From Scientists On Gaia, edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston; M.I.T. Press, 1991.
The Mechanical and the Organic:
On the Impact of Metaphor in Science
by David Abram
Many scientists and theorists claim that the Gaia hypothesis is merely a fancy name for a set of interactions, between organisms and their presumably inorganic environment, that have long been known to science. Every high school student is familiar with the fact that the oxygen content of the atmosphere is dependent on the photosynthetic activity of plants. The Gaia hypothesis, according to such researchers, offers nothing substantive. It is simply a new—and unnecessarily obfuscating—way of speaking of old facts. In the dismissive words of biologist Stephen Jay Gould: "the Gaia Hypothesis says nothing new—it offers no new mechanisms. It just changes the metaphor. But metaphor is not mechanism!" (1)
What Gould failed to state is that "mechanism," itself, is nothing more than a metaphor. It is an important one, to be sure. Indeed the whole process of modern science seems to get underway with this metaphor. In 1644 the brilliant philosopher Rene Descartes wrote, "I have described the earth, and all the visible world, as if it were a machine."(2) In his various writings Descartes (developing a notion already suggested by other philosophers) effectively inaugurated that tradition of thought we call "mechanism," or, as it was known at that time, the "mechanical philosophy." And his metaphor is still with us today.'
But let us explore how this metaphor operates upon us. What are the assumptions, explicit and implicit, that we wittingly or unwittingly buy into when we accept the premise that "the visible world" and, most specifically, the earth, is best understood as a very intricate and complex machine?
The Mind of a Metaphor
First, the mechanical philosophy suggests that matter, itself, is ultimately inert, without any life or creativity of its own. The great worth of the machine metaphor is that it implies that the material world is, at least in principle, entirely predictable.(3)
According to this metaphor, the material world operates, like any machine, according to fixed and unvarying rules; laws that have been built into the machine from the start. It has no creativity, no spontaneity of its own. As a watch or a clock ticks away with complete uniformity until it runs down, so the material world cannot itself alter or vary the laws that are built into it. The laws of a mechanical world are preset and constant; if we can discover those laws, we will be able to predict with utter certainty the events of the world. Or so the mechanical philosophers thought in the seventeenth century.
The second assumption implicit in the mechanical metaphor is rather more hidden than the first. A machine always implies someone who invented and constructed the machine, a builder, a maker. A machine does not, in the manner of an embryo, generate itself. Clocks, carriages, or steam engines do not take form of themselves—if they did, they would be very wild and magical entities indeed, and we could not ascribe to them the fixity, uniformity, and predictability that we associate with any strictly mechanical object. If we view nature as a machine, then we tacitly view it as something that has been built, something that has been made from outside. This is still evident in much of the language that we use in our science today: we speak of behavior that has been "programmed" into an animal's genes, of information that is "hardwired" into the brain. But who wrote the program? Who wired the brain? As mechanists we borrow these metaphors from our own experience of built things—things that have been invented and constructed by humans—and then we pretend that the inventor or the builder (or the programmer) does not come along with the metaphor. But of course, it does. If the material world is like a machine, then this world must have been constructed from outside.
This implication, I would claim, is precisely why the mechanical philosophy triumphed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to become part of the very fabric of conventional science. Mechanism gained ascendancy not because it was a necessary adjunct of scientific practice, but because it disarmed the objections of the Church, the dominant social and political institution of the time. The mechanical philosophy became a central facet of the scientific worldview precisely because it implied the existence of a maker (a divine interpreter) and thus made possible an alliance between science and the Church.
But in order to make sense of this claim (and to better understand the power of the mechanical metaphor today) we must look briefly at the cultural forces and tensions that set the stage for the historical ascendancy of the mechanical philosophy in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe.
