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The Great 19th-Century Biologist and Anatomist Thomas Huxley on Darwin’s Legacy and What Makes Us Human

In praise of the faculty “making every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor, — more in accordance with the established order of the universe.”

The Great 19th-Century Biologist and Anatomist Thomas Huxley on Darwin’s Legacy and What Makes Us Human

“The quality of a civilisation,” Iris Murdoch insisted in her sublimely insightful “Salvation by Words,” “depends upon the scope and purity of its language.” Two decades later, in becoming the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison bellowed elemental truth from the Stockholm podium in her remarkable acceptance speech: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

More than a century before Murdoch and Morrison, long before the field now known as psycholinguistics existed, another great mind examined the role of language in what makes us human at the most fundamental level of our evolutionary biology — a concept itself then brand new and ferociously disputed.

Practically self-taught, the 19th-century English biologist and comparative anatomist Thomas Huxley (May 4, 1825–June 29, 1895) helped pioneer scientific education in Great Britain, crusaded against religious extremism, coined the term agnosticism, and became the fiercest public champion of Darwin’s then-controversial theory of evolution, beginning with a praiseful anonymous review when On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and culminating with a series of six laudatory public lectures he delivered the following year as part of the wonderfully titled “Lectures to Working Men” at the Museum of Practical Geology, now part of London’s iconic Natural History Museum. They were eventually included in Huxley’s essay collection Man’s Place in Nature (free ebook | public library).

Thomas Huxley (left) and Charles Darwin

In the final lecture, extolling Darwin’s epoch-making contribution to science and our understanding of nature — a contribution the full scope and impact of which Huxley would not live to see — he draws out the elemental question of what makes us human:

What is it that constitutes and makes man what he is? What is it but his power of language — that language giving him the means of recording his experience — making every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor, — more in accordance with the established order of the universe?

What is it but this power of speech, of recording experience, which enables men to be men — looking before and after and, in some dim sense, understanding the working of this wondrous universe — and which distinguishes man from the whole of the brute world? I say that this functional difference is vast, unfathomable, and truly infinite in its consequences; and I say at the same time, that it may depend upon structural differences which shall be absolutely inappreciable to us with our present means of investigation.

A century and a half before Ursula K. Le Guin observed that “words are events, they do things, change things… feed energy back and forth and amplify it,” and long before the birth of neuroscience, Huxley considers the nature of speech itself — a phenomenon entwining our physiology and our psychology more intricately than any other:

I am speaking to you at this moment, but if you were to alter, in the minutest degree, the proportion of the nervous forces now active in the two nerves which supply the muscles of my glottis, I should become suddenly dumb. The voice is produced only so long as the vocal chords are parallel; and these are parallel only so long as certain muscles contract with exact equality; and that again depends on the equality of action of those two nerves I spoke of. So that a change of the minutest kind in the structure of one of these nerves, or in the structure of the part in which it originates, or of the supply of blood to that part, or of one of the muscles to which it is distributed, might render all of us dumb. But a race of dumb men, deprived of all communication with those who could speak, would be little indeed removed from the brutes. And the moral and intellectual difference between them and ourselves would be practically infinite, though the naturalist should not be able to find a single shadow of even specific structural difference.

In other words — for words, after all, are all we have in making sense and navigating meaning — Virginia Woolf was right in writing that “communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness.” Communication is, above all, humanity. But it was Darwin who moored this ancient intuition of artists and poets alike to the facts of science, effecting a larger truth about who and what we are.

Couple with Nietzsche on how we use language to both reveal and conceal reality, then revisit Darwin’s touching letter of gratitude to his best friend, who had supported him and defended him against the towering tides of convention with which his theory of evolution was met.


A Day in the Life of the Jungle: A Poetic Vintage Illustrated Ode to the Wilderness and the Glorious Diversity of Life on Earth

“Time seems to have stopped in a wild summer world of long, long ago.”

