The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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.


In the Dark: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Find the Light Behind the Fear

In the Dark: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Find the Light Behind the Fear

The mind is a camera obscura constantly trying to render an image of reality on the back wall of consciousness through the pinhole of awareness, its aperture narrowed by our selective attention, honed on our hopes and fears. In consequence, the projection we see inside the dark chamber is not raw reality but our hopes and fears magnified — a rendering not of the world as it is but as we are: frightened, confused, hopeful creatures trying to make sense of the mystery that enfolds us, the mystery that we are.

This reality-warping begins as the frights and fantasies of childhood, and evolves into the necessary illusions without which our lives would be unlivable. It permeates everything from our mythologies to our mathematics.

In the Dark (public library) by poet Kate Hoefler and artist Corinna Luyken brings that touching fundament of human nature to life with great levity and sweetness, radiating a reminder that if we are willing to walk through the darkness not with fear but with curiosity, we are saved by wonder.

Two girls venture cautiously into the dark forest, convinced that witches dwell there. Shadows fly across the sky that seem to confirm their conviction and deepen their fear.

But page by poetic page, as they keep walking and keep looking, they come to see that the shadows are not witches but “a wood full of birds.”

The birds, they realize, are kites flown from the hands of kindly strangers — people who have waded into the darkness to make their own light, the light of community and connection, the light of wonder.

Couple In the Dark with Henry Beston’s lyrical century-old manifesto for how darkness nourishes the human spirit and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love, then revisit My Heart — the emotional intelligence primer that first enchanted me with Corinna Luyken’s work — and her tender painted poem The Tree in Me.


The Mind in the Machine: John von Neumann, the Inception of AI, and the Limits of Logic

The Mind in the Machine: John von Neumann, the Inception of AI, and the Limits of Logic

“From Boole, with his Laws of Thought in the 1850s, to the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence at the present day,” Oliver Sacks wrote as he reckoned with consciousness, AI, and our search for meaning thirty years before chatGPT, “there has been a persistent notion that one may have an intelligence or a language based on pure logic, without anything so messy as ‘meaning’ being involved.”

That this can never be the case, he observed, is “a neurological learning as well as a spiritual learning.”

I regard this learning as the haunting recognition that our technology — like our literature, like love, like life itself — is just a story we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works.

Benjamín Labatut takes up the immense and enduring questions of the limits of logic and the tension between meaning-making and reality in his novel The MANIAC (public library), routed in the real life and legacy of the visionary mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer John von Neumann (December 28, 1903–February 8, 1957), who originated the field of game theory, paved the way for the mathematical framework of quantum mechanics, anticipated the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, and became a founding father of digital computing, his mind the hungry ghost in the machine of our everyday lives.

Operators at the MANIAC I (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer Model I), developed by John von Neumann. 1952.

Reminding us that the history of our species is the history of mistaking our labels and models of things for the things themselves, Labatut paints the backdrop against which Von Neumann and his peers try to infer reality from their logical models of reality, forever haunted by the limits of logic itself:

The mathematical universe is built much like the pyramids of the ancient pharaohs. Each theorem rests on a deeper and more elementary substrate. But what supports the bottom of the pyramid? Is there anything solid to be found there, or does it all float on the void, like an abandoned spiderweb blowing in the morning wind, already unraveling at the edges, held together merely by frail and thinning strands of thought, custom, and belief?… Mathematicians… keep working on faith or delve down to the very heart of mathematics to try to find the cornerstones that upheld the entire structure. But uncovering foundations is always dangerous, for who can tell what lies in wait among the fault lines in the logic of our universe, what creatures sleep and dream amid the tangle of roots from which human knowledge grows?

With an eye to the often imperceptible catalysts of revelation — those trap doors that suddenly open beneath us to reveal whole other regions of being, a function partly of the blind spots of our self-knowledge and partly of our hopelessly selective lens on reality, amid a universe that is “nothing but a vast, self-organizing, complex system, the emergent properties of which are… everything” — Labatut adds:

Something very small, so tiny and insignificant as to be almost invisible in its origin, can nonetheless open up a new and radiant perspective, because through it a higher order of being is trying to express itself. These unlikely happenings could be hidden all around us, lying in wait on the border of our awareness, or floating quietly amid the sea of information that we drown in, each one bearing the potential to bloom and irradiate violently, prying apart the floorboards of this world to show us what lies beneath.

