Art tells us we are important. Science reminds us we are not

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Art elevates the human experience. Science contextualizes it. Art says we are important. Science says we are not.

I think of this tension often — it’s a theme of a lot of the writing I’ve done for years. High culture is the best tool we have against nationalism and provincialism. The best of what we collectively create tends to come from collaboration and gains interest beyond race or country or tribe. Science is a collection of the facts as best we can see them now. Art motivates us to care, to understand, to act. I’m interested in when we seem to deploy the wrong one for a circumstance.

The obvious example here is climate change. The science is there, reminding us how foolish a grip we have on our planet. The work now is all art: we’ll only change course if the stories make us believe it’s important and possible enough to do something about it.

I also think of this framework when I consider any conversation about life on other planets. Art has always depicted extra-terrestrials has essentially human-like, with physical forms and language and sentience. But science shows us even on our own planet about how much of life looks unfamiliar to us. As we continue to find more extreme life forms, living miles inside the earth or buried in darkest corners of the sea, I think often that we’ve already found what we’re looking for.

One of my favorite novels is Galapagos, one of the lesser known ones from Kurt Vonnegut. I read it on my honeymoon in Ecuador several years back, and though it isn’t one of his most loved, the book really walloped me, mixing both the art and science. Among the biggest ideas in the book is that it is a fallacy to assume our big brains are the best outcome of evolution and therefore to be expected from other planets in the universe.

Science may already have shown us there is very little reason to expect to have or want to have a conversation with another life form. It’s just that the art hasn’t caught up.

(Photo of lab-grown plants by Chuttersnap on Unsplash.)