A Day in the Life of the Jungle: A Poetic Vintage Illustrated Ode to the Wilderness and the Glorious Diversity of Life on Earth

In 1964, the United States passed the epoch-making Wilderness Act — one of the most poetic pieces of legislature ever composed. “A wilderness,” it proclaimed, “in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In the same era, the prolific children’s book author and artist Helen Borten traveled to the jungles of Guatemala — home to some of the most untrammeled wilderness on Earth, which very few humans and virtually no foreigners or women entered even as visitors at the time. Moved by the lush community of life in this otherworldly wonderland, Borten set out to invite children’s imaginations for an enchanting visit. In 1968, she published The Jungle (public library), rediscovered and brought back to life half a century later by Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion.

The story unfolds as a day in the life of the jungle, lyrically narrated and vividly depicted in Borten’s distinctly mid-century yet singular illustration style, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques. As the hours unspool from morning to nightfall, wild and wondrous creatures awaken and assume their respective parts in this intricately choreographed dance of coexistence — a living testament to the words of Rachel Carson, who had made ecology a household word just a few years earlier and who so poetically observed that each creaturely existence plays out “not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”

In the opening vignette, Borten transports the imagination to the almost surreal world of the jungle at daybreak:

In a hot land near the equator, where winter never comes, a new day is beginning. The climbing sun looks close enough to touch as it turns the sky pink. Out of the mist a vast ocean of leaves appears, splashes with yellow, orange, and violet blossoms. It is the roof of the jungle. Butterflies dip in and out of the blossoms. Macaws and parakeets feed and squawk in the treetops. They drop more berries than they eat. A vulture circles around and around overhead.


Under the leafy roof, it is dim and still. Time seems to have stopped in a wild summer world of long, long ago.

The trees are heavy with ferns and orchids and drooping beards of moss. These are “air” plants trying to reach sunlight by making their homes high above the ground. Their roots take hold on bark instead of in the earth. Dust collects around the roots, forming soil in which to grow. There are air plants cupped like pitchers to store rainwater and others with long roods dangling to the ground.


From the ground, you cannot see the sky or feel the sun or hear the wind. It is cool and silent in the twilight gloom. Pale trunks disappear into the shadows above, like ghosts trailing robes of green. There are no low branches anywhere. Some trunks are covered with spikes. Some are smooth and look to be carved out of bone. And some have so many air plants molded around their bark that they will be strangled to death. There are more different kinds of trees in the jungle than anywhere else on earth.

This ode to place is also an elegy for time. Emanating from the bold and loving celebration of our planet’s living splendor is also the bittersweet awareness that some of the animals Borten depicts are now endangered or entirely extinct.

The jungle seems deserted.
But thousands of tricksters hide behind the screen of leaves.

A piece of bark falls…
and becomes a lizard.
A leaf trembles…
and become a sloth.
A vine uncoils…
and becomes a snake.
A spot of sunlight blinks…
and becomes a jaguar’s eye.

Borten’s lyrical prose deepens the naturally enchanting science of the jungle. As the story unfolds across the hours of the day, we learn about the noisiest animal in the world, about the invisible universe of strange and magnificent nocturnal creatures, about the species composition of the insect orchestra scoring the jungle at dusk.

High in the trees, the birds are about to begin their morning chorus, On the branches, monkeys sit motionless, their long tails hanging down behind them, like dark quarter notes dotting the gray dawn. Soon the sun will chase the mist and another day will begin in the mysterious green world. below.

Born in Philadelphia in 1930, Borten spent the first half of her career composing and illustrating such lyrical, visually arresting, scientifically inspired books for children. Just before she turned sixty, she pivoted into the seemingly unrelated field of broadcast journalism. But she brought to her journalistic work the same ethos that animates her children’s books — a reverence for truth, whether scientific or humanistic, and a stewardship of that which is most beautiful and vulnerable. In 1991, she won a Peabody Award for a landmark NPR documentary exposing gender discrimination in the courts, the dangerous deficiencies of legal protections for abused children, and the way family courts often break up families in their deformed attempts at justice. In era when the vocabulary of children’s imagination is being forcibly robbed of reverence for the wilderness and antiscientific, anti-nature, anti-truth propagandists are hard at work, Borten’s children’s books emerge not only as beacons of loveliness but also as quiet, steadfast pillars of resistance.

