History as Natural History

Tuesday August 15, 2006


Yesterday, I visited Glasgow’s Kelvingrove museum and art gallery which has recently reopened after a multi-million pound refurbishment. My last visit to the museum was probably six or seven years ago, but they have done an excellent job and much of the collection is not only interesting itself, but is presented in a particularly thought-provoking fashion.

Whilst there was much that was impressive and that would probably merit a further visit to the museum, the thing that stands out most in my mind was the section of the museum given over to military history. This is something I would not normally say: armaments are not my favourite things. But what impressed me was the thoughtful presentation of the objects on display. In one of the main displays human tools of offence and defence were coupled with those from the animal kingdom: suits of armour alongside armadillos and pangolins, sharp weapons alongside the sharp tools animals use to attack their prey, films of two tortoises fighting juxtaposed with those of two armoured men in close hand-to-hand combat. Looking at the coats of chain-mail and armour, when you get beyond all of the stories of nobility and chivalry and so on, it comes home to you: how very soft the human body is, how very easily wounded we are. History as natural history.

The idea of reducing history to natural history is an interesting one. It seems that sometimes we are so caught up in the seductions of history, in the social stories that we tell about history, that we forget our natures (it is interesting that we use the word nature here) and we somehow remove ourselves from the world. Rather than endlessly celebrating human violence, as is often the way with regimental museums, or indulging in finger-wagging moralising, in seeing the continuity between ourselves and the animal world, and in seeing human aggression as a part of this continuum, it was possible to step aside from the enchantments of history and the stories that we weave, and see something fundamental about our nature.

It reminded me in a way of Michel Serres’s commentary upon the Goya painting of two men fighting with sticks at the beginning of his book The Natural Contract. In the painting, to men are up to their knees in the mire or the quicksand, clobbering each other with sticks. They – and we as viewers too – are so engrossed by the social relationship in the picture that they forget the mire in which they are slowly sinking. This, I think, is a common experience. We are so exquisitely attuned to the nuances of our social interactions that we don’t pay enough heed to the world. And in doing so we only see half the picture. The social contract, Serres says, is intersected by and supported by the natural contract.

For Serres (who is, I think, correct on this point), our infatuation with the social contract and our forgetting of the natural contract lies at the root of our present environmental problems. But this imblance and this infatuation are not themselves somehow un-natural. They are a part of what we are as natural beings: evolved to be attuned to social nuances and complexities. Think how hard it is to remember a handful of facts about the world – even five or six; and think how easy it is to remember the baroque social complexity of the soap opera that we watched last night.

In the meditation practices taught in very early Buddhism, there is a similar process of moving from history to natural history. We sit in meditation and experience anger. Anger, although it has a natural basis, is often provoked by the various relationships we have as a part of the social contract. The practice then is not to attempt to see through the anger in terms of the social contract, but instead to return to looking more closely at the natural contract, seeing how this anger manifests in the body, as a physical agitation, a constriction in the gut, an increase in the speed of the breath. To break with the enchantment of our own history, perhaps, and to return to our natural history.

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#1 · Dave

16 August 2006

That does sound like a military museum worth visiting! I’d like to see something rather opposite, though: a natural history museum focusing on the aesthetic qualities and architectural/technical design elements of organisms. I think that would restore something lost when the original cabinets of curiosities evolved into the early modern museums with their focus on the organization of knowledge—i.e., imposed narratives.

At any rate, thanks for another great post.

#2 · zhoen

16 August 2006

Sounds like a great reason to visit Glasgow. I did not like arms and armory as a smalll girl. But now I find it fascinating. I could not find the Goya image you mention. Do you have it anywhere?

#3 · Algis

16 August 2006

I once also had simmilar philosophical considerations re “natural contract” etc. Especially concerning anger (mentioned in lat parapgraph of your post). Lately though I began to digest the “mirror-like mind” idea of older Patriarchs. Anger is not “bad” or “disposable” per se. It is a natural emotional response, a signal and energy boost meant to initiate some corrective, reforming action:))—we should learn to use this energy in ethical way, that is all. I do not see any reason why we should try to artificially “extinguish” it, since it has transiet nature as we all here agree:)). Personaly I like the “emotional intelligence” discourse of Steve Hein (http://eqi.org/) that speaks of “validation” of one’s emotions. That I would call a natural contract with the nature manifested in our “lower brain”: accept and use your emotions, don’t play with them tricky games of neditative avoidance (certainly, stress hormones are far from being “pleasant”).:)) So, instead of saying “I am angry, I am trying to let it go” or something it is to my view better to say I am angry, I feel energized, I now can change my behaviour or some of it’s conditions). Which brings us down to the old and somewhat external debate (initated by christian critics of western buddhism) on whether and how much the meditative practices (no matter Theravadin or Mahayanin) makes us more passive/inefective socially, economically, politically and so on.

#4 · Will

19 August 2006

Thanks for the comments. This is brief as I’m just about to catch a train back from Glasgow, but very quickly, here is a link to an image fo the Goya picture –

– used here in connection with a short article I wrote about location and writing fiction.

OK, folks, sorry to be so brief. More later!

All the best,


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