Biocentrism at Sea

· Otherness, Values Project

Melville’s Pip and the Dark Side of the Biocentric Experience

George Handley


For nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

Emily Dickinson, from her poem “What mystery pervades a well”
Thanks to Glenn Adelson, Lake Forest College, for drawing our attention to this poem.



The black head bobs on the wide expanse of the sea, and from a distance it appears no more a head than a mere shadow of a wave, temporarily and hauntingly suggesting the dark abyss of a submarine world that lies beneath the brilliant reflections of the sun on the translucent spaces of the water. But a head nonetheless—seeing, thinking, fearing. The man’s eyes face the heavens above circumscribed by the ringing line of the horizon while below him swirls a world of strange and multitudinous forms, a world that Melville implies is as hard to see and comprehend as the face of God. It is Pip, Melville’s sailor, desperately staying afloat to avoid fully immersing—and losing—himself in the moiling chaos of the sea. Mountains, deserts, forests—these too offer their challenge to the experience of human exceptionality as they dissolve and confuse the boundaries of the human body and make their persistent and silent arguments for the utter materiality of human biology. But Melville suggests that perhaps the sea makes the strongest argument for the ultimate “other” to human form, personality, and individuality, filling almost 70 percent of the earth’s surface and placing humanity precariously between buoyant human difference and sinking human dissolution, between stars and starfish.

He writes:

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom; and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God (321-22).

There are few passages in literature that express more powerfully humanity’s troubled and troubling difference with the natural world and the perpetually ambiguous meaning of our biology. Almost in a kind of precognitive and experiential way, literature enacts our difficulties in coming to terms with our place in the cosmos and in trying to define the precise nature of our relation to all physical life. And, as Melville insists here, precision is elusive. Although the salty water keeps Pip’s body afloat and presumably sustains his hope of retaining his living human form, the experience of seeing an expanse above and apprehending an expanse below threatens to baptize or perhaps merely swallow Pip into utter dissolution. As a result, literary language performs an imagined confrontation with the strangeness and perhaps strange beauty of our unusual, if not exceptionalThere is a distinctly human paradox to biocentrism, then, one that the philosophers of biocentrism do not seem to have anticipated., circumstance. Pip’s human consciousness achieves an unanticipated union with the cosmos, an achievement of his own now more biocentric imagination, and this provides at least a temporary balm to the wound of human consciousness that feels itself separate from the world. The paradox is that from the specter of death—the possibility that the particular form of matter that we are will be reorganized and recycled into something else—emerges, like smoke from the ashes, the exceptional activity of human metaphysical hope. Just at the moment of the greatest threat of oblivion, human imagination asserts itself with a determined outline, and a surprising argument for the soul emerges.

The Biocentric Experience Revealed

Many environmentalists have argued that humanity has insisted on its difference, even its exceptional difference, with the physical world to our own detriment, and have proposed instead a new cosmology of biocentrism, a new way of understanding ourselves in the deepest and broadest of biological contexts. But they have often romanticized a biocentric self as one that safely returns to the harbor of our biological kinship with all life and thus rediscovers a more authentic sense of home in the world. Melville seems to insist, however, that Pip’s adventure on the wide ocean—a necessary step in a biocentric direction—only highlights humanity’s inevitable discomfort with nature’s otherness and its implication of our own destruction.

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is not the biocentric manifesto it is sometimes made out to be. He famously insisted that “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in” (214). He implies that in order to find solutions to the problem of environmental degradation, we must increase our powers of perception so that the cosmos we think we live in—the one we see, feel, understand and love—more accurately reflects what science tells us empirically about the universe and thus more precisely delineates our role within it. Perception, of course, is an act of imagination as much as it is an opening to the world. And what if what we think we love provesHad we the first intimation of the Definition of Life, the calmest of us would be lunatics. more complex and unknown, less predictable, and more indifferent than we imagine? What if science depicts a world increasingly diverse, contingent, and strange to our human predilections and imaginings? What then becomes the basis for care or ethical response to such a place as this planet? Perhaps we destroy what we don’t understand. Perhaps we act out in repressed anger at a world that does not cooperate as we expect or demand. This is perhaps why we might need to give Leopold’s notion of faith more attention than it has received. We can see, feel, understand, and even love a great deal about the world, but when it finally reveals its immense and unspeakable complexity, its haunting and untraceable interconnections (as it must when we truly begin to imagine a biocentric universe), we must fall upon a very human invention: trust in the unseen. That is, we must if we mean to retain hope in the possibility of meaningful and even ethical action. This, anyway, seems to be what Melville implies when he figures the strange and sinuous movements of submarine life as “God’s foot on the treadle of the loom.” It is a way—mad though it seems—of insisting on a kind of majesty, order, and grandeur to life in the face of its utter strangeness. That is the dream of literature, since it aspires to give order and shape to all things, where nothing, no element of the tale no matter how odd or particular, remains extraneous.