Couple The Jungle with The Forest — a contemporary counterpart by Italian author Riccardo Bozzi and artist Violeta Lopíz, also from Enchanted Lion Books, celebrating the wilderness and the human role in nature not as conqueror but as humble witness, then revisit Uri Shulevitz’s vintage watercolor serenade to daybreak.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.


How to Get Back Up and Keep Running: Amanda Palmer on Making Art When Life Unmakes You

“Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. And for an artist, art is what happens when you let your bizarre, unbidden, unpredictable life steer you into creating things that you weren’t expecting to make.”

How to Get Back Up and Keep Running: Amanda Palmer on Making Art When Life Unmakes You

“What is art, / But life upon the larger scale, the higher / … Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her epoch-making 1856 epic novel in blank verse, Aurora Leigh — arguably the first far-reaching literary manifesto for women’s right to autonomy in art and life, and for the indivisibility of the two in any artist’s body of work.

More than a century and a half later, Amanda Palmer — an artist of uncommon courage in making the arena of toil and suffering a wellspring of art, a kind of punk philosopher and poet for our own era (and my dear friend) — articulates that indivisibility with her signature fusion of vulnerability and steampunk-spiked grit in the introduction to There Will Be No Intermission — the gorgeous self-published, audience-funded, vinyl-sized artbook companion to her record of the same title, featuring surreal, fairy-tale photographs by Kahn & Selesnick, song lyrics, and Palmer’s autobiographical essays exploring the rawest life-material of art: love, loss, abortion, mothering as a working artist, the moral and spiritual collapse of one’s homeland, what it means to really show up for a friend in need, how to find a sliver of sanity in the insanest, most insaning times.

With a nod to John Lennon’s famous words, Palmer writes in the introduction:

Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. And for an artist, art is what happens when you let your bizarre, unbidden, unpredictable life steer you into creating things that you weren’t expecting to make.

Art is what happens if you’re able to hold fast — with one angry, trembling hand — to your art-mirror, the one that reflects you, your trials, your thoughts, your audience, your insights, your attempts to try to figure out and express What It All Might Fucking Mean. In that art-mirror, all of the blurry, stinkingly-similar self-portraits you have ever drawn of yourself merge into one constantly-shifting image — you — and, as an artist, you gaze into it and alternate between being horrified and fascinated with this image as you stumble down the un-illuminated road of Planlessness.

In a sentiment evocative of that arresting line from Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” — “…ill-prepared for the privilege of living…” — she adds:

In your other hand, you try to hang onto Real Life. You clutch a wailing baby and an overstuffed suitcase and a copy of The New York Times that you haven’t had time to read (because, dammit, you’re a Good Citizen and Must Be Informed) and a pot of burning rice and a cell phone that is buzzing with unbidden text messages: your friend is dying, your Facebook account has been hacked, your pregnancy must be terminated, your chickens have been slaughtered by coyotes in the night, your marriage is collapsing, your connecting flight has been cancelled, your ex just shot himself in the head, the right wing has read your stupid blog-poem about the Boston bomber and is emailing murder threats, the fetus you’re finally happy about hosting may or may not be deformed, and your mother is pissed you haven’t called in so long.

What, then, does the life-assailed artist do to go on making art, to go on living? She does in the private realm the selfsame thing she must do in public in order to call herself an artist, which Toni Morrison articulated exquisitely in her timeless meditation on the artist’s task in trying times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” Inverting the direction of responsibility to the inner world, where all capacity for outward action invariably begins, Palmer writes:

You read the text messages in one hand while trying to hold your well-polished but increasingly heavy and irritating art-mirror in the other, with a growing sense of resentful detachment — as if the text messages are somebody else’s newsfeed, as if the art-mirror is a heavy curse that you never asked to carry in the first place.

