Observing the Living World: Interview with Melanie Challenger

By Julie Chibbaro

In my day job, I work as an editor for a bioethics research institute called The Hastings Center, in Garrison, N.Y. I spend much of my day reading the thoughts and analyses of multidisciplinary scholars who offer possible solutions to some of our most difficult ethical problems, like how to best face the technology that can change babies before they’re born, or how to deal with human research issues in an increasingly corporatized medical environment. I often get to meet interesting people at work, both staff and visiting scholars.

My author guest today is Melanie Challenger, who will visit the Center in November.

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She is one of those unusually talented people: a singer, a writer, a researcher, a philosopher. She is relentlessly curious about nature and science, and manages to incorporate her passions into a field of study that is very much her own. I had the chance to ask her a few questions about her work, her visit to the Center, and some of her adventures.

GLB: What is the connection for you between the arts and science and nature?

MC: I have sort of wandered off course and ended up accidentally in what can loosely be called environmental philosophy. I didn’t train in philosophy, something that I was very anxious about for a while. Now I see it as its own quiet advantage. I began life as a student of English literature and language, and went from university into the arts, assuming I would be a creative writer. I wrote and published early poems, which led to collaborations with composers as a librettist. During my teens and twenties, I had also trained as a singer, and worked in education departments in classical music, so that was very much in my blood. Now, whatever muse I once had has also wandered off, although I continue to work in music. But this early training has allowed me a fleshed out understanding of different forms of human expression, and also a clearer idea of where one form ends and another must be taken up. When I began to battle with creative writing, I realized that I wasn’t anywhere near as interested in character or narrative as I was in ideas. I was always using writing to try to understand concrete ideas about what the world is and what relationship we can have with reality. It took me a long time to realize that – in my case – I couldn’t get the arts to sharpen the lens hard enough on the subjects and questions that interested me. Perhaps this was lack of talent. If I’d been Kafka, such failures might have been fewer. But even Kafka can only offer a prism through which questions can be shattered and given witness. When it comes to making real headway in very gnarly questions like what is a category like wildness? On what basis might it have value? The kinds of questions I realized I was desperately seeking answers to, nonfiction offered an easier way to lay bare some tentative answers. Initially, I dipped my toe in using creative nonfiction, which is really personal essay. This is a very effective way of reaching people with complex science or philosophy, who don’t necessarily want to read through technical ideas. But even this was a distraction for me. And while my latest book does contain the presence of me and the odd anecdote, I have tried to find a style now that is both accessible but much more directly about the ideas. So I guess what I’m saying is that the creative arts, humanities like philosophy, and science are often all interested in similar fundamental questions about the nature of reality. But how they can answer the questions are necessarily different. They are not alternatives to one another. Each mode places limits on what can be understood or expressed. But they are leaky containers, with the ideas from each freely flowing from one to the other, influencing the content of each. My only regret is that we still live in a world where science is reported as if it has anything to say about meaning. Science can give us some of the content for meaning, but the job of making sense of the value of science lies squarely with the arts. Sorry . . . that’s an awfully long and still impoverished answer!

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GLB: What made you want to travel?

MC: There are two reasons I like to travel, one nakedly selfish and the other more sensible. The first is that I am a keen amateur naturalist and I derive an immeasurable amount of pleasure (and, I hope, some insights) from spending as much time as possible observing the living world. I’m lucky that I live in the middle of a forest down several miles of rough track. My neighbors are goshawks, hares, butterflies, stouts, adders. The only visible house is several miles away. We own only about 11 acres but we’re sat in around 30,000 acres, and even though this is managed forest, it still means that every day is an observation of the nonhuman world. But when I try to develop ideas about value or hypotheses about human nature or whatever, I think it makes an enormous difference to have at your hands a more intimate experience of other species and natural processes, their behavior and constraints. But I also travel to see people. A portion of my work is probably what we would call an anthropology of science. I have always been compelled not just to read other people’s technical papers but to go and talk with the person who wrote them (assuming they’re alive). I like to see the environments in which ideas are formed and the individual personalities doing the writing. This is what journalists also do, but in my case, it’s not about giving a personal touch to the story but a more specific, ethnographic way of making sense of cultures of knowledge. I continue to find this a powerful way of seeking out what information might help in answering very broad or complex questions. But it also can help prevent someone like me, who is doing very interdisciplinary work without being an expert, from impoverishing another person’s ideas or woefully misunderstanding them.

GLB: Can tell us about your work at The Hastings Center?

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MC: I recently started as a member of the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Bioethics is something that fascinates me, because it lies at the intersection of practical applications like laws and ethics, and the analysis of ideas about the life sciences. But I have really noticed, as I’ve worked more in bioethics, that environmental philosophers are curiously underrepresented. Now this, to me, is both curious and very important. There are panels working on subjects like, for instance, gene-editing or gene-drive for malaria eradication (via mosquito control) or synthetic biology, as another example, that have almost no expertise or even, in some cases, interest in the fundamental intellectual history that might shed light on questions of nature, ecology, or the value of other species. I am really passionate about trying to correct this, and looking at consensus building in philosophy will be the focus of my time at the Center.

 

Melanie Challenger studied English literature and language at Oxford University. She published a sequence of poems, Galatea, which won a 2005 Eric Gregory Award and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her first nonfiction book, On Extinction: How we became estranged from nature was published in 2011. It was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best nonfiction books of 2012. She was the recipient of a Darwin Now Award for her research among Canadian Inuit and the Arts Council International Fellowship with British Antarctic Survey for her work on the history of whaling. Her latest book, How To Be Animal: A new history of what it means to be human, is forthcoming in 2020.

 

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