The earliest seeds of artificial intelligence, Labatut intimates throughout the novel, were precisely such a small, potent lever of prying open a hidden world — a world both wondrous and menacing, mirroring back to us our highest potential and our greatest follies. A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the rise of a new kingdom of life in our machines, Labatut ventriloquizes Von Neumann as a character in a novel animated by the realities of the past century of technology. The words he gives this prophet-pioneer are the words of our history and of our future:

At its lower levels, complexity is probably degenerative, so every automaton would only be able to produce less complicated ones; but there is a certain level beyond which the phenomenon could become explosive, with unimaginable consequences; in other words, where each machine could produce offspring of higher and higher potentialities.


If my automata were allowed to evolve freely in the unbounded matrix of an ever-expanding digital cosmos… they could take on unimaginable forms, recapitulating the stages of biological evolution at an inconceivably faster pace than things of flesh and blood. By crossbreeding and pollinating, they would eventually surpass us in number, and perhaps, one day, reach a point where they could become rivals to our own intelligence. Their progress, at first, would be slow and silent. But then they would spawn and burst into our lives like so many hungry locusts, fighting for their rightful place in the world, carving their own path toward the future.

Von Neumann died in an era when the entirety of computer memory in the world amounted to a handful of kilobytes, yet his life had already seeded the digital universe and all its anxious silicon tendrils reaching for the substrate of consciousness. Nearly a century after Alan Turing envisioned machine sentience as he wondered whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream, Labatut channels Von Neumann’s parting vision for what it would take for AI to cusp on consciousness:

Before he became unresponsive and refused to speak even to his family or friends, von Neumann was asked what it would take for a computer, or some other mechanical entity, to begin to think and behave like a human being.

He took a very long time before answering, in a voice that was no louder than a whisper.

He said that it would have to grow, not be built.

He said that it would have to understand language, to read, to write, to speak.

And he said that it would have to play, like a child.

Couple with the poetic science of how a cold cosmos kindled the wonder of consciousness, then revisit Alan Turing on the binary code of body and spirit.


Nick Cave on the Two Pillars of a Meaningful Life

We are each born with a wilderness of possibility within us. Who we become depends on how we tend to our inner garden — what qualities of character and spirit we cultivate to come abloom, what follies we weed out, how much courage we grow to turn away from the root-rot of cynicism and toward the sunshine of life in all its forms: wonder, kindness, openhearted vulnerability.

Answering a young person’s plea for guidance in finding direction and meaning amid a “bizarre and temporary world” that seems so often at odds with the highest human values, the sage and sensitive Nick Cave offers his lens on the two most important qualities of spirit to cultivate in order to have a meaningful life.

Nick Cave

A generation after James Baldwin observed in his superb essay on Shakespeare how “it is said that his time was easier than ours, but… no time can be easy if one is living through it,” Nick prefaces his advice with a calibration:

The world… is indeed a strange and deeply mysterious place, forever changing and remaking itself anew. But this is not a novel condition, our world hasn’t only recently become bizarre and temporary, it has been so ever since its inception, and it will continue to be such until its end — mystifying and forever in a state of flux.

He then offers his two pillars of a fulfilling life — orientations of the soul that “have a softening effect on our sometimes inflexible and isolating value systems”:

The first is humility. Humility amounts to an understanding that the world is not divided into good and bad people, but rather it is made up of all manner of individuals, each broken in their own way, each caught up in the common human struggle and each having the capacity to do both terrible and beautiful things. If we truly comprehend and acknowledge that we are all imperfect creatures, we find that we become more tolerant and accepting of others’ shortcomings and the world appears less dissonant, less isolating, less threatening.

The other quality is curiosity. If we look with curiosity at people who do not share our values, they become interesting rather than threatening. As I’ve grown older I’ve learnt that the world and the people in it are surprisingly interesting, and that the more you look and listen, the more interesting they become. Cultivating a questioning mind, of which conversation is the chief instrument, enriches our relationship with the world. Having a conversation with someone I may disagree with is, I have come to find, a great, life embracing pleasure.

Couple with Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell on what makes a fulfilling life and revisit Nick Cave’s humble wisdom on the importance of trusting yourself, the art of growing older, and the antidote to our existential helplessness, then savor his lush On Being conversation with Krista Tippett about loss, yearning, transcendence, and “the audacity of the world to continue to be beautiful and continue to be good in times of deep suffering.”


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