And you keep running down the road. If you’re lucky, you don’t drop the mirror. Sometimes you look at the mirror and you’re like: Why the fuck am I carrying you when I have all this other shit to carry? And sometimes you drop the mirror in exhaustion and fall to your knees. And you drop the suitcase, and the child, and the phone, and the pot of burned rice, and you simply have a cry, knowing that you’re just too goddamn tired to do life, much less make any artful sense out of what’s happening.

Then you get up and start running again.

Complement this portion of There Will Be No Intermission, which contains many more raw-hearted meditations on art and life, with Courtney Martin and Wendy MacNaughton’s magnificent illustrated manifesto for creative resilience in hard times and E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s haunting reading of Cummings’s “Humanity i love you” and “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich — another artist of unassailable truth-telling bravery, another poet laureate of the tenacity of the human spirit.


Thomas Bernhard on Walking, Thinking, and the Paradox of Self-Reflection

“There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.”

Thomas Bernhard on Walking, Thinking, and the Paradox of Self-Reflection

“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” the adolescent Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his own youth a century earlier. These are abiding questions we all ask ourselves and answer with our selves, but also impossible ones. To hold up a mirror to oneself is to become both the looking-glass and the eye doing the looking — a sort of infinite Borgesian mirror of self-reflection reflecting itself. (Borges himself, in his own youth, danced with the paradox of self-awareness.)

No one has paced this labyrinthine paradox more elegantly, nor reached its center with richer insight, than the Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet Thomas Bernhard (February 9, 1931–February 12, 1989) in his novella Walking (public library) — his unusual 1971 masterpiece exploring the nature of thinking and the impossibility of accurate self-reflection.

Painting of Thomas Bernhard, with photographer’s reflection. Thomas Bernhard House. Photograph by Mayer Bruno.

Half a century after The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame asserted that to walk is “to set the mind jogging” and a generation before Rebecca Solnit defined walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” Bernhard writes:

If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks. If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks. If we observe most minutely someone walking over a fairly long period of time, we gradually come to know his way of thinking, the structure of his thought, just as we, if we observe someone over a fairly long period of time as to the way he thinks, we will gradually come to know how he walks… There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

In a brilliant conceptual twist, which turns the mirror of self-reflection into a Möbius strip, Bernhard adds:

However, we may not ask ourselves how we walk, for then we walk differently from the way we really walk and our walking simply cannot be judged, just as we may not ask ourselves how we think, for then we cannot judge how we think because it is no longer our thinking. Whereas, of course, we can observe someone else without his knowledge (or his being aware of it) and observe how he walks or thinks, that is, his walking and his thinking, we can never observe ourselves without our knowledge (or our being aware of it). If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so, also, of self-description is thus false.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

Bernhard extends this logic to the vastest questions about how the native limitations of our consciousness shape our perception and interpretation of reality:

Looked at in this light, all concepts (ideas)… like self-observation, self-pity, self-accusation and so on, are false. We ourselves do not see ourselves, it is never possible for us to see ourselves. But we also cannot explain to someone else (a different object) what he is like, because we can only tell him how we see him, which probably coincides with what he is but which we cannot explain in such a way as to say this is how he is. Thus everything is something quite different from what it is for us… And always something quite different from what it is for everything else.

Walking, translated into English by Kenneth J. Northcott, is a stunning read in its unparagraphed totality, fusing philosophy’s depth of thought with poetry’s contemplative spaciousness. Complement this fragment with Hannah Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, Lauren Elkin’s manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, and Solnit’s indispensable Wanderlust, then revisit former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on the persistence of the self and the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas on how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most original, science-governed, yet deeply poetic perspective on the subject I’ve ever encountered.


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