The Conquest of Nature and the

Scientific Priesthood

Scientist at Work 


Sheldrake, a biologist, discusses how a masculine, objectifying science has taken the spirit out of nature. (Excerpts have been taken and sometimes adapted in these notes.) 


Often the following text, and other similar texts, are taken to lie at the root of the environmental destruction wrought by modern industrial civilization: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28, NIV). However, this view is too simple; the problem goes much deeper. 


The relatively recent acceleration in technological mastery is rooted in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, which itself grew out of the ferment of the Renaissance and the Reformation. What made the difference was a vast inflation of the ambition to dominate and control nature – a way of treating the natural world as if it had no inherent value or life of its own, and an overthrow of traditional restraints on human knowledge and power. 


The greatest prophet of the conquest of nature was Francis Bacon. His aim was to endeavour to establish the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe. The key to this new era of power over nature was organized research. In his New Atlantis (1624), Bacon described a technocratic utopia – in which a scientific priesthood made decisions for the good of the state as a whole. With astonishing insight, Bacon predicted what institutional science could do. 


Going back in history, Greek philosophers developed a sophisticated conception of nature as a living organism which was inherited by our medieval ancestors. Although there was much debate over the details, animism was central to Greek thinking. The great philosophers believed the world of nature was alive because of its ceaseless motion. Moreover, because these motions were regular and orderly, they said that the world of nature was not only alive but intelligent – a vast animal with a soul and a rational mind of its own. Every plant or animal participated psychically in the life-process of the world’s soul, intellectually in the activity of the world’s mind, and materially in the physical organization of the world’s body. 


The orthodox philosophy of nature, taught in the cathedral schools and medieval universities, was animistic: all living creatures had souls. The soul was not in the body, rather the body was in the soul, which permeated all parts of the body. Through its formative powers, it caused the embryo to grow and develop so that the organism assumed the form of its species. 


Our English word “animal” comes from anima, the Latin word for soul. In human beings, in addition to the animal instincts, there was the rational aspect of the soul: the mind or intellect. This added the qualities of thinking and free choice to those aspects of the soul that were shared with animals and plants. In other words, the human soul included both a person’s conscious mind or spiritual essence, and the life of the body, senses, bodily activities and animal instincts. 


Then, through the Copernican revolution, and through the mechanistic revolution, the old model of the living cosmos was replaced by the idea of the universe as a machine. According to this new theory of the world, nature no longer had a life of her own: she was soulless. This new world view was first articulated in 1619 by Rene Descartes. The universe of Descartes was a vast mathematical system of matter in motion. In the philosophy of Descartes, all nature was inanimate, soulless, dead rather than alive. 


And so, while the new evolutionary cosmology has moved a long way from the world machine of classical physics, it still shares its mathematical quality – it gives us a model universe which is soundless, colourless, tasteless, odourless, and of course lifeless. 


The practical successes of mechanistic science bear testimony to the effectiveness of this method – the quantitative aspects of the world can indeed be abstracted and modelled mathematically. But such models leave out most of our living experience – they are a very partial way of knowing. 


Source: Rupert Sheldrake, “The Conquest of Nature and the Scientific Priesthood”, in The Rebirth of Nature: New Science and the Revival of Animism (London: Rider, 1993), 25-33, 36-46. 


Photo credit: Intellimon Ltd.


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