An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore. I will be posting new articles to this site on a regular basis.
“Science is the study of the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation.” (Definition of Science, The Oxford College Dictionary, 2007). Science came into being as a result of philosophical inquiry regarding the understanding of the purpose and meaning of human existence and that of the universe.
As science became more formulated, it asserted that human subjectivity would impair one’s ability to see things objectively and would result in scientific falsehoods and a misunderstanding of the cosmos. The notion of subjectivity was aimed at the human characteristics of imagination, creativity, intuition, spontaneity, emotions, feelings, dreams, mysticism, mythology and attraction to that which is elegant or beautiful. Science proclaimed the universe was mathematical, logical, and orderly and was subject to laws that governed its inner workings. Adequate formal study and observance would eventually lead to an understanding of all its complicated underpinnings. The idea of intelligent design or a deity being the creator of the universe was negated and discouraged as well.
Its more formal conception came in the 17th century when Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes defined the world in mechanistic terms and birthed the essential foundations of the scientific method. The viewpoint at that time was that the world was objective, mechanical, logical and predictable and that its mysteries could be discovered via observation and experimentation. This also re-defined the world as an inanimate object and thus demoted it from its previous disposition as a living organism. The importance of this new perception and its manifestations was a definitive turning point in our relationship with the environment. The new worldview of science manifested itself in other important changes in perception as well. I will present these beginning with a treatise by John Fowles and his idea of the Green Man in the Tree.
The Idea of the Green Man in The Tree by John Fowles
John Fowles uses the term “Green Man” to represent the archetype of human oneness with nature. He feels that science and to some degree, art have attempted to explain nature almost entirely through reductionism and claims that nature is both a science and an art, beyond just knowledge and feeling. Fowles also believes that the real and significant aspects of nature are private and hidden and that there is an intrinsic human requirement for internal and external disorder and wildness.
Mr. Fowles asserts that modern societies have brainwashed its constituents into believing that acquiring knowledge is more important than having knowledge or using it intelligently. He dates this attitude back to Victorian science that valued the accumulation of knowledge as an ultimate goal in itself. The environment, at that time, was seen as a kind of opponent or entity to be tamed, outwitted and conquered for the benefit of humanity. The short-term advantages of understanding and utilizing the riches of nature were not thoroughly assessed for their sustainability and over time, led to undesired consequences.
Science inadvertently created more detachment between humans and their surroundings and promoted increased anthropocentrism. Science also became so specialized that it discouraged laymen from making any viable inquiries for themselves, as the experts seemed to have taken over the role of discovery of the most important current facts and figures. Another perception arose that asserted much of nature was, in fact, useless and that the survival of humanity was of utmost importance. Fowles also felt that science can only teach us how and what to look for in nature but fails to question its own ontology.
The Demotion of Animals
William Johnson provides insight into the plight of animals and how their status as a living organism was relegated to that of a mechanism or as Johnson puts it,” dumb brutes”. Humanity, attempting to deny its evolutionary covenant with nature, often in the guise of social etiquette and fashion, resorted to immature and primitive ways to enhance its self-esteem by demoting its former ancestral relatives to the status of inferior beings. This included denying animals any possession of intelligence, conscious thought, free will or a soul.
Darwin’s theory of evolution, initiated during the Victorian era, sent a shockwave throughout English society with its proclamation that humans had descended from primates. The church took up the perceived humiliation with predicted outrage, not understanding that science was not trying to undermine the divine status of humanity but only to discover the true origin of Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, Darwin’s brilliant theory was soon to be expediently reinterpreted as survival of the slickest, a term that put emphasis on competition rather than in a symbiotic relationship between species. Consequently, this slant on “survival of the fittest” appeared to generate a justification for all kinds of social injustice.
When science subjected the creatures of the world to its new dictum of reductionisim, animals became formally defined as automatons or mechanisms driven by instincts, were regarded as incapable of conscious thought, feelings or free will and were denied any rights to proper care or affection. This new proclamation gave humanity the exclusive right to dominate the animal kingdom for purely utilitarian reasons. Furthermore, this attitude attributed to the painful testing of products on animals, experimental surgeries and vivisection, cruel animal slaughter methods at animal farms, subjugating animals to circus life and zoos and the savage killing of animals at sporting events.
The application of science in understanding the biosphere and its natural resources has led to an unprecedented explosion of knowledge and technological development that has decidedly shaped humanities’ ideologies, cultures and lifestyles. Unfortunately, its misperceptions about our relationship with the natural world have resulted in many poor decisions regarding how we use the planet’s bounty and for what purpose.
“Definition of Science,” The Oxford College Dictionary, 2007, Oxford University Press. Accessed 29 May 2020.
“The Tree by John Fowles.” bliisbooks, WordPress.com, 10 April 2017, biisbooks.wordpress.com/2017/04/10/the-tree-by-john-fowles/. Accessed 26 May 2020.
Johnson, William M. “The Rose – Tinted Menagerie: A History of Animals in Entertainment, from Ancient Rome to the 20th Century.” Iridescent Publishing, iridescent publishing.com/rtm/rtm_home.htm. Accessed 26 May 2020.