On a black background there is a tan moth on the left and a white moth orchid on the right
Photo credits/ right: Sahil Muhammed/ left: Susan Jang / Unsplash

Darwin’s Loves

The following has been adapted from Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia by Kay Harel.

The Glories and Limits of Facts

In one of those true stories that become legendary, Darwin predicted the existence of a moth like this one—sporting a twelve-inch tongue. Darwin based his 1862 prediction on the Madagascan star orchid’s twelve-inch nectary—a dangling, hollow tube with nectar pooled at its base. Darwin’s sense of coevolution told him that some moth must have evolved a matching proboscis to procure that nectar. “This belief of mine has been ridiculed by some entomologists,” Darwin wrote, even as this very same hypothetical moth-orchid duo was considered proof of the existence of God by the Duke of Argyll in his 1867 book The Reign of Law. Darwin’s colleague and sometime rival Alfred Russel Wallace was persuaded, however, that such a moth existed, and he asked the natural history illustrator Thomas William Wood to prepare this image for his 1867 article “Creation by Law.” In a footnote to the article, Wallace exhorted: “Naturalists . . . should search for it with as much confidence as astronomers searched for the planet Neptune—and they will be equally successful!” They were. In 1903, Karl Jordan and Lord Walter Rothschild discovered a new sphinx moth, with the predicted proboscis, providing yet another proof of Darwin’s preternatural capacity to intuit facts. In 2019, a children’s book was published on this fabled tale in science.

Some facts are quotidian, some lurid, some elusive. Drifting through college, Darwin often took a naturalist’s walks, collecting as he had since childhood. Such collecting was a fashion among the European men of his day. Darwin collected catholicly: plants, minerals, bones, rocks, crawling critters, the usual and the unusual. His collections while in college earned plaudits from his professors, and he pursued such extra credit opportunities because he was a lousy student. One day, when he was trolling in the local marshes, he “saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost.” He told this story as “proof of my zeal.” He wanted to capture the rare beetle, of course, and to name a new organic being, but the zeal was for new species and new facts. All his life, facts were prey for Darwin. His biophilia needed them, to return to the touchstone of Fromm, “to construct,” to fuel and satisfy his “wondering,” and to fulfill his desire “to see something new.” And then too, the discoverer dwells in what Fromm called “the adventure of living”—and discovery of the elusive is most certainly an adventure.

New facts are, to borrow from Henry James, “the outbreak of the definite.” Intrinsic to biophilia’s love of life is its seeking the outbreak of the definite, a drive for truth, with truth in this case the facts that comprise life. The love of fact is an aspect of the love of nature—“attracted by the process of life and growth,” in Fromm’s words, along with the attraction for the new and the true about how life lifes. Discovering facts is, in one way, the ne plus ultra of a scientist’s biophilia.

In his passion for knowledge, Darwin chased facts as intrepidly as if they were rare and possibly noxious beetles. He ran experiments and made observations at home for decades, in his greenhouses, observing whatever was to hand, from earthworms to his infant children. Always hungry for more information, he was a fastidious and inventive experimentalist, a diligent morphologist, and an astute taxonomist. His love of facts was such that he was able to discern that “fact” is a genus with many species. He distinguished among humdrum facts, hard-won facts, false facts, missing facts, counterintuitive facts, unproven facts, unknown facts, and unknowable facts. His biophilia gave him a feeling for factuality.


Facts Served with Sugar

With the empathy of the oneness of biophilia, Darwin was able to imagine the needs of his readers. On the Origin of Species was a bestseller—as was his travelogue on his trip around the world—and it remains in print today in innumerable editions. Why his version of evolution and not others? Because he was right, of course, but also because he was a good writer. Along with grabbing his readers’ attention with sensational details, he crafted prose about his facts that appealed to the imagination. Many scholars have pointed to Darwin’s lucid, concise, and at times charming style of writing, which certainly eased the entrance, if not the embrace, of evolutionary facts into the public mind. As noted earlier, he often began his explanations by modeling his own ignorance. This tactic is of a piece with his modesty, of course. But it is also pragmatic: When he tells of his own intellectual enlightenment, he invites his readers to join him on similar hegiras of the imagination. He assuages his readers’ nervousness about new information. Then, detail by slow detail, idea by stepwise idea, he launches the reader into the process of discovery and understanding. He connected readers to his ideas by, ironically, reminding them that he himself had once lacked facts and understanding. He strengthened his case by admitting confusion, a ploy most would not try.

