The Chronicle Review

Imagining the World

In search of the fantastic

Leatherback Turtle, Phylum: Chordata Class: (Sauropsida) Reptiles, Order: Testudines, Conservation status: Critically endangered
April 22, 2013
Imagining the World

Illustration by Golbanou Moghaddas, from The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

Leatherback Turtle, Phylum: Chordata Class: (Sauropsida) Reptiles, Order: Testudines, Conservation status: Critically endangered

The Anthropocene, as we are learning to call our present epoch, is a time of rapid transformation. Perhaps the only thing that can be said with any confidence is that the rate of change is faster than at any time in human history and perhaps the history of life itself. Atmospheric and ocean chemistry is changing, and species are being driven to extinction faster than at any time in millions of years.

Other changes in the systems on which life depends—some perhaps unknown but equally significant—may also be under way, all resulting from human activity. The likely consequences are hard to predict and, with so many poorly understood variables, in many cases unknowable. At the same time, science and technology are opening up new possibilities—among them, new forms of life and ultimately nonhuman intelligence—that until recently were unimaginable.

The gravity of our situation is hard to comprehend, and responses tend to the facile. Those sometimes called "techno-­optimists," such as the writer Stewart Brand, say that "we are as gods, so we might as well get good at it." Others, more skeptical, agree that industrial civilization, information technology, and scientific breakthroughs are giving humanity awesome powers but warn that the dangers may outweigh the benefits. For example, Braden R. Allenby, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science in society, both at Arizona State University, reply to Brand in their book The Techno-Human Condition (MIT Press, 2011): "We have got used to, even blasé about, the possibility of nuclear winter, in the way a 2-year-old gets used to a loaded .357 magnum lying on the floor within easy reach. We are as gods? No, for we have created the power but not the mind."

We are likely to find more insight in historical, economic, social, and political analysis than in rhetorical flourishes. Among recent attempts to combine detail with a broad view is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), in which the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes the case that, while human nature may not be visibly changing, we are developing more sophisticated institutions and smarter systems of governance and regulation, with the notable result that there has been a significant reduction in violence and cruelty over time as people extend their circles of concern in ways that were historically unthinkable.

It remains to be seen how much Pinker and others, such as the economist Paul Seabright, whose The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Princeton University Press, 2004) charts the evolution of cooperation, have got right. They are, however, to be credited for trying for balance in their approach to evidence, and right to point out that we are, in theory if not always in practice, capable of making deliberate choices that, while necessarily imperfect, can be based on a comprehensive assessment of available evidence.

Informing and shaping all our choices is the question of what we value. "People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love," writes the poet and essayist Wendell Berry. And, he continues, "To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know." As Wallace Stevens put it, "Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail."

I agree, but I don't think attention to detail is incompatible with an expansion and deepening of what we apprehend. A good starting point for a life well lived is continual effort to enlarge, as well as to deepen, the boundaries of our imaginations and our knowledge to all the dimensions and details of the real world. Thoreau, who wrote that "in wildness is the salvation of the world," was a visionary and a radical, but he was not a woolly thinker. It was Thoreau—not the supposedly practical folk around him—who refused to believe that Walden Pond was bottomless and actually took the trouble to measure its depth with a plumb line. As Richard Feynman later said, "Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there."

The nature writer Robert Macfarlane celebrates the work of Iain Finlay MacLeod and other Scottish writers in the Hebrides who treasure old ways of speaking about the land and bring them to wider attention. The islands are a place where, historically, "precision and poetry" have coexisted. MacLeod has, for example, tried to revive Rionnach maoim, a Scots Gaelic phrase that means "the shadows cast on moorland by cumulus clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day."

Imagining the World

Illustration by Golbanou Moghaddas, from The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

Mystaceus: A jumping Spider, Phylum: Anthropoda, Class: Arachnida, Family: Salticidae, Conservation status: Not listed

In an essay called "A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook," Macfarlane—a member of the English faculty at the University of Cambridge—wonders whether it would be possible to extend such a project, however "hopelessly unwritable" it might be, to describe the whole world. This "unfeasible" phrasebook, he writes, would stand "not as competitor to scientific knowledge and ecological analysis but as their supplement and ally."