A Brief Historical Excursus
We moderns tend to assume that the adoption of the mechanical metaphor was a necessary precondition for the growth and flourishing of experimental science. Yet an attentive study of the various conflicts and debates that gave rise to the scientific revolution quickly calls such assumptions into question.(4) Until the latter half of the seventeenth century, the tradition of experimentation was not associated with the mechanical philosophy. On the contrary, the method of careful experimentation was associated with those who practiced it, those who developed and refined it to the level of an art, individuals who had a very different perspective from that of the mechanists. For these were the people who called themselves "natural magicians" and "alchemists." They viewed the material world, and indeed matter itself, as a locus of subtle powers and immanent forces, a dynamic network of invisible sympathies and antipathies. For the Renaissance natural magician Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499, founder of the Florentine Academy, and the first translator of Plato's works into Latin), for the physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1541), for the Hermetic natural magicians Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) and Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) and in truth for the entire alchemical tradition, material nature was perceived as alive. Indeed nature was experienced as a complex, animate, and sensitive organism with whom the investigator—the natural magician, or scientist—was in relation. ("It is an error," wrote Campanella, "to think that the world does not feel just because it does not have legs, eyes, and hands.") The experimental method was developed and honed as the medium of this relation, as a practice of dialogue between oneself and animate nature. Experimentation was here a form of participation, a technique of communication or communion which, when successful, effected a transformation not just in the structure of the material experimented upon, but in the structure of the experimenter himself.(5)
Many of the great discoveries that we associate with the scientific revolution and, indeed, many of the scientists themselves, took their inspiration from this participatory tradition of natural magic—one need only mention Nicholas Copernicus, who wrote of the sun as the visible God, quoting the legendary Egyptian magician Hermes Trismegistus; Johannes Kepler, whose mother was imprisoned and nearly executed for practicing witchcraft—on the evidence of Kepler's own writings; William Gilbert, the great student of magnetism, which he termed "coition" as if it were a type of sexual intercourse that matter has with itself, and who, in his book De Magnete, published in 1600 (the year that Bruno was burned at the stake), wrote of the whole earth as a living body with its own impulse for self-preservation! And, of course, we must mention Francis Bacon, the "father" of experimental science, who saw his scientific method as a refinement of the tradition of natural magic and who wrote that through his work the term "magic," which "has long been used in a bad sense, will again be restored to its ancient and honorable meaning."(6)
How is it that we have forgotten this intimate link between experimental science and natural magic? How or why was this link with magic so obscured by the subsequent tradition of natural science? Why, for instance, did Isaac Newton, arguably one of the greatest of all natural magicians, find it necessary to hide and publicly deny the vast alchemical researches that occupied him throughout his life?
Clearly, the Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries felt itself threatened by this powerful tradition which held that the generative material world was in some sense its own source, this tradition—with roots in the high culture of Renaissance Neoplatonism as well as in the diverse folk knowledge of the peasant countryside—which spoke of the enveloping earth as a living being, a living matrix of spiritual powers and receptivities. Such a way of speaking threatened the theological doctrine that matter itself is passive and barren, and that the corporeal realm of nature was a fallen, sinful realm, necessarily separated from its divine source. (I do not refer here to Christian doctrine in general, but to the institutionalized Church of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—a period, let us remember, that saw hundreds of thousands of persons, most of them women, tortured and executed as "witches" by the ecclesiastical and lay authorities.)
The true source, according to the Church, was radically external to nature, outside of the earthly domain in which we find ourselves bodily immersed. The teachings of natural magic, however, with their constant reference to immanent powers, implied that the divine miracles reported in the Old and the New Testaments might be explained by subtle principles entirely internal to material nature. This was heresy—Heresy of the first order!—because it enabled one to doubt the very agency and existence of the God outside nature. Clearly then, if natural experimentation was to become a respectable or even a permissible practice, it would have to find a new rhetoric for itself. It would have to shed its origins in the magical and participatory worldview and take on a new way of speaking more in line with Church doctrine.
It was mechanism, or the mechanical philosophy, that provided this new and much safer way of speaking. For again, a metaphorical machine entails a metaphorical builder, a creator. Like the Church, the mechanical philosophy necessitated belief in a creative source entirely outside of the material or sensible world. And, like the Church, the mechanical philosophy involved a denigration of corporeal matter – not exactly as fallen, sinful and demonic, but as barren, inert, and ultimately dead.