All forms of ecological restoration are similar expressions of trust that our imaginations can correspond more responsibly to the ecological conditions of life as we know it. It would appear to be a contradiction to argue that this requires faith at all, since all we presumably need is more science, more accurate information about how the world works. It is not a contradiction, however, but rather a paradox. The more we know empirically about the world, the more faith has become necessary. This is true on the level of both microbiology and physics as well as on the intergalactic level of astronomy. Empirical knowledge of the workings and character of physical life only keeps providing more evidence of our inability to find the rock-bottom reality of our material existence. So while our senses tell us that we live in a world that renders us meaningless and insignificant and that seems to defy our best efforts to make it intelligible, as if it were being perpetually made by a God too busy spinning off his many life forms to pay attention to our puny human lives, we must wander with Pip “from all mortal reason” and have the audacity, bordering on insanity, to believe that our actions matter, that we can and should act on the world’s behalf.

Cosmology and Faith

Leopold’s challenge sent us scrambling for cosmologies adequate to the challenge of cultivating an imagination that will learn to include plants, animals, and the great globe itself within our realm of ethical considerations. We wanted stories that would diminish human significance to its proper proportions. Cosmogonies. Stories of creation, of evolution, the beginnings of time and of physical life. Scientists preaching their gospel of life and its implied ethics of responsibility. But religious preachers too, convinced by the fundamental structures of the scientific cosmologies, who are rereading and retelling the stories of human and earthly beginning so as to amplify the environmental ethics of belief. Like all narratives, science and religion both rely on a suspension of disbelief; they hope that such suspension turns into trust in an invisible totality that connects everything and that makes everything meaningful. Such faith is essential to all storytelling. Without trust that a story can transform seemingly unrelated things into a living whole, these cosmogonies fall from enchantment and become just so many isolated facts, failing to make the claim for our attentive belief.

Let us imagine that Pip’s despair is that he has no audience for his discovered solitude on the sea, that he is without the lifeline of narrative to connect him to others, let alone to the sea beneath him. At the threshold of death, of utter, individual biological erasure, he fights this erasure of boundaries by means of self-consciously imagining his relationship to the whole and in the very act of so imagining preserves the distinction of his human life—a difference he must then speak to someone, anyone. Because it has been tempered by an encounter with a broad context of life, this preservation is not in defiance of biology so much as it is evidence of the immortal yearnings of the human spirit evident in the urge to tell stories that say, no, not yet, to the final conclusions of biology, to persist in his form, his way of being.

There is a distinctly human paradox to biocentrism, then, one that the philosophers of biocentrism do not seem to have anticipated.

To insist that fear or denial of nature is fundamentally what drives environmental degradation and that learning again to love our biological kinship with plants and animals will heal us is a very serious and metaphysical claim. Specifically, it makes metaphysical Deference and ethics rely in part on a gap between culture and about the meaning of our return to dust that are no less bold, no less irrational, and no more dictated by empirical evidence than, say, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, there is nothing about biology—as we understand it in strictly materialist terms—that would provide the grounds for human hope beyond our physical annihilation at death. There is, in other words, no reason why we shouldn’t fear nature since we already fear death. Precisely because biology nurtures physical, mortal life, it is always a memento mori, a sign of our impending end back into the soils of earth. To claim otherwise is to claim, if only implicitly, that there is some mystery that lies beyond our silent transformation into the stuff of the earth that would make such silence meaningful and meaningful in distinctly human—as opposed to more broadly biological— terms. Perhaps natural beauty alone provides some ground for hope, but we must then acknowledge the very human experience of feeling, even loving, beauty and the very human energy and creativity it requires to make beauty from the flowing current of time, chance, geography, and weather.

The Difference, Redux

My point is this: to insist on the importance of recovering a sense of belonging in the biosphere without consideration of our human difference only defers the central question of what to do with the strange thing we are as self-reflective, memorious language users in this world of complexity, chaos, and both unnecessary beauty and unnecessary suffering. Not to mention that such an argument disingenuously refuses to acknowledge the very human—and arguably alienated—exercise it is to deliberate about such matters in human language on the basis of human knowledge and human memory. Pip’s vision, Ishmael’s intoxicatingly beautiful depiction of it, is a triumph of human language and metaphor, over and above the physical facts that Melville so honestly confronts. This triumph is no cause for shame, even if the physical facts themselves are. It is certainly the case that the facts of biology shame any and all illusions of autonomy, of radical and categorical distinction, but they do not nor should not shame the work of language nor the rather mundane and understandably human reasons for our fear of death that biology signals. All of which is merely to say that to get serious about thinking about our biology requires that we get serious, again, about understanding the metaphysics of human hope, human language, and human creativity. After all, as different as the world now feels in the age of impending extinction of life forms and of climate change, this isn’t the first time we have had to contemplate what it means to be the tragic and mortal species we are. And the evolutionary and ecological facts of our existence do not necessarily produce reasons for sustaining hope. Such hope is a choice, a leap over and above the physical facts, as the word metaphysics implies.

