Unlearning separation

professor hold tree branch
Chris Uhl

Research Unplugged host Chris Uhl says people tend to control nature instead of recognizing their part in it.

Ask the average person to name his or her ancestors, and you might hear about Great-Grandpa Joe or Great-Aunt Tillie. Ask Chris Uhl to define "family," and you're likely to hear about chimpanzees, bacteria, and even the "Big Bang" theory.

People too often disassociate themselves from the world around them, the biology professor told the audience at the final spring session of Research Unplugged on April 6. Uhl's discussion focused on the theme of "separation," which he describes as modern people's tendency to control nature instead of recognizing their part in it.

"We're walking ecosystems. We're wild," Uhl said, in a presentation he dubbed "Unlearning Separation." ("I have this sense that we've kind of lost our way," he explained. "More and more, I'm coming to realize my work is more about unlearning than learning.")

To bridge the distance between people, Uhl asked the multigenerational audience to break into small groups and discuss times in their lives when they have felt separation. While Uhl walked around connecting to the groups, people shared personal experiences, including that of being with a dying family member. Some echoed Uhl's observation that medical monitors at the patient's bedside can command more attention than the patient in the bed.

Science and technology, he said, aim to control and even "commodify" nature. Recent human history offers increasingly more evidence of this, he said. The shift in birthing practices from midwives delivering babies to "experts extracting a newborn from its mother" is just one of many examples of the separation of humans from nature, according to Uhl.

groups surround tables for discussion
Emily Rowlands

The Research Unplugged crowd broke into smaller groups to discuss separation in their own lives.

Uhl related the groups' experiences of separation to his thesis that objectivism has led people to no longer consider themselves a part of the larger ecosystem. Without that understanding of our connection to the natural landscape, argues Uhl, we don't truly know "where we live."

Underscoring this point, Uhl challenged the audience to imagine giving a new friend directions to their homes without mentioning any "human artifices." As the crowd struggled to think of natural landmarks, Uhl told the puzzled faces looking back at him that natives a few centuries back would have found this exercise a cinch. "They knew where they lived," Uhl stated.

To teach students about the web of life (and inspire them to protect it), Uhl created a course on objectivism and its effects on human interaction with the ecosystem. His current work focuses on evaluating research from ecological, economic, political, and ethical standpoints.

The most basic thing we can do to instill environmentalism in future generations? Uhl concluded his talk by quoting the simple words of the Dalai Lama:

Teach the children to show kindness to insects.

Christopher Uhl, Ph.D., is a professor of biology. He can be reached at cfu1@psu.edu.

Ed Rowe is an undergraduate student in English and a member of the "We Are" Campaign, which joined Research Unplugged in hosting Uhl. He can be reached at EdRowe@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 06, 2005