Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Lyall Watson

South African Scientist, Rationalist, Botanist, Zoologist, Biologist, Anthropologist, Ethologist and Author

"Gullibility isn’t a necessary consequence of being open-minded - but enlightenment is."

"If all Earth history is compressed into one “day”, the sea is mixed two thousand times in every “minute” of it, distributing warmth and energy evenly round our water-cooled and air-conditioned planet. Every eighteen “seconds” on this collapsed time scale, the world’s rivers dump enough dissolved salts into the sea to double its concentration, but this nevertheless remains around a resolute and reasonable 3 per cent. It is vital that this should be so, because few living cells can survive a salinity which exceeds, even for just a few seconds, a value of 6 per cent. Half the living matter in the world is still found in the sea, and that fact alone seems to make the chemical regulation not only necessary, but possible."

"If reality flows like a stream, then knowledge of such reality also becomes fluid, a process rather than a set of fixed truths. And because all knowledge is produced, displayed, communicated and applied in thought; then thought too must be seen as part of the same eternal tide... Thought is, in essence, a response of memory. It consists of a repetition of some image or sensation, or it involves a combination or reorganisation of such repetition in a new and useful way. So, in the end, intelligence turns out to be part of the flow. It is not grounded in cells or molecules, but drawn from the same moving stream as reality. In other words, mind and matter are ultimately inseparable."

"All societies create their own worlds, using language and folklore to impose an arbitrary order on the complexity of the cosmos. This ordering of reality helps make sense of things by interpreting information in ways which are compatible with what is already known."

"No life, no mind, no thought or inspiration can exist in isolation."

"Our consciousness of the world is biased. We see not with out eyes, but with our brains. What a piece of bread looks like, depends on how hungry we are."

"The biological origins of awareness... Contact, communication and recognition all take place at a very simple level - occurring even amongst social bacteria that seem to be able to recognise self from non-self."

"Life survives in the chaos of the cosmos by picking order out of the winds... Nothing happens in isolation. We breathe and bleed, we laugh and cry, we crash and die in time with cosmic cues."

"In short, human society is a product of evolution. It is created by natural selection and environmental pressures which bring individuals together in a special and powerful way, but it requires no physical change or mutation. It is a composition of ideas and beliefs - a new and essentially psychic phenomenon. A kind of supermind."

"Perception is based, to a very large extent, on conceptual models - which are always inadequate, often incomplete and sometimes profoundly wrong. This complex situation arose because signals from the environment itself can be inadequate. The sort of information we need is not always available. And so, knowledge from the past, mixed up with assumptions about that knowledge which may be more or less appropriate, are used to augment information provided by the senses. Which means that our perception of any situation depends only partly on sensory signals being received at that time. And it is only a very short step from there, to perception which occurs in the absence of all immediate signals and has to be labeled “extrasensory”."

"There seems to be direct link between truly creative intelligence and the ability to dilute consciousness, to cut mental corners and practice unusual, lateral thinking in what amounts almost to a state of trance. All the most profound insights seem to flow from breaches in the barrier between waking thought, which tends to be conservative, and dream logic, which is essential liberal."

"There is no way of confining thought. We cannot say where it begins or ends. Everything flows together into one unbroken totality of movement which does not belong to any particular place, person or time."

"There are around half a million words in the English language, but a recent statistical study of telephone speech discovered that 96 percent of all conversation over the wires consists of just 737 words."

"We know a great deal about the parts of living things, but next to nothing about the process which assembles those components into a functional whole. All life possesses properties which are peculiar, which cannot be understood in terms of the properties of the isolated parts. The whole creature is always much more than the sum of its parts."

"The suggestion that plants may communicate with the aid of hormones that drift through the air is nothing short of revolutionary. It makes them look much more sensitive, far more like animals, than the textbooks would have us believe."

"We spend a good part of our time establishing personal boundaries, creating individuality by drawing lines that define the limits of the self. But it becomes increasingly clear that these limits are artificial. We are part of the fabric and cannot avoid being so. Mere anarchy is seldom loosed upon the real world."

"We are exactly like a galaxy in or fine anatomy. Matter moves through you and me as easily as the wind blows through the branches of a tree. And the boundaries we draw at the limits of our skin are as arbitrary as those which separate our solar system from the next one. Everything is indeed connected to everything else, in the best traditions of ecology, but it goes further than that. Everything is everything else. There is no difference - and nothing is impossible."

