Romantic? Rational? Or machinist?

Finished Daniel Botkin’s book “Discordant Harmonies” last night. It has a lot to offer, but what I’m most interested in is Botkin’s perspective on the trajectory of thought on nature. We start out with competing myths: The earth is a divine creation with everything made according to a plan to foster life (Jewish creation story) – versus – The earth is a living organism passing through different stages of life (pagan/animist). And then around the industrial revolution – when people had complex machines available to refer to in their metaphor making, and when Newton’s breakthroughs offered a vision of a universe governed by an elegant set of simple rules – a new myth grew and dominated the others: The earth is just an piece of machinery. There are several implications if you think of the world this way. The most important implication (to Botkin) is that the world tends toward a steady state – it should just keep chugging along unless we really screw things up.

The implication that created a big stir (it also created the Romantics) during the Enlightenment, was that the world was now no more sacred than a cast-iron engine. There were no longer dryads giving life to the trees – the earth could only be conceived as the predictable interaction of minerals and gases. Being a Romantic was always tough, because it forced you to argue from the weak position of opposing the mechanical Rationalists just because they were killjoys. Botkin offers a sturdier platform: Oppose them because they are wrong
I submit that joy is inextricably bound to truth, and that the feeling of disappointment we feel when we learn there is no longer any magic in the world is not sentimentality, but an instinct for truth. Botkin shows that the universe is not a lifeless machine. It is full of wonders and complexities so magnificent that the term “magic” in the old conjurer sense is insufficient to encompass them. As we learn more, Botkin says, the hard divisions between organic and machine, between cosmos and Earth, and between the living and non-living are blurring. (For instance, the fact that we now have self-replicating, self-improving computer programs forces us to think about the life-nonlife in a way that’s more similar to the animists).
“We can feel part of the world in a way that our nineteenth-century ancestors could not, but our ancestors before them could.”
But here is the interesting part – though the Romantics came into being as a reaction to the machinist Rationalists, they lived in the same time and referred to the same metaphors. So they (or we – perhaps I should come clean) still suffer the same blind spots that come from thinking of the Earth as a machine: The assumption that nature knows best, that, if we stay out of the way it is constant, that if we stay out of the way ecological succession will lead to a paradise of biodiversity. (Interesting tangent: Botkin gives three examples of ecological succession leading to less biodiversity in the climax stage eg in Alaska you get alders as pioneer species and their root bacteria fix nitrogen, which makes it possible for big evergreens to move in and shade out the alder hells and you get this nice open boreal forest. But then the spruce trees use up the nitrogen and when they die sphagnum moss takes over, soaking up water and making the soil acidic – the climax is a bog).
What this means according to me:
1. The only acceptable way to regard the universe (down to our immediate surroundings) is with a profound sense of humility and reverance.
2. We can toss out the Rationalist lenses that ask us to see only minerals and timber in board feet when looking at Yosemite Valley.
3. But we should also get rid of our machine-based Romantic assumptions: this doesn’t mean we should tread lightly or try to protect nature for its own sake – instead we should actively manage ourselves and our surroundings to make the world a more delightful place to live.
4. As we grope around for new metaphors to explain the world (Earth as computer – Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis), we should try to be aware of the assumptions implicit in those comparisons.

Comments are closed.