Back in the early 1980s we still lived in Minneapolis, and we frequently visited St. Paul where daughter Monique had a rather unique apartment—the bottom floor of a sprawling old mansion, in what had once been one of the most fashionable neighborhoods, almost walking distance from the Capitol. Near there, about two blocks away, was a splendidly large and eccentric bookshop where, on many an afternoon, I’d wander to find strange and wonderful books. Quite a few from my collection come from there. I chanced across one of these in an almost hidden half-aisle at the back. It was titled Peaceable Nature, by Stephan Lackner; it came out in 1984. The title alone brought instant affirmation. The theme of the book had many times come into my own thoughts as I’d avidly studied biology down to its very foundations and discovered there something quite other than “Nature, red in tooth and claw” as per Lord Tennyson. Lackner’s observation, in a phrase, was that nature is cooperative and symbiotic, by and large; it’s peaceable and, furthermore, all of one piece—and so is, hold on now, humanity.
I’d also had had that same thought often when looking at the world as a whole rather than through the distorting lens of the Media, the first time many years before, in Washington, DC. I was working late downtown, alone in an empty office suite. It was after dark already—it was Spring—when I descended into the grubby underground to drive our little blue VW up and out in a spiraling course and then, down 18th Street, then headed west to cross into Arlington by the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge, aiming further for the suburbs. I discovered the next morning that at that very time, about two blocks from the office that I had occupied, the largest protest march in all of U.S. history up to that time had taken place. The cause was the Vietnam War; the year was 1970. I’d seen nothing, nothing whatsoever, to signal that something really big was going down. The big picture was quiet.
To this picture I must link what Brigitte and I call “the virtues of modernity,” namely that so many, many things—indeed most things—work so wonderfully well and last so long. We never fail to note this when we’re on a trip and hurtling through some urban area on a well-made freeway at seventy miles an hour in dense traffic, with huge truck roaring as we pass them and other vans and cars pass us, even at that speed. “The noble ball-bearing,” I always think—thousands and thousands and thousands of them—and never a one failing. And that’s just the transport system. But this general virtue—which depends on discipline, care, consistency—and each system, social and physical, properly interlocking—touches virtually every aspect of modern life. To be sure, a cynical take might be that what we call virtue isn’t. It’s simply adaptive behavior; those who violate it will feel the lash of sanctions. All right, all right. That’s true enough. But here, this morning, I take the wider view. I look down upon all this from a great height. I think of the workmen who poured the concrete of what is now our new neighbors’ drive; I watched them working, carefully, thoughtfully, returning several times to one spot that wouldn’t behave. And what I saw was care, commitment, virtue. And these were ordinary people, a real random sample of American humanity. I prefer to think of it was virtue. It’s there, and overwhelmingly present.
It’s good to remind ourselves, occasionally, of this, the bigger picture, in nature and in man—because by our very biological design we’re much more inclined to see those things that fail, that threaten, than the overwhelming mass of things that function with exceeding excellence.