A very natural reaction

Special to The Times

ENDLESS forms most beautiful. That's what gets to me. That's what gets to just about everybody. And that's also what gets to the greatest people who have ever looked out of a window and marveled at the sight of a bird, a buzzing fly, a bee. Not just the beauty: but the endlessness. So many: I had not thought life had created so many.

And so I was filled with a desire to open the eyes of the world to the endlessness: to the dizzying beauty of a planet that works by bringing us one different creature after another. Birds are the easiest; so I wrote "How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher" because birds are not only for the specialist and the expert: They are there to lift the hearts of everybody with eyes and ears and a willingness to use them. And I dedicated the book to the greater glory of life. How many different kinds do you see on your bird feeder? What are they? Why are they? What is the point of these creatures, and the way they live, and the world they live in?

With a single glimpse out of the window, we are plunging headlong into the deepest question that humans can ask. This is life: But what is it for? This thrilling question is available to anyone with eyes and ears. So many birds, so many different kinds. What does it all mean?

Endless forms most beautiful. The phrase comes from the last page of "On the Origin of Species," the book that changed the world. An Englishman, Charles Darwin published it in 1859, and people have been furious with him ever since. If there's one thing people hate more than a pack of lies, it's a pack of truth.

Toward the end of the 20th century, an American began a series of books about life and its endless forms, and no one has quite forgiven him either. His name is Edward O. Wilson, and like Darwin, he is rather more than a great scientist. He is also a great thinker, and his books have changed the way people understand the world and its future. He has thought long and hard and fruitfully on life. In many senses, he is Darwin's heir: not because of what he has discovered, but because of what he has understood and communicated.

The two men have much in common, including a phenomenal energy: an energy driven by love. Love for the questions they seek to answer: but more profoundly, for the forms in which the questions are asked. For the endless forms themselves. Darwin's four most important books have been gathered in a single volume, and Wilson leads us into their progression of thought in a series of introductions. They have been gathered together under the new title "From So Simple a Beginning" (a heady title that) which takes us straight into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived.

It takes us from the thrilling boy's adventures of Darwin's travels on the Beagle — quite literally, a voyage of discovery — and on to the greatest work of popular science ever written, "The Origin" itself. Darwin wrote it for the general reader: for the bad birdwatcher. He then takes a deep breath and in the third book, applies his conclusions to humans, expanding the truth in the fourth. That is to say, the ineluctable truth that humans are animals: exceptional animals, but animals whether they like it or not.

This thrilling, jaw-dropping, liberating fact has troubled the inordinate self-pride of humans ever since. You are free to deny it, however. You are also free to deny the theory that the Earth is round. You can also, if you wish, deny the theory of gravity: But that will not make a 1,700-page book of Darwin's writings fall upward when you drop it. Like it or not, the book will land on your toe.

Does all this sound aggressive? In your face? A hideous, invasive challenge? How odd because Darwin was the gentlest of men, holding back the publication of "The Origin" for years because he didn't want to upset his wife. And odd too that Wilson is of the same company: an easy-natured man with a cozy, affable Southern drawl and kind, considerate manners. What you notice straightaway is not the fact that he has a mind like a laser. Rather, that he has a huge and unstemmable love for what he does. And what he does is to consider endlessly the endless forms most beautiful with which we share our planet.


I am not a scientist. But like Wilson, I love the wild, and so we made an immediate connection when we met at the Royal Society in London three years ago. He was receiving a prize for his uncompromisingly titled book, "The Future of Life," and I was on the committee that awarded it. I think Wilson recognized, too, the fact that his books have become part of the way that I see the world. It was a joy, then, to call him from my home in the English countryside to discuss his latest project, and to hear his singular voice again.

So I asked him a highly unscientific question: Would you have got on with Darwin? I have seldom asked a question that provoked so warm a response. Wilson has lived with Darwin for most of his long and productive life. "We would have common ground first as fellow naturalists," Wilson said. "I think on those terms it would have been possible to have a conversation as equals. There would be an immediate intimacy there."

Ants and other social insects have always been Wilson's great area of study. As a boy, Darwin was a mad beetle collector. Once, collecting in a dark attic, he found two new beetles. He then spied another. What would you do? Darwin popped one beetle in his mouth and successfully caught the third. Darwin also spent the last years of his life researching earthworms. Detail: the lovely, endless detail of nature, and its endless questions. Wilson and Darwin are both naturalists. And all of us who are bad birdwatchers can empathize with that, for it comes from the same thing: a love and a fascination for the endless forms.


