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Educating for Sustainability

A Guide to Nature Institute Resources

• See our Educating for Sustainability home page.

About this Guide

Since our founding in 1998, The Nature Institute has been practicing, teaching, and refining context-rich methods for understanding the world and striving to ethically relate to it. Based on the fruits of that work, we offer this resource guide for sustainability education. The resources here will prepare educators to help students integrate their growing knowledge about nature into the broadest ecological context of all: ethical concern for the entire natural world.

Each resource is briefly summarized and the appropriate educational levels indicated. The guide is intended for early childhood through postsecondary education. Much here is oriented toward helping educators develop the capacities they need to perceive and understand nature in more contextual and intimate ways. We also highlight resources for students themselves to use, and ones that contain potential activities for students.

We have paid close attention to the metamorphosis in students’ own developmental needs in suggesting which of our resources are appropriate for students at particular levels of education. We hope that educators will be inspired by the resources to develop their own original activities based on their intimate knowledge of the children and young people they are working with.

There are many resources listed here. To simplify your viewing, you may wish to select one of several alternative presentations tailored to specific education levels:

We have organized the resources under several broad topics. You can go directly to any given topic by clicking on it in the list below.

1. Foundations of Holistic Sustainability Education

2. Perceiving Nature — Taking Appearances Seriously

3. Visual Appearances and Phenomena-Based Physics

4. Whole Organism Biology Studies

5. The Living Nature of Life — From Mechanism to Organism

6. Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture

7. Impacts of Mechanistic Thinking and Technology

8. Foundations of Holistic, Contextual Science

9. Goethe and Other Holistic Scientists

1. Foundations of Holistic Sustainability Education

R. abortivus

Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life by Craig Holdrege (2013).

How can we develop an awareness of the transformational nature of life that can increasingly inform our own thought and action, so that we become more conscious and responsible participants in an evolving earth? This book directly addresses that question. It is written as a practical guide that shows, through concrete and vivid examples, how we can learn from the context dependency of nature to think and act in more dynamic and context-sensitive ways.

An excerpt from this book is also available online.

Class Reading: High school courses in Environ­mental Science and Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in Education, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: A basic professional development tool for all educators, from early childhood through postsecondary education, who are seeking to grow in the inner capacities they hope to cultivate in their students. In particular, the book guides educators in developing capacities to attend ever more carefully to our participation in the concrete reality of the world we are embedded in; to perceive it as dynamic, interwoven processes rather than a set of separate objects; and to become more receptive, fluid, and dynamic in our own thinking.

Education and the Presence of the Unknown by Craig Holdrege. In Context #28 (Fall 2012).

Every student has an unknown future, full of potential. How can a teacher prepare individual students for what is unknown? How can the unknown play a positive role in the life of both teacher and student as they work together toward mutual unfolding of potential. In this article, Craig provides teachers with guidance in crafting learning encounters for students – that is, opportunities to experience education as attentive exploration of the world and to participate in how living science unfolds.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators (from early childhood to postsecondary teacher educators).

The Art of Thinking: Helping Students Develop Their Faculties of Thinking and Observation by Craig Holdrege. Originally published in Renewal magazine as Part I (Fall 2001) and Part II (Spring 2002).

A fundamental guide for holistic science education that clearly explains the pedagogy and presents many examples of applying the methods. Craig demonstrates how to help students: (1) develop the critical faculty of asking questions through the use of scientific riddles; (2) develop logical thinking anchored in observation; (3) grow in their capacities for complex thinking that discerns the difference between a necessary condition and an overly simplistic single-cause explanation; and (4) bring their analytic powers together with their imagination to discover for themselves ecological relations within and between organisms. He explains how these skills are related to ecological thinking about the world. He also provides specific guidance in relating the high-school science curriculum, from 9th to 12th grade, to the changing developmental needs of students. Craig concludes: “Nothing is more important than to help the students school their abilities to see relations and connections, to see how things fit together in the world. This is precisely the capacity humanity needs to find creative solutions to the myriad problems we create that lead to a dissolution, rather than to a building-up of the world.”

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: High school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators.

Teaching to Understand: On the Concept of the Exemplary in Teaching by Martin Wagenschein (2009).

The late German physicist Martin Wagenschein, a champion for reconnecting science education with nature and with children’s developmental needs, explores here how both teaching and learning can become living experiences for the participants. Wagenschein, a longtime high school teacher and education professor, shows that covering large amounts of material is not the way to help students learn. Real learning occurs through careful consideration of exemplary cases in which the whole of the subject matter can be experienced through a concrete instance. (For other teacher resources rich in pedagogical and practical suggestions for K-12 science classes, see Experience-Based Science Education: The Work of Martin Wagenschein.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

An Environmental Science Curriculum for Middle School: Plants and Human Interactions by Craig Holdrege (2011).

Prepared for the Detroit Waldorf School. One of three courses in a curriculum-development project commissioned by the school that weaves together a phenomenological approach to science, environmental and social justice awareness, and service learning opportunities. This course presents detailed ideas and methods for teaching about and experiencing plants, food, and agriculture over the course of three one-week units for grades 6, 7, and 8. The other two courses in the curriculum focus on energy and transportation, and on substances and cycles (e.g. water, air, carbon) with a similar holistic approach for each of the three grades. Because the focus is on providing students with firsthand experiences, not just the transfer of information, the curriculum is place-based. Students learn about their own local environment and can become involved in community activities such as river monitoring or urban gardening. Customized for middle schools in Detroit, but adaptable elsewhere as well. The full three-course, three-year curriculum, Environmental Awareness and Sustainability Curriculum: An Experiential Curriculum for Middle School Students, is available for free here, courtesy of the Detroit Waldorf School.

Class Activity: Many experiential activities for Middle school courses.

Teacher Resource: Middle school educators (Action Research and Service Learning, Environmental Science, Geography, and Social Studies).

Ecological Conversation: Wildness, Anthropocentrism, and Deep Ecology by Stephen L. Talbott. Originally in NetFuture #127 (January 2002).

In this philosophical essay on ecological responsibility, Steve suggests that we have other choices besides trying to control nature or to leave the “wildness” of nature untouched by human hands. We can begin to enter into “an attentive, reverential conversation” with the partial mystery of Otherness we encounter in the rest of the living world. “The very first — and perhaps the most important — conversational step we can take may be to acknowledge how we have so far failed to assume a respectful conversational stance.” (An adapted version of this article is Chapter 3 in Nature Institute Perspectives #3: In the Belly of the Beast: Nature, Technology, and the Human Prospect (2004). That entire 74-page monograph is freely available to download or can be purchased in print from our bookstore.)

Class Reading: grade 12 courses in Ecology and Environmental Science; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, and History and Philosophy of Science.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators.

Phenomenon Illuminates Phenomenon by Craig Holdrege. In Context #26 (Fall 2011).