Here, then, was a perfect cosmology for the experimental scientists to adopt—one that would allow them to continue to investigate nature without fear of being persecuted, or even executed, for heresy. The mechanical metaphor made possible an alliance between seventeenth-century science and the Church. And thus mechanism became a central tenet of the scientific worldview.(7)
Mechanism and Human Privilege
We are now in a position to discern the third and most powerful assumption implicit in the mechanical metaphor. The only true machines of which we have direct experience are those that have been invented by humans. Hence, if the world really functions as a complex machine, then the one who built that machine must be very much like us. There is, in other words, an implied correspondence between humans and the one who built or programmed the complicated, vast machine of the world. We are, after all, made in his image. If the material Earth is a created machine, it falls to us—because we are not just created, but creators in our own right—to figure out how the machine works.
The mechanical metaphor, then, not only makes it rather simple for us to operationalize the world, by presenting nature as an assemblage of working parts that have no internal relation to each other—a set of parts, that is, that can be readily taken apart or put back together without undo damage; it also provides us with a neat justification for any and all such manipulations. The correspondence between the creative human mind and that which created the mechanical universe (between humans and God) ensures that the human researcher has a divine mandate to experiment upon, to operate upon, to manipulate earthly nature in any manner that he or she sees fit. The inertness of matter, the clear lack of sentience in all that is not human, absolves the researcher of any guilt regarding the apparent pain he or she may happen to inflict upon animals or ecosystems. (Such pain, as Descartes taught us, is entirely an illusion, for automatons cannot really feel anything.)
The mechanical worldview thus implicates us in a relation to the world which is that of an inventor, an operator, or an engineer to his or her machine (the very notion of "genetic engineering" can make sense only for a culture that maintains a mechanical view of nature). When the natural world is conceived as a machine, the human mind necessarily retains a godlike position outside of that world. It is this privileged position – the license it gives us for the possession, mastery, and control of nature – that makes us so reluctant to drop the mechanical metaphor today. If mechanism rose to prominence in the seventeenth century due to its compatibility with the belief in a divine creator, it remains in prominence today largely due to the deification of human powers that it promotes.
The Phenomenology of Perception
But this deification, this human privilege, comes at the expense of our perceptual experience. If, at any moment, we suspend our theoretical awareness in order to attend to our sensory experience of the world around us (to our experience not as disembodied intellects but as intelligent, sensing animals), we find that we are not outside of the world, but entirely within it. We are thoroughly encompassed by the physical world, immersed in its depths. Hence our sensory relation to the world is hardly that of a spectator to an object. As sensing animals, we are never disinterested onlookers but participants in a dynamic, shifting, and ambiguous field.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist and philosopher who has perhaps most carefully analyzed the experience of perception, underscored the participatory nature of this experience by calling attention to the obvious but easily overlooked fact that our hand, with which we touch the world, is itself a touchable thing, and is thus itself entirely a part of the tactile field that it explores. Likewise the eyes, with which we see the world, are themselves visible. They are entirely included within the visible world that they see—they are one of the visible things, like the bark of a tree, or a stone, or the sky. For Merleau-Ponty, to see is also, at one and the same time, to feel one-self seen, and to touch the world is also to feel oneself touched by the world! Clearly a wholly immaterial mind could neither see nor touch things, could not experience anything at all. We can experience things, can touch, hear, and taste things, only because, as palpable bodies, we are ourselves a part of the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds, and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive. We might just as well say that we are organs of that world, and that the world is perceiving itself through us.(8)
But here the main point to get from Merleau-Ponty is that, from the perspective of our embodied, animal awareness, perception isalways experienced as an interactive, reciprocal participation. The event of perception is never instantaneous—it has always a duration, and in that duration there is always movement, a questioning and responding, a subtle attuning of the eyes to that which they see, or of the ears to what is heard, and thus we enter into a relationship with the things we perceive.