A similar idea sparked my Book of Barely Imagined Beings, which is intended to be a 21st-century bestiary. I had been rereading The Book of Imaginary Beings, in which the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges maps the extraordinary mythical creatures that have lurked in the labyrinth of human imagination across time and culture. I was struck by the thought—perhaps an obvious one—that the animals that actually exist are more extraordinary than the ones humans have dreamed up.

We know that the oceans, for example, contain forms weirder than anything you will find in myths: beings taller than men that have no internal organs and thrive in waters that would scald us to death; others that are highly intelligent but able nevertheless to squeeze their bodies through spaces the width of their own eyeballs. We know that there is a vast world of cold darkness in which almost every creature glows with its own light. The capabilities and properties of those and countless other beings—the results of billions of years of evolution—are astonishing.

It is our knowledge and understanding that are too cramped and fragmentary to accommodate such amazing creatures: Even in a time of rapid scientific advances, we have barely imagined them. In this era of momentous extinctions and transformations, surely we can expand our imagination in order to appreciate the beings with whom we share our planet, thus deepening our own humanity.

We typically think of bestiaries, if we think of them at all, as creations of the medieval mind: delightful for their bizarre and beautiful images illuminated in gold and precious pigments from far-off lands. The Ashmole Bestiary, a manuscript from around the year 1200 now held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is a good example. In one picture, a man dressed in red is watching a pot on a fire he has made on a small island in the sea, unaware that the island is actually the back of a huge whale. Meanwhile, a high-castled ship sails by, silhouetted against a sky entirely of gold. In another picture, barnacle geese, depicted in black, hang by their beaks from what look like green, red, and blue Art Deco trumpets but are supposed to be flowers on a tree. The text is often as entrancing as the pictures. The asp is an animal that blocks its ear with its tail so as not to hear the snake charmer. The panther is a gentle, multicolored beast whose only enemy is the dragon. And the swordfish uses its pointed beak to sink ships.

But there is more to bestiaries than this. Along with zany pictures, fantastic zoology, and religious parables, they contain gems of accurate observation and—at least in places—attempts to describe how things actually are. Undaunted by the limits of the knowledge of their time, they are celebrations of life.

We need to do the same in our time. If we can celebrate and explore what actually is, and have a fuller and richer appreciation of life across evolutionary time, then we can develop a deeper and more nuanced view of what Steven Pinker calls "the nonspecialness of our parochial vantage point."

I agree with Wordsworth that "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her." But to love her entirely, it's important to embrace life's infinite variety—the bizarre along with the beautiful. What, for example, to make of the yellow face of the Egyptian vulture, which derives from carotenoid pigments in the excrement it likes to eat? In males, a particularly bright yellow face shows it can eat enormous quantities without getting ill and so is an indicator of fitness and virility. And what about the pearlfish, which likes nothing better than to shelter during the day inside the rectum of a sea cucumber?

We need to spend a lot more time and psychic energy imagining not just life in all its astonishing and disconcerting particularity, but also its dramatic beginnings. We should meditate on the period when, for thousands of years, molten rock rained out of the sky onto an ocean of magma, to the time, billions of years later, when the tides of the newly made seas—buffeted by a Moon much closer than it is today, with an Earth rotating in just 18 hours—ebbed and flowed with stupendous force.

We should envision the places where life may have originated—either, perhaps, in shallow warm pools where proto-life pieced itself together from the precursors of RNA within lipid bubbles, or within tiny pores in rock extruding from alkaline vents on the deep-sea floor. We should dwell with life through all its stages, from the invention of photosynthesis around 3.4 billion years ago, through and beyond apparent "false starts" in the emergence of multicellular life such as the weird Ediacaran biota, and to the sophistication that allows our evolved brains to mediate what we experience as consciousness.

Looking forward, we should think long and hard about what it means to remake the natural world in the shadow of our concerns and values, and for it to become a place inhabited with beings created from an idea rather than born to a parent. Our responsibilities, our capability for good or ill, are momentous. For we, and whatever comes after us as a result of our actions, are part of an indefinite cycle of creativity and becoming.

Caspar Henderson is a writer in Oxford, England. He is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, published this month by the University of Chicago Press and Granta.