Books Life Philosophy Reviews

Book Review: Biology of Wonder

Andreas Weber writes in Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science that the more technology allows us to study life, the stronger the evidence of life’s complexity and intelligence becomes. For two hundred years, biology made no major efforts to answer what life really is. Most biologists assumed organisms to be tiny machines. Today, this belief is shaken.

Organisms are not machines assembled from discrete pieces, but unities held together by feeling what is good or bad for them. 1) All living bodies are bodies of feeling. 2) The wish to live is visible in the living body of each being. 3) Only in the mirror of other life, in the eyes of the other, can we unlock the depths in ourselves.

Feeling and experience guide ecological functioning. Organisms are feeling, sentient systems that interpret their environments. Biology is discovering that even the simplest organisms act according to values. Every living being is connected to reality through the experience of being alive. It is what defines an organism.

The new biology currently finds itself in a situation comparable to that of physics hundred years ago. It views feeling as the primary explanation of all life processes. Feeling is the inner experience of meaning. The subjectivity of a living organism is an objective reality in its own right. Value and feeling are at the center of a scientific description of living organisms. This is radical and not, yet, readily understood.

We experience the world primarily with our senses and bodies. Our need to be connected, to be seen, to be loved, spring forth from our bodily existence We are part of a web of meaningful inter-penetrations of being. Without experiencing natural beauty and real connectedness to a living world, we end up lifeless and deformed.

Andreas Weber writes that the conceptual framework we have invented to understand organisms is the deeper reason for our environmental catastrophe. We are extinguishing life because we have blinded ourselves to it. We treat it cruelly because we believe it to be machinery. Centuries of humanitarian and ecological disasters lie behind us, and bigger ones lie ahead. How we understand life itself will decide our future.

Andreas Weber argues that we share a rich common ground with all other living beings. He writes about nature, not as an object, but as a subject of living experience. Feeling and value are crucial in the phenomenon of life. Weber has spent his life searching for life’s nameless “something”. Life literally creates itself. Organisms do anything to ensure their continued existence. The desire to live is primary. Everything that lives wants more life. The wish to live is visible. We are entangled with others.

Andreas Weber proposes that the that world is governed by poetic ecology. Matter forms mutually transformative bonds and relationships. It is creative without centralized control. Objects assemble themselves into more complex forms of their own volition. Poetic ecology restores humanness, without sacrificing the otherness of other beings. It connects deep human experiences with a scientific understanding of life. The world is vibrant with feeling.

Living beings are autonomous to a certain degree. They act as a whole and not as parts obeying external laws. There are no governing orders, only signs of meaning. All levels of biological existence have the ability to arrange matter into desired configurations. The body knows through acting on what is good. What matters most for all organisms is to act in a way that makes sense. Organisms continuously maintain themselves as a whole. They strive to regenerate, grow and maintain their boundaries against internal fluctuations and external disturbances.

Andreas Weber emphasizes that it is profoundly misleading to compare an organism to a machine. Machines do not bring forth themselves. They have no active interests. They do not resist being switched off. Organisms, on the other hand, struggle to perpetuate their own existence. To be alive means to maintain one’s own body, and to have an active self-interest in one’s own circumstances. A living being is deeply invested in preserving its particular form and in its freedom to act. Every organism chooses and decides. Organisms have to be free out of necessity.

Feeling is the common language of all living beings. It resides in the coherence of the body. The body reacts to the expression of another body because it feels its meaning and seeks to understand the consequences for its own coherence. Experience is mediated through feeling. In the depth of felt experience, everything is an integrated whole.

Our connection with other beings happen on a deep level. These deep principles cannot be verbalized. They can only be experienced. Andreas Weber writes that amidst our elaborate concepts lingers a gigantic blank spot. We underestimate and misjudge everything that cannot speak with words — until some decades ago, even children. We systematically deny what we can know, what we can experience through our bodies. Feeling comes before form. All organisms are connected in a meshwork of experiences which is existentially real.

Every experience has been a source of suspicion since the birth of modern science two hundred years ago. It goes back to Descartes’ idea that sensory experiences are not reliable from a scientific standpoint. And it is an example of our reliance on rational calculation, which makes today’s loss of life possible.

We are living in a biosphere whose depth and extension we cannot grasp, and which is continuously regenerating itself and us. The biosphere of our blue planet is one single interwoven system. With the plentitude of life disappearing, we lose a dimension which is beyond any calculation. All life is a meshwork, where everything depends on everything, and all move through the movement of all. The value of life is immeasurable because it is all there is. If the biosphere dies, we can no longer exist. At the end of all calculations, the value of life is infinitely high.

Living reality depends on a balance between autonomy and relatedness. Feeling alive, or enlivened, is a way to experience whether relationships are healthy or not. It is embedded in all life and is part of the relational structure of the world. By the experience of enlivenment we are able to evaluate the life-giving potential of any situation.

Related posts:
Book Review: Enlivenment
Book Review: Matter and Desire
Book Review: Biopoetics

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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