thus far
to see how they converge on this spot.
Seeking to meet in that medium where
disparate ideas intersect.
Message of precedent, beauty of new
that had not struck our minds before.

When John Keats first read Homer's great Iliad and Odyssey poems, he had exactly the same reaction that we can imagine scientists have on making a great discovery in nature. Two lines from his poem, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," reveal this common response:

"Then felt I as some watcher of the skies
When some new planet swims into his ken."

And William Blake, visionary, poet, and artist of the 1700s, felt the same way:

"To see the world in a grain of sand,
Heaven in a wild flower,
To hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

III. Scientists, like poets, lay hands on the past to make it speak in present tense.

In 1990, I was working in a lab at the University of Illinios under the direction of Dr. Ron Blackman. Funded by the March of Dimes, we were researching the mysterious genetic ability of larval organs to transform into completely different features in the adult. The organism we used for this research was 'Drosophila melanogaster' otherwise known as the common fruit fly. The fruit fly is really an ideal candidate for genetic studies and has been for the last 100 years because (1) It only has a few chromosomes; (2) It's life cycle is about 2 weeks and (3) to be best of my knowledge, PETA has never run a 'free the flies' campaign.

I only worked in that lab a little over a year before my life took me in another direction, away from research. However, I am THRILLED to say that I played a tiny part in what would, 10 years later, be a major leap forward in our understand of diversity and how our genetics have allowed the rise of such wonderful beings on this planet.

I had planned to show a film clip from the wonderful PBS series on Evolution. However, I ran into some difficulties and I was unable to bring that film clip with me today. I do have a couple of illustrations that I'm sure you can't see, but you're welcome to take a look after the service. I'm going to do my best to briefly describe what the film covered.

In the mid-80s, scientists working with fruit flies discovered something called "homeobox" genes. As I describe these homeobox genes, think about how this is the beautiful music of Evolution.

All animals have a set of common genes (genes are short sequences of DNA) that regulate how they develop from a miniscule single cell into their final enormous multicellular form. But, the super amazing thing is, those genes are all the same. For every animal. Of every species. They're the same exact genes in monkies and whales and leeches and in Dick Cheney.

These so called "homeobox genes" have been called Genetic Toolkits because they are the tools that guide the assembly of body structures. They say things like: "make an eye here". The actual details of how to make the specific kind of eye, whether it's a fly eye or a mouse eye or a human eye, are encoded elsewhere in the DNA. You can take the high level "make an eye" gene out of a mouse, and splice it into the middle of a fly's genes that control how its legs grow, and the fly will wind up with a semi-functional fly's eye on its knees. Because these 'homeobox' genes, these 'Toolkit' genes, work in any animal that you stick them in, this implies that all animals share a common ancestor. Animals resemble each another because they use the same set of genes to direct the building of their body structures. All animals are variations on a theme. Evolution is not tinkering with bodies, it's tinkering with the mechanism of building bodies.

Now, scientists stand on one another's shoulders as they discover the notes in the symphony of life, and of course Charles Darwin was not the first scientist to hypothesize about evolution, but he was the first to provide hard evidence. Bob Park stood up and read the following lines just a few Sundays ago, but they are so wonderful I hope you will indulge me in hearing them again. The last paragraph of Darwin's "Origin of Species" (first ed.) ends with these wonderfully poetic lines:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,
clothed with many plants of many kinds,
with birds singing on the bushes,
with various insects flitting about,
and with worms crawling through the damp earth,
and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms,
so different from each other,
and dependent on each other in so complex a manner,
have all been produced by laws acting around us.
There is grandeur in this view of life . . .
that whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity,
from so simple a beginning,
endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved.

Well, who was this man, Darwin, who set such a theory in motion - a theory that would transform the natural sciences. Darwin was born in into a privileged family in England in 1809. His father and grandfather were both successful and rather famous doctors. His grandfather on his mother's side was Josiah Wedgwood, founder of Wedgwood Pottery.

Charles had an excellent education and had an interest from an early age for the natural sciences; he refused to be a doctor, he couldn't stand operations. After his schooling and subsequent famous trip on the ship Beagle to the Galapagos, he came back to England, got married, and settled at Down House just south of London.

