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Biophilia by Edward Wilson (thoughts)

February 18, 2013

Biophilia by Edward Wilson turned out to be not at all what I expected! I imagined it as a kind of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions but laying out the case for the human bond with other living things instead of the case for paradigms. I’m not sure where this impression came from: possibly Biophilia‘s status as a classic of the field or the adulatory blurbs all over its cover. Instead, I discovered an essay of collections pertaining to Wilson’s life as a biologist/naturalist, a few of which described the concept of biophilia and its connection to environmentalist. Fortunately, Wilson is an excellent essayist, so I didn’t experience any real disappointment from my false expectations. I actually quite enjoyed the variety between his big-picture musings on the state of science (what is the nature of the field? how do scientists pursue knowledge? etc.) and detailed observations about nature and its wonders. The combination really enriched the book. I sometimes wish I’d become a naturalist myself, so his minute, loving description of leaf cutter ants entranced me. Indeed, his ability to make everything he discussed not only fascinating but somehow feel intimately personal reminded me of Oliver Sacks, one of my very favourite science (indeed, nonfiction) writers.

As you might guess, I’m quite happy to have finally discovered Wilson and intend to read much more of him in the future! I found Biophilia an excellent introduction due to its range of topics. I’d obviously recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligent popular science writing, but more than that I urge anyone who feels the magic of being outside, even just taking a simple neighbourhood walk or watching a sunset on a patio, to pick this up. It’s deepened my commitment to incorporate more nature into my life and make sure I breathe fresh air every day. And I’m sure I’ll be happier for that.

P.S. A quick perusal of Wilson’s published books turns up The Biophilia Hypothesis, which I suspect is what more of what I initially had in mind.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks : another amorphous nonfiction book that combines naturalist observations with broader themes, also written by a scientist.
  • The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville : I haven’t read any novels set in Surinam (the country much of Wilson’s ant studies occur in), but I have read and adored this excellent novel set in Guyana, Suriname’s neighbour. Even better, it looks at the intersection between the jungle, its native inhabitants, and outsiders come to study it. And best of all, Melville takes a tropical gothic approach that’s just wonderful. It also was an Orange Prize nominee, if you’re into that.
  • Chrysalis by Kim Todd: this fascinating biography describes the life of an 18th century woman naturalist and artist who also spent time in Suriname studying insects, although in her case it was moths and butterflies.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2013 1:56 pm

    I haven’t read Biophilia because I thought it would be a long discussion of the Biophilia Hypothesis! I tried slogging through Consilience and it was too much for me, and I’m a biologist. I highly recommend “Journey to the Ants”, it is really wonderful. He is a great scientist. I have his new novel but I haven’t attempted it yet, it looks like it is autobiographical, which is good.

  2. February 18, 2013 5:43 pm

    This seems like something I would enjoy. I was on a nature reading kick late last year and had a blast so I will look into this!

  3. February 21, 2013 12:30 pm

    Based on the reasons you enjoyed this, I would recommend The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. As you might guess from the title, he looks at the world at the cellular level, but he does so with a naturalists sense of wonder. And since I enjoyed The Lives of a Cell, I’ll definitely be adding Biophilia to my to read list :)


  1. Biophilia | The Balsamean

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