JULY 8, 2020
A GIFTED if rarely electrifying writer, Charles Darwin raised his game when wrapping up On the Origin of Species in 1859, ending his 500-page opus with one of the most majestic and exhilarating passages in all of nature writing. Here is the book’s last sentence:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Perhaps Darwin felt he had to pour on the expository finesse in concluding a text he knew was bound to cause a stir. For 20 years, he labored unobtrusively on the idea of the transmutation of species, or evolution by natural selection, whose rudiments first occurred to him during his voyage on the HMS Beagle to the Galápagos Islands and beyond. Scientists before him had offered supporting intimations — French naturalists Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Georges Cuvier broached the idea of evolution and confirmed the reality of extinction, respectively, and Darwin’s geologist friend Charles Lyell hypothesized the notion of deep terrestrial (as opposed to shallow biblical) time. But only the prospect of being lapped by the similar theory of a friendly rival, Alfred Russel Wallace, prompted publication, at first jointly in a paper presented with Wallace, and the following year on his own, in “summary” form, with Origin.
The book’s final paragraph begins with a sentence nearly as compelling as the last:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Conjuring an image that bespeaks the fulsome diversity and interdependence of life, which his thesis shows are themselves intimately linked, Darwin is saying that we are all connected, bound together in a weblike network of mutual influence.
Despite the eventual acceptance of Darwin’s ideas about evolution, it is a truth we have been slow to grasp, especially in the West, where centuries of anthropocentric thinking, from the classical precepts of Aristotle through Augustine, Aquinas, and on, has ingrained notions of human separation and distinction. Christianity’s origin story begins with the command that earth’s anointed species, man, subdue the earth and have dominion over the rest of its inhabitants. In creating humans in God’s image, and removing the solitary Deity to the distant heavens, our monotheistic system foreclosed belief in the sanctity of earthly things characteristic of animistic and pantheistic traditions, justifying their exploitation for our own ends. And the global consolidation of capitalism, especially in its unfettered neoliberal variety, further undermined the virtue of the commons in favor of individual pursuit.
But anthropocentrism’s grip is loosening. The recent anniversary of Earth Day — ironically, celebrated by many from inside quarantined domestic redoubts — recalls the first one 50 years ago, itself spurred by the iconic photograph “Earthrise,” snapped by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968. It shows our fragile, isolated planet emerging from darkness as the Apollo 8 space capsule circled the moon. Inspired by the view, Anders and his fellow astronauts together read, to the biggest audience in broadcast history, the initial verses of Genesis, on the creation of heaven and earth, perhaps seeking a familiar narrative for their unprecedented experience.
Interestingly, the astronauts did not read the subsequent verses, in which God instructs man to rule over the world. Perhaps it seemed antithetical in that crystalline moment when the unity of life on earth was made so vividly apparent. The following day, details of the mission dominated the news. At the bottom of the front page of The New York Times, an essay by poet Archibald MacLeish articulated a similar sentiment. Whereas previously humans “saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole particular concern of God,” MacLeish wrote, “Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed. […] No longer that preposterous figure at the center […] man may at last become himself,” and we can “see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold.”
The first Native American astronaut, John Herrington, did not fly in space until decades later, but America’s original inhabitants knew all along what MacLeish was talking about. Although one hesitates to generalize about peoples even more richly varied than the settler colonists who crowded them out, Indigenous epistemologies largely construe the human relationship to the earth as one of kinship, not lordship. The Lakota phrase Mitákuye Oyás’in, meaning “all my relations” or “we are all related,” encapsulates the belief that things, both animate and inanimate, are connected in ways not always apparent but nonetheless vital.
We would do well to think similarly, and perhaps the current moment can help us get there. Buffeted by long-term climate malaise and near-term pandemic calamity and duress, there seems little good to be gleaned from the devastating effects of the coronavirus. But in its dark way, the pandemic affirms Darwin’s point about the elemental connectivity of life, for good and ill, and underscores the essential truth of the Lakota phrase. All living things are in some way connected, even those we cannot see, and humans have no special dispensation among life’s many forms. It is a central truth of ecology. As carbon dioxide is to climate change, so the coronavirus is to the disease it causes — both invisible agents whose touch is broad and indiscriminate, yet matters supremely.
The two are even connected to each other, multiply and perhaps causatively, as climate chaos is understood to enhance the risk of emergent diseases. And biodiversity loss, catalyzed substantially by climate change, threatens to rob the world of the very things that might yield cures for this and other maladies — things whose value is intrinsic, even apart from their potential utilitarian use by humans. In turn, the pandemic hinders conservation programs dedicated to the preservation of that same diversity, even as it diverts resources from climate change mitigation efforts more generally, and inhibits crucial gatherings coordinating them.
When the current crisis is over and the engines of industry have all fired up again, we will still be faced with the larger, slowly unfurling one. The coronavirus has given us a bitter foretaste of life gone awry on the exquisite and delicate planet in Bill Anders’s photo. Conventional wisdom has it that a major sequela of the virus may be a hastening of the retreat from globalization already underway here and elsewhere, as if walls real or virtual might somehow protect us. This cannot be true, since the failure to grasp the pandemic’s fundamental, leveling message and instead embrace our basic global mutuality would only compound its grave insult.
There is nothing “most beautiful and most wonderful” about the coronavirus, to return to Darwin’s words, but it, too, is a thing of nature. We cannot wish away our connection to it, any more than we can escape our connection to each other, and to the sustaining earth around us. As the rhythm and sounds of the human world recede for many of us, in a sense allowing everything else to come closer, even if only through the glass of our windows, can we take a moment to contemplate the radical interconnectedness of things visible and not, and ask ourselves: Are we listening?
Karl Kusserow is a curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, co-organizer of the exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, and editor of the forthcoming Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective.