I’ve just started reading Denialism by Michael Specter (haven’t gotten deeply enough into it to determine whether I agree with all the negative reviews–which I haven’t read deeply anyway so as to not bias myself). It’s the latest in a number of influences ranging from a scientific-rationalist-transhumanist partner, to reading things like Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, balancing out a lot of the more woo-woo reading and interaction I do. I’m of the firm belief that my spirituality does not have to be antithetical to science; in fact, I see science as an augmentation of my understanding of my cosmology. Totemism, for example, stems in large part from a metaphorical extrapolation of human observations of animal behavior. And there are plenty of ridiculous and even unsafe behaviors that can come as a result of being chronically ungrounded and out of touch with consensus reality (regardless of how much you personally disagree with that reality, it’s still important to be keenly aware of its existence and the mutual effect you and it have on each other).
One of the things that I tell people curious about totemism is that one of the best ways to get to know totems is to study their natural history and biology, to get to know the physical animals attached to the totems. What I see all too often is a romanticization of animals, and a lack of understanding of actual animal behavior. For instance, there’s the oft-related myth that non-human animals never injure or kill another except in self-defense or for food. Yet this ignores a host of documented, and sometimes common, animal behaviors. Male lions taking over a new pride will kill the young of their predecessors so they can breed with the lionesses. Male dolphins rape females. Foxes and other canine/vulpine predators have been known to kill an entire flock of chickens (or, in the case of larger predators, sheep), much more than they can eat and cache.
And there are other projections of human ideals onto animals. Look at the lone wolf, for example. In American culture, rugged individualism is prized, and wolves are often seen as the symbol of the wild (independence). Thus the ideal of the “lone wolf”. Yet in actuality, a lone wolf is generally one who is marked for death if s/he can’t find a pack to join. S/he may be too old, or may have been driven from the family pack to avoid inbreeding. Hunting large ungulates, which are important food in cold months especially, is too dangerous to do alone–a single kick from an elk can snap a wolf’s jaw or leg, which is essentially a death sentence. Hence wolves having evolved to hunt in packs. Therefore, the lone wolf ideal is just that–an ideal, not reality.
Even concepts that were made in good science at the time can be changed. L. David Mech, for example, has publicly rescinded the alpha wolf concept he introduced way back when. That’s not a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. Science is not a perfect system, but it is designed to minimize errors. You simply can’t have a 0% rate of errors when dealing with human perception and behavior.
And natural history and biology are ways for me to gain better understanding of the totems and animal spirits I work with, as well as the greater cosmology (way of understanding the universe) I work with. I’m admittedly fond of myth and metaphor as structures for understanding, but I keep them in addition to, not opposed to, literal, materialistic, scientific explanations. I know, for example, that my perception of Brown Bear being a totem of healing for me has a good deal to do with human interpretation of certain traits and behaviors of brown bears, and the mythos that has grown up around that. That doesn’t mean that physical brown bears will walk up to me and give me a healing herb if I end up sickened in a forest in Alaska. I’d rather know how to safely avoid conflict with large omnivorous animals that could do me some serious damage if I don’t respect them and their territories.
I am even more convinced that one of the best ways to get to know more about a totem is to study the behaviors and other traits of its physical counterparts, whether you have access to the animals themselves directly or only through media. Not only does it give one better knowledge about the animal, but it also helps to reduce unhealthy romanticization that can give incorrect information about the physical animals, which can then lead to inaccurate public perception which can affect the realities of things like species management and reintroduction efforts. Yes, we want people to know that grey wolves are not the vicious killers that European-based folklore paints them to be. But we do need to acknowledge the complaints of ranchers who actually have lost stock to wolves; if they feel heard and included in the debates, then perhaps they’ll be more amenable to finding solutions that benefit the wolves but don’t leave the ranchers completely out of the loop. (Hence not hyper-romanticizing wolves as never, ever preying on livestock, etc.)
I have a longer post on science and spirituality I want to write at some point, the gist of which is “Science is not a way of controlling the world; it is a way of understanding the world. You don’t make reality happen through science, and it’s not some force to be combated with magic or spirituality. It’s simply a systematic way of perceiving the world in great detail, and that does not have to be antithetical to spirituality”.