March 13, 2021

1. The Serengeti Rules

Sean B. Carroll wrote a book called The Serengeti Rules (2016), which was made into an 84-minute documentary, then into a 53-minute episode of the PBS series “Nature.” It discusses the concept of a Keystone Species, one of the most important concepts in ecology, and one that even a child could understand.

The story begins around 1960, with biologist Bob Paine walking along the coast of Washington, where there are small pools, “inter-tidal pools.” The pools are full of different species, full of life and color. But when Paine tosses the starfish out of a pool, he finds that bio-diversity collapses, the pool gradually loses life and color; instead of fifteen species, it has just one species, mussels. He realizes that the starfish were holding the eco-system together, like the keystone of an arch.1

The typical eco-system is a pyramid, with plants at the bottom, plant-eating animals in the middle, and an apex predator at the top. The plant-eating animals (also called herbivores or grazers) keep the plants in check, the predators keep the herbivores in check. Without the predators, the herbivores will proliferate, and decimate the plants. So the Keystone Species is often a predator.

Next we meet Jim Estes, who studies kelp forests in the Aleutian Islands. Estes finds that the kelp forests are full of life, but then he visits a remote island where there are no sea-otters, and he finds that bio-diversity has collapsed, sea urchins have taken over, driving out kelp and other species. Estes realizes that sea-otters, which eat urchins, are a Keystone Species. Without otters, the urchins will destroy the kelp, and the kelp forest will lose many of its species.

Another biologist, Mary Power, studies streams in Oklahoma, and finds that the apex predator in the streams is the largemouth bass. Remove the bass, and minnows proliferate; minnows over-graze the plants, destroying them before they have a chance to develop. If you bring the bass back, the balance is restored, the vegetation can grow.

So far, the theory of Keystone Species has only been applied to aquatic environments. John Terborgh tries to apply it on land. He goes to a region of Venezuela that has been flooded by the construction of a dam. What was once forest is now mostly water, with islands here and there. The apex predator, the jaguar, once roamed the forest, and kept monkeys and other plant-eaters in check. On the islands, however, there are no jaguars, the eco-system becomes unbalanced, the islands look like deserts.

A biologist named Tony Sinclair studies the Serengeti, and finds that the Keystone Species in the Serengeti is not a predator, but rather an herbivore, the wildebeest. Only a large wildebeest population can control the grass, and thereby control the grass-fueled fires. Once fires are controlled, trees return, and the whole eco-system flourishes.

In Yellowstone, the Keystone Species is the wolf. When wolves were brought back to Yellowstone, the elk population was checked, and vegetation flourished. The removal of a Keystone Species is called “downgrading,” bringing back a Keystone Species is called “upgrading.”

* * * * *

Here in New England, wolves haven’t been brought back, so deer sometimes reach “plague abundance.” John Terborgh argues that an abundance of deer results in damage to the forest. New England has coyotes, which have become larger by inter-breeding with wolves, so coyotes may be able to check the deer population, may be able to play the role that wolves once played.

If deer become over-abundant despite the coyotes, could hunters play the role of apex predator? Could hunters keep the deer population in check? Isn’t man the ultimate Keystone Species? Or would homeowners feel that the cure was worse than the disease, would homeowners object to being surrounded by hungry coyotes and armed men — would homeowners prefer an abundance of deer? Perhaps homeowners will ask hunters to target coyotes as well as deer, so coyotes don’t lose their fear of man, so coyotes don’t attack people (and pets) more than they already do.

Thoreau said that not only were wolves exterminated in Massachusetts, but also “cougar, panther, lynx, wolverine.”2 Some of the animals that were exterminated in Thoreau’s day have returned; several animals that are common in Massachusetts today — deer, beaver, turkey, coyote, etc. — were absent in Thoreau’s day.

2. Dickens and the Occult

There are many branches of the occult — telepathy, astrology, life-after-death, etc. — and different branches are popular at different times. It’s often difficult to tell whether an occult phenomenon should be placed in this branch or that branch; some Jungians placed many occult phenomena in the branch they called Synchronicity. In Dickens’ day, mesmerism was a popular branch of the occult, and many occult phenomena were placed within the category of mesmerism. (In an earlier issue, I said that Poe, who was a contemporary of Dickens, had a strong interest in mesmerism, and discussed it in several stories.3)

Dickens’ daughter, Mary, says that he liked to tell the following story:
“Meeting someone in the busy London streets, he was on the point of turning back to accost the supposed friend, when finding out his mistake in time he walked on again until he actually met the real friend, whose shadow, as it were, but a moment ago had come across his path.”4

I would call this telepathy or anticipation-of-the-future, but Dickens and his daughter viewed it as an illustration of “mesmerism, and the curious influence exercised by one personality over another.” Mary says that her father “believed firmly in the power of mesmerism, as a remedy in some forms of illness, and was himself a mesmerist of no mean order; I know of many cases, my own among the number, in which he used his power in this way with perfect success.”

