What the Trees Tell Us

The Trees

by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Imperfect Choices, Conflicting Loyalties

I’ve been thinking about how often the discontents in our lives are rooted in the tension between our social bonds and our sharp sense of our individual well-being. Our genes happily carry both our social and our self-protective tendencies because both capacities, when they work together, support our survival. Like other social species, humans have long been “stronger together” when it comes to planning a steady food supply, building housing, and defending themselves. But the quickest signal that one of us is sick, injured, threatened, or being cheated comes not from a group but from our individual first-alert reactions—fear, pain, suspicion.

When our sociality—the term refers to our inherited tendency to form groups—and our sense of self harmonize so smoothly that our well-being seems complete, that’s a mutuality that we build our moral ideals on. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But such balance doesn’t last. The self is quick to feel slighted in one way or another. In a recent family discussion, for example, several cousins and in-laws of mine told tales of flawed diagnoses and unwanted side effects.  “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. Change the wording to “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my freedom” and you have a sampling of the self-protective alarms that go off when we find ourselves at odds with a group or what it stands for.

But we may be less quick to notice how often our discontent also comes not from the “me” end of the social spectrum but from the “we.” We often and easily assert the values of our family, community, workplace, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion. Liberals and conservatives denounce each other, seniors lament their juniors, believers rebuke the skeptics. As often as we defend “my” interests against a group, we also speak up for “our” values when dissidents seem wrong-headed.

Beneath all these labels,  accusations, and justifications by and about selves and groups I’m hearing more clearly the tumultuous human dilemma that sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson summed up in a memorable passage. Wilson may be best known for his thesis that natural selection favors not only those changes that benefit the individual organism but also changes that favor the group itself. Most biologists dispute the validity of such “group selection” as a separate level of natural selection. But no one disagrees that sociality itself runs deep and strong in our species among many others. And when our loyalty to our clan, party, religion or other group clashes with our sense of our own well-being, we feel angry, sad, confused, frightened, or betrayed. Here, says Wilson, is our spiritual turmoil—and our humanity.

Some years ago I read this passage in Wilson’s Sociobiology (2000 edition). The sentences appear near the close of the fifth chapter. Wilson characterizes our biological and humanistic dilemma with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from around 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and closest friends will be fighting for the other side. Wilson writes that the theory of group selection

predicts ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (hinduhumanrights.info)

Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (hinduhumanrights.info)

I remember feeling the sweep and the dilemma of human emotion here, from its biological roots to its spiritual consequences, from doubt and guilt to righteousness and war. I took in what I could, then turned the page. But the passage was the kind that sometimes plants itself in our memory more firmly than we know and rises again years later when we need it. Actually, I remembered the passage inaccurately. The condensed version that I had carried for so long included the words autonomy and sociality, two terms missing here that Wilson uses elsewhere.

Still, though, I think that autonomy and sociality are good labels for these volatile allies. We are Arjuna. We all come to the field of life with two capacities that work together though not easily or perfectly.  And I have more empathy for people, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”

Survivors and the Terminator

The story of biological evolution recounts the ways that most plants and animals have changed over time as small bodily variations improved their odds of survival. But what about those species, fitted successfully to stable environments early on, that have changed very little? Are any such ancient species (besides the microbes) still around today?

Yes. In Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey tracks down some present-day creatures that look much like their fossilizeds ancestors from millions of years ago. Oddly, their stories of sameness impress me with as strong a sense of evolution’s power as the stories of other species, including ours., that have changed to adapt.

Horseshoe crabs, after half a billion years, still crowd the beach. (delaware-surf-fishing.com)

Horseshoe crabs, after half a billion years, still crowd the beach.
(delaware-surf-fishing.com)

In the opening chapter, Fortey is on a beach in Delaware on the night of the annual horseshoe crab orgy, when thousands of male horseshoe crabs come ashore to clamber on top of the females. Horseshoe crabs have  been scrambling up beaches for 500 million years.

In the darkness along Delaware Bay the scratching percussion of the crabs provides an unmusical accompaniment on an imaginary journey backwards in time: to an era well before mammals and flowering plants; a time before the acme of giant reptiles, long before Tyrannosaurus; backwards again through an extinction event 250,000,000 years ago that wiped nine-tenths of life from the earth; and then back still further, before a time of lush coal forests to a stage in the earth’s history when the land was stark and life was cradled in the sea.

firmoss (newfs.s3.amazonaws.com)

Four hundred mya, plants like this Norwegian Huperzia moved from the water to land and were among the first to acquire the crucial, stiffened water-conducting tubes that enabled them to stand upright and compete for light.
(newfs.s3.amazonaws.com)

In the other chapters, Fortey describes the velvet worm in New Zealand, the lovely Norwegian fir moss, the not-so-lovely lungfish. The photo captions here mention their particular keys to adaptive success.

It helps that their environments have changed very little. “Survival is about endurance of habitat.” One habitat that endures is the tidal flat, where the shallow sea meets the muddy shore. Organisms here can burrow, find oxygen in the water and air, find food through filtering or scavenging. Here are horseshoe crabs, snails, small fish, many plants. “This habitat does seem like a good place to be for an organism with conservative tendencies. If its own place survives, then so will the beast. It is the right place to weather mass extinctions that affect many other environments more severely.…Stick-in-the-muds last longest.”

As for the durable species themselves, a few characteristics recur. “Many…seem to have long life spans.” Horseshoe crabs take a decade to mature. And some enduring animals invest more resources in fewer progeny by producing “relatively large eggs or few offspring.” But there are no fool-proof formulae. “[T]he luck for old timers will eventually run out. It always does.”

lungfish (media-web.britannica.com)

In Australia, Fortey finds the lungfish that dates back 400 mya, “the great survivor among the vertebrates, the animals with backbones.” With lungs, these sea creatures, in the transition to the land, can gulp air when the river runs low on oxygen.
(media-web.britannica.com)

What about humans? When will our time run out? Fortey doesn’t make guesses, but he has a hard label for us.

[Early man] may have hunted edible mammals and birds to the point of obliteration even in his earliest days; he was the first species that deserves to be called the Terminator….The extinction event that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species. There’s no meteorite this time, no exceptional volcanic eruptions, no ‘snowball earth,’ just us, prospering at the expense of other species.

He is confident about the survival of only one type of organism. “I am not worried about the survival of bacteria. They will be there to rot down the last bodies of the last humans, and then the wheel of life will have turned full circle.” So ends the book.