When, for instance, a particular stone on the beach catches my eye, I may respond to this solicitation by bending to pick it up. I thereby discover that the stone is larger than I had at first thought—I now see that much of its bulk had been hidden beneath the sand. In order to heft it my body shifts its stance, legs and feet planting themselves a bit more solidly in the sand as I raise the stone to eye level… Now, as one hand moves over its surface, my fingers must adjust themselves to the particular texture of that surface; they must find the right rhythm, the right way to touch it if the stone is to disclose its subtle furrows and patterns. Likewise, only as my eyes find the right way to focus and question its surface will the stone begin to reveal to me the secrets of its mineral composition. As my body adjusts itself to the stone, the stone begins to speak its mute language, to subtly instruct and inform my senses. And the more I linger with this stone, the more I will learn. My experience, then, is of a reciprocal interaction, a mutual engagement of the stone by my body and of my body by the stone. And so it is with everything that we perceive, constantly, continually—the paved streets we walk upon, the trees that surround our home, the clouds that catch our gaze. Perception is always an active engagement with what one perceives, a reciprocal participation with things. As such, our direct perception always discloses things and the world as uncertain, animate presences with which we find ourselves in a sort of communication. That this is our native, human experience of things is attested by the discourse of virtually all indigenous, oral, tribal peoples, whose languages simply refuse any designation of things, or of the sensible world, as ultimately inanimate. If a thing has the power to "call my attention" or to "capture my gaze," it can hardly be thought of as inert. "If the moon was not in some sense alive, you would no longer see it," I was told by an old tribal shaman in the Mexican desert. By which he meant to say, I think, that simply to perceive a phenomenon is already to be in an interactive relation with that phenomenon—yet how could one have an interactive relationship with any being that was entirely inanimate, without any spontaneity, or agency, of its own? How indeed? By implying that matter is utterly passive and inert, mechanism denies our perceptual experience. It denies our sensory involvement in the world.
The scientist who holds a fundamentally mechanical view of the natural world must suspend his or her sensory participation with things. He strives to picture the world from the viewpoint of an external spectator. He conceives of the earth as a system of objective relations laid out before his gaze, but he does not include the gaze, his own seeing, within the system. Denying his sensory involvement in that which he seeks to understand, he is left with a purely mental relation to what is only an abstract image.
Likewise with any particular object or organism that the mechanist studies. There as well, she must assume the position of a disinterested onlooker. She must suppress all personal involvement in the object; any trace of subjectivity must be purged from her account. But this is an impossible ideal, for there is always some interest or circumstance that leads us to study one phenomenon rather than another, and this necessarily conditions what we look for, and what we discover. We are always in, and of, the world that we seek to describe from outside. We can deny, but we cannot escape being involved in whatever we perceive. Hence, we may claim that the sensible world is ultimately inert or inanimate, but we can never wholly experience it as such. The most that we can do is attempt to renderthe sensible world inanimate, either by killing that which we study, or by deadening our sensory experience. Thus our denial of participation ultimately manifests as a particular form of participation, but one that does violence to our bodies and to the earth.
Mechanism, then, is a way of speaking that denies the inherently reciprocal and participatory nature of perceptual experience. It thereby constricts and stifles the senses; they are no longer free to openly engage things like oak trees, bird song, and the movement of waves. We grow more and more oblivious to the animate earth as our body becomes closed in upon itself; our direct intercourse with the sensible world is inhibited. Mechanism sublimates our carnal relationship with the earth into a strictly mental relation, not to the world, but to the abstract image of a finished blueprint, the abstract ideal of a finished truth.
This mentalistic epistemology, with its fear of direct relationship and its intolerance of ambiguity, is the mark, I suggest, of an immature or adolescent science, a science that has not yet come into its own. Although it sporadically fosters grandiose feelings of power and godlike mastery over nature, science as mechanism is inherently unstable, because it is founded upon a denial of the very conditions that make science possible at all. Such a science cannot last—it must either obliterate the world in a final apotheosis of denial, or else give way to another mode of science: one that can affirm, rather than deny, our living bond with the world that surrounds us.