Another tool Darwin used to forward facts is to model his readers’ skepticism: “It was a long time before I saw how.” Francis commented, “His courteous and conciliatory tone toward his reader is remarkable. . . . The reader is never scorned for any amount of doubt which he may be imagined to feel, and his scepticism is treated with patient respect. A sceptical reader, or perhaps even an unreasonable reader, seems to have been generally present to his thoughts.” For example, early in Origin, Darwin described the domestic animals that breeders had shaped for various traits, using the term “artificial selection.” He confessed to his own astonishment at the diversity achieved by breeders: “I have discussed the probable origin of domestic pigeons at some length; because when I first kept pigeons . . . I felt fully as much difficulty in believing that . . . they had all proceeded from a common parent, as any naturalist could.” Acknowledging his skepticism is tantamount to promising his sympathy. And indeed, Darwin explicitly hoped his facts would be helpful: “This accompanying diagram will aid us in understanding this rather perplexing subject.”

The love of fact is an aspect of the love of nature.

Early in Descent, he invited inquiring minds to join him in a thought experiment: “He who wishes to decide whether man is the modified descendent of some pre-existing form, would probably first enquire . . .” He complimented his readers’ open minds.

He used empathy as a rhetorical trope. He gave a spoonful of sugar to help his readers swallow complicated facts. He positioned himself as there to help, the whole rough, long, conceptual, philosophical, spiritual, contradictory, biological way. How can we not appreciate that he offers to “aid us in understanding”? We cannot help but return his empathy by entrusting him with our ignorance, this man who is possessed by a question, has struggled for and with an answer, and attends to our confusions.

Darwin even understood that not everyone is as enamored as he is of the infinity of facts, just as he always understood opposite viewpoints. He told readers of Origin, “To treat the subject properly, a long catalogue of dry facts ought to be given; but these I shall reserve for a future work,” and indeed that material filled another large volume, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. On one occasion, Darwin invited his readers to skip most of his book: early on in The Power of Movement in Plants he wrote, “No one who is not investigating the present subject need read all the details, which, however, we thought it advisable to give. To save the reader trouble, the conclusions . . . have been printed in large type. . . . He may if he thinks fit, read the last chapter first, as it includes a summary of the whole volume; and he will then see what points interest him, and on which he requires full evidence.” Darwin arranged a choice, a leisurely and lush stroll for factophiles or just the truth in a nutshell for the efficient. He expressed a oneness with all his readers.


The Logical Fact

So what else, aside from practicing a Buddhist tolerance for mystery, did our factophile do in the absence of data? He imagined future facts. He invented plausibilities.

Among the most legendary is Darwin’s prediction of the existence of a moth with a twelve-inch tongue. Why was he even thinking such of such a creature? The rare Madagascan star orchid, a small white bloom, dangled a thin tube twelve inches long, storing a pool of nectar at its base. In 1862, Darwin hypothesized that some moth or another would have adapted to get at the nectary’s treasure. Darwin’s sometime rival Alfred Russel Wallace found this moth so plausible and likely, he asked a scientific illustrator to depict it, improbable proboscis and all. And sure enough, in 1903, scientists discovered what eventually proved to be a new species: a giant hawk moth—“giant” meaning four inches long—with a tongue three times longer. This is the quintessential Darwin, imagining the truth before the arrival of the facts.

As noted earlier, a favorite pastime of Darwin’s was, as he called it, “building castles in the air.” In his notebooks, he mused on “the pleasure of the imagination, which [has] connection with poetry, abundance, fertility.” For Darwin, as for a poet, the imagination is a field where a scientist’s facts and mysteries may cross-fertilize. Once, he confessed his indulgence in a letter: “This confounded variation . . . is pleasant to me as a speculatist, though odious to me as a systematist.” His love of speculation perhaps led him to chuckle in another letter: “A German writer was pleased to attribute the whole account [on barnacles] to my fertile imagination.” The insult was a backhanded compliment on the prowess of Darwin’s creativity. Darwin was ever sanguine in the face of insults—he once called himself a plodder, and he always plodded on. And even as he knew the German writer was wrong, he focused on how his critic “was pleased.”

