Transcending (Human) Nature: What Emerson Can Teach Us About Science Communication

By Tiffany Fox

Although it’s an unlikely source of guidance for science writers, Transcendentalist philosophy — made famous by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other 19th century thinkers — is surprisingly relevant for anyone seeking to persuade readers to take an interest in the natural world. 

The Transcendentalists are most often referenced in terms of their contributions to spiritual thought, but they were also some of the first writers in America to encourage people to explore their relationship with nature. Emerson, in particular, had much to say about the importance of using language to connect humans to the landscapes around them. 

The best science writing makes ample use of metaphor and analogy to explain concepts, and Emerson also saw the power in these techniques. In his classic 1836 essay “Nature,” he demonstrates how evocative language can both render the ephemeral concrete and show humans that they themselves are part and parcel of the natural world. 

“Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture,” he writes. “An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. A lamb is innocence; a snake is subtle spite; flowers express to us the delicate affections. Light and darkness are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love. Visible distance behind and before us, is respectively our image of memory and hope.

“This immediate dependence of language upon nature, this conversion of an outward phenomenon into a type of somewhat in human life, never loses its power to affect us.”

In other words, our everyday language is influenced by nature, but also — and perhaps more importantly for science writers — can be a powerful means of influencing our readers precisely because they see themselves in it. When our readers can relate to the natural world from personal experience, their relationship to it deepens significantly. 

Of course, modern naturalists might fault Emerson for having something of an anthropocentric perspective on the natural world. Take for example his claim that “neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man. All the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren, like a single sex.” (I suspect the birds and bees, devoid of a relationship with humans, would beg to differ.)

But most modern science writers wouldn’t argue with Emerson’s next sentence. It is, essentially, the crux of why we science writers do what we do, albeit described in language more florid than we typically use: 

“But marry (the natural world) to human history, and it is full of life. Whole Floras, all Linnaeus’ and Buffon’s volumes, are dry catalogues of facts; but the most trivial of these facts, the habit of a plant, the organs, or work, or noise of an insect, applied to the illustration of a fact in intellectual philosophy, or, in any way associated to human nature, affects us in the most lively and agreeable manner.”

Data, in other words, is nothing without story. And story is nothing without imagery and emotion. With this, Emerson also agrees. 

“The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images.”

Science — if the world is to both understand and value it — needs poetry. For Emerson, the communicator who can imbue the natural world with a sense of poetry, is heeding “the call of a noble sentiment”: To persuade the reader to learn, to understand, to act.

And when this sentiment is heeded, Emerson concludes, “the woods wave, the pines murmur, the river rolls and shines, and the cattle low upon the mountains … And with these forms, the spells of persuasion, the keys of power are put into (the poet’s) hands.”

Tiffany Fox is a San Diego-based freelance science writer, instructor of science writing for UC San Diego Extension and Director of Communications for the UC San Diego Department of Surgery.

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