The most well-known mesmerist of Dickens’ time was John Elliotson. After watching one of Elliotson’s demonstrations, Dickens said, “I am a believer [and] I became so against all my preconceived opinions.”

Here’s an occult experience that Dickens had:

I dreamed that I saw a lady in a red shawl with her back towards me.... On her turning round I found that I didn’t know her, and she said “I am Miss Napier.” All the time I was dressing next morning, I thought, What a preposterous thing to have so very distinct a dream about nothing! and why Miss Napier? for I never heard of any Miss Napier. That same Friday night, I [gave a public reading]. After the reading, came into my retiring-room, Mary Boyle and her brother, and the Lady in the red shawl whom they present as “Miss Napier!”5

Wikipedia says that, in the latter part of his life, Dickens “furthered his interest in the paranormal, becoming one of the early members of The Ghost Club.”6 Doubtless Dickens should be classed among the many great writers who had a strong interest in the occult.

3. The Occult in David Copperfield

One doesn’t need to go far to find an example of the occult in Copperfield. In the first paragraph, we read, “I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” David’s nurse, and “sage women in the neighborhood,” make various deductions about his future based on “the day and hour of my birth.”

Astrology deals with the day of one’s birth, and also the time of one’s birth. Astrology is one branch of the occult. It’s difficult to know whether Dickens believed in astrology or not; my guess is that he kept an open mind about it, he neither believed nor disbelieved.

David and his mother (Clara) receive a visit from David’s aunt (actually great-aunt), Betsey Trotwood. Betsey has a stern appearance but a good heart. Since David’s father has died, Clara is a widow, and Betsey is sympathetic to her plight. Dickens tells us that Clara “had a fancy that she felt Miss Betsey touch her hair, and that with no ungentle hand.” But Betsey isn’t touching Clara’s hair, she’s “frowning at the fire.” Clara’s feeling indicates that Betsey looked at Clara’s hair, Betsey intended to touch Clara’s hair. This passage is a perfect illustration of one of the basic truths of the occult: the power of looking, the power of intention, the power of will.

In the above example, looking has a friendly significance. Looking, like willing, can be friendly or unfriendly; there’s an Evil Eye as well as a “benevolent eye.” Dickens describes how Uriah Heep’s mother watches David and Agnes with an Evil Eye (Uriah wants to marry Agnes, so Uriah and Mrs. Heep oppose any warm feelings between David and Agnes):

[Mrs. Heep] sat on one side of the fire; I sat at the desk in front of it; a little beyond me, on the other side, sat Agnes. Whensoever, slowly pondering over my letter, I lifted up my eyes, and meeting the thoughtful face of Agnes, saw it clear, and beam encouragement upon me... I was conscious presently of the evil eye passing me, and going on to her, and coming back to me again, and dropping furtively upon the knitting.

Notice that David doesn’t say he saw Mrs. Heep looking at him, he says he was “conscious” of her looking at him, just as Clara, in the earlier passage, was conscious of Betsey looking at her. Both passages show the power of looking; when someone is looked at, they often feel it. The occult is about the power of looking and willing, the power of the mind, whether for good or evil; the occult is about mind over matter. Those who reject the occult believe that mind can’t influence matter.

In Copperfield, mind is a force that can make a person healthy or unhealthy, a force that can make a person live or die. When Dora dies, her dog loses his will to live, her dog promptly dies. Mr. Wickfield’s wife dies because her father disapproves of her marriage, and renounces her; Mr. Wickfield’s wife dies of a broken heart, dies because she loses her will to live. In earlier issues, I discussed “willed death.”

One of the most important branches of the occult is fate — the idea that the future already exists, and that a prophetic dream or hunch can reveal the future. Many occult phenomena involve leaping over space or time. This suggests that space and time (as Kant tried to tell us) are illusions, they exist in the mind but not in reality.