THE way that evolution works — not the question of whether or not it does, because this is fact — has been at the forefront of scientific debate for the last two or three decades. Most of the big names — Richard Dawkins, the late Stephen Jay Gould — have pointedly kept clear of linking their thoughts with the frightening issues of the environment. Wilson has taken the opposite view. Would Darwin himself stand up and be counted?

"Yes he would," Wilson said, not a scrap of hesitation, for all that the environmental holocaust was not an issue (all but) two centuries ago. "But the horror he expressed for slavery and for the mistreatment of the Indian population of South America gives us a clue. I don't believe he would have failed."

He would not have been the sort to chain himself to raw sewage outlets. "A genteel activist," Wilson suggests. And certainly Darwin would have written, forcefully and convincingly, of the world's pressing need for conservation. As things turned out, Wilson had to do the job himself in such works as "The Future of Life."


IN England, if I mention the uncompromising nature of evolution in my wildlife column for the Times of London, I generally get a couple of letters of objection from people we call cranks. Throughout Western Europe, the truths of evolution are accepted as the facts they are. Not so in the United States of America. America rightly claims to be first in many things: But on this issue, much of the nation is nothing less than backward. Why is this? Wilson, brought up a Southern Baptist, has thought about that.

"I think it is a holdover from frontier days," Wilson said. "We are not rooted in European tradition. It was a new world, and in some ways it still is. As we explored the physical vastness of America, we lost the sense of history and tradition that Europe is anchored in. We had to find new tribal affinities. In order to give cohesion to the community, there was a need for simple religion: with a simple ethical code. This involved a turning to the Old Testament for comfort and solidarity."


THESE are hard matters; some of the toughest questions humans can deal with. But they spring from the gentlest of emotions. Both Darwin and Wilson created their works from their deep love of nature. This does not make them exceptional. That sort of love is found everywhere. It was their response to this love that made them exceptional.

Love of nature, of the non-human world, is a profound and important part of our lives. This is Wilson's view, and he has coined a name for the phenomenon. Biophilia: the human love, the human need, the human affinity for non-human life. Have you ever smelled a rose? Patted a dog? Admired a horse? Then you understand the concept.

Being a bad birdwatcher is just another expression of biophilia. Bird watching is not a hobby: rather, it is something to do with the meaning of life and the future of the world.

There are, as I see it, three great arguments for looking after the planet and its endless non-human life-forms. The first is because it is our duty, as stewards of the place. The second is because it is in our interest to do so: fouling your own nest is not a good idea, whether you are a chickadee or a human.

But the third reason is the most compelling: because we really, really want to. Because our need for non-human life forces us to take action. It is the emotion of Darwin, it is the emotion of Wilson, it is the emotion of the bad birdwatcher, it is the emotion of everyone capable of opening eyes, ears, heart and mind. It is biophilia. If we humans have a future on this earth, it is by means of biophilia.


Simon Barnes is chief sportswriter for the Times of London. He is also a columnist for Birds, a publication of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. His book, "How to be a Bad Birdwatcher" was published in the United States this year.



Naturalists in harmony

One hundred years separate the writings of Charles Darwin and Edward O. Wilson, and their words reveal an abiding appreciation for the world they have observed.

It has been said, that the love of the chase is an inherent delight in man — a relic of an instinctual passion. If so, I am sure the pleasure of living in the open air, with the sky for a roof and the ground for a table, is part of the same feeling; it is the savage returning to his wild and native habits. I always look back to our boat cruises, and my land journeys … with an extreme delight, which no scenes of civilization could have created. I do not doubt that every traveler must remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced, when he first breathed in a foreign clime….

— Charles Darwin, "The Voyage of the Beagle"


As I began hunting ants, a little green parrot with a red cap landed on a branch close by and stayed there. At intervals he squawked at me in some mysterious psittacine language. We were perfect companions in the mossy forest, native and exotic joined in momentary harmony. I would do no harm, I told the parrot, and leave soon, but this place would live forever in my memory.

— Edward O. Wilson, "Naturalist"

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