- Introduction:Ecocriticism and Biology
In 1974 Lewis Thomas expressed frustration with cultural criticism's fascination with physics, especially quantum mechanics. "I wish the humanists," he wrote, "would leave physics alone for a while and begin paying more attention to biology."1 Glen Love echoed Thomas's plea for attention to biology in 2003 when he remarked: "If some humanists have been attracted to some of the most difficult and obscure physics, they have for the most part ignored the life sciences, especially evolutionary biology and ecology."2 Since its organization from a groundswell of overlapping concerns and ideas into a school of criticism in the 1990s, ecocriticism has visibly countered this tendency, drawing on biology and ecology to critique cultural works. Recently, the scientific roots of ecocritical practice have been a topic of conversation at the conferences of both the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (as well as their UK counterparts).3 This special double-issue focuses on both on the scientific foundation and future of ecocritical thought. [End Page 1]
As I write in December, it is clear that 2010 has been a remarkable year in which to think about the biological world. In January Biology Letters reported that macaques share vocal efficiency with humans,4 and in February Current Biology published the finding that sick members of the ant species Temnothorax unifasciatus leave their nest, dying alone, to prevent illness from infecting the colony—a type of altruistic behavior previously observed only in cats, dogs, elephants, and humans.5 In March James Lovelock announced "We can't save the planet,"6 and a UN report predicted that gorillas may be extinct in central Africa in twenty years.7 In April Science published several articles on the paleontological find of the century: the fossil skeletons of a new human ancestor (Australopithecus sediba), a link between our lives as apes in the trees and hominids on the ground.8 In May geneticist Craig Venter and his research team created what he calls "the world's first synthetic life form," a bacterium described as "a defining moment in biology"; Venter claims that this single-celled organism with its made-from-scratch genome "heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines"9—a suggestion made in the shadow of what many are calling the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history: the breathtakingly enormous British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In June the UN's International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management stated that the world must [End Page 2] adopt a vegan diet to avoid global hunger and the most devastating effects of climate change.10 In July BP finally capped the gulf well gushing since April, a "leak" estimated in August to be five million barrels. In September scientists determined how some plants manage to flourish in intensely radioactive environments,11 while the UN's biodiversity talks in October failed to establish targets strong enough to halt the rapid loss of plant and animal species.12 In November, 2010 was declared to be the hottest, or second hottest, year on record.13 And last but not least: in December Science reported the startling discovery of an organism capable of substituting one of the six chemicals previously thought necessary for life.14 "Until now," Jason Palmer reported on BBC News, "the idea has been that life on Earth must be composed of at least the six elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus—no example had ever been found that violates this golden rule of biochemistry."15
In the International Year of Biodiversity16 it seems that each month we gained a better understanding of just how precious, unique, and interrelated each and every form of life is, and each month we lost or found we are in greater danger of losing plants and animals and [End Page 3] the habitats upon which they depend.17 These are both terrifying and exciting times; a special issue...