A guide for mediating discovery and surprise in science and sustainability education through the powerful tool of comparison. This article shifts attention from the molecular level to that of common observation of the similarities and differences between phenomena – in this case, comparative observations of trees, and in particular the sugar maple and white oak. Comparisons help deepen understanding of both.

Class Reading and Class Activity: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Botany and Ecology.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 4-5), middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

Science and the Child by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #11 (Spring 2004).

In response to the emerging technical potential to genetically engineer children, this article calls for “reopening science to the categories of meaning, value, and purpose.” At first glance, the sophisticated, supposedly value-neutral, world of science appears at the opposite extreme from the naive, value-centered, imaginative world of the child. “How can you recognize a better child if you must shun the language of value? More specifically, how can we, as scientists or parents, propose to manipulate an individual child’s destiny if we cannot seriously ask about that destiny — about identity and purpose and tasks?”

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science, Molecular Biology, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: High school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators.

Children of the Machine by Stephen L. Talbott (1995). Chapter 14 from the book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst by Stephen L. Talbott. (The entire book is freely available and can also be ordered in print from our bookstore.)

A provocative essay that challenges the wisdom of efforts to teach computer programming to young children. In such efforts, Steve argues, the child loses — never having fully developed it in the first place — that fluid, imaginative ability to let experience reshape itself in meaningful ways before she carves out of it a set of atomic facts. (The award-winning 1995 book from which this chapter is excerpted was prescient in predicting — contrary to widespread political and commercial hype at the time — that heavily investing in computers for K-12 classrooms would not lead to a renaissance in American education. Its concerns and critiques remain pertinent to current wishful thinking about the role of advanced electronic media in the education of children.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in K-12 Education, History and Philosophy of Science, and Science, Technology and Society.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Impressing the Science out of Children by Stephen L. Talbott (1995). Chapter 13 from the book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst by Stephen L. Talbott. (The entire book is freely available and can also be ordered in print from our bookstore.)

This provocative essay challenges the wisdom of efforts to increase children’s interest in science and math by designing immersive experiences of electronic media in the classroom. Steve notes that the ubiquity of nature videos has not translated into a rush among young people to become naturalists, and goes on to describe why.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in pre-K to grade 12 Education, History and Philosophy of Science, and Science, Technology and Society.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Transformation in Adult Learning by Craig Holdrege. In Context #18 (Fall 2007).

A guide to methods for self-learning that can deeply change who educators themselves are, and prepare them to lead students in developing their own capacities for open-minded, flexible, and critically astute thinking. Includes specific group observational exercises that can be practiced with both colleagues and student to encourage the consideration of different points of view and to avoid letting assumptions and mental habits block new learning. The goal: transformational learning, rooted in perceiving, listening, picturing, and, over time, growing in self-awareness as well.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

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2. Perceiving Nature — Taking Appearances Seriously

leaf drawing in Brazil

Meeting Nature as a Presence: Aldo Leopold and the Deeper Nature of Nature by Craig Holdrege. In Context #36 (Fall 2016).

Can we perceive “the deeper nature of nature”? Aldo Leopold’s view of nature transformed radically during the course of his life and this transformation provides the focal orientation for this essay. Leopold’s life and writings — especially his 1949 posthumous book, A Sand County Almanac — have been a significant source of inspiration for the modern environmental movement. Recounted here is Leopold’s vivid encounter with a dying wolf, as well as his profound insights into the deeper character of the natural world. He asks us to “think like a mountain” — a timely challenge.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology and Zoology; undergraduate courses in Ecology and Environmental Science.

Teacher Resource: Pre-K through undergraduate educators.

Reality-Based Education in a Hyperreal Culture by Craig Holdrege (2015).

In a culture filled with screens and technology-mediated experiences, how can we help children interact directly with essential realities so their ideas can be rooted in the world and not in the fantasies of the virtual world? Based on Craig’s presentation at the 2014 Techno Utopia Teach-In in New York City, this article links to a video that is best watched without sound.

Class Reading and Video Resource: Undergraduate courses in Ecology, Education, Environmental Studies, Life Sciences, and History and Philosophy of Science.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Being on Earth: Practice in Tending the Appearances by Georg Maier, Ronald Brady, and Stephen Edelglass (2006).

This book is an excellent guide for educators seeking to understand what phenomena-based science instruction means and how to provide such instruction at the high school and undergraduate level. It includes many suggested classroom and outdoor activities for students (especially in physics) and makes a powerful philosophical case for the importance of both educating and trusting human sensory experience. It also explores the relation between sense experience and knowing, the role of human intention in awareness, and the importance of older students becoming aware of their own processes in gaining knowledge. The authors – two physicists and a philosopher – demonstrate how understanding in the physical sciences requires rigorous attention to the physiology and psychology of the human being who seeks to know, as well as rigorous attention to the physical phenomena being studied. The full 174-page book is freely available to download.

Class Activity: High school courses in Physics and grade 12 Philosophy; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy, and Physics.

Teacher Resource: High school and postsecondary educators.

Save the Phenomena: The Primacy of Unmediated Experience by Martin Wagenschein (2008).

From the gracefully ponderous motion of a massive pendulum to the mysteries hidden in still water, sound, and radioactivity, the late German physicist Martin Wagenschein offers here a master teacher’s insights into experienced-based learning that engages the student in a lively way. Wagenschein was a longtime high-school science teacher and university professor. (For other resources that are rich in pedagogical insights, practical advice, and experiential activities for K-12 science classes, see Experience-Based Science Education: The Work of Martin Wagenschein.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Love and Detachment: How We Can Reconnect with Nature by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #8 (Fall 2002).

To overcome our alienation from the world, it is not enough to immerse ourselves in nature. We must learn to walk into the scientific laboratory, take up the language of cause, mechanism, and all the rest, and learn to shape-shift this language into a speech revealing a fuller reality. (An adapted version of this article is Chapter 4 in Nature Institute Perspectives #3: In the Belly of the Beast: Nature, Technology, and the Human Prospect (2004). That entire 74-page monograph is freely available to download or can be purchased in print from our bookstore.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, Life Sciences, and History and Philosophy of Science.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

A Day in the Life of a Chicory Flower by Craig Holdrege. In Context #35 (Spring 2016).

Throughout the summer, along roadsides near The Nature Institute, the radiant blue flowers of chicory are in bloom. Bringing to life a demonstration of Goethean methods of scientific study, Craig follows the unfolding and withering of the flower over the course a day. It’s a story of beauty and evanescence, told here in a sequence of careful botanical observations and radiant color photos. It provides a clear guide that educators can follow in similar holistic studies for their own professional development, and could adapt for observational activities with older students.

Class Activity: High school courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in Ecology and Life Sciences.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in Ecology and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Early childhood though undergraduate educators.

Amazonian Impressions by Henrike Holdrege. In Context #34 (Fall 2015).

A retrospective on The Nature Institute’s 2015 watery adventure upon the Rio Negro and Amazon rivers, describing in vivid text and photos how the intensity and diversity of ecological relations in the Brazilian rainforest, the largest of all rainforests, is unsurpassed.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in Ecology.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, undergraduate educators.

