Posted by: carlsafina | Wednesday, July 25 07

The Love of Mystery

The San Francisco Chronicle’s online SFGate recently (Friday, July 20, 2007) carried an article titled: “Please Never Find A Giant Squid,” by Mark Morford (

His thesis: “We haven’t really captured a live one yet… [He means healthy, but let him go on] Can we right now put out a… meek and humble supplication to the gods of nature and time and science and human endeavor? Can we make it a juicy and spiritually-charged appeal that runs in direct opposition to the mad and never-ending human need to find and grab and trap and kill every gorgeous messy squishy mystery we ever encounter so as to study it and quantify it and force-fit it into our rather narrow worldview, a very specific offering that says please, oh please, let us never, ever capture and understand and fully comprehend a live 50-foot, 2-ton colossal deep-sea squid? Please?”

He does go on, but you get his drift: mystery equals appreciation, and mystery dies when we learn something, and when mystery dies, our human spirits are diminished. I’m paraphrasing but that’s what I got out of it. I’ve heard this argument many times. I feel the opposite. For me, learning deepens and broadens the experience of being alive, and it deepens the mysteries. The worldview, narrow only in ignorance, expands.

By the way, the Giant Squid and Colossal Squid are two different species, so if he wants to stay ignorantly mystery-struck, he’s off to a good start.

And that’s basically my point. The more you know, the richer the world is. I mean, right here, we either have one huge type of squid or two. I’d rather know there are two. That’s twice as amazing. How do we know? Because scientists study them. That’s why I love science.

People hostile to facts about nature seem to think the more you know the more you will fail to see beauty. How tragically wrong. The more we learn the more we can appreciate. And still the surface beauty remains—more so in fact because we can see the differences, and thus increase the topography and surface texture of the world. Flat versus varied. Vive le difference!

The people I know who most love and delight in natural beauty are all scientifically inclined. They see much more than people who don’t really know—and don’t want to know—what they’re looking at. Their understanding takes them deep. If we have an open mind, and are not averse to facts, we learn details and richness that goes beneath the surface.

The more we hold the world at arm’s length and beat the curiosity out of ourselves, the more we lose the romantic view that motivates scientists and artists and explorers. And then, ironically, those who profess to love mystery seem to turn their backs on the mystery.

What’s left if we leave the squids and every other mystery “alone” and savor our ignorance? While scientists are out in boats sucking the marrow out of life, everyone else is in their cubicles or going to the supermarket or paying bills. The forces of destruction go to work anyway; they don’t stop overfishing or cutting down forests because a few people who fear learning want to leave the “mystery” in place.

Intellectual understanding enhances romance rather than masks it. One squid or two? I’ll take two. (Actually there are nearly 800 species of squids and their close relatives; if you want to be blown away by the mystery and richness of a world so populated with living diversity of just this one group of astonishing animals—cephalopod mollusks—see

People who love the thought of mystery for its own sake, who aren’t interested in learning, who don’t burn with curiosity and the insatiable hunger to just inhale life—strike me as sad, and usually rather dull. That laziness that wants to preserve the mystery is just the other side of the same coin that makes people merely blasé.

The article says “the human soul craves mystery.” Certainly. But let’s not confuse craving mystery with craving ignorance. If you crave mystery, learn everything you possibly can, and the mystery of existence will so rapidly expand it will be like a supernova in your brain. It will leave you gasping for breath.

There’s nothing to be afraid of, except fear itself.

— Carl Safina



  1. […] The Love of Mystery by Carl Safina. Filed under: General   |   […]

  2. I really appreciated this article and I couldn’t agree more. “If you crave mystery, learn everything you possibly can, and the mystery of existence will so rapidly expand it will be like a supernova in your brain. It will leave you gasping for breath.” Excellent writing; how true and how awesome. We can never fully understand the world. We can never solve every mystery. There is no need to fear losing our sense of mystery and awe.

  3. Yes. We discovered a brown-hooded cockroach in the downstairs bathroom last night. I thought it was the coolest insect, and then I read up on it. Monogamous, takes two to six years to reach maturity, social, high parental investment, disjunct range in Appalachia and western mountains. My husband was headed to the toilet to flush it down, but wisely showed it to me first, and the supernova flared. I spent much of today watching it, then let it go. How much poorer would we be without knowing what it was.
    for photos and narrative.

    I love Julie’s comment. Not many roach huggers in the world yet. Julie may be the first! Wonder envelops us, if we open.
    –Carl Safina

  4. As ever, I cast my vote in support of Safina and his extensive work and his first-rate writing.

    To Julie’s Response, 3, above, as it relates to his article here, Love of Mystery:

    Roaches are among the most primitive living insects and are among the oldest fossil insects.

    Take note of Safina the humorist: “If you’re awake with them, you learn to avoid the kitchen in the dark unless you’re fond of flying cockroaches just slightly smaller than skateboards. Either you will step on one while barefoot, or one will fly across the room and hit you–usually in the face” pg. 332, Eye of the Albatross, author Safina, a caring man out there actually doing what he says needs doing: observing, participating, speaking up, eloquently, urging legislation/positive works to effect us all– including, ultimately, the well-being of, yes, the long-surviving cockroach?

    Roaches thrive for us in the warm summers of Kyoto, rather sizable: I add here, for anyone who has time, humor in support of Carl and his earnest great doings:

    kitchen sink outta sight
    when I see a roach approach
    I escape roach approach? wellll—-
    never did a roach approach,
    they turn tail–gives me the creeps.
    We should’ve been together, you, and I
    would’ve held you up:
    Hands up! no, hands down for a roach
    I was some time ago, eons, myself
    never could’ve dropped the encyclopedia
    flat down on you.
    It counts ’cause it led by turns to when
    I should’ve held you up, alive.
    Open cupboard,
    one, two,…mercy me,
    sakes alive–
    Open sesame!

    Roach hugger…? Wonder does something, you bet, Safina: “…like a supernova in your brain. It will leave you gasping for breath”!

  5. Carl, This is exactly the response that has given people of a certain religious sensibility an aversion to science. As if the more we know about reality, the less we know about God. This cannot be true of a God who is Real, or has anything to do with reality for that matter. I think the perspective you have articulated here is inherently mystical and is at the heart of an authentic religious sensibility. Once people of faith catch (back) on to this, we’ll have gone a long way to bridging the current chasm between science faith. Assigned Reading for all evangelicals: Song for the Blue Ocean.

  6. Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like somethings will always remain mystery.

    I myself has been trying to solve the mystery of the legend that forces you to have “earn it before

    having it”, for a wile now. Could not understand much though.

    Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the Legend

    By the way, good writing style. I’d love to read more on similar topics

  7. Man, I followed that dark truth link, and was completely in the story. Damn exciting. The latest post talks about a friend of him who’s gone missing . Somewhere on his way to Leh, India. And the guy is asking for help find it. Soundss like an online game . This looks interesting. M already hooked on.

    Hey, btw, nice post you have there – keep rocking – 😉

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