Photos by George Handley

It is true that in our 21st Century hunger for a more biocentric imagination, one that would encompass all citizens of the biosphere and that would motivate an ethics of answerability across species, we have grown tired of the claims and burdens of human exceptionality. However, Melville describes here a paradox that would question this formula: to imagine ourselves as mere biology is itself a deeply human, self-conscious and even soulful act of imagination in the face of what we experience as the essential indifference of the material world. Is indifference an overstatement? Is it not the environmentalist’s argument that to see nature as indifferent, silent, or otherwise unwelcoming is a symptom of our anthropocentric interests and delusions? But why, then, do we find in earlier ages of greater contact with the raw facts of nature’s whims a broader range of responses to nature’s emotions, greater humility in the face of its unpredictability, and a more chastened sense of the human place within a system of forces beyond human control? From the ancient cosmogonies to the cosmologies of great writers like Melville, we find a common theme that, yes, nature is sometimes our friend, sometimes offering us that warm cradle of life that makes human joy possible, but it is also that great abyss, the great obliterator of human permanence and human meaning.

We cannot assume, as so many biocentrists would have it, that all we have to do is open our eyes to the world and its animism and subjectivity will become apparent and dear to us. This denies our creative role in imagining the world as alive and sentient and deserving of our care. It takes a certain kind of word-work, a certain kind of cultural conjuring through the cosmological imagination, to open the human mind to this possibility. “Nature” is a social fact, which is not a radical posture of poststructuralism but rather a return to a more ancient understanding of the imagination’s vital role in the making of the world. All I mean to say is that we should more self-consciously perform our metaphors as the means by which we construct the cosmos and accept our position of outsidedness and of nature’s ambiguity. Deference and ethics rely in part on a gap between culture and nature, as does metaphor’s capacity to stimulate and sustain the human imagination. It is certainly true that humanism places humanity in a position of privilege over and against the natural world in a way that has proven destructive of the earth. But the solution is not to imagine that there is no gulf, forbidding to the imagination, between the city and the forest, between heaven and earth, land and sea, or between human language and the world.


Leopold, Aldo. A Sand Country Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. The incident described here occurs in Chapter 93, “The Castaway”.


George Handley is Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Brigham Young University. He is the author most recently of New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott (U of Georgia P, 2007) and an environmental autobiography, Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River (U of Utah P, 2010). He is currently at work on a new book project entitled From Chaos to Cosmos: Literature as Ecotheology.






Real-Life Otherness at Sea

A curious case of dignity occurred here. It seems that in a whaleship there is an intermediate class, called boat steerers. One of them came in Captain Terry’s boat, but we thought he was cockswain of the boat, and a cockswain is only a sailor. In the whaler, the boat steerers are between the officers and crew, a sort of petty officer; keep by themselves in the waist, sleep amidships, and eat by themselves, either at a separate table, or at the cabin table, after the captain and mates are done. Of all this hierarchy we were entirely ignorant, so the poor boat steerer was left to himself. The second mate would not notice him, and seemed surprised at his keeping amidships, but his pride of office would not allow him to go forward. With dinnertime came the experimentum crucis. What would he do? The second mate went to the second table without asking him. There was nothing for him but famine or humiliation. We asked him into the forecastle, but he faintly declined. The whaleboat’s crew explained it to us, and we asked him again. Hunger got the victory over pride of rank, and his boat-steering majesty had to take his grub out of our kid, and eat with his jackknife. Yet the man was ill at east all the time, was sparing of his conversation, and kept up the notion of a condescension under stress of circumstances. One would say that, instead of a tendency to equality in humans, the tendency is to make the most of inequalities, natural or artificial.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast  (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) pp. 31-32


In Our Backyard, too

Think that kind of experience is exotic, characteristic of unenlightened nineteenth-century sailors? Maybe not. I recall a strikingly similar “case of dignity” at the third annual conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration, held in Orlando in 1991. Most of those attending the conference were white Americans, but a number of Native Americans were participating, and I noticed just the kind of uneasiness about where they would sit at the banquet that Dana describes in a similar situation aboard a nineteenth-century merchant ship. In fact, they were sitting alone, like Dana’s “poor boat steerer,” until David Brower walked up to the front of the room and sat down with them.