An Open Secret – The Calyx of Ipomoea purpurea by Reinout Amons. In Context #33 (Spring 2015).

A rose, a morning glory, a verse attributed to the medieval scholar Albertus Magnus, and a remarkable pattern of “bearded” sepals — they all come together in this colorfully illustrated botanical study of pattern in seeming randomness that was written by an attentive observer of a Dutch garden.

Class Reading: High school courses in Botany and Ecology; undergraduate courses in Ecology.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Beyond a Culture of Abstraction by Craig Holdrege. In Context #16 (Fall 2006).

Can we gain our scientific concepts through openness to the world instead of imposing them on the world? It’s the difference between a living thinking that respects the phenomena, and a habitual thinking that cuts us off from the phenomena. By attending to the way plants grow, we begin to appreciate the nature of living thinking. Seeds of our own transformation are created every time we catch ourselves considering a problem or phenomenon through some pre-formed conceptual lens and then drop that lens and turn back, in openness, to the things themselves. In this act, we acknowledge our ignorance and readiness to engage in the concrete situation. With heightened awareness, we can begin forming concepts out of interaction with the world rather than imposing them upon the world. “The shift from abstraction and object-thinking to a plantlike dynamic thinking would help us develop the capacities we need to truly root our understanding and our interactions with nature in nature.” (The essay includes practical suggestions to help develop such living thinking.)

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially science teachers).

Why Is the Moon Getting Farther Away? by Stephen L. Talbott (2007).

In this essay about educational priorities in a device-saturated culture, Talbott argues that educators and parents don’t need to focus time and money on making sure that students embrace technology. Technophobia, after all, is not a dominant trait of our society. What we need is balance and connection. The adaptation, even addiction, to advanced technologies occurs all too well on its own. “Children must learn, rather, how to hold these technologies in a human balance. And I suggest that a bird in the hand – and a pine cone, and a rock, and a crawdad, and a snowflake – are the counterbalances we need if our alienation from nature is not to become more than the world can bear. These bits of nature may not seem like much to us – but that is the problem. For the child they can hold magic – exactly the magic that, in a matured form, may be required to ground the adult in a society encompassed on every side by virtuality.”

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

The Forming Tree by Craig Holdrege.  In Context #14 (Fall 2005).

Based on a study of growth patterns in trees from different settings, this essay offers a lesson on the importance of context in understanding the life of any organism. We learn how in an individual tree the shape of the crown and the size of the trunk relative to the crown, express a tree’s history: “Directing our gaze toward the form of trees leads us beyond the tree itself. It leads us to a web of relations of which the tree is part. Once you begin to see in such an organic form the tracks of its History and its relations to its surroundings, every meeting with a new tree is a source of excitement, a riddle waiting to be appreciated and deciphered.”

Class Reading: High school and undergraduate courses in Botany and Ecology.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

Portraying a Meadow by Craig Holdrege. In Context #8 (Fall 2002).

Goethe described the intention of his approach to science as “to portray, rather than explain.” This essay provides a model for such a phenomenological study of plants and habitats. Its aim is not to explain, in the sense of depicting causal relations, but rather to create a characterization through which something essential can speak: “Sometimes when you stare at something directly, you don’t see it. You need to walk around it, change vantage points and build up a picture of the larger world of which it is a part. Then it comes into focus. So with the meadow. Its special qualities show themselves more vividly when we place it within the context of the changing seasons and contrast it with another habitat — the bottomland forest.”

Class Reading: High school and undergraduate botany and ecology.

Teacher Resource: High school and undergraduate educators (Botany, Ecology, Goethean Methodology, Life Sciences, Nature Studies).

What Forms an Animal? by Craig Holdrege. In Context #6 (Fall 2001).

An essay modeling a holistic approach to biology that goes beyond high-level abstractions – such as “genes and environment form the animal” – to more open-ended inquiry. What’s required is close, constant attention to what nature actually presents and then inching a way forward to a more full-toned understanding. The essay discusses, as its focal example, how skulls of lions raised in captivity differ dramatically from skulls of the same subspecies that lived in the wild. Such phenomena point to the plasticity of the organism’s genetic inheritance, and to the role of behavior and environment in molding the organism. An animal’s “form is given through inheritance and then molded by activity. The hereditarily given model is something dynamic and plastic, waiting to be filled and formed by the animal’s activity. This is what we should be picturing when we speak of a “genetic background” or genes, not some fixed plan.”

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology, Life Sciences, and Zoology; undergraduate courses in Ecology and Zoology.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 3-5), middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

The Farm in the Landscape: A Place-Based Ecology Course by Craig Holdrege (2004).

Ecology means viewing and understanding phenomena within their larger context, the context that gives these phenomena their real meaning. This short essay provides examples of how to help older students begin to see the living web of connections within their own unique environment, of which they are a part every day. It suggests providing students, if at all possible, with access to local experiences of ecologically-sustainable agriculture, whether at school or in the larger community.

Teacher Resource: High school educators (Botany, Ecology, Life Sciences, Social Studies, and Zoology).

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3. Visual Appearance and Phenomena-Based Physics

veiled falls in the Adirondack mountains

Save the Phenomena: The Primacy of Unmediated Experience by Martin Wagenschein (2008).

From the gracefully ponderous motion of a massive pendulum to the mysteries hidden in still water, sound, and radioactivity, the late German physicist Martin Wagenschein offers here a master teacher’s insights into experienced-based learning that engages the student in a lively way. Wagenschein was a longtime high school science teacher and university professor. (For other resources that are rich in pedagogical insights, practical advice, and experiential activities for K-12 science classes, see Experience-Based Science Education: The Work of Martin Wagenschein.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education and Physics.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Exploring the Exploratorium in San Francisco by Henrike Holdrege. In Context #32 (Fall 2014).

Henrike reflects on observations she and colleagues made of the demonstrations — and the children interacting with them — at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a highly-acclaimed “Museum for Science, Art, and Perception.” What would developmentally appropriate activities really look like if they were to effectively nourish children’s capacities of observation, learning, and inquiry?

Teacher Resource: Pre-K to grade 12 and teacher educators.

Mirror Images by Georg Maier. In Context #25 (Spring 2011).

Physicist Georg Maier demonstrates how to model for students a calm, steady commitment to exact observation as he guides the reader in understanding visual phenomena based on careful attention to our own direct experience. Maier’s work reminds us that, however “commonplace” the subject matter, a well-trained receptivity can bring new insights and render the matter less common than our inattention may have led us to imagine. Maier’s work is an invitation to discovery through disciplined perceiving. The article is an excerpt from his 2001 book An Optics of Visual Experience.

Class Activity: High school courses in optics; undergraduate courses in Optics and Physics.

Teacher Resource: High school and undergraduate educators.

Light in the Dark — a classroom demonstration by Henrike Holdrege. In Context #29 (Spring 2013).

