Sherwin Nuland — The Biology of the Spirit
March 6, 2014

Dr. Sherwin Nuland died this week at the age of 83. He became well-known for his first book, How We Die, which won the National Book Award. For him, pondering death was a way of wondering at life — and the infinite variety of processes that maintain human life moment to moment. He reflects on the meaning of life by way of scrupulous and elegant detail about human physiology.

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Selected Readings

Passages from Sherwin Nuland's Writings

Read along and listen to audio selections from Sherwin Nuland's book How We Live: the Wisdom of the Body on the value of beauty and the biological underpinnings of spirituality.

Selected Audio

Brain, Mind, and Spirit: The Wisdom of the Human Body

[RealAudio, 1:15:41]
Listen to the complete audio of Sherwin Nuland's lecture given at the Chautauqua Institution on August 22, 2005. For more of his lectures, visit The Great Lecture Library.

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Mr. Nuland seems like he was a real pleasant per to talk with. I have a different world view than he had. I wonder what his is now.

I was unaware of Dr. Nuland until I heard about his passing earlier this week. I want to read both How We Die and How We Live to gain a closer understanding of what he says, knows--or said, knew. I so appreciated his saying during your interview that he needed to think about a certain point or statement--to rethink or to understand more fully. I am learning more about death because I work for a hospice AND because I have experienced so many passings in my personal realm these past nine years.

This morning I caught only the very end of your program with Sherwin Nuland. I was most struck by his remarks from his presented at the Chautauqua Institution.

I was disheartened to hear Nuland's remarks that it is "my spiritual self that enables me to be of use to society...and to love in ways that only members of my species can love."

I am not so sure we are the only species who reason, are of use to their society and express love. But that thinking enables us "as a species" to slaughter and eliminate other species - species critical to the balance and health of habitat in the world.

It is my hope that, just as we are now familiar with DNA we will learn and come to embrace the social and spiritual lives of species other than ours, that we will come to understand other species and their contributions to our world.

Have a look How Wolves Change Rivers on Vimeo‎

I think we need to think a bit bigger, stop thinking of our species as the end all and be all.

And as for educating ten-year-olds to better grasp Science - as a Grade 3 classroom teacher, I would love nothing better. But with high stakes testing in Math and ELA, a Science program requires time I do not have to unpack (given paperwork and data to record and track), we do not work on Science to the extent we would all love to.

I love your program. Carry on.

I get what you're saying about thinking bigger than humans. Clearly, we're just a piece in an amazing natural patchwork. But the reason we humans are so hung up on our own species is because we want to know who and what we are. We want to understand ourselves because we are the only ones in our environment that seem to be like us in the way that we think and interact with our environment. None of this makes the rest of the environment any less important. Actually, I would even say that understanding humans will help us understand our place in the environment. Of course, that will involve understanding how to live in our environment without destroying it.

Where is the presentation Dr. Nuland delivered at the Chautauqua Institution? In this morning's program, it was mentioned that this was available at the website

Just this afternoon as I was in my car, I heard an interview with Dr Nuland. Upon arriving at home, I went to the On Living website to hear the complete discussion. His comments confirm so much that I have thought about life, religion, biology, etc. over a long time. I will certainly explore the website to learn more about life of the human being.

This show is so amazing, thank you all for the careful handling of our hearts, minds and souls.

You, Krista, are ever an angel to me. I've been listening to you for many years and you help me realize I am not alone, you understand; period. The educated need you. All of us need you. Thank you exceedingly much for your time and efforts! Love And Peace To You, Robert

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

I am not awfully good with modern poetry, actually. Could you please translate that into prose, so that I might understand what you are trying to say? Thanks. (Or, perhaps you will reply --as some poets would-- that it just doesn't translate, and if I have to ask, well, then never mind.)

Krista Tippett,
Just when I think "On Being" won't be able to break through my mental meanderings, another crucial interview comes along like the one with Sherwin Nuland. I caught your show over the internet and it rattled my salubrious human spirit. Dr. Nuland died on my birthday and came to life in my thoughts March 9th, 2014. Thank-you Ms. Tippett. Please continue such excellence.

I like Ms
Tippett she does a great job interviewing

I love this program, she always introduce us to great human beings, to noble ones!! thank you Kristy!

On being is a superior broadcast and one I enjoy listening to, however it has a distinct "human centric" or "species centric" tenor to it which is increasingly arcane. I hope to see more discussion and discourse about the non-human animal, more on the equivalence of all life, and the wonder of that equivalence. Warmly - rosemary

"Dr. Nuland:When people talk about Galileo, they say, 'Oh, my God, Galileo, he was a heretic, he was' — not at all.
Ms. Tippett: Not true, I know. It's just, I know. Bad history.
Dr. Nuland: Galileo's entire pursuit was to bring his theory into keeping with church doctrine."

Breathtaking ignorance or deliberate revision of history displayed by host and guest here: Galileo's entire pursuit was not to bring his theory into keeping with church doctrine but in keeping with observed reality. That's why he's known as the father of science. For his efforts the church condemned Galileo for "vehement suspicion of heresy".

Even more embarrassing, we see Nuland and Tippett repeatedly asserting the existence of their god as a given while the god hypothesis has roundly been rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world's leading scientists.

A clear case of vehement suspicion of beliefs held against the evidence.<<<<<< This comment was blocked and unpublished because Project Honeypot indicates it came from a suspicious IP address.

I would really like to listen to the lecture Brain,Mind and Spirit but the link will not work?

Everything in nature is a result of the evolutionary processes. Human spirit, soul, AND sense for beauty. However, this fact does not disprove the existence of God. For those of us who believe, theory of evolution, biology, quantum physics provide a glimpse into a magnificent intelligence of the Creator.I hope that those believers who can not reconcile wonders and intelligence of the evolutionary principles with the existence of wondrous and intelligent God who created nature, I hope that they will study, educate themselves and stop reducing God into a prescribed patterns… Long time ago, church was bothered with a discovery that Earth revolved around sun. What a missed opportunity to marvel at God's wonder! Let's not diminish His wonders today when we look deep into a microcosms, time, and space. Best!

Voices on the Radio

was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, where he also taught bioethics and medical history. His books include How We Die, Lost in America, Maimonides, and How We Live: The Wisdom of the Body.

Production Credits

Host/Executive Producer: Krista Tippett

Head of Content: Trent Gilliss

Senior Producer: Lily Percy

Technical Director: Chris Heagle

Associate Producer: Mariah Helgeson