Seeing Nature Whole — A Goethean Approach

If we want to attain a living understanding of nature, we must become as flexible and mobile as nature herself. - Goethe

Many of us were introduced to biology — the science of life — by dissecting frogs, and we never learned anything about living frogs in nature. Modern biology has increasingly moved out of nature and into the laboratory, driven by a desire to find an underlying mechanistic basis of life. Despite all its success, this approach is one-sided and urgently calls for a counterbalancing movement toward nature. Only if we find ways of transforming our propensity to reduce the world to parts and mechanisms, will we be able to see, value, and protect the integrity of nature and the interconnectedness of all things. This demands a new way of seeing.

Our methodology is inspired by integrative thinkers and scientists, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, and Kurt Goldstein.

We develop ways of thinking and perception that integrate self-reflective and critical thought, imagination, and careful, detailed observation of the phenomena. The Nature Institute promotes a truly ecological understanding of the living world: skunk cabbage

We study the internal ecology of plants and animals, elucidating how structures and functions interrelate in forming the creature as a whole. Our interdisciplinary approach integrates anatomy, physiology, behavior, development, genetics, and evolution.

We investigate the whole organism as part of the larger web of life. By creating life history stories of plants and animals, we open up a new understanding of our fellow creatures as dynamic and integrated beings.

Through this approach, the organism teaches us about itself, revealing its characteristics and its interconnectedness with the world that sustains it. This way of doing science enhances our sense of responsibility for nature. No one who has read, for example, Craig Holdrege's paper on the sloth, thereby coming to appreciate this animal as a unique, focused expression of its entire forest habitat, will be able to tolerate the thought of losing either the sloth or its habitat.

sloth on tree branchAs Goethe so beautifully expresses it, all of nature's individual aspects are interconnected and interdependent:

We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect....

Our purpose is to carry out research, produce publications and offer education programs that foster this new, qualitative approach to nature. We also give off-site talks and workshops on this work.

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Goethe's Delicate Empiricism

Curious about Goethean science, a special interest group of the New York Academy of Sciences invited Craig Holdrege to speak on the topic in October, 2013. Craig has expanded that talk into an essay, Goethe and the Evolution of Science. It is perhaps the best place to start for anyone curious about what we mean by “Goethean science”.

Also, a special issue of the interdisciplinary journal Janus Head focuses on Goethe's approach to science. Fourteen essays discuss Goethe's “delicate empiricism” from a variety of perspectives. This is the most thorough collection of papers on Goethe's way of science that has appeared in recent years. Nature Institute director Craig Holdrege was one of the volume's guest editors. The volume is available online at and the bound version may also be ordered through the website.

To read Goethe’s seminal essay on the nature of scientific knowing and experimentation, “The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject” click here.

The following publications illustrate the Goethean approach within the life sciences:

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

This book provides a comprehensive picture of the giraffe’s biology and ecology and also discusses the complex and controversial issue of its evolution. It gives a unique portrayal of the giraffe while also exemplifying the Goethean approach to understanding animals and evolution. Click here for more information about this booklet.

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

Doug Groves, Chairman of Living with Elephants Foundation in Botswana, Africa, wrote:

"Your marvelous mini-monograph on "the Flexible Giant" is momentous and inspirational! Please accept my wholehearted congratulations and thanks. For the past thirty plus years I've been sharing my daily life with elephants which I think puts me in a pretty good position to appreciate your fresh, succinct, thoughtful, holistic and principle-centered approach to seeing the elephant. By taking small groups of international visitors, local village children and school kids for interpretive walks in the bush with three habituated African Elephants we try to achieve what you have managed to do very nicely with words in your booklet."

Click here for details about this booklet


Do Frogs Come From Tadpoles? Rethinking Origins in Development and Evolution by Craig Holdrege. Nature Institute Perspectives #5 (2017). Illustrated, 85 pages.

Through closely attending to the phenomena of amphibian development, author Craig Holdrege shows that evolution is in reality a creative process, and not simply the inevitable product of lifeless mechanisms. The result is a concrete example of how one can begin to understand, as well as teach, natural science in a truly holistic and living way. The booklet is based on three articles on the frog from In Context #33, 34, and 35. Accessibly written for general readers, educators, and older students. Click here for more information about this booklet.

"Nature’s Revealing Surprises" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #38 (Fall 2017).

Craig, who delights in finding anomalous plants, writes here about stumbling one summer's day upon an unusual wild bergamot, which is in the mint family. He explains (and illustrates with photos) what was so different — yet the same! — about this particular plant.

"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. Craig follows the story of a single plant from well before dawn until sunset and beyond. It’s a story of beauty and evanescence.

"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,” which attempts to show the place of DNA within the context of the cell and organism as integral unities. A key lesson: the organism knows what it is doing with its DNA.

"Let’s Loosen 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 the cell and organism is a serious block to further progress in understanding.

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

Part of a book published by a marine biologist in 1930, this article contains some remarkably up-to-date understanding of what a whole-organism biology needs to look like. 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.”

"Rebirth of the Type: Notes on a Recent Paper by Mark Riegner" by Craig Holdrege. In Context #30 (Fall 2013).

Review of a recent paper by whole-organism biologist Mark Riegner, who 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. Craig offers a few notes on the paper here.

"Rooted in the World" by Craig Holdrege In Context #29 (Spring 2013).

Craig’s 2013 book, Thinking Like a Plant, is written as a practical guide for learning to think the way nature lives. In this excerpt, Craig closely observes plant germination and seedling development to provide an overview of the intimate relation between plant growth and human thinking. The metaphor relating the plant to thinking is neither casual nor arbitrary, but is founded upon our objective rootedness in the world.

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

The Story of an Organism: Common Milkweed” by Craig Holdrege. In Context #22-24 (Fall 2009 – Fall 2010).

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

The Giraffe in Its World” by Craig Holdrege. In Context #12 (Fall 2005).

The Giraffe's Short Neck” by Craig Holdrege. In Context #10 (Fall 2003).

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


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

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

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

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

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

Science as Process or Dogma? The Case of the Peppered Moth” by Craig Holdrege. Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, vol. 70 (1999), pp. 39-51.

What Does it Mean to be a Sloth?” by Craig Holdrege

“Seeing the Animal Whole: The Example of the Horse and Lion” by Craig Holdrege. Goethe's Way of Science, edited by D. Seamon and A. Zajonc Albany: SUNY Press (1998), pp. 213-32.

Pharming the Cow” by Craig Holdrege. NetFuture #43 (March 20, 1997). (Also published in Orion, Winter 1997.)

For articles about the methodology of the Goethean approach see:

Learning to See Life: Developing the Goethean Approach to Science” by Craig Holdrege. Renewal (Fall 2005).

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

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