Toward an Ecological Epistemology
The Gaia hypothesis may well signal the emergence of just such a mature science—a science that seeks not to control the world but to participate with the world, not to operate upon nature, but to cooperate with nature. If the chemical composition of the air that we breathe is, at this very moment, being actively monitored and modulated by all of the earth's organisms acting in concert, as a single, coherent, living metabolism, then the material world that surrounds us is not, in any sense, inert or inanimate. Nor are these insects, these trees, or even these boulders entirely passive and inert. For material nature can no longer be perceived as a collection of detachable working parts. It is not a created machine but rather a vast, self-generative, living physiology, open and responsive to changing circumstances. In short, it is an entity.
Of course, we may still attempt to speak of Gaia in purely mechanical terms, or try to conceive of Gaia as a strictly objective set of processes, straining thus to hold our science within the old mechanical paradigm to which we have become accustomed. We may be reluctant to give up the dream of a finished objectivity, and of the fixed reality to which it would correspond. Nevertheless, Gaia will never fit very neatly within the discourse of mechanism. A mechanism is entirely determined; it acts, as we have seen, according to a set of predictable and fixed rules and structures that it itself did not generate. Yet it is precisely such a formulation that Gaia, as an autopoietic or self-generating system, resists. Of course, we may say that Gaia is a machine (or a set of mechanisms) that is building itself. But then we will have given up, perhaps without realizing it, that part of the metaphor that makes mechanism so compelling. That is, a machine that generates itself could never be wholly predictable. For it must improvise itself as it goes, creatively. (We have no guarantee, for instance, that the so-called mechanisms that Gaia employs to regulate the salinity of the oceans, or to modulate the temperature of the atmosphere, are precisely the same that Gaia will be employing two centuries from now.) Gaia, as a self-organizing entity, is no more and no less predictable than a living organism, and we might as well simply acknowledge the fact, and cease pretending that it is anything like a machine that we could build. The Gaia hypothesis suggests that the world we inhabit is rather more like a living physiology than it is like a watch, or a spaceship, or a complex computer.
And we ourselves are entirely inside of this physiology, circumscribed by this organic entity. For the Gaia hypothesis indicates that the atmosphere in which we live and think is itself a dynamic extension of the planetary surface, a functioning organ of the animate earth. As I have written elsewhere:
It may be that the new emphasis it places on the atmosphere of this world is the most radical aspect of the Gaia Hypothesis. For it carries the implication that before we as individuals can begin to recognize the Earth as a self-sustaining organic presence, we must remember and reacquaint ourselves with the very medium within which we move. The air can no longer be confused with mere negative presence or the absence of solid things; henceforth the air is itself a density—mysterious indeed for its invisibility—but a thick and tactile presence nonetheless. We are immersed in its depths as surely as fish are immersed in the sea. It is the medium, the silent interlocutor of all our musings and moods. We simply cannot exist without its support and nourishment, with its active participation in whatever we are up to at any moment.
In concert with the other animals, with the plants, and with the microbes themselves, we are an active part of the Earth's atmosphere, constantly circulating the breath of this planet through our bodies and brains, exchanging certain vital gases for others, and thus monitoring and maintaining the delicate makeup of the medium.(9)
So simply by breathing we are participating in the life of the biosphere. But not just by breathing! When we consider the biosphere not as a machine, but as an animate, self-sustaining entity, it soon becomes apparent that everything we see, everything we hear, every experience of smelling and tasting and touching is informing our bodies regarding the internal state of this other, vaster physiology—the biosphere itself. Sensory perception, then, discloses itself as a form of communication between an organism and the animate earth. (And this can be the case even when we are observing ourselves, noticing a headache that we feel or the commotion in our stomach caused by some contaminated water. For we ourselves are a part of Gaia. If the biosphere that encompasses us is itself a coherent entity, then introspection—listening to our own bodies—can become a way of listening and attuning to the earth.) Perception is a communication, or even a communion—a sensuous participation between ourselves and the living world that encompasses us. We have seen that, phenomenologically, this is precisely the way that we commonly experience perception—as an interaction, a participation or intertwining between ourselves and that which we perceive.
