century BCE onward. Then, in the 16th and 17th centuries CE powerful and compelling new discoveries and insights loosened humanity’s connection with nature irredeemably. The Scientific Revolution served to firmly infuse three long-lasting metaphors within human consciousness:
- Nature as a machine,
- Nature to be tamed and conquered,
- Homo sapiens exceptionalism.
In 1605 the German
astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, wrote to a friend stating that
his aim was to show that the ‘celestial machine (can be) likened to
clockwork.’ The implication is obvious. There is no life, no animation, no essence,
in a machine that runs like clockwork. Robert Boyle, the Irish chemist and
physicist, took up this refrain later that century stating that, ‘The world
is like a rare clock.’1
By characterising nature
as a machine, the early pioneers of the Scientific Revolution stripped away any
mystery, wonder and vitality from nature. The door was opened to enable people
to tinker (as might a clockmaker) with nature.
Moreso, the machine
characterisation led inevitably to the second metaphor – that nature was to be
tamed and conquered. For, if nature was nothing but a machine, then any relic
of a wildness trait had to be purged.
For at least one of the major
scientists of the time – Francis Bacon – his imagery was violent and contained
disturbing sexual innuendo. Bacon genderised nature as female, but not in the
wholesome manner of earlier personifications. The scientific method for him was
to discover ‘the secrets still locked in (her) bosom… (so that) she
can be forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded.’
Bacon was vehement in his
desire to conquer nature. He exhorted his fellow scientists, and indeed
humanity generally, to ‘storm and occupy her castles and strongholds and
extend the bounds of the human empire.’
Descartes was enamoured
by Bacon’s crusade and asserted that science could ‘render ourselves the
masters and possessors of nature.’ Bacon and Descartes were not the only
ones to promote the metaphor of conquest and domination; others wrote of ‘commanding
her’ and putting it (nature) on the rack.’
It is little wonder then,
with our westernised exaltation of the Scientific Revolution, that nature today
continues to be exploited, dominated, and treated with disdain.
The third metaphor –
human exceptionalism – is not a metaphor that has its origins in the Scientific
Revolution; however, it does find a novel expression in the scientific method.
Human exceptionalism –
the notion that humans are different from, and superior to, all other life
forms – can be found in early scriptural writings and monotheism. The human
right to dominion over all other beings goes back to the Biblical story of
creation. What science offered the notion of human exceptionalism came as a
result of discoveries in evolution. The Theory of Evolution arose not during
the classic period of the Scientific Revolution (the 16th and 17th
centuries CE) but during the 19th century CE. It did however, owe
its instigation to the scientific method developed during the Scientific
Revolution. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (published in
1859) was promoted by the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel as the tree of
life in his 1879 publication The Evolution of Man. Haeckel’s
depiction of evolution as a tree placed humankind at the apex of the tree,
suggesting that humanity was the inevitable and only possible outcome for
evolution. This depiction still has favour today, with humanity’s superiority
being at least tacitly assumed.
Thus, although the Theory
of Evolution dislodged creationism as the process by which life on Earth has
been formed, it did not (until very recently) dislocate humanity from our place
of primacy in the scheme of things.
Human exceptionalism has
come to be described today as anthropocentrism and is viewed by many as the
major obstacle to a more environmentally friendly attitude towards the Earth.
Indeed, many environmental thinkers and activists have suggested that we are in
a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene.2 The Anthropocene
describes the epoch in which human activity significantly impacts the geology
and ecosystems of the planet.
Although we do not go
about our daily lives thinking of the world as a machine, or that we must
conquer nature, and assert our place of superiority, these three metaphors
continue to influence our behaviour and beliefs at a subconscious level, both
individually and collectively.
To that end, they are
threatening and harmful.
1. All citations in this
section from Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, Prometheus Books, Lanham,
2. In July 2022 the International
Union of Geological Sciences officially approved the term.