Terrence Malick’s latest film “The Tree of Life” struck me to the core. I could see myself in the characters, the dialogue was understated but touching (“We have forsaken the trees and animals in ignoring their splendour”) and most of all, the director’s trademark cinematography of wide pans on stunning images of nature lures you out of your seat and into the screen. Here, he undertakes an existential exploration of life and its meaning, of nature and human nature.
Once before, the tree of life was conjured up to explain our place in the cosmos, when in 1859, Darwin tentatively published “The Origin of the Species”. Unlike Malick, who relies on images of beauty to communicate the scale of biodiversity, Darwin achieved this and so much more with a spindly drawing of the first phylogenetic tree. This eureka moment is displayed so clearly in the note pages of his journal; the page is headed with the unfinished phrase “I think” before the tree is drawn below.
This tree encapsulates the idea of biodiversity not as a static assemblage of species who need “conserving”, but of a dynamic process honed by evolutionary forces. Darwin’s Tree of Life displays the morpho-ecological divergence on its horizontal axis, with the infinite diversity of species displayed from left to right. But it is its vertical axis, of time which defines the process of evolution as variation in this diversity over time which sets it apart from others.
The arrangement of life as a tree begs the question as to where one species begins and another ends; the leaves, the twigs, the branch, or the trunk? Darwin struggled with the species concept, and in a letter to a friend wrote: "I am often in despair in making the generality of naturalists even comprehend me. Intelligent men who are not naturalists and have not a bigoted idea of the term species, show more clearness of mind." The idea of a species was culturally tarred by the biblical ideas of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, where a species is distinctly separate from others as deemed by Natural Order. But to Darwin, a deeper transitory connection existed, based on ancestry, variation and selection.
Finally with the arrival of genetic technologies we were able to clearly illustrate the links between closely or distantly related individuals. We can classify an individual as having a certain genetic makeup, shared by its relatives and expressed in its physiology. A species can then be classed as a group expressing these shared genes. The borders of a species will always be an arbitrary box, but at least biodiversity as a whole can clearly be defined as the dynamic process which creates this diverse assemblage of life.
The eye-catching display of amphibians, plants, dogs, fish used by Malick illustrate the diversity of life, but by including the imagery of dinosaurs, he points to the temporal nature of the branches and leaves on a tree. In this sense he captures the importance of both space and time in characterising life in all its manifestations. The scope of the film and its method of touching on a range of qualities essential to undestanding life greatly impressed me, so much so that I am planning my third trip to the cinema.