"We are, without permission but with our tacit approval, the subjects of a giant electrical experiment. Nor is there any end in sight. The density of radio waves around us now is 100 million times the natural level reaching us from the Sun, and by 1990 it will have doubled again. When superconducting cables are introduced, the field strength around power line will be increased by another twenty times. And electric cars and vehicles moved by magnetic levitation will add entirely new sources of electropollution to the stew with which we are already assailed. Meanwhile, the first results of the experiment are starting to come in and there is, it seems, no place to hide."

"If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't."

"We try to abolish intervals by our manic insistence on keeping busy, on doing something. And as a result, all we succeed in doing is destroying all hope of tranquility... You have to learn to immerse yourself in the silences between."

"Both dance and dream are brought into being by the consciousness of a moment. They can never be repeated or successfully imitated. But you can dance and dream again. You must, if life is to continue."

"Dancing is surely the most basic and relevant of all forms of expression. Nothing else can so effectively give outward form to an inner experience. Poetry and music exist in time. Painting and architecture are a part of space. But only the dance lives at once in both space and time. In it the creator and the thing created, the artist and the expression, are one. Each participates completely in the other. There could be no better metaphor for an understanding of the mechanics of the cosmos."

"He was his usual philosophic self and tried very hard to explain to me that although life was stained with agony, this was necessary. That scars only concealed, and finally helped to reveal, an essential peace. He said that what we, who pass so swiftly, experience as songs of love or cries of pain are only overtones to a single note in a very much larger harmony."

"It is a fascinating and provocative thought that a body of water deserves to be considered as an organism in its own right."

"Air is traditionally 'thin,' but the more we learn about our atmosphere, the more substantial it becomes. In some places it is so filled with inorganic flotsam that it is almost thick enough to plough; in others, it has become so primed with the by-products of life that it comes close to being a living tissue in its own right."

"All I do is look, listen and try to make sense of what I find, in biological terms."

"Even the cleanest air, at the centre of the South Pacific or somewhere over Antarctica, has two hundred thousand assorted bits and pieces in every lungful. And this count rises to two million or more in the thick of the Serengeti migration, or over a six-lane highway during rush hour in downtown Los Angeles."

"I have had close relationships with three species of wild pigs, each a chance encounter on a different continent, and all continue to enrich my life in surprising ways."

"Breathing air is a liberating experience. It freed our ancestors from the constraints of staying wet or having to remain within easy reach of water for refuge, respiration or reproduction. But the biggest change it made in our lives was to expose us to a whole new range of sensory experience."

"Before sight and sound hijacked our attention, we shared with all life a sort of common sense, a chemical sense that depended on direct contact with matter in the water or the air."

"Even in the lives of fishes, sensation is seldom a matter of one thing or another. Senses overlap. The lines between them often tend to be blurred, and the best that we can manage, by way of description from the outside, is to say that the senses of fishes appear to dominate one at a time."

"I live and work alone and travel light, relying largely on my memory and making a point of letting intuition guide my way."

"If elephants didn't exist, you couldn't invent one. They belong to a small group of living things so unlikely they challenge credulity and common sense."

"If you simply walk on the beach as we are doing, you have no special color. But if you travel with a purpose, it is different. When you go somewhere important or you return home from a long journey, you build a shape around you and it reaches out ahead to touch your destination."

"It is a truism among researchers into smell that all human subjects behave as if they themselves do not smell like humans, because all humans smell bad."

"Seriously, a smaller, leaner, cleaner, tuskless and more secretive elephant is exactly what is needed. It definitely would live longer."

"Smell was our first sense. It is even possible that being able to smell was the stimulus that took a primitive fish and turned a small lump of olfactory tissue on its nerve cord into a brain. We think because we smelled."

"The fossils that decorate our family tree are so scarce that there are still more scientists than specimens. The remarkable fact is that all the physical evidence we have for human evolution can still be placed, with room to spare, inside a single coffin!"

"Smell is stimulating. It stirs things up and makes us nostalgic - a wonderful word which literally means 'ache for home' - which serves to inspire new circuits in the brain."

"Smell is a long-distance sense, a way of stretching time and finding out in advance what lies ahead."

"The limits of sensory evolution in fish are defined very largely by their habitat. Water is physically supportive, carries some kinds of odor well, and is kind to sound - letting it travel several times faster than air will allow, but it inhibits other more personal kinds of communication."

"To get to know someone new, you need to touch a lot."

"We share our planet quite naturally with a permanent aeroplankton; a buoyant ecology too soft to hear, too small to see, but heavy with mood and meaning. Imagine being aware of all these airy inclusions - and you can begin to understand how it might feel to be able to smell really well."

"We are in tune, and given the chance, we do things tunefully. We dance."

"You have to learn to immerse yourself in the silences between."