Darwin’s empathy had odd moments.

Darwin also speculated about the reasons for his own scientific success. He attributed it in his autobiography to a “fair share of invention.” He felt that the naturalist should have “flexibility of mind,” which he clearly exercised in creating his novel theories. He murmured in a notebook, “Jones said the great calculators, from the confined nature of their associations (is it not so in punning) are people of very limited intellects.” By reductio ad absurdum, Darwin just called mathematicians dumb and jokesters smart. Intellect is inventive, not “confined.”

Darwin’s mind was unconfined. Legions of his speculations have been proven. As the Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr wrote, “It strikes me as almost miraculous that Darwin in 1859 came so close to what would be considered valid 125 years later.” His imagination had clairvoyance. He was prescient. His castles in the air gave him a good view of wildernesses, where his mind wandered and wondered. Wondering was wandering into the new, and wandering led to wondering. He once remarked, “Perhaps one cause of the intense labour of original inventive thought is that none of the ideas are habitual, nor recalled obvious associations.” Darwin embodies Einstein’s point that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

In his books, he invited his readers to use their imaginations. “I must beg permission to give one or two imaginary illustrations,” he wrote once, and, “It is good thus to try in imagination to give any one species an advantage over another.” Free your mind, he challenged his readers: “What now are we to say to these several facts?” Thus he articulated his biophile’s dictum:

Facts demand answers, so speculate.

Facts demand answers, so speculate. He urged his readers at diverse points to seek new points of view, to think like a bird, or like a “savage,” or like a naturalist confronted by confusing evidence. Encouraging his readers to partner with him in analyzing, Darwin suggests, “we may suppose” and “let us imagine.” Rhetorically, pedantically, he demonstrates that the imagination is a tool for thought experiments, not just for poets.

Along with imagination, logic can supply sense to facts, as he shows in Descent when airing the truth about sexual selection: “If we may assume that the females have the power of exerting a choice . . . all of the above facts become intelligible.” Careful assuming, appeal to reason, the slant of the truth, guided by biophilia. His inventing was always grounded in the real, his imagination tempered by logic. As his 1883 eulogist L. C. Miall put it, “Darwin’s power of reasoning from the seen to the unseen might be illustrated by nearly every chapter of his writings.” Note that Darwin’s castles in the air are built. He clearly “prefers to construct,” in Fromm’s terms. Darwin admired a long line of logic. Of a book on religious ideas about human evolution that he read as an undergraduate, he recalled: “The logic of this book . . . gave me as much delight as did Euclid. . . . I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.” The modern philosopher W. V. O. Quine has pointed out, “If sheer logic is not conclusive, what is?” Darwin felt he wrote Origin with rigorous thought: “Some of my critics have said, ‘Oh, he is a good observer but has no power of reasoning.’ I do not think this can be true, for the Origin of Species is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and has convinced not a few able men.” Darwin’s imagination as both creative and logical reflects a fruitful synthesis of two components of Fromm’s biophilia: the compulsion for the new and a reliance on reason.


The Touch of the Real

What Darwin saw often struck him as having self-evident import: “Any one who is not convinced by such facts as these, and by what he may observe with his own dogs, that animals can reason, would not be convinced by anything that I could add,” he wrote in Descent. Maybe I imagine exasperation in that sentence, and possibly the exasperation is because the subject is dogs. But when a person grasps a fact intuitively, that person experiences a paradox: knowledge without data to sanctify the knowledge. And the intuitor may feel a consequent frustration in realizing that everyone else does not “know” this unproven fact. Worse may be the futility of finding and giving facts. A biophile may experience culture shock now and again. Nevertheless, Darwin collected and created and promoted facts all his life. As he aged, his life was all about facts and more facts, truth and more truth. He reflected, “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” This was a labor of love—and a labor of the love of life.

The cover for "Darwin's Love of Life". It is a tan cover with rainbow animals and black writing.
You can purchase Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia by Kay Harel here.

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Adapted from Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia by Kay Harel, published by Columbia University Press. Copyright (c) 2022 Karen L. Harle. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


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Kay Harel is a writer who holds MAs in science journalism from New York University and in English from the CUNY Graduate Center. She has published essays on Darwin as well as on figures such as William James, Edward Lear, and Wallace Stevens in Southwest Review, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and Sexuality and Culture.