I’ve never thought much about the rights and wrongs of curiosity. I’ve never thought much about whether or not there were such things. I’ve never been curious enough, I suppose. I’ve accepted curiosity a priori as one of the most joyful traits of being alive and sentient. I didn’t know that there are people who argue that a questioning mind is a weak mind, and that a wandering mind reveals an unsettled soul. Curiosity, some say, is the devil’s playground. But thanks to Kim Todd and her essay Curious, which I read in the 2015 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, I find myself curious about my curiosity.
She begins her essay writing about the Surinam toad whose offspring emerge from within the skin of the female’s back. I am caught. My curiosity compels me to read the next paragraph. I shove children aside, kick the dog, and push food away until I learn more. I’m sure that Ms. Todd planned this. Certain clerics have noted the evil in my thoughts. She quotes the English preacher Thomas Brooks from the 1600’s who says that “Curiosity is the spiritual adultery of the soul. Curiosity is spiritual drunkenness”. A hundred years later his religious countrymen would laud curiosity as a means to discover God’s handiwork in the world.
It’s clear, then, that from a certain viewpoint, curiosity is dangerous. An engaged and thinking mind is not always rewarded. It’s not a strict corollary, but how many educated, engaged, and wondering souls did Chairman Mao murder in his Cultural Revolution? Their crime? Having an education that could lead to the possibility of wondering if he was right. This is always the fear of despots, both religious and secular.
As I pat myself on the back for my sense of curiosity, I wonder about a couple of things. When does healthy or harmless curiosity fall across the fence into injurious obsession? I know a woman who grew up next door to Ted Bundy. They played as children and she rode around the neighborhood on the back of his Honda Step-Through 90. He was as normal as any other awkward kid, she told me. When did his question of ‘I wonder what happens…’ turn to something monstrous?
I watch my girls play with Shopkins. They’re fun little goofy baubles that they buy and then trade with other girls in the neighborhood. I wonder how far my curiosity about nature is from their curiosity about Shopkins? What makes one of more value that the other? Do science and biology and evolution carry an intrinsic value that separates them from any other piece of shiny foil hanging in a bowerbird’s nest?
So I will be more accepting of people’s goofiness. I have plenty of my own and you know the saying: One person’s tomato is another’s tamato. C’est la vie!
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