When David leaves home, his mother has a premonition that she won’t see him again: “I never shall see my pretty darling again. Something tells me so, that tells the truth, I know.” When she parts from David for the last time, she puts a special significance into the parting. First she embraces David. “Then I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see.”7

Dickens himself had a premonition of impending death, and put a special significance into his last farewell to his daughter Katie. At the time, he was busy writing his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Another daughter (Mary) wrote,

As a rule when he was so occupied, my father would hold up his cheek to be kissed, but this day he took my sister in his arms saying: “God bless you, Katie,” and there, “among the branches of the trees, among the birds and butterflies and the scent of flowers,” she left him, never to look into his eyes again.

One branch of the occult is déjà vu — the feeling that you’ve experienced this before, and you know what will happen next. The feeling of déjà vu may be based on a prior anticipation of the future. In other words, you feel you’ve been here before because you have been here before — in a prophetic dream or hunch. When David is talking to Uriah, “the strange feeling (to which, perhaps, no one is quite a stranger) that all this had occurred before, at some indefinite time, and that I knew what he was going to say next, took possession of me.”8 E. C. Bentley said that déjà vu “is no mystery for those philosophers who hold that all which we shall see, with all which we have seen and are seeing, exists already in an eternal now.” Time is an illusion, reality is an eternal now, the future already exists.

Just as the time of one’s birth may have some occult significance, so too one’s name may have some significance. When we think of Dickens’ fiction, we think of his names — Copperfield, Steerforth, Murdstone, etc. When Barkis is interested in Peggotty, David says, “‘Her Christian name is Clara.’ ‘Is it though?’ said Mr. Barkis. He seemed to find an immense fund of reflection in this circumstance, and sat pondering and inwardly whistling for some time.” In the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, we see Dickens making notes of interesting names. Eight years ago, I wrote,

Goethe was receptive to the occult, and inclined to believe in the occult significance of names. He said, “I shall always be Goethe.... When I say my name, I say everything that I am.” Wikipedia says, “Nominative determinism is the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining job, profession or even character. It was a commonly held notion in the ancient world.” According to the ancients, nomen est omen.

The name “Murdstone” drips with malignity. Murdstone could repeat Goethe’s remark, “When I say my name, I say everything that I am.”9

When I discussed Arthur Conan Doyle, I said that he had a keen interest in the occult, and he alludes to the occult in the SherlockHolmes stories. For example, he depicts a character who can feel whether her husband is alive or not.10 We find the same thing in Copperfield: Daniel Peggotty can feel that Emily is alive, and that his search for her won’t be in vain:

“Mas’r Davy, I have felt so sure as she was living — I have know’d, awake and sleeping, as it was so trew that I should find her — I have been so led on by it, and held up by it — that I doen’t believe I can have been deceived. No! Em’ly’s alive!” He put his hand down firmly on the table, and set his sunburnt face into a resolute expression. “My niece, Em’ly, is alive, sir!” he said, steadfastly. “I doen’t know wheer it comes from, or how ’tis, but I am told as she’s alive.”

Daniel has a telepathic bond with Emily, and can feel whether she’s alive or dead. Likewise, there’s a telepathic bond between David and his aunt (Betsey). David knows that Betsey is thinking about Agnes, and Betsey knows that David is thinking about Agnes, but they tacitly agree not to talk about Agnes:

Between my aunt and me there had been something, in this connection, since the night of my return, which I cannot call a restraint, or an avoidance of the subject [i.e., Agnes], so much as an implied understanding that we thought of it together, but did not shape our thoughts into words. When, according to our old custom, we sat before the fire at night, we often fell into this train; as naturally, and as consciously to each other, as if we had unreservedly said so. But we preserved an unbroken silence. I believed that she had read, or partly read, my thoughts that night; and that she fully comprehended why I gave mine no more distinct expression.

Later David can feel Betsey’s presence: “I was roused by the silent presence of my aunt at my bedside. I felt it in my sleep, as I suppose we all do feel such things.” When David is feasting with the Micawbers, he can feel Littimer’s presence: “I was aware of a strange presence in the room, and my eyes encountered those of the staid Littimer, standing hat in hand before me.” When David visits Traddles, he feels he’s being watched: “I walked in [and] walked upstairs; conscious, as I passed the back parlor-door, that I was surveyed by a mysterious eye.”