This description of a simple demonstration for the classroom sparks wonder. It can also be the entryway into deeper reflections upon the nature of light, and the conditions under which visual appearances arise. We learn how darkness and matter play a key role in all appearances.

Class Activity: Middle school and high school courses in Physics and Optics.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and teacher educators.

The Earth as Seen from the Moon by Henrike Holdrege. In Context #18 (Fall 2007).

A challenge is presented here: With a few moments’ thought, can you give a reasonable description of how the earth and sky look to someone standing on the moon? It might not be quite as easy as you think. The exercise, however, is a good one for developing an ability to see relationships – in this case, between the earth and the moon – from different points of view. Educators can try this exercise in contextual thinking for themselves and also adapt it for astronomical lessons and observations with students.

Class Activity (if adapted for students): Middle school and high school courses in Astronomy.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and teacher educators.

The Flaming Candle: Experiential Learning in the Fourth Grade by Ueli Aeschlimann (2009).

Ueli Aeschlimann, professor of physics and physics education for lower school grades at the Bern Pedagogical University in Switzerland, researches Martin Wagenschein’s experiential approach to science education in the lower school. He describes here an example of teaching in the spirit of Wagenschein that is designed especially with the developmental needs of fourth-graders in mind. The goal here is “not to teach chemistry in the fourth grade, but rather for the students to learn to observe closely, to ask questions, and to ponder these questions within a class discussion.” (See also The Nature Institute’s online selection of Wagenschein’s work.)

Class Activity: Lower school (grades 4-5) and middle school courses.

Teacher Resource: Lower school and middle school educators.

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4. Whole Organism Biology Studies

frog and pond lily

The Nature Institute’s revolutionary approach to science is exemplified in holistic, qualitative studies of particular whole organisms. These studies demonstrate how each organism is characterized by wholeness and unity, and at the same time is intimately entwined with the larger ecology of life. For sustainability educators and their students, these studies provide a complement and contrast to conventional laboratory and textbook studies that focus on organisms as mechanisms. Below are selected resources for transforming conventional approaches to academic life sciences into a new, profoundly ecological perspective. Such a perspective is far more in tune with the irreducible reality of our living ecosphere, within which humanity is immersed and our activities must harmonize.

The Giraffe’s Long Neck: From Evolutionary Fable to Whole Organism by Craig Holdrege (2005). Nature Institute Perspectives #4, 104 pages.

A comprehensive picture of the giraffe’s biology and ecology, with a related discussion about the complex and controversial issue of the giraffe’s evolution. The result is a unique portrayal of the giraffe that exemplifies the Goethean approach to understanding animals and evolution. It examines the many misdirected attempts to offer evolutionary “explanations” of the giraffe’s neck, and shows how an adequate understanding of evolution cannot be achieved unless it is based in an understanding of active and integrated whole organisms. The booklet can be purchased in print from our bookstore, or freely downloaded.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology, Evolution, Life Sciences, and Zoology; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Evolution, and Zoology.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 3-5), middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

The Flexible Giant: Seeing the Elephant Whole by Craig Holdrege (2003). Nature Institute Perspectives #2, 65 pages.

A many-sided portrayal of this remarkable animal and, at the same time, an introduction for educators and students to the methods of a qualitative, holistic biology. Readers will experience how the elephant is a unique being that expresses itself in every aspect of its anatomy, physiology, and behavior. The whole lives in every part. This kind of approach shows the grave limitations of simplistic Darwinian “explanations” of animal life, while also demonstrating that a rigorous scientific approach can build up a living picture of an animal that enhances our sense of awe and responsibility for our fellow creatures on earth. The booklet can be purchased in print from our bookstore, or downloaded for free.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology, Evolution, Life Sciences, and Zoology; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Evolution, and Zoology.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 3-5), middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

The Story of an Organism: Common Milkweed by Craig Holdrege (2010).

A 25-page photo essay and natural history of the common milkweed, including its history through one season from early May through October. Craig clearly articulates the process to follow for such holistic study of a single organism and its broader ecological context: “I began studying the plant’s life history from first emergence in spring to opening of the fruits and seed dispersal in October and observed and compared plants in different patches (colonies). I collected and then planted seeds from plants from different colonies, and observed germination and young seedling growth. I drew and photographed plants and also pressed the leaves of numerous plants. Finally, I observed the insects that associate with common milkweed. In addition to my own observations, which continued over a couple of years, I carried out an extensive review of the scientific literature on common milkweed.” The essay provides an easy to follow guide for phenomenological research on a single whole organism for ateacher’s own professional development. It could also be adapted for similar holistic studies with older students. (A slightly expanded version of this essay, with sustainability education in mind, became Chapter 5 in Thinking Like a Plant.)

Class Activity (if adapted for students): High school and undergraduate courses in Botany, Ecology, and Life Sciences.

Class Reading: High school and undergraduate courses in Botany, Ecology, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Lower school, middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

What Does It Mean to be a Sloth? by Craig Holdrege (2009).

The sloth is a singular animal that expresses slowness in so many of its characteristics and even slows down processes in the rain forest in which it lives. Educators and students will enjoy getting to know this remarkable creature. As Craig explains: “I have tried to describe the sloth in a way that allows us to catch glimpses of its wholeness. I can now refer to such characteristics as slowness, inertia, blending in with the environment, receding or pulling in and not actively projecting outward. Each expression is a different way of pointing to the same coherent whole. Taken alone, as abstract concepts or definitions, they are empty. They are real only inasmuch as they light up within the description or perception of the animal’s characteristics. But they are not things like a bone or an eye. They are, in context, vibrant concepts that reveal the animal’s unique way of being.”

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology, Evolution, and Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Evolution, and Zoology.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

How Does a Mole View the World? by Craig Holdrege. In Context #9 (Spring 2003).

The potent methods of whole organism biology are discussed and then demonstrated here, allowing a glimpse into the radically different world of a fascinating creature – the star-nosed mole. Each species lives out a unique way-of-being. To explore an animal’s behavior, we include how it actively and selectively relates to the world around it. This we can call the animal’s intentionality – how it shapes its existence by its ways of interacting. By carefully observing an animal’s behavior and the concrete context of its different behaviors, we gain understanding of its specific intentionality. But we can’t fully penetrate this behavior without attending to how it moves and the way this movement is shaped through the form and function of its various organs. The point is to build up vivid pictures of the animal from as many sides as possible. By continually immersing ourselves in concrete observation and then connecting our observations to vivid inner images, we enter into a conversation with the animal. Through such methods, the animal begins to show itself – in this case, the remarkable star-nosed mole.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology, Evolution, Life Sciences, and Zoology; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Evolution, Zoology.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) by Craig Holdrege. In Context #4 (Fall 2000).

A whole-organism sketch, in words and hand-drawn illustrations, of a “lowly” plant with some extraordinary qualities. This provides both a practical example and inspiration for educators seeking (1) to develop their own practice in holistic studies of life, and (2) a model to adapt for students to practice as well.

