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Science, faith, storytelling and the natural world in The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021)

Much of modern science and philosophy deals in seeking the empirical truth, but the truth is not limited to what can be proven, argues Amitav Ghosh's new book.

The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021) by Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh, is a book that blends storytelling, historical analysis, anecdote and political commentary  centred around the history of the book’s protagonist – the nutmeg spice. Ghosh argues that the modern climate crisis is largely facilitated by a Western, mechanistic understanding of the earth that renders the natural world “inert.” Centring his argument around the nutmeg, he attempts to subvert such an understanding and show that spices, tea, sugar cane, opium, and fossil fuels too can be the “movers and shakers” of history.

Although the whole book is mind-blowing as a multifaceted analysis of our world, Chapter 15, ‘Brutes’, is of particular significance. Beginning with the history of the term ‘brutes’ as used to justify oppression and genocide, the chapter continues as an exploration of nonhuman communication. Ghosh argues that the vast majority of the world at any given point in time has held some belief deemed unfalsifiable by reason and science. But are such beliefs inherently untrue? Ghosh writes: “it takes only a moment’s reflection to recognise that claims to communication with nonhumans – animals, volcanoes, trees, gods, demons, angels, and indeed God – have been made by innumerable men and women… Some were among the most venerated figures of their time: human society and human history would be incomprehensible without these figures.” Much of modern science and philosophy deals in seeking the empirical truth, but is what is true limited to what can be proven?

Just as policy-making often lags behind cultural values, a scientific understanding of the world is often simply revealing timeless truths and experiences. By way of example, “scientists now accept that trees in a forest are able to communicate with each other in certain circumstances – they can send help, in the form of carbon, to ailing members of their group; and they can warn each other about pestilence and disease,” writes Ghosh. Even though this is a recent discovery, it has, of course, been true since long before humans inhabited the planet. Let alone since science could prove it. 

Science now also accepts that animals communicate with one another, both within species and across them. Animals have always been able to communicate with each other, but our ability to prove this scientifically has been limited: “It is only in that they lack language – a human attribute – that they are mute.” To the trees, points out Ghosh, would it not seem that us humans are also mute?

Our understanding of the world has not always been so reductive – in fact in some ways, it has regressed. Unsurprisingly, Ghosh notes, the erasure of culture and “the hand of power has often fallen hardest on Indigenous people…The hummah-hah narratives of the Laguna Pueblo…are about the conversations that ‘coyotes, crowards and buzzards used to have with human beings.’” Western, rationalist perspectives have derided these histories, but such are perhaps cynical, uncharitable and mechanistic outlooks, demanding proof for trans-species encounters that are often unrepeatable or unevidenced by nature.

Ghosh sums this up eloquently when he points out that “contemporary reason requires of anyone who makes a claim to communication with nonhumans that they provide evidence of these interactions. That condition necessarily excludes anyone who says: ‘A nonhuman spoke to me, and only me, just once, when I was in an altered state of mind, and what was communicated by this nonhuman was not something useful, nor something verifiable: it was instead only a story.’”

Ghosh never really argues, and nor would I, that we must believe such stories or dismantle science as a building block of our society. Rather, the point is that perhaps we should be less quick to judge, demand proof, finger someone as a liar, or disbelieve the stories of communication or faith that have guided the histories of so many throughout the world.

After all, if Hogwarts was real, would us Muggles know about it?