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A very natural reaction

Lost in the evolutionary debate is Darwin's most basic lesson: the value of observing nature.

November 08, 2005|Simon Barnes | 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.

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