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Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia– Kay Harel

by Venky

(Image Credit: netgalley.com)

Kay Harel informs us about the elucidation of the great novelist Henry James after the latter visited Charles Darwin at his house at Down House. According to James, “Darwin is the sweetest, simplest, gentlest old Englishman you ever saw…He said nothing wonderful and was wonderful in no way but in not being so.” The man who deemed it apposite to share his snuff with a monkey and shared his living space in various points in time with twenty-one dogs (in addition to an extraordinary collection of botanical species), was the epitome of compassion and care in dealing with sentient beings. One of the greatest (if not the greatest) evolutionary biologist of all time was also an uncompromising believer in the concept of ‘biophilia’.

Literally translating to “love of life,” the term biophilia embraces the idea that that man’s fascination and communion with nature stems from an involuntary, innate and biologically driven need to interact with other forms of life such as animals and plants. Commonly acknowledged to have been pioneered by the well recognised psychologist Erich Fromm, the notion of biophilia was popularized by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson who proposed that humans’ attraction to nature is genetically predetermined and the result of evolution.

In her book “Darwin’s Love of Life’, Ms. Harel, multiple graduate degree holder in Science Journalism and English, portrays the embrace of biophilia by not just Darwin, but also his entire family that included his wife Emma and seven children. In attempting such an endeavour, Harel takes recourse to rare material contained within the private notebooks of Darwin. Thus, the connection of biophilia as gleaned from Darwin’s views of dogs, plants, insects and life in general.

Darwin’s love of and for dogs was uncannily similar to the one harboured by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Prone to engaging in an endearing game of hide and seek with his dogs, ‘just for the sake of it’, Darwin was convinced that “dogs laughed for joy.” Darwin was also a clairvoyant when it came to predicting the existence of species in addition to discerning their evolution. For example, in 1862 this genius predicted the existence of a moth sporting a 12-inch tongue. The basis for this seemingly bizarre and irrational proclamation was a Madagascan star orchid that possessed a twelve-inch nectary – a dangling hollow tube with nectar pooled at its base. Darwin himself acknowledged the skepticism that hounded him in the wake of his prediction. “This belief of mine has been ridiculed by some entomologists” wrote Darwin. However, this magnificent analyzer of the animal kingdom had the last laugh. In 1903, Karl Jordan and Lord Walter Rothschild discovered a new sphinx moth which boasted a proboscis of the like predicted by Darwin, and helpfully illustrated by Alfred Russell Wallace.

Darwin was also a firm and wholehearted believer of mysteries. Not willing to be shackled by the strait jacket of facts, Darwin was a man who shunned and quelled blinkered vision. As Harel explains in this approach, he was more akin to the mercurial and singularly brilliant Quantum Physicist Weiner Heisenberg. The proponent of the now world famous “Uncertainty Principle” was avowed in his conviction that measurement was the enemy of outcome. An approach that was besotted with the practice of measurement, one which laid all emphasis on certainty alone, was doomed to fail because the very act of measurement my turn out to be an anathema in so far as the very purpose of the experiment is concerned. This is because the process of measuring may have the undesirable impact and effect of altering the physical behaviour of what is being measured. Darwin exhorted his readers in almost all his works to spread the breadth of their imagination and the depth of their suppositions. Harel asserts that Darwin employed an inner techne (a philosophical usage referring to the act of making or the process of doing. This is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root “Teks-” meaning “to weave,” also “to fabricate”), “to see and build: intuition, emotion, and a sense of the limits of the rational.”

This techne was what egged Darwin on to propose that dogs could dream and that plants were conscious. His incredulous imagination even enabled him to trick a plant by passing his little finger like the beak of a bird giving an impression of entering the little base for nectar. This act caused two other petals to open up, thereby exposing the pollen.

Darwin’s endearing legacy now finds firm roots in innumerable studies that have the notion of biophilia at heart such as, biocultural theory, biopoetics, biosemiology, neuro and psycho aesthetics. selectionism, semiobiology, socio biology and psychobiology etc. All of these myriad disciplines have one common thread weaving through them and binding them – a firm recognition that nature’s supremacy over and for humanity is a tremendously influential factor in so far as human beings’ mental health, travels, and personal and professional dwellings are concerned.

Kay Harel leaves her reader harbouring no doubt whatsoever in this regard.

(Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia by Kay Harel is published by Columbia University Press and will be available on sale from the 25th of October 2022)

Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy!

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