Darwin was not a man of robust health. Shortly after his return from his long sea voyage, he started to suffer from a recurring illness that would follow him all his life. No one knows what the illness was, although I have read speculation ranging from a tropical disease to depression to lactose intolerance.

Whatever it was, there is some agreement that Darwin at the very least, suffered from anxiety. His wife was very devout and, although she supported her husband, she was not at peace with her husband's growing fame around this theory of Evolution. Darwin himself lost his faith in Christianity, but retained a Deist theology. Darwin's personal situation sparked the imagination of Wislawa Szymborka, a polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996. Listen to her thoughts about Darwin. Rose will read her poem, entitiled "Consolation".

They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not, I'm ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he'd had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He'd earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
good names restored, greed daunted,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

I don't know about you, but I like happy endings too. And if Darwin only read happy stories, then I hope they did indeed bring him consolation.

Philip Appleman is another contemporary poet who has been inspired by Charles Darwin. He has won many awards for his poetry and fiction, including the Humanist Arts Awards from the American Humanist Association. Al is going to read an excerpt from Philip Appleman's poem entitled "Darwin's Ark"

The fact is, I know those ancestors
floating through my sleep:
an animal that breathed water,
had a great swimming tail,
an imperfect skull, undoubtedly
hermaphrodite . . . I slide
through all the oceans with these kin,
salt water pulsing in my veins,
and aeons follow me into the trees:
a hairy, tailed quadruped,
arboreal in its habits, scales
slipping off my flanks . . . .
I have sailed the ancients seas to come
to the bones of Megatherium. . . .
The thing I want to father most
is the rarest, most difficult thing of all.
Though knee-deep in these rivers of innocent blood,
I want to be - a decent animal.

I think that it is important to note that although heavily influenced by our animal instincts, we are not totally at their mercy. Most of us have choices, and can choose discipline and control, mercy and compassion. Most of the time, we can think rationally; we can choose to be "decent animals."

Sometimes the music of our lives hits a dissonant note. This is one way to describe the situation happening today in some of our public schools where science is threatened to be replaced by creationism or its brother, Intelligent Design. Earlier I had mentioned Dorothy Sutton. Dot, to her friends, is a professor of literature in Kentucky and gave a similar talk at the University of Kentucky in 2001 that was the inspiration for this presentation today. Here is Dot's poem about Darwin entitled "The Great War: A Christian Ponders his Legacy"

Weary of struggle,
we try to understand
the strange hunger lingering
after we've grown beyond.
Doubting Thomas
the only disciple
we have no doubts about.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
Darwin mourned
for it crushed beneath
centuries of rock and debris.
Nietzsche declared it dead
but it wouldn't die.
The Great War smothered
it in tons of mud.
What was left evaporated
one morning in the furnace
of a desert in New Mexico.
But the lions in that den
where all of it had been
are still very real to me.

Of course, the 'it' in this poem is god and the 'great war' that Darwin is pondering is between religion and science. I'd like to quote Dorothy Sutton, with her special permission, from the talk she gave in 2001 where she read that poem. Here is what she said "Fortunately, I'm no longer afraid. Unfortunately, learning about evolution was much more difficult for me than it was for Darwin, the society he grew up in generally more tolerant of new ideas than the one I grew up in 100 years later in Kentucky. It would have saved me much anguish of spirit if I could have heard the truth about science from the very beginning. PLEASE don't let the state legislators take the word "evolution" out of our science curriculum as they are trying to do!"

I'd like to conclude this journey through the "Music of What Happens" with a poem that harkens back to the salty mother sea from whence life arose. Ralph is going to read this wonderful poem by Pat Boran, entitled "Song of the Fish People"

Give us legs and arms
to run and fight and kill,
then give us other skills
to plant and farm.
Give us warm blood
to feel the variations
of temperature, the patience
to untangle bad from good
while the known world spins,
and give us the desire
to create, and the fire
to destroy. And take the fins.
But leave us always tears
that we may not forget
the salty depths
of our formative years.