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Uncommon Knowledge - Dr. Ursula Goodenough

As told to Jeannette Batz Cooperman
Photograph by Mark Gilliland

Ursula Goodenough's father was an agnostic fascinated by the religious impulse. He taught the history of religion at Yale University, and he taught his daughter to love the life of the mind—and the heart. Drawn to the natural world, she earned her Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University in 1969, "just before the women's movement hit. I never expected to get a real job." Two years later, she was hired at Harvard; in 1978, she joined the faculty of Washington University. Goodenough is equally comfortable analyzing the cells in a goldfish gland and exploring the cosmic sweep of genetics. Her most recent book, The Sacred Depth of Nature, redefines reverence.


The most reliable joy is to be out of doors, to be a creature among other creatures. I find it very restful.

Complete and utter misery is looking at the headlines in The New York Times most mornings—extinctions and global warming, destruction of habitats.

I'm especially concerned about the great apes, because their habitats are under huge pressure, and they are our closest relatives, and we have a great deal to learn from them.

Reverence is the sense that there is something larger than the self, larger even than the human, to which one accords respect and awe and assent.

The word "religion" goes back to the Latin ligere, "to bind." So religion means "to bind together again." I think we should develop religions that allow us to do that.

Our understanding that we are animals and we share a common ancestry with chimpanzees—in fact, with all life—has been a major new way of thinking about the human.

The dominant American culture right now concerns me greatly. But the culture that is still there underneath, and I hope will assert itself again, is one of openness and compassion, fun-loving, full of energy and irony.

Law is necessary, but in a more functional culture, it would presumably be less necessary than it is now, because people would know what to do.

You know your marriage isn't working when you are lonely.

Our primate lineage is social, and our fellow apes, in general, get along very well. There are reports of so-called wars when territories overlap—but that's something we can educate ourselves to transcend. We use it as an excuse.

People worry too much about themselves. If you realize that we are all in this together and the real point is to have a culture—and a planet—that works, your worries will be a lot less pressing.

I believe in what I call the credo of continuation: that we should do everything we can to allow life to flourish and evolve.

There are two kinds of power. "Power over" is very problematical. "Power within" is very exciting. You can tell the difference by whether you are messing with other people or not.

What is hard is understanding your self-worth and not caving in to perceived inadequacy.

What scares me? The way the world is going. People seem to think that development is more important than sustainability. That fundamentalism is more important than openness. That racial differences should dictate political decisions. That a person's sexuality is somebody else's business.

I like mindful people. Fear prevents mindfulness, and then greed marches in because you are fearful, so you feel like you have to shore everything up.

You can't have thought without emotion, and one emotion is fear, and making an important decision on the basis of fear is not a good idea. So develop your courage.