Perception is never a purely detached, objective encounter with a thing, because to perceive anything at all is to be engaged by that thing, and to feel oneself influenced, however minimally, by the encounter. We have seen that the mechanistic view of nature denies this dialectic by assuming that the material world is ultimately a determinate object, incapable of open reciprocity and response. The Gaia hypothesis, on the other hand, ultimately affirms our perceptual experience, because it describes the sensible environment as open-ended and alive, which is precisely the way that our sensing bodies spontaneously experience the things around us. Thus the Gaia hypothesis enables, quite literally, a return to our senses. We become aware once again of our breathing bodies, and of the bodily world that surrounds us. We are drawn out of that ideal, Platonic domain of thoughts and abstract theories back into this realm that we corporeally inhabit, this land that we share with the other animals, and the plants, and the microbial entities who vibrate and spin within our cells and the cells of the spider. Our senses loosen themselves from the mechanical constraints imposed by an outmoded language. They begin to participate, once again, in the ongoing life of the land around us.
We are now in a position to contrast succinctly the epistemology of mechanism with the epistemological implications of Gaia. The mechanical model of the world entails a mentalistic epistemology, the assumption that the most precise knowledge of things is a detached, intellectual apprehension purged of all subjective, situated, or bodily involvement. It is an abstract, disembodied knowledge. Meanwhile, the Gaian understanding of the world—that which speaks of the encompassing earth not as a machine but as a self-organizing, living physiology—entails an embodied, participatory epistemology. As the earth is no longer viewed as a machine, so the human body is no longer a mechanical object housing an immaterial mind, but is rather a sensitive, expressive, thinking physiology, a microcosm of the autopoietic Earth. It is henceforth not as a detached mind, but as a thoughtful body that I can come to know the world, participating in its processes, feeling my life resonate with its life, becoming more a part of the world. Knowledge, ecologically considered, is always, in this sense, carnal knowledge—a wisdom born of the body's own attunement to that which it studies, and to the earth.
This view is entirely akin to that of Ludwig Fleck, the great epistemologist and sociologist of science, who wrote in 1929 that "Cognition is neither passive contemplation nor acquisition of the only possible insight into something given. It is an active, live interrelationship, a shaping and being reshaped…"(10)
Finally, we may wonder what science would come to look like if such an epistemology were to take hold and spread throughout the human community. It is likely, I believe, that scientists would soon lose interest in the pursuit of a finished blueprint of nature, in favor of discovering ways to better the relationship between humankind and the rest of the biosphere, and ways to rectify current problems caused by the neglect of that relationship. I have written of a science that seeks not to control nature but to communicate with nature. Experimentation might come to be recognized, once again, as a discipline, or art, of communication between the scientist and that which he or she studies.
Indeed, many scientists are already familiar with the experience of a deep communication or communion with that which they study, although current scientific rhetoric makes it rather difficult to admit, much less articulate, such experience. In truth, the taboos against such participation are much harsher in some scientific disciplines than in others. Physicists, from Heisenberg to Bohm, have generally been much freer to openly affirm such experiences than have biologists, and many have done so. Yet the freedom many physicists enjoy to speak of participatory or even mystical modes of awareness rests upon the fact that their objects remain transcendent to the world of our immediate experience. In other words, to mystically "participate" with subatomic quanta (in the manner of Heisenberg's recent interpreters), or to feel oneself fuse and participate with the ultimate origin of the universe (as do adherents of the strong version of the "anthropic principle") need not in any way move science, or society, to alter its assumptions regarding the determinate, mechanical character of the world accessible to our unaided senses (i.e., the surrounding Iandscape), and so does not directly threaten our assumed human right to control and to manipulate the natural world of our everyday experience. However, biologists and ecologists, geologists and climatologists, study this very world that we can directly perceive, and they are for this reason in a much more precarious position politically. They cannot so readily acknowledge, much less discuss scientifically, their felt participation or rapport with the entities they study, whether insects or forests, for this would directly jeopardize our assumed human privilege and the many cultural practices currently justified by that assumption.
However, in a genuinely Gaian science, or in a genuinely ecological community of scientists, it would be manifestly evident that one is always already involved, or participant, in that which one studies. The effort then, would no longer be made to avoid or to repress this involvement, but rather to clarify and to refine it. Scientists, in other words, might begin openly to develop and cultivate their personal rapport with that which they study as a means of deepening their scientific insight.
The work of biologist Barbara McClintok, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for her discovery of genetic transposition, exemplifies the epistemology implied by a Gaian science. She insists that a genuine scientist must have "a feeling for the organism"—and not only for "living" organisms but "for any object that fully claims our attention."(11) McClintok describes a rather magical shift in her orientation that enabled her to identify chromosomes that she had previously been unable to distinguish. It was the shift to a participatory epistemology:
"I found that the more I worked with them, the bigger and bigger the chromosomes got, and when I was really working with them, I wasn't outside, I was down there. I was part of the system. I was right down there with them and everything got big. I even was able to see the internal parts of the chromosomes—actually everything was there. It surprised me because I actually felt as if I was right down there with them and these were my friends. As you look at these things, they become a part of you. And you forget yourself."(12)
As Barbara McClintok came to perceive herself inside of the living system that she was studying, so the Gaia hypothesis situates all of us inside of this world that we share with the plants and the animals and the stones. The things around us are no longer inert. They are our co-participants in the evolution of a knowledge and a science that belongs to humankind no more, and no less, than it belongs to the earth.
(2) Rene Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, part IV, principle CLXXXVIII; in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans–lated by Haldane and Ross (Cambridge University Press, 1931).
(3) Maintaining a position similar to Gould's, J.W. Kirchner in his critique of the Gaia hypothesis in this volume (Chapter 6) states that "If you try to treat a metaphor as a scientific principle, you will waste your time." Metaphors, he asserts, "are not testable." Kirchner provides, as an example, Shakespeare's phrase, "all the world's a stage," and he suggests that such an assertion can never be tested. It would be testable, he writes, only if Shakespeare provided an independent definition of "stage," such as, for instance, "a raised wooden platform with footlights at the edge."
But let us resist taking Shakespeare's assertion in such an absurdly literal fashion. His metaphor for the world, as a metaphor, is eminently testable just as it is. Indeed, it has already stood "the test of time." The value or validity of a metaphor is readily tested by the ability that it has to articulate our experience, to express succinctly a previously mute or unexpressed sensation (or complex of sensations). Kirchner might well reply that this is hardly the sort of test to which he is referring. Assessing the validity of a metaphor as a metaphor is clearly a somewhat subjective and imprecise affair; only by reducing the suggestive metaphor to a literal assertion can one attain a statement amenable to the precise criteria that, he assumes, are required by scientific analysis.
Yet Kirchner neglects to acknowledge that these very criteria by which he would judge all scientific propositions are themselves supported by a metaphor, and it is one which is no less suggestive and ambiguous than Shakespeare's. This is the claim that "the world is a machine"—the potent metaphor that, for three centuries, has provided the framework within which most scientific research has been conducted. This metaphor of a world-machine, certainly no more falsifiable than Shakespeare's theater of the world, has nevertheless proved itself by its immense heuristic value—its suggestion, for instance, that every aspect of reality should be susceptible of mathematical analysis, its tendency to render natural phenomena in a manner that opened them to technological intervention, and its concomitant ability to inspire and catalyze numerous research programs, many of them astonishingly fruitful. Still, this metaphor has also had its shadow side; it has deflected our attention away from many aspects of nature as well as of our own experience. Indeed, it may be that our mechanical view of the natural world has dangerously outlived its usefulness.
Kirchner makes the mistake of assessing Gaia according to the criteria of a science still structured by the metaphor of the machine. Condemning Gaia as "just a metaphor," he fails to recognize his own allegiance to a set of metaphors. Thus he is unable to discern the real level at which the hypothesis operates. He assumes that Gaia must be a hypothesis regarding some aspect of the determinate, mechanical nature he takes for granted, while in truth the Gaia hypothesis postulates an entirely alternative view of nature (and of our relationship to nature), and hence an alternative way of doing science.
The organismic metaphor of the world must be assessed, like any metaphor, according to the sense that it is able to make of our experience, its ability to articulate the previously inexpressable and in this case its power to catalyze new insights, and new research. Kirchner may maintain that this is a very fuzzy and unscientific way to "test" a theory. Yet such is the manner in which the metaphor of the machine was itself tested, by countless scientists, in the course of three centuries.
Originally illuminating for our experience and catalytic for our science, today the mechanical metaphor, taken alone, obfuscates our experience and, I believe, precludes an adequate response, by scientists and laypersons alike, to the ecological predicament in which we find ourselves. In this chapter I discuss some of the reasons for our reluctance to recognize, much less set aside, the mechanical metaphors that now limit our vision, and I propose some first thoughts regarding the value of Gaia as an alternative way of speaking, and hence of seeing.
(4) For an excellent and finely documented historical overview of these controversies, see Brian Easlea's Witch-hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy: An Introduction to Debates of the Scientific Revolution, 1450–1750 (Humanities Press, New Jersey 1980).
(5) Campenella is quoted in Easlea, p. 105. A fine discussion of alchemy may be found in Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Vintage Press, 1969). See also discussions of alchemy in relation to early modern science in Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), and Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983).
(6) From Of the Dignity and Advancement of Learning, cited in Easlea, p. 128. See also P. Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science, translated by S. Rabinovitch (Routledge, 1968).
(7) On this reading mechanistic science went hand in hand with a Christian metaphysics. The schism that we have come to assume today between the scientists and the theologians, or between science and religion, only really got underway with the publication and dissemination of the Origin of Species. For Darwin was beginning to speak of a sort of creative power inherent in nature itself; he wrote of a "natural" selection—a selective power not outside of nature but internal to nature. Of course, by using the metaphor of selection he was still propagating a metaphysics somewhat similar to that of the Church (in which he had been steeped as a young man): "Selecting" is the kind of thing that an anthropomorphic divinity does; and we can see from newspaper articles of that time that many readers interpreted Darwin's use of the term "selection" as a sort of indirect argument for the existence of God. His correspondence indicates that Darwin himself remained somewhat attached to the idea of a transcendental divinity; it may well be that his use of the term "selection," with all its associations of humanlike will or choice, helped him to reconcile his revolutionary theory with his religious beliefs. (See Robert M. Young, Darwin's Metaphor. 1985, Cambridge University Press, pp. 79–125.) Nevertheless, Darwin's work was the first in the modern era to imply a creativity inherent in nature itself, and this was a blow to the church . . . We now are beginning to discern that if the so-called environment selects the organ-isms that inhabit it, so those organisms also selectively influence that environment; perhaps, then, given this more open, circular causality, "selection" is not such a useful term. The interaction is a much more reciprocal phenomenon than that suggested by the metaphor of selection—it is more of a sort of dialogue wherein the environment puts questions to the organism and the organism, in answering those questions, poses new questions to the environment—which that environment, in turn, answers with further questions. It is precisely this sort of open dialectic, this mutual participation between the organism and the earth, that the Gaia hypothesis is beginning to thematize and articulate. Descartes' closest follower, Nicholas Malebranche, wrote succinctly that (nonhuman) animals "eat without pleasure, they cry without pain, they grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, they fear nothing, they know nothing" (cited in Easlea, p. 128). The mechanical philosophy was the principle and oft-cited justification for the vivisection experiments that began to proliferate in the seventeenth century (and that continue, in one form or another, in numerous laboratories today).
(8) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, edited by Claude Lefort, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968). See also Merleau-Ponty's seminal text, The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962).
(9) David Abram. "The Perceptual Implications of Gaia." The Ecologist, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1985.
(10) Ludwik Fleck. "On the Crisis of 'Reality.' " In Cognition and Fact: Materials on Ludwik Fleck, edited by Robert Cohen and Thomas Schnelle (D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1986), pp. 47-57. Fleck's brilliant writings on the genesis of scientific "facts" were a major (and at first, unacknowledged) source for Thomas Kuhn's later work on the structure of scientific revolutions.
(11) Evelyn Fox Keller. Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press 1985), P. 166.
(12) Quoted in Keller, p. 165.