Kay Harel is a science journalist who has published essays about Darwin, as well as on figures such as William James, Edward Lear, and Wallace Stevens, in Southwest Review, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and Sexuality and Culture.
Below, Kay shares 5 key insights from her new book, Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia. Listen to the audio version—read by Kay herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The love of life, or biophilia, is a force of nature.
Perhaps you have heard of biophilia. It’s a buzzword among green architects and environmental dreamers. But the concept has a long history and gravitas.
A first definition was sketched by psychoanalyst Eric Fromm in 1973 as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” The late great Edward O. Wilson wrote eloquently of biophilia as an affinity for nature. In Darwin’s eyes, “love for all living creatures, [is] the most noble attribute of man.” Beginning as self-preservation, biophilia diversifies into the pursuit of the new, the true, and the beautiful. Biophilia is like gravity: a raw and lawful energy that just is. And as gravity is matter’s attraction to matter, biophilia is life’s attraction to life, or in the words of poet Kahlil Gibran, “life’s longing for itself.”
If gravity determines the apple’s fall from the tree, biophilia’s drive for life determines that we hunger for that apple. Understanding biophilia as a force of nature is key to understanding ourselves.
2. Darwin was a nice guy.
In a memoir Darwin intended for his children, his modesty and moral code shine. In a collection of 15,000 letters he wrote and received, Darwin’s generosity and kindness are ubiquitous. Darwin befriended the Indigenous guides he relied on during his five-year voyage around the world. Bivouacking in wilderness, Darwin proved an excellent horseman, a sharp marksman, a savant with dogs, and always willing to dine on the day’s yield.
“If gravity determines the apple’s fall from the tree, biophilia’s drive for life determines that we hunger for that apple.”
Darwin inspires hagiography, but biographers are not alone in succumbing to his charms. After a lunch at Darwin’s home, novelist Henry James wrote: “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.” And recounting a long visit with Darwin, Russian plant physiologist Kliment Timiryazev wrote: “I couldn’t help comparing him to an ancient sage or an Old Testament patriarch. … [A]fter our conversation began I saw him as a very kindly and gentle man and felt that I had known him for a long time. … [T]he greatest scientist had turned out to be the most affable of men.”
3. Question facts and accept ignorance.
Before the word disinformation was coined—reportedly by Josef Stalin, before postmodernism, before Twitter, before today’s scourge of “alternative facts”—the false fact existed. It was present in Darwin’s lexicon. Darwin warned in The Descent of Man: “False facts are highly injurious to the process of science.”
One of Darwin’s habits of mind was that he never took a putative fact for granted. Every fact has a provenance. This is increasingly important to remember in our time of abundant information, disinformation, misinformation, and nonsense. But the verity of any datum has long been a slippery business.
Darwin understood a fact to be a product of logic, research, reality, and plausible proof. Darwin was scrupulous about what “we may infer,” what “[m]any facts clearly show,” when he is “guided by theoretical consideration,” when “Dr. Hooker permits me to add that he thinks the following statements are fairly well established,” and, finally, that it is “always advisable to perceive clearly our own ignorance.” We would do well to model Darwin: always examine “facts,” and know and accept when we are ignorant.
4. The aesthetic sense originates in the desire for survival.
For Darwin, the love of beauty emerges from the drive for life. Aesthetic pleasure developed from our ancestors’ satisfaction—not to mention continued life—on obtaining basic needs. Certain natural phenomena key to survival are universally considered beautiful. Such as the trill of a brook, which signifies the pure water necessary for life. A fire in a hearth, which gives sustaining warmth. Rain sluicing down the roof is the sound of shelter. An expansive view affords safety from enemies, likewise a high perch. When leaves rustle in a breeze, fresh air is audible. The cool of a summer evening is relief from heat—as poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.”
“Aesthetic pleasure developed from our ancestors’ satisfaction—not to mention continued life—on obtaining basic needs.”
These phenomena enable us to live, so we feel them as beautiful. As Darwin’s grandfather asserted in his book Zoonomia: “Our perception of beauty consists in our recognition…of those objects…which have inspired our love by the pleasure, which they afford to many of our senses…of warmth, of touch, of smell, of taste, hunger and thirst.” Or, as Emerson wrote, “Beauty rests on necessities.”
5. You can make a crazy quilt with knowledge.
The method I used in my book was a big idea proposed by the naturalist Edward O. Wilson. In his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Wilson argued for explorations that draw on all scholarly, scientific, and cultural endeavors, to enable ideas to “jump” together, to create synergy. He wrote, “The strongest appeal of consilience is in the prospect of intellectual adventure and, given even modest success, the value of understanding the human condition with a higher degree of certainty.”
In my intellectual adventure, I drew on aesthetics, anthropology, astronomy, biology, evolutionary theories, philosophy, physics, poetry, primatology, psychoanalysis, theoretical physics, and zoology. Using consilience, one line of poetry, one theory by a philosopher about the evolution of the universe, has as much intellectual heft as any rigorous biological proof or aesthetic dissection. Using consilience, we mix and match ideas. We create a crazy quilt that covers a new big idea. Consilience has not received much uptake; it deserves more use.
To listen to the audio version read by author Kay Harel, download the Next Big Idea App today: