Elizabeth Gilbert’s beautifully written and thought-provoking novel The Signature of All Things explores an important question:
In a natural world that is clearly governed by natural selection and evolution, how can we explain the presence of altruism?
This question vexes the novel’s main character, Alma Whittaker, a botanist studying mosses in the early 19th century. Even before the publication of Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Alma’s own research has revealed to her the processes of natural selection and evolution, leading her to write a manuscript entitled “A Theory of Competitive Alteration.”
At the same time, though, Alma is confronted in her personal life by her sister Prudence’s acts of selflessness and her husband Ambrose’s search for spiritual fulfillment. Despite her formidable intellect, Alma is unable to reconcile instances of altruistic human actions, which are often detrimental — sometimes even fatal — to those who commit those acts, with the ongoing struggle to strengthen our species and ensure its survival. How, Alma wonders, can these kinds of counter-productive decisions be explained?
Gilbert provides a satisfying answer to that question near the end of her novel. At age 82 and nearing the end of her life, Alma is still struggling to reconcile altruism with biological drive. She has a conversation with the scientist-turned-spiritualist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose own explanation of natural selection appeared the year before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Wallace says to her:
“Regarding your question on the origins of human compassion and self-sacrifice…I do not believe that evolution alone can account for our unique human consciousness. There is no evolutionary need, you see, for us to have such acute sensitivities of intellect and emotion. There is no practical need for the minds that we have. We don’t need a mind that can play chess, Miss Whittaker. We don’t need a mind that can invent religions or argue over our origins. We don’t need a mind that causes us to weep at the opera….
We don’t need ethics, morality, dignity, or sacrifice. We don’t need affection or love–certainly not to the degree that we feel it. If anything, our sensibilities can be a liability, for they cause us to suffer distress…..
Do you know why I think we have these extraordinary minds?….We have them because there is a supreme intelligence in the universe, which wishes for communion with us. This supreme intelligence longs to be known. It calls out to us. It draws us close to its mystery, and it grants us these remarkable minds, in order that we try to reach for it. It wants us to find it. It wants union with us, more than anything.”
As one of many forms of life on Earth, we humans are subject to the same natural law that wants all species to preserve themselves and propagate. God, however, also wants us to reach beyond this world. We do that when we sacrifice for others. Altruism, then, is evidence of God’s presence within us.
It’s the reason that parents of a profoundly disabled child sacrifice their own personal, professional, and economic health to care for that child. It’s the reason that people jeopardize their own safety to rescue someone who is drowning, or trapped in a burning building, or in danger of falling in front of a subway train. It’s the reason that some people donate their entire fortune to charity. It’s the reason why people abandon pursuit of their own dreams to help loved ones achieve theirs.
The title of Gilbert’s novel reinforces this connection between us and God. The Signature of All Things is a reference to a theory proposed by 17th-century Christian mystic and theologian Jackob Boehme, who believed, writes Gilbert, “that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme claimed, containing proof of our Creator’s love.”
What a lovely way to view the world.
In an interview, Gilbert said that her book “takes place at that moment in history where the divisions between the supernatural world and the natural world—between religion and science—began in earnest.” Her title and Alma’s story suggest that this divergence didn’t have to be, and we would do well to view them as co-existing and complementary.