|Ernst Heackel's 1879 "Tree of Life"
with Man (sic) at the apex
Step 6. The Reformation
If any vestiges of links between nature, the earth,
and religion still existed by 1500 CE, then the Reformation went some way
towards clearing them away. Although primarily the Reformation was a period of
upheaval within European churches, and a splitting of the Catholic and
Protestant faiths, what emerged by the end of the period was the separation of
church and state.
The affairs of the spirit became entirely the realm of
religion, and the affairs of everyday activity that of the state and
Over the course of two or three centuries secularism
itself split into a number of variations, including atheism, political
secularism, secular philosophy, humanism, naturalism, and materialism.
One outcome of secularism was that, in intellectual
circles at least, the universe came to be viewed in a materialistic manner.
Notions of the soul and any thought of an animated (or spirited) world were
This materialist view of the world took us one further
step away from nature. Furthermore, it paved the way for an even greater step
to be taken with the Scientific Revolution.
Step 7. The Scientific and Industrial
Although the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions
could be considered as two separate steps, I am presenting them here as a
single step as the Industrial Revolution in many ways was the applied form of
scientific theories developed during the Scientific Revolution.
To say that this was a step is also rather prosaic.
Stride might be the better term, as that word tends to imply something of
greater purpose, length and/or significance.
Revolution served to firmly infuse three long-lasting metaphors within
human consciousness: 1. Nature as a machine, 2. Nature to be tamed and
conquered, and 3. 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.’1 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.’
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, the 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.’
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. 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 (see graphic above.) 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 the place
of primacy in the scheme of things.
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. Furthermore, the three metaphors are still
actively promoted in popular science.
As recently as 1986
Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s foremost popularisers of the scientific
method and the discoveries of science, titled one of his books The Blind
Watchmaker. Although Dawkins’ purpose was to espouse evolution rather than
intelligent design, he still retained, and promoted the metaphor that nature is
nothing more than a mechanical interaction of moving parts.
Our fascination with
technology (the child of science) since the Industrial Revolution has further
entrenched the metaphor of nature to be tamed and conquered. When combined with
human exceptionalism, technology has been the tool by which humanity has sought
to improve the world. This arrogant desire to improve upon nature can be
seen most clearly in responses to climate change. Technology will save us
is a familiar, if not explicitly stated, refrain. Technological solutions (e.g.
geo-engineering, electric vehicles, space shields, colonising Mars, wind and
solar farms) are simply the latest examples of the three metaphors at work.
The 7 “Easy” steps
outlined here have taken us, collectively, a long way from our natural connection
with nature. Will our next steps remove us further, or is there a chance that
we may begin to retrace our steps?
If you have read through
all three parts of Nature Disconnect in 7 ‘Easy’ Steps then you will
appreciate a few corollaries that must be stated as a result.
Corollary 1. Each step
did not have a clear and defining beginning. Furthermore, each step is ongoing.
The Agricultural Revolution has not ended, nor have the Scientific and
Corollary 2. There are
other events and times that could also be considered as steps. One
significant one, that I have not addressed here, is the impact of colonisation
with its decimation of indigenous and nature-based peoples and the consequent
dismissal of indigenous worldviews more attuned with nature.
Corollary 3. Although it
is possible to outline these steps and their impact, casting blame and
criticism upon those who undertook these steps is pointless and self-righteous.
Our responsibility today is to learn from hindsight. The lessons from this hindsight
will be addressed in a future blog.
Corollary 4. Associated
with Corollary 3 is the recognition that each step along the way was most
likely seen as a good idea at the time. Most likely, those who initiated
each step probably thought they were bringing benefit to humanity.
1. Many of the quotations in this section are
found in: Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, Prometheus Books,
Lanham, Maryland, 2017