In attending closely to skunk cabbage, we enter into conversation with a unique and rich world. The skunk cabbage has a fluid, bud-like quality, and in late winter it can melt its way through the snow by means of its animal-like body heat. We have to return to the plant again and again, questioning and searching for understanding. To see the plant’s life, it has to become alive in us. We must, as Goethe puts it, become “as flexible and mobile as nature herself” to penetrate beyond the surface of facts to what gives life and coherence to nature’s creations. Skunk cabbage reveals to us the fluid quality of water in the way it unfolds and decays, as well as in its undulating, flowing forms. And in all of these characteristics we see a vivid picture of early spring — a plant that is bud-like in so many ways and yet unfolds to bring the first life and movement to a still slumbering habitat. With such experiential understanding, every fresh encounter with the plant can be met with expectation of something more to learn. This attitude begins to inform our overall orientation toward nature. Any other plant, bug, or bird appears immediately as a riddle and not a thing. We know it carries within itself a whole, unique world just waiting to be disclosed.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Botany, Ecology and Environmental Science; undergraduate courses in Botany, Ecology and Environmental Science.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 4-5), middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

Metamorphosis and Metamorphic Thinking by Craig Holdrege (2002). Chapter One from Colloquium on Life Science and Environmental Studies: AWSNA High School Research Project #5. Fair Oaks, CA: AWSNA, 2002.

A short essay explaining what a powerful central theme metamorphosis can be for high school studies of human development, ecology, and all other life sciences. It is especially developmentally helpful for high school students, who are in the midst of their own personal metamorphosis. As a fundamental theme, it can prepare every individual, upon graduation, for a lifetime of creative, flexible thinking, especially in terms of perceiving and understanding the ecological context of all human actions. Just as important, it can also empower them to perceive the creative, dynamic possibilities of their own developmental path and their personal potential to constructively contribute to a healthy future for all.

When we speak about metamorphosis, we’re not only concerned with specific content, such as the metamorphosis of a tadpole into a frog. We’re concerned more fundamentally with a whole approach to understanding life. If we bring living phenomena to the students in very concrete ways, we can lead them into seeing the unity of an organism as it develops in time, as a fully integrated being. Living beings are not merely an assembly of different parts that happen to work. We can help them practice going beyond that building-block, spatial mode of cognition that dominates our thinking and colors all of our understanding. Students will grow in the capacity to understand the dynamic and interconnected nature of life that humanity direly needs in times that are so dominated by fragmentation. That’s why working towards metamorphic thinking in high school biology classes is so essential.

(Other chapters in the Colloquium book, freely available online here, are filled with pedagogical insights and practical curricular suggestions and activities for high school educators in the life sciences and environmental studies.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in education.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and postsecondary teacher educators.

Bloodroot through the Year by Craig Holdrege. In Context #2 (Fall 1999).

A sketch, in words and hand-drawn illustrations by the author, of the life cycle of the bloodroot plant (Sanguinaria canadensis), an early spring forest wildflower. In it, Craig models how to conduct a whole organism study, over time, incorporating meticulous observation, artistic appreciation, and knowledge gleaned from earlier scientific studies. He also clearly describes the holistic, Goethean methodology so that teachers (and their students) can practice it: “We have to get out and observe, actively taking in what nature can show us … My method is straightforward: I go out repeatedly to observe, sketch and often photograph the plant. Back inside, I try to reform the image I obtained from my observations. It’s quite easy to follow the plant in its early stages, where everything changes rapidly and holds one’s interest. After the flowering stage, it takes much more will to stick with the plant — to see it through the year. Only in the whole cycle of the year can the plant really show itself. How much it reveals depends on the care one takes in observing and on one’s ability to connect the separate observations in order to bring the actual process of transformation alive. Only then does the character of the plant become more tangible.”

Class Activity: Lower school (grades 4-5), middle school, and high school courses; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, and Life Sciences.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Botany, Ecology, and Environmental Science; undergraduate courses in Botany, Ecology, and Environmental Science.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 4-5), middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

Where Do Organisms End? by Craig Holdrege, In Context #3 (Spring 2000).

A companion piece to the Goethean exercises described in the study of bloodroot above. In addition to a bloodroot plant being a process in time, it also extends beyond itself, as a physical entity, revealing itself functionally as part of a larger whole. Examples in the article begin with the ant larvae that feed on bloodroot seeds and then disperse them in their waste, and then ranges on to giraffes, and bison. Each example shows how inappropriate it can be to draw rigid lines between organisms and their environment.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Botany, Ecology, and Environmental Science; undergraduate courses Botany, Ecology, and Environmental Science.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 4-5), middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

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5. The Living Nature of Life – From Mechanism to Organism

sloth resting

Many of the articles in this section are abridged versions of longer articles that can be found on our web resource, Biology Worthy of Life. You may want to browse through that large collection of publications. They clarify how common, mechanistic ideas about biological phenomena are misleading and often false. They also reveal how science actually supports a much more dynamic and complex picture of ecological relationships both within and between living organisms. We attempt to advance a nuanced and dynamic picture of life that is crucial for sustain­ability education.

Reviving the Organism by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #36 (Fall 2016).

The fact that every organism is, in the first place, an activity has radical implications for biology. It was Aristotle who first characterized animals as “self-moving,” and not many in biology today would disagree. Yet this truth is rarely taken with real seriousness. This article lays out some of the most important issues, ranging from the old struggle between reductionism and vitalism to contemporary perplexities of cognitive science having to do with mind and body, perception and consciousness, thought and object of thought.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators (especially relevant in preparing students to teach science).

Of Machines, Organisms, and Agency by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #35 (Spring 2016).

Whether we view them at the molecular level or as we naturally encounter them, organisms appear to be agents carrying out intentions, even if unconsciously or not in anything like a human manner. But what do we mean by “agency” and “intention?”

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

DNA and the Whole Organism by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #34 (Fall 2015).

Excerpts from a much longer article, Genes and Organisms: Improvising the Dance of Life, attempting to show the place of DNA within the context of both the cell and organism as integral unities. A key lesson: the organism knows what it is doing with its DNA.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12); undergraduate and graduate courses in Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

Let’s Lighten Up Biological Thinking! by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #32 (Fall 2014).

Thinking in biology hasn’t caught up with the results of contemporary research. In particular, an apparent taboo against any explicit acknowledgment of intention and agency in all features and activities of the organism is a serious block to further progress in understanding.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators (especially relevant in preparing students to teach science).

Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism by Stephen L. Talbott (2014).

This article critically examines the strong emphasis upon machine-like design in conventional biology, and draws from the most recent research findings to argue that this framework is now scientifically obsolete.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators (especially relevant in preparing students to teach science).

Shattering the Genome by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #30 (Fall 2013).

A microorganism known as Deinococcus radiodurans can endure massive doses of radiation that fragment its genome into hundreds of pieces. Its proteins simply reassemble a whole genome from the fragments. It raises a question that turns out to be universally applicable: Where is wisdom stored in the organism? No place in particular — and certainly not only in the genome. Instead, we are led to think of the organism in its totality as an active agent in the world.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators (especially relevant in preparing students to teach science).