When Betsey is far away from home, she can feel what’s happening at home: “‘If ever there was a donkey trespassing on my green,’ said my aunt, with emphasis, ‘there was one this afternoon at four o’clock. A cold feeling came over me from head to foot, and I know it was a donkey!’”

Another branch of the occult is synchronicity — the occurrence of analogous events at the same time, or nearly the same time. I can find only one example of synchronicity in Copperfield, and it’s not a good example, it’s rather awkward and artificial. Betsey is skeptical about David’s relationship with Dora, Betsey thinks Dora is too childish and irresponsible. David is determined to go forward, determined to marry Dora. Betsey says, “Blind, blind, blind!” When the chapter concludes, David says, “There was a beggar in the street, when I went down... he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning: ‘Blind! Blind! Blind!’”

The critic Gwendolyn Needham says of this scene, “Dickens contrives a typical theatrical coincidence.” Synchronicity can be dismissed as coincidence, and if it’s not well handled, it can seem to be done for effect, it can seem theatrical, rather than a depiction of how the world works.

When David goes to school, he’s enchanted by an older student, Steerforth. Steerforth has a “delightful voice,” a “handsome face,” and “some inborn power of attraction besides (which I think a few people possess), to have carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield.” Steerforth’s “spell” doesn’t seem plausible to me, but perhaps it deserves to be mentioned in a discussion of Dickens’ views on the occult.

We can see Dickens’ deep interest in the occult in his works and also in his life. If one collected examples of the occult from all of Dickens’ works, it would doubtless be a long list, and it could serve as an introduction to the occult. The occult is full of mysteries, full of unknowns, and it fascinates many great writers, including Dickens. The occult is at the cutting edge of human thought, it’s the philosophical subject par excellence.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. I recommend the 84-minute version of Serengeti Rules. It mentions something that the shorter version doesn’t mention, namely, that Bob Paine suspected that predators were very important before he experimented with starfish — the hypothesis came before observations.

Francisco Ayala has argued that Darwin often started with a theory, then made observations. Ayala noted the “contradiction between Darwin’s methodology and how he described it for public consumption. Darwin claimed that he proceeded ‘on true Baconian [inductive] principles and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale.’ He also wrote, ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!’”

Darwin was reluctant to admit publicly that his observations were sometimes guided by his hypothesis. In 1863, he wrote to a young scientist, “I would suggest to you the advantage, at present, of being very sparing in introducing theory in your papers... let theory guide your observations, but till your reputation is well established, be sparing of publishing theory. It makes persons doubt your observations.”

I’m relying on an essay by Ayala. See also Michael Ghiselin’s The Triumph of the Darwinian Method. back

2. See Changes in the Land, by William Cronon, Ch. 1, p. 4. Cronon is quoting Thoreau’s journal entry of March 23, 1856. Thoreau studied the writings of early settlers, and he realized that several species that were once in New England had been exterminated, just as certain species of fish had become less abundant.

Thoreau says that lynx have been exterminated, but they seem to have returned. I’ve spoken to several people who saw bobcats in Rhode Island; doubtless they’re in Massachusetts, too. “Bobcat” is a type of lynx; the scientific name of the bobcat is Lynx rufus (red lynx). back

3. For more on mesmerism, see Fred Kaplan’s Dickens and Mesmerism. back
4. See My Father As I Recall Him, by Mary (Mamie) Dickens back
5. Forster’s biography of Dickens back
6. Wikipedia back
7. Elsewhere I described how Thomas Wolfe anticipated his early death: “Something has spoken to me in the night... and told me I must die.” back
8. Later, when David is talking to Micawber, he has another feeling of déjà vu. David says, “We have all some experience of a feeling that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time — of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances — of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remembered it!” I discussed déjà vu in an earlier issue. back
9. For more on this topic, see Alastair Fowler’s Literary Names.

Steerforth says, “Ride on! Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on! Ride on over all obstacles, and win the race!” Ride on, steer forth! His philosophy of life is embedded in his name. “When I say my name, I say everything that I am.” back

10. I wrote, “a story called ‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ describes a missing husband; when Holmes tells the distraught wife that her husband may have been murdered, she replies, ‘I know that all is well with him. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon him. On the very day that I saw him last he cut himself in the bedroom, and yet I in the dining-room rushed upstairs instantly with the utmost certainty that something had happened. Do you think that I would respond to such a trifle, and yet be ignorant of his death?’ The woman trusts her intuition, her telepathic power, and this trust proves to be well-founded — her husband is indeed alive.” back