Coming to the close of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin sums up its argument (“this whole volume,” he says, “is one long argument”) and then permits himself a brief but memorable visionary passage. He evokes an image of the world as a swarming, interconnected order. “It is interesting,” Darwin writes, “to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
The sentence is magnificent but also understated. Darwin knew perfectly well that the public, hearing about his new understanding of the natural order, would find his ideas provocative in the worst possible sense. Scandal and outrage ebbed and flowed, and still do. But while he had the reader’s attention, Darwin tried to steer it in another direction.
His tangled bank, home to organisms “so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner,” is both an ecosystem and a point of contact between the human mind and nature itself. Between the lines of Darwin’s long sentence runs a current of emotion—a kind of awe.
A more precise characterization of the mood takes shape in Kay Harel’s book, Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia (Columbia University Press). The author, who holds graduate degrees in science journalism and English, offers a long essay on Darwin and six shorter ones radiating out from it, petal-like, presenting a thematic interpretation of Darwin’s concerns and worldview rather than anything like a biography. Even so, it offers a psychological portrait in miniature. The author describes Darwin as “careful with fact but sweeping with theory, charming but also logical, precise with language but in an embrace with the unknown, with a gentle voice but a bulldozer’s forward momentum.” He threw himself into both arduous research and the satisfactions of family life. Even with chronic health problems, a Victorian happier than Charles Darwin would be difficult to imagine.
But Harel’s notion of biophilia goes beyond joie de vivre, though that is surely part of it: not just an emotional disposition but a love of living beings, of understanding them and thereby participating in their distinctive ways of existing in the world. She makes frequent reference to Erich Fromm’s contrast between open and closed varieties of personality and culture.
Fromm’s work on the psychology of authoritarianism has been rediscovered over the past decade, and it informs the distinction between what he calls biophilia and necrophilia. The latter term calls to mind the horrors of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, but Fromm understands necrophilia more generally as a mentality or character type defined by hatred, manipulation and the lust for control and self-aggrandizement. Someone driven by biophilia, by contrast, wants to live and let live. The biophile is, Fromm writes, “attracted by the process of life and growth in all its spheres. He prefers to construct rather than to retain. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new to the security of finding confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty … He sees the whole rather than only the parts.”
Frommian biophilia is part psychological dynamic, part ethical stance. But it also a cognitive style, and the biophilic quality of Darwin’s intelligence is Harel’s real subject. “My mind,” Darwin said in his autobiography, “seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” Harel cites this remark but implicitly rejects his concern that a dogged pursuit of concrete scientific knowledge had weakened his aesthetic and emotional sensitivity. Darwin recognized in himself a constitutional inclination to speculate, to play with hypotheses (“I cannot resist forming one on every subject,” he said)—an activity he called “building castles in the air.”
Ardent for data, with an unembarrassed inclination to daydream, Darwin also disregarded conventions of thought “without fear of being ludicrous,” as his son Francis recalled.
In his notebooks, he rejected the tendency to “overrate the distinction” between human language and the communicative powers of animals. Insects exhibited “extraordinary mental activity with an extremely small absolute mass of nervous matter,” he mused. “The brain of an ant is one of the most marvelous [pieces] of matter in the world, perhaps more marvelous than the brain of man.” He studied the movement of plants (it is the subject of one of his final books) and in particular was fascinated by the possibility that insectivorous plants exhibited a kind of cognition. Harel writes that Darwin would have been receptive to more recent findings that some plants “emit chemical warning signals about oncoming threats, and engage in other exchanges … that can be called communication.”
An undercurrent of Harel’s thinking is the question of whether Darwin’s biophile ethos and epistemology are congruent with Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Penguin Random House, 1998). There, Wilson writes that “all tangible phenomena, from the birth of the stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”
Wilson’s avowedly reductionist program means that “the hard problem”—as philosophers have taken to calling the enigma of consciousness—is solvable, sooner or later. Certain neurons fire when you remember something, but isn’t there a seemingly unbridgeable difference in kind between your felt experience (qualia) of the memory and the neurological event? I say “seemingly unbridgeable” because much ingenuity has gone into arguing that the difference is not absolute—that the hard problem can be solved, or isn’t really that hard, or a problem. But from inside the domain of qualia, the distinction certainly seems unbridgeable.
Now. Darwin was not one to go poaching on the philosophers’ terrain, but his general take on the hard problem is not difficult to surmise. Harel mentions that Darwin kept in his study a file labeled “Old & Useless Notes.” Among them was a reflection very much to the point: “The reason why thought etc should imply the existence of something in addition to matter is because our knowledge of matter is quite insufficient to account for the phenomena of thought.” In another note he described the brain as a “thought-secreting organ.” Darwin generated enough controversy with the ideas he put into print during his lifetime; he was discrete enough to keep to himself these still more challenging ideas.
Ultimately, though, Darwin seems less interested in the possibility of reducing biology to physics than in challenging Homo sapiens’s tendency towards species narcissism. The cure might come from more research and richer hypotheses. We are in the natural world, and part of it, not observers from another plane of being. The brain contemplating the tangled bank is itself “produced by laws acting around us,” as much as anything it beholds. And the failure to love that order—and to recognize our entanglement with it—is, for Darwin, something like humanity’s original sin.