Plasticity, Stability, and Whole-Organism Inheritance by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #29 (Spring 2013).

The development of complex organisms tells a dramatic story about the plasticity of DNA in the “hands” of the whole cell and whole organism. The story of development is first of all a story — a narrative with intention and direction — not merely a series of physical causes and effects. The text we present here is excerpted from Steve’s article, Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators (especially relevant in preparing students to teach science).

Promising Themes in Molecular Biology by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #26 (Fall 2011).

For those seeking a more holistic understanding of biology than conventional academic approaches provide, this article highlights a few signs of potential health and transformation, particularly in the literature of molecular biology. The purpose here is to convey a hint of how researchers are increasingly finding themselves grappling with the incredible fluidity and plasticity of organisms under the influence of a governing context, and to point to implications that many biologists haven’t yet fully appreciated due to the inertia of old habits of thought.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators (especially relevant in preparing students to teach science).

Do Organisms Merely Survive? by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #8 (Fall 2002).

A provocative essay illuminating how holistic approaches to biology provide a broader framework for understanding living organisms than conventional reductionist approaches. It suggests going beyond the limits of the conventional, mechanistic emphasis that every organism strives to survive — or, that an organism’s traits can be explained through a process of random variation and survival of the fittest — to recognize that every organism strives to express its own wholeness. “To whatever extent we can actually see a distinctive, characteristic, and expressive unity of the organism that survives — as opposed to mere functional efficiency — we have already demonstrated the inadequacy of the ‘collection of survival mechanisms’ view.”

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) Evolutionary Biology and Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: High school (grade 12) and postsecondary educators.

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6. Agriculture and Sustainability

Nature Institute students with cows

Soil, Culture, and Human Responsibility by Bruno Follador. In Context #36 (Fall 2016).

This article traces the tragic cultural history that led to the U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s as well as to our current soil crisis, and explores what we can learn from it about the inextricable relationship between soil, human culture, and our social and ecological responsibilities.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology, Geography, and History; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, Sustainability, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

The Creature That Has Never Been by Bruno Follador (2015). (From The Nature Institute’s Living Soils project.)

An essay critically examining our relationship to domestic farm animals and how it reflects a lack of understanding about the essential role of ecological reciprocity in sustainable agriculture. Industrialized farming is the result not only of political and economic interests, but also of our own way of seeing, thinking, and speaking about the world. What we meet in a factory farm is not only a particularly efficient system but an expression of human consciousness. If we strive to shift to a more living understanding of nature, we could redefine our breeding goals into a much broader perspective, far beyond just a narrow sense of utility or an abstract sense of animal welfare. The standard of animal health will be provided by the animals themselves – that is, by our own contextual understanding of their wholeness as living beings. A breeder or farmer would then begin to ask: “Am I contributing toward or hindering the organic integrity of this animal? Is it healthy and whole? Will the new characteristics I’m trying to breed for contribute to the health of my farm? And will my farm contribute to this creature’s health?”

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology, Geography, and History; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, Sustainability, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

The Inner and Outer Gesture of Composting by Bruno Follador (2014). (From The Nature Institute’s Living Soils project.)

For the farmer or gardener to develop a more personal relationship to the unique organism that their own farm or garden actually is, a whole new commitment to agriculture, composting, and life process is demanded. To work with compost is to humbly accept an invitation to rethink our relationship with the earth while actively engaging in a process of composition. The old saying that we come to know the health of a farm through its compost yard gains new meaning and depth when we begin to understand composting as being an activity that goes beyond utilitarian purposes of yields and waste management. It means to start seeing the compost pile as an outer expression of our way of thinking and relating to Nature. The pile begins to show itself as the outer expression of the gardener or farmer’s inner gesture.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology, Geography, and History; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, Sustainability, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

Context-Sensitive Action: The Development of Push-Pull Farming in Africa by Craig Holdrege. In Context #27 (Spring 2012).

How do you control insects by attracting and repelling them at the same time? Hundreds of African farmers, particularly in Kenya, have been delighted to learn that a “push-pull” method really does the trick. The ambitious and economically important research program behind this development tells us a lot about how science can contribute to ecological and social transformation. The article describes key features of such context-sensitive action for constructive social change and ecological protection.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology, Geography, and History; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, Sustainability, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

Pharming the Cow: Animals as Factories by Craig Holdrege. NetFuture #43 (March 20, 1997).

Is the cow a complex genetic mechanism that we can manipulate at will for human ends, or is it an organism with its own integrity that warrants our respect? This article exemplifies the power of a holistic, contextual approach to tackle complex issues of technology and animal welfare. “As long as we treat [the cow] as a commercial bioreactor, there is no reason not to continue trying to increase production. But if we remember that the cow is an organism, then we must ask how far we can healthily push milk production. By gaining insight into the cow as a ‘small world, existing for its own sake’ [Goethe], we can recognize its specific characteristics and needs, and begin to fit our actions into its context.”

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology, Geography, and History; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, Sustainability, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and undergraduate educators.

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7. Impacts of Mechanistic Thinking and Technology

Monoculture in lower Arkansas valley

When Engineers Take Hold of Life: Synthetic Biology by Craig Holdrege. In Context #32 (Fall 2014).

What happens when genetic engineers begin to envision the synthesis of altogether new life forms, using Lego block-like “BioBricks”? The ambition may be foolish, but huge resources are now being devoted to it, with grave implications for the biological future. This article provides an introduction to synthetic biology and the ethical and ecological challenges it presents.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Genetics and Life Sciences and (grade 12) Social Studies; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ethics, Life Sciences, Philosophy, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

Manipulating the Genome of Human Embryos: Some Unforeseen Effects by Craig Holdrege (2015).

Pointing to both unintended consequences and profound ethical issues, this article examines both the details and the broader context of the controversial 2015 experiments in China to “edit” the genome of human embryos.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Genetics and Life Sciences and (grade 12) Social Studies; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ethics, Life Sciences, Philosophy, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

How to Manufacture the Notion of Synthetic Life by Stephen L. Talbott. NetFuture #180 (March 25, 2010.)

A head-on critique of the emerging field of synthetic bioengineering, euphemistically named “synthetic biology” by its practitioners. An oak tree does not at all have the same way of being as a weeping willow, nor is an amoeba’s movement (whether at the level of the whole organism or of molecular process) choreographed in the style of a paramecium’s. If and when synthetic biologists start discussing how they might reproduce such a unique gesturing — a gesturing they must carefully, deliberately and knowledgeably compound out of the innumerable molecular activities proceeding simultaneously and interdependently in the cell — all in order to produce from scratch a particular sort of organism with a particular sort of recognizable character, then one could believe they have begun to glimpse the problem of attempting to synthesize life. Otherwise, such efforts are little more than “crude and mostly ignorant, trial-and-error manipulation of already living things. . . a technologically sophisticated discipline of tinkering.”

