- (Post-) Evolutionary Embodied Kinships
Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life.—Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)
There is a kinship between the being of the earth and that of my body…. This kinship extends to others, who appear to me as other bodies, to animals whom I understand as variants of my embodiment, and finally even to terrestrial bodies since I introduce them into the society of living bodies.—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays (1953; Trans. 1963)
When charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he sought to “convince us of our ignorance on the mutual relations of all organic beings; a conviction,” he adds, “as necessary, as it seems to be difficult to acquire” (143). His statement has proven prescient. More than a century and a half later, we continue to grapple with the implications of his profound insight that life is relational and mutual: that the fates of life forms, while [End Page 44] not identical at any given time, are fully enmeshed. When Darwin looked at the world, he detected physical homologies—kinship resemblances—among species as well as an encompassing “web of complex relations” in which all “are bound together” in co-dependencies and struggles: even the entities that appear to us “most remote in the scale of nature” act and are acted upon in a synergetic interplay of temporal, material developments (140). No movement or alteration, not even “the merest trifle,” transpires in any part of the environment but it brings with it far-reaching, unpredictable consequences (140). Awed by and attentive to the distinctions among infinitely diverse earth forces or entities, Darwin reverses the usual perspective on identity insofar as the individual is less important than the biosphere, that site of encounters and mutual becomings (Beer 18). Life, he avers, depends on change, and change requires the interrelational, what is released between and among beings. Yet as the generations since Darwin have repeatedly shown, mere knowledge of the dynamism of the world and of the intertwined evolutions of all has not led to particularly enlightened human perspectives on or practices of kinship. We still need prompts to come to terms with our corporeality and, by extension, our essential intertwining with, rather than radical apartness from, our physical environment.
Darwin’s evolutionary lesson—that until and unless humans come to value materiality, they remain in ignorance about themselves and the world—continues to require of us perceptual and ontological shifts, shifts as confounding today as they were in the Victorian era. To embrace an ontology predicated on materiality and common becomings, we paradoxically must estrange ourselves—repeatedly—from our comforting assumptions about human embodiment and subjectivity, particularly when it comes to the conventional distinction between the subject as agent and the object (or other) as subordinate. Such estrangement from familiar conceptions of human subjectivity undergirds the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Though not a Darwinian per se, he partakes in an evolutionary ethos insofar as he undertakes an “ontological rehabilitation of the sensible” (Signs 167), a rehabilitation premised on the “kinship between the being of the earth and that of [his] body” (In Praise 190). Throughout his work, he exhorts us not to conceive of the nature of being in terms of separations or dichotomies. He advocates instead a phenomenological pedagogy of “belongingness” whereby the human (body) shares a deep affinity with the “family” of things and only through intercorporeal experiences develops an understanding both of the sensible world and its metaphysical truths (The Visible and the Invisible 27, 137). If such understanding does not come easily, given that it entails entrusting ourselves to an interminable process of learning to perceive “according to” the world, “or with it,” the pedagogy he proposes has much to offer our contemporary moment (Merleau-Ponty qtd. in Oliver, “Ecological Subjectivity” 108). Mindful of the pervasive sense of disconnection that enables humans to cause natural, social, and political devastations, Merleau-Ponty searches for [End Page 45] the possible or new positives in the emergent...