Poetic Ecology and the Biology of Wonder

Poetic Ecology and the Biology of Wonder

Poetic Ecology and the Biology of Wonder

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her landmark treatise on the intelligence of emotions, “they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”

Two decades later, this elemental truth about the nature of living things has migrated from the realm of philosophy to the realm of physical science as we discover that feeling gave rise to sentience and not the other way around, as we reckon with the inner life of dogs, as we concede wonder-smitten that something not mechanistic but mysterious and lush with feeling is animating the bowerbird’s astonishing enchantment in blue.

Out of this recognition has arisen a new biology that is revolutionizing everything we thought we knew about life, just as the revelation of the quantum realm a century ago revolutionized everything we thought we knew about matter — a biology of feeling and interdependence, in which everything alive is in conviviality with everything else, part of a vast symphony of vitality sonorous with feeling.

A century and a half after the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology to give shape to the interlaced foundation of the living world, the German marine biologist and cultural scholar Andreas Weber explores this new understanding of life in The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science (public library) — a nuanced and deeply original inquiry into the fundamental question of what life is, how it lives itself in us, and what part we play in the grand symphony.

Art by Sophie Blackall from If You Come to Earth

Weber writes:

Organisms are not clocks assembled from discrete, mechanical pieces; rather, they are unities held together by a mighty force: feeling what is good or bad for them. Biology… is discovering how the individual experiencing self is connected with all life and how this meaningful self must be seen as the basic principle of organic existence… Feeling and experience are not human add-ons to an otherwise meaningless biosphere. Rather, selves, meaning and imagination are the guiding principles of ecological functioning. The biosphere is made up of subjects with their idiosyncratic points of view and emotions. Scientists have started to recognize that only when they understand organisms as feeling, emotional, sentient systems that interpret their environments — and not as automatons slavishly obeying stimuli — can they ever expect answers to the great enigmas of life.

At the heart of Weber’s view of life is his notion of poetic ecology — an ecology in its recognition that “all life builds on relations and unfolds through mutual transformations,” and poetic in its understanding of feeling and expression not as epiphenomena or observer’s bias, as Western science has assumed at least since Descartes, but as “necessary dimensions of the existential reality of organisms.”

Poetic ecology restores the human to its rightful place within “nature” — without sacrificing the otherness, the strangeness and the nobility of other beings. It can be read as a scientific argument that explains why the deep wonder, the romantic connection and the feeling of being at home in nature are legitimate — and how these experiences help us to develop a new view of life as a creative reality that is based on our profound, first-person observations of ecological relations. Poetic ecology allows us to find our place in the grand whole again.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Denise Levertov’s exquisite poem about our self-expatriation from nature, Weber adds:

This understanding provides us with a home in the wilderness again, in the creative natura naturans, that so many people are longing for in their private lives, that they create in their gardens, that they visit during hikes in the wilderness and that they seek to protect.

Central to this poetic ecology is the concept of enlivenment, which holds that “every living being is fundamentally connected to reality through the irreducible experience of being alive” — the biological affirmation of quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger’s koan-like insight that “this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole.”

Art by Sophie Blackall from If You Come to Earth

Much of this biological cosmogony rests upon the legacy of the visionary evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, whose Gaia hypothesis gave shape to the then-radical insight that “life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact,” and that “we abide in a symbiotic world.” Central to it also E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis — the idea that we, with all our feeling and sentience, evolved to seek connection with the rest of nature.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s poetic insistence that because our origins are of the Earth, “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Weber writes:

Nature… is the living medium of our emotions and our mental concepts.

[…]

All our qualities — and particularly the most human ones like our need to be in connection, to be perceived as an individual, to be welcomed by other life and give life, in short, our need to love — spring forth from an organic “soil.” We are part of a web of meaningful inter-penetrations of being that are corporeal and psychologically real at the same time. Humans can only fully comprehend their own inwardness if they understand their existence as cultural beings who are existentially tied to the symbolic processes active inside nature.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

There is consolation in this view of life, this fidelity to the natural poetics of ecology — it gives us a more spacious way of bearing our own mortality. A century after the dying Tolstoy took solace in the knowledge that in nature “when existing forms are destroyed, this only means a new form is taking shape,” Weber reflects:

Perhaps the most important psychological role that other beings play is to help us reconcile ourselves with our pain, our inevitable separation as individuals from the remainder of the web of life and our ephemeral existences. The primal feature of nature is that it always rises again, bringing forth new life. Even the most devastating catastrophe gives way over time to green shoots of rebirth and productivity and therefore to hope for ourselves.

In consonance with Carson’s passionate belief in wonder as the antidote to self-destruction, Weber insists that owning up to our interrelation with the rest of life — to the fact that each of us is a living verse in the epic poem of nature — is our only path to our planetary salvation:

The conceptual framework that we have invented to understand organisms is the deeper reason for our environmental catastrophe. We are extinguishing life because we have blinded ourselves to its actual character… The real disconnect is not between our human nature and all the other beings; it is between our image of our nature and our real nature.

Complement The Biology of Wonder — a deeply enlivening read in its entirety — with the pioneering neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington on the spirituality of nature, Hermann Hesse on wonder and how to be more alive, and Rachel Carson on how to save a world, then revisit ecological superhero Christiana Figueres — who carries Carson’s torch in our own time — on the spirituality of regeneration.

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