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology, Life Sciences, Philosophy, and Social Studies; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Sciences, Evolutionary Biology, History and Philosophy of Science, Life Sciences, Molecular Biology, Philosophy, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher and Researcher Resource: Middle school, high school, postsecondary, and postsecondary teacher educators.

Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott (2008). (This 272-page book, published by The University of Kentucky Press, is available for purchase from our bookstore.)

Written for lay readers, Beyond Biotechnology is an accessible introduction to the complicated issues of genetic engineering and its potential applications. It evaluates the state of genetic science and engineering, examining its actual and potential applications, especially in agriculture and medicine, as well as its dangers. The authors show how the popular view of genetics does not include an understanding of the ways in which genes actually work together in organisms. Simplistic and reductionist views of genes lead to unrealistic expectations and, ultimately, disappointment in the results that genetic engineering actually delivers. The authors explore such developments in genetics, as the discovery of “non-Darwinian” adaptive mutations in bacteria and growing evidence that organisms are far more than mere collections of genetically driven mechanisms. They also answer vital questions that get to the essence of genetic interaction with human biology: Does DNA “manage” an organism any more than the organism manages its DNA? Should genetically engineered products be labeled as such? Do the methods of the genetic engineer resemble the centuries-old practices of animal husbandry?

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Genetics, Life Sciences, Social Studies and (grade 12) Philosophy; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ethics, Life Sciences, Philosophy, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: Middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators.

In the Belly of the Beast: Technology, Nature, and the Human Prospect by Stephen L. Talbott. Nature Institute Perspectives #3 (2004; 74 pages).

From Odysseus to the Amazon jungle, from feeding chickadees by hand to the high abstractions of science – this booklet looks at the role of technology in human life and in the management (or mismanagement) of nature, and also assesses our future prospects. Readers may find the insights it offers outrageous or revelatory, but they will never find them conventional. See especially Chapter One: “Deceiving Virtues of Technology.” The printed booklet can be purchased from our bookstore, or downloaded for free.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education, Engineering, History and Philosophy of Science, Information Technology, and Philosophy.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst by Stephen L. Talbott (1995). (This 481-page book is available for purchase from our bookstore or can be downloaded for free, chapter by chapter, here.)

This prescient, award-winning book correctly predicted — contrary to widespread political and commercial hype at the time — that heavily investing in computer technology for K-12 classrooms would not lead to a renaissance in American education. The book’s concerns and critiques, in terms of the seductions of technology and the too often ignored developmental needs of children, remain pertinent to current wishful thinking about the role of advanced electronic media in the education of children and about advanced technologies in general being the “solution” to all that ails society.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education and History and Philosophy of Science.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Biological Engineering for Fun and Profit by Stephen L. Talbott, In Context #25 (Spring 2011).

This essay offers a critical look at how the very nature of the living organism is being made into a subject for both trivial gaming and commercialized re-engineering. As the examples in this article show, these ambitions and efforts reveal how important it is to move in a different direction — to anchor human thought and action in concrete perception and experience and in respect for living organisms.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: High school (grades 11-12) and postsecondary educators.

Genes and Life: The Need for Qualitative Understanding by Craig Holdrege. In Context #1 (Spring/Summer 1999).

Which of our genes make us human? None of them and all of them. The question, it turns out, betrays a grave misunderstanding of genes and people. As long as genetic engineers view organisms as mechanisms in a world separate from them, there is no real question of responsibility. Ethical considerations in this case are after-the-fact and considered outside the scientific process. Only when we incorporate the qualitative into the scientific process — when our way of viewing consciously includes the other being from the outset — can we begin to heal this split.

Class Reading: High school and undergraduate courses in Environmental Science and Life Sciences.

Why Not Globalization? by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #5 (Spring 2001).

Brief reflections upon the ecology of human society, originally presented at the 2001 Technology and Globalization Teach-In in New York City. Freedom of cultures to choose modernization cannot be denied, and the human individual today cannot help feeling a certain pull toward the global and universal. But this does not imply that we should pursue current globalization policies, which tend to extinguish both cultures and the individual. Truly ecological thinking will be flexible and imaginative enough to hold these “opposites” in harmonious counterpoint – something not yet achieved with the destructive globalization processes of today. Only strong local communities can make globalization worthwhile and every local community is a habitat bound up with neighboring habitats “and so on, ever outward.”

Class Reading: High school courses in Social Studies; undergraduate and graduate courses in Sustainability, Sociology, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher Resource: High school and postsecondary educators.

Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation Project.

This special Nature Institute project tracks evidence of the wide-ranging and never wholly predictable effects of genetic engineering. We have collected examples from the scientific literature, primarily from peer-reviewed journals, and written short reports on each example. These are ordered according to different categories and include effects on the manipulated organisms themselves as well as broader environmental ripple effects. Our compilation of reports is by no means exhaustive and continues to expand over time.

Class Reading (and Research Resource): High school courses in Ecology, Life Sciences, and Social Studies; undergraduate and graduate courses in Evolutionary Biology, Life Sciences, Molecular Biology, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Teacher and Researcher Resource: High school, postsecondary educators and researchers.

Other Genetics and Biotechnology Resources. For many other Nature Institute resources related to genetics and genetic engineering, see the main content page for such resources.

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8. Foundations of Holistic, Contextual Science

monarch butterfly on milkweed

Goethe and the Evolution of Science by Craig Holdrege. In Context #31 (Spring 2014).

This article provides a lucid introduction to Goethe’s approach to science for educators and students. As Craig explains, his approach “was truly ecological – he always tried to understand things in relation to their broader connections.” In Goethe’s view, understanding “can only be gained when we consider the relations and connections in which any given subject is embedded. This is ecology as a way of knowing.”

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Ecology, Gardening, and Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, Life Sciences, and Philosophy.

Teacher Resource: Lower school (grades 4-5), middle school, and high school, and postsecondary educators.

Doing Goethean Science by Craig Holdrege. Janus Head vol. 8.1 (2005).

Practicing the Goethean approach to science involves heightened methodological awareness and sensitivity to the way we engage in the phenomenal world. We need to overcome our habit of viewing the world in terms of objects and leave behind the scientific propensity to explain via reification and reductive models. Science is a conversation with nature and this perspective can inform a new scientific frame of mind. This article presents the Goethean approach via a practical example (a study of a plant, skunk cabbage) and discuss some of the essential features of Goethean methodology and insight: the riddle; into the phenomenon; exact picture building; and seeing the whole.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Science; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators).

Rebirth of the Type: Notes on a Recent Paper by Mark Riegner by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #30 (Fall 2013).

An essay reviewing and reflecting on the implications of a significant recent paper by whole-organism biologist, Mark Riegner, which tackles the once-dismissed question whether organisms can be thought of as having an essential nature — that is, whether they exemplify a type or archetype. Riegner suggests that the time is ripe for revival of this concept, if only it is understood correctly. And he turns to Goethe for such an understanding, arguing that recent developments in the biological and evolutionary sciences point toward a serious place for typological thinking of the sort Goethe advanced. (To request a copy of Riegner’s article, write him at mriegner@prescott.edu.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, History and Philosophy of Science, Life Sciences, and Molecular Biology.

Teacher Resource: Postsecondary and postsecondary teacher educators.

The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2010). Essay originally written in 1792, reprinted in In Context #24 (Fall 2010).

Goethe’s seminal essay on the nature of knowing and scientific methodology and experimentation. Because he had learned that “in living nature nothing happens that is not in connection with a whole,” he recognized that as a scientist must always view individual facts or results of individual experiments within larger contexts. For example, individual experiments do not provide “proofs;” rather, one needs to carry out a series of experiments, varying the conditions to gain real insight into phenomena.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Science; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History & Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators).

To Explain or Portray by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #9 (Spring 2003).

What Goethe said of his pioneering morphological research is often repeated of Goethean science as a whole: “its intention is to portray rather than explain” (Goethe 1995, p. 57). Difficult words. The idea seems to be that description — or at least description of the right sort — leads by itself to scientific understanding. This is implied more strongly in another of his oft-repeated koans: “everything in the realm of fact is already theory .... Let us not seek for something behind the phenomena — they themselves are the theory” (p. 307). Goethe is contrasting a particular sort of portrayal with a particular sort of explanation, and is suggesting that the portrayal is a fuller, more adequate form of explanation. This essay briefly sketches the contrast between Goethean portrayal and the constricted sort of explanation that continues to be honored as the ideal of hard science.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Postsecondary and postsecondary teacher educators.

Of Ideas and Essences by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #7 (Spring 2002).

A response to critiques of holistic approaches in environmental science as veering into “eco-mysticism.” References to the “idea” or “nature” of a plant or animal species does not need to refer to a metaphysical essence of some sort. In fact, in the practice of Goethean science:

  • The Goethean researcher is interested in observable phenomena, and has no desire to press behind the phenomena to some sort of metaphysical essence.
  • The Goethean researcher who speaks of the nature of an organism is referring to its inner unity of being — “inner” because this unity is conceptual.
  • “Conceptual” does not mean subjective. When one struggles to conceive the nature of the organism, one is struggling to find the concepts (the ideas, the interior being) that belong to the organism and are, as formal cause, generative of its unity. (This, however, can hardly make much sense so long as one is bound by our culture’s normal rendering of terms such as “concept,” “cause,” and “idea.”)
  • There is no reason to take the observed unity of the organism as unchanging or incapable of evolution. The nature of an organism just is what it is (what it is observed to be), and if it evolves with time, this can be seen as part of its dynamic aspect. The potential for continually transformed expression is, after all, intrinsic to any truly vital idea.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Postsecondary and postsecondary teacher educators.

Learning to See Life — Developing the Goethean Approach to Science by Craig Holdrege (2005).

For educators, an introductory guide to teaching methods in holistic science: “I have often thought that if a teacher wanted to have one succinct motto to hang above his or her bed, she’d have a hard time finding a better one than: “characterize, don’t define.” In order to characterize, say, an animal, we have to carry within ourselves a vivid picture of its shape, how it moves, the sounds it makes, its habitat and the ways it relates to its environment. We bring alive through our imagination and speech something of the animal’s nature . . . When we paint a picture of the animal in this way — a process in which the students are involved — the animal can begin to live in the soul of the child or adolescent.” (This article originally appeared in Renewal: A Journal for Waldorf Education, Fall 2005.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

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9. Goethe and Other Holistic Scientists

ice forms on a creek

The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2010). Essay originally written in 1792, reprinted in In Context #24 (Fall 2010).

Goethe’s seminal essay on the nature of knowing and scientific methodology and experimentation. Because he had learned that “in living nature nothing happens that is not in connection with a whole,” he recognized that as a scientist must always view individual facts or results of individual experiments within larger contexts. For examples, individual experiments do not provide “proofs;” rather, one needs to carry out a series of experiments, varying the conditions to gain real insight into phenomena.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Science; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators).

Being on Earth: Practice in Tending the Appearances by Georg Maier, Ronald Brady, and Stephen Edelglass (2006).

This book is an excellent guide for educators seeking to understand what phenomena-based science instruction means and how to provide such instruction at the high school and undergraduate level. It includes many suggested classroom and outdoor activities for students (especially in physics) and makes a powerful philosophical case for the importance of both educating and trusting human sensory experience. It also explores the relation between sense experience and knowing, the role of human intention in awareness, and the importance of older students becoming aware of their own processes in gaining knowledge. The authors – two physicists and a philosopher – demonstrate how understanding in the physical sciences requires rigorous attention to the physiology and psychology of the human being who seeks to know, as well as rigorous attention to the physical phenomena being studied. The full 174-page book is freely available to download.

Class Activities: High school courses in Physics and (grade 12) Philosophy; undergraduate courses in History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy, and Physics.

Teacher Resource: High school and postsecondary educators.

From Mechanistic to Organismal Biology by E.S. Russell. In Context #30 (Fall 2013).

An excerpt from marine biologist E.S. Russell’s 1930 book, The Interpretation of Development and Heredity: A Study in Biological Method, which contains a remarkably up-to-date understanding of whole-organism biology. In this excerpt, the author begins with the provocative assertion: “Biology occupies a unique and privileged position among the sciences in that its object, the living organism, is known to us not only objectively through sensory perception, but also in one case directly, as the subject of immediate experience. It is therefore possible, in this special case of one’s own personal life, to take an inside view of a living organism.”

Class Reading: Undergraduate courses in Ecology, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Postsecondary educators.

A Modest Champion of the Whole Organism: Paul Weiss, Scientist of Distinction by Stephen L. Talbott. In Context #25 (Spring 2011).

A biographical sketch of the life and holistic research of the brilliant 20th-century cell biologist, Paul Weiss. Weiss combined clear, precise observation of the organism with equally clear thinking in his studies of the development and functioning of the nervous system and of embryology and development in general. His prominent achievements – including a leading textbook, Principles of Development: A Text in Experimental Embryology – can serve as a beacon for those trying honestly to follow the lead of the many surprising biological findings of the 21st century. The article is introduced with a short, and surprising, reflection on the meaning of the widely used phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Class Reading: Undergraduate courses in Ecology, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Postsecondary educators.

Seeing Things Right-side Up: The Implications of Kurt Goldstein’s Holism by Craig Holdrege. In Context #2 (Fall 1999).

A close look at the life and work of Kurt Goldstein, a neurologist and psychiatrist who created a holistic theory of the organism. Goldstein described his goal in research as “to provide the kind of environment which allows for the most complete realization of the nature of each creature.” A link to a companion short biography of Goldstein, pioneer of holism, is included.

Class Reading: Undergraduate courses in Ecology, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Postsecondary educators.

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