Andreas Weber has written a magnificent paean to the exuberance of life, The Biology of Wonder. Drawing on his own experiences and encounters with nature he takes us to the heart of the revolution currently going on in science where chemistry, biology and even physics are finding the need to reconsider the belief that all phenomenon can be reduced to the mindless interactions of dead matter. In science class as a child Weber was transfixed by the beauty of paramecium, the largest and most complex single-cell organisms, swimming gracefully under a microscope, only to be horrified to watch them first try to flee, then be overcome by acid added to the medium they lived in. The acid was used to strip them of the cilia—the hairs that surround the cell that the paramecium use to propel themselves through he water—from them so that the students could see the complexities within the paramecium cell. Weber watched as the waves of acid overtook the paramecium who doubled up, were stripped of their cilia, and relaxed—interiors visible and dead. This formative experience led to one of the central insights of Weber’s book: that being a subject with experiences and feelings is a quality shared by all living things, and that those feelings are written large in our bodies expressions. Countering one of the central tenants of technological science, Weber makes obvious that not only have communication systems co-evolved, but that they are a basic property of life itself. The fact that, as a school boy, Weber could clearly understand what tiny, single-celled organisms were experiencing, allowed him to bring the original knowing of a child to his seeing the rest of life. All life expresses itself by the means of having a body that inevitably conveys information about life and its living. Descartes be damned, we do know that animals are feeling and that they feel, and that even plants ineffably express their desire for more life and to continue living. We’ve been taught to harden our hearts and deny this inescapable fact, but this has merely cut us off from reality.
Weber’s book covers a wide range of new scientific thought from the new findings in chemistry that complex systems tend to self-organize in ways that protects their complexity, to the frontiers of Reticulate Evolution. Along the way, he touches on findings that point to the self-organizing autonomy of a developing embryo, the likelihood that evolution is more about symbiosis and cooperation than competition, and how mirror neurons blur the distinction between me and you. All aim at breaking the denial central to dominant culture science that defines nature as “value neutral” but rejects the credibility of anything but hard-hearted treatment of other living beings as if they were unfeeling things. In other words, science claims to be value neutral but insists on a value system in which living beings feelings are dealt with callously and discounted as valueless.
He concludes the book by detailing an ecological ethic based on the way that living beings inherently create value—all life goes toward what promotes its coherence and complexity because it feels good, and avoids that which harms its living system because it feels bad. And humans, as living systems ourselves, directly perceive these values because our body feels them. Just like the young Weber knew what the paramecium were experiencing. Even I, just reading Weber’s description, felt what the contortions of the paramecium’s cells meant. And if we can feel what even a single celled organism is going through, how not the beings we share life with?
Weber argues cogently that neither of the two current approaches to environmental ethics achieve a true ecological ethic. Both the attempt to incorporate “ecosystem services” into our economy by giving monetary values to nature and the movement to extend “intrinsic rights” to non-humans fail to transcend our view that humans are outside and above nature, giving ourselves the sole moral agency to judge. An ecological ethic understands humans to be embedded within nature and in relationship to all the beings that, together, make up this fragile, questing balance that allows us all to live.
Not always harmonious or “nice” this thirst to exist is a negotiated collaboration in the creation and maintenance of that which allows us each to say, “I am.” And in this dance, humans need to learn again how to listen and respond with grace to the signals of our myriad dance partners. Weber’s book is an eloquent call for us to relearn how to make beauty together again.