Timothy And The Ha-Ha

chagall my village

“Human intelligence is greatly overrated.” Compared to what? Some or several experts on cybernetics, artificial intelligence or information technology have made this statement. Perhaps comparing human intelligence to that of machines. All the more true compared to animals.

Like United States exceptionalism, human exceptionalism is based usually on willful ignorance and limited intelligence.

The Enlightenment era naturalist Gilbert White’s 1784 book Natural History of Selborne, NHS, inspired many later scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau. Of course in Gilbert White’s time philosophy and science were considered the same, and the enlightened contemporary encyclopedists and scientists like Diderot claimed the honorable title “Philosphe.”

Gilbert White writes with mock astonishment for the fact that Timothy, his tortoise, wanders along the edge of the ha-ha on the border of White’s garden. A ha-ha is the equivalent for a garden of the modern infinity pool border, a sunken wall that protects the garden from livestock like a fence but not visible from the house or inside of the enclosure.

Gilbert White writing from the tortoise’s perspective in a letter:

“I heard my master say that he expected that I should some day tumble down the ha-ha; whereas I would have him to know that I can discern a precipice from plain ground as well as himself.”

You might appreciate the ironic humor from a churchman, curate Gilbert White, writing proxy letters from Timothy the tortoise vs. apostle Paul’s letters to his disciple Timothy in the New Testament.


The modest, unpretentious, self-critical narrative style and language of NHS and Gilbert White’s posthumously published letters stand in contrast to the arrogance and false objectivity underlying much of earlier and later science.

Gilbert White was of course writing from within his culture and prejudice but his approach and cautious often self-critical observations help the reader to interpret those perspectives and prejudices, not claiming to be absolute unquestionable truth. In modern terms, a recognition that all information is filtered and distorted. Moreover that the observation affects the observed.


Voltaire may well have intended the more practical literal meaning when he had Candide say, “must cultivate your garden.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s