How life evolves

Exploring ‘The Sacred Depths of Nature’ with author and biologist Ursula Goodenough.


How did the universe begin? How will the Earth end? How did humans evolve? Why do we have sex? Why do we die?

In her extraordinary book, “The Sacred Depths of Nature: How Life Has Emerged and Evolved,” Dr. Ursula Goodenough poses, answers, and reflects upon all these questions, and more.

Goodenough is professor emerita of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is a resident of Chilmark. Published by Oxford University Press in 2023, “The Sacred Depths of Nature” is actually the second edition of this book. The first edition was published in 1997.

The book begins with the introduction from the first edition, which is followed by an introduction for this new edition, and then a brief piece explaining the composition of this book. Thirteen chapters follow, each of them describing a detailed aspect of biology, and each of them ending with a reflection. The book concludes with two Epilogues, the first titled “Emergent Religious Principles” and the second “The Religious Naturalist Orientation.”

Goodenough is a “religious naturalist,” and in her words, “a religious naturalist is a naturalist who, having adopted Everybody’s Story as a core narrative, goes on to explore its religious potential, developing interpretive, spiritual, and moral/ethical responses in the context of the natural world.” In the book, Goodenough offers a religious reflection on each aspect of nature that is described in the chapter. Although Goodenough does not follow a particular established religion, she adores religion, and draws from many different established religions in her reflections.

This is a book about religion and nature, yet if the reflections were removed, it would be an excellent overview of biology for the interested laity. The first chapter of substance is “Origins of the Earth,” and Goodenough rises to the challenge of describing the Big Bang of some 13.8 billion years ago, and everything that has happened in the cosmos since. The first chapter’s reflection explores the theme of “Mystery,” and she relates a tale from when she was young and on a camping trip in Colorado, and found herself overwhelmed with terror as she gazed up into the countless number of stars in the sky.

In this chapter, I learned something a bit unsettling that had escaped me, or perhaps I had ignored, in my years of scientific study. That is, that when the sun starts running out of hydrogen, it will become brighter, swell up, boil all the oceans, and then cause the Earth to spiral into it and be absorbed. However, that is 5 billion years from now, so it is no cause for immediate concern.

Subsequent chapters relate the origin of life, cell biology, evolution, biodiversity, awareness, sex, intimacy, death, morality, and a new theme: ecomorality. These chapters explain intricate and essential biological processes, such as cell mitosis and meiosis. She explains the functions of genes and the interactions of strands of DNA. She describes all with a sense of awe and wonder, despite knowing exactly how all of this works.

I found certain reflections gripping, notably the one in which Goodenough describes jumping into the ocean on a south shore beach to rescue her son from a rip current. I shuddered just thinking of it. And I found her scientific explanation of mortality and immortality the most compelling that I have read. Some organisms are theoretically immortal. Certain algae, for example, can go on forever, as long as they have enough light and water and nutrients to keep functioning. Yet most organisms are mortal: “But once you have a life cycle with a germ line and a soma, then immortality is handed over to the germ line.” In other words, it is the DNA that is immortal — organisms just pass down the DNA from one generation to the next, mixing it up for good measure with sexual reproduction.

Of special note was a brief section on lichens. Goodenough is actually an expert on lichens. For the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation newsletter, she wrote an article describing the different kinds of lichens we have on Martha’s Vineyard. The article is available at this link:

The lichen is unique, a combination of plant, fungi, and bacteria, all working together to create a unique ecosystem. Goodenough recommends that we learn from the lichen, in our own effort to strive for sustainable ecosystems.

Throughout this scientific and religious book, the reader will feel a strong sense of reverence. While Goodenough is a religious naturalist, throughout this book, she also conveys how utterly natural it is to be religious.

Adam R. Moore is president of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.