The Death (and Rebirth) of Nature

by Sarah Jackson
History 256, Spring 1999
Professor Schwartz


The works of Carolyn Merchant and Keith Thomas pertain to the same subject matter and even to the same time period. Nevertheless, in comparing their interpretations of the evidence and the presentation of their arguments concerning the history of mankind’s relationship with nature in Tudor and Stuart England through the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, we find that they are quite different. Merchant presents us with a rather one-sided, retrospective attack on science as the root of all environmental evil, while Thomas offers a relatively neutral, prospective look at how the people of this time reacted to the changing views of nature and what, exactly, caused these views to change.

The theme running through Merchant’s book, The Death of Nature, is one of pessimism toward science. Her main argument is that the root of today’s environmental problems can be found in the early modern period, an era in which, Merchant says, nature was robbed by science of its right to life and spirit and became, effectively, a machine. According to Merchant, in the early 16th century with the rise of modern science and technology, mankind’s view of nature as a living being changed and nature became a machine to be dominated, dismantled and its secrets discovered, no matter what the cost.

Of the many examples Merchant uses to illustrate her point, none seems so warranted as that of Sir Francis Bacon, the father of modern science. We follow Bacon through Merchant’s book as one of the ringleaders of the movement to mechanize and de-spiritualize nature. "The Baconian method," says Merchant, "advocated power over nature through manual manipulation, technology, and experiment" (216). She stresses time and again the brutality of Bacon’s attitude toward nature as a mere object. She assimilates Bacon’s ideas about science and nature into her argument saying, "The new man of science must not think that the ‘inquisition of nature is in any part interdicted or forbidden.’ Nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave,’ put ‘in constraint’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts" (169).

This doctrine of nature as an inert, unfeeling machine that Bacon and his contemporaries advocate so adamantly seems to have changed forever the belief in organicism, or, that all living beings are an equal part of nature. "The natural magician [the organicist] saw himself as operating within the organic order of nature—he was a manipulator of parts within that system, bringing down the heavenly powers to the earthly shrine" (169). In Merchant’s opinion, the abandonment of this organic view of nature in favor of Bacon’s mechanical view led to the "death of the world soul and the removal of nature’s spirits" which "helped to support increasing environmental destruction by removing any scruples that might be associated with the view that nature was a living organism" (227). With this throwing off of the moral yoke, Bacon and his fellow man were free to do with nature what they would.

Keith Thomas, however, has a very different opinion of science and the role it played in the natural world in the early modern period. The concept of change is integral to his book, Man and the Natural World. While Merchant believes that science was the downfall of nature, Thomas seems to think that it actually breathed new life into the old organic view, which had been smothered by anthropocentric interpretations of the Bible and other theological beliefs. According to Thomas, earlier interpretations of the Old Testament declared that man held ultimate dominion over nature, particularly the "brute creatures" of the earth. But as time went on, new interpretations of the Bible and, perhaps most importantly, new scientific discoveries started to change the paradigm that mankind alone occupied the throne of the world.

In the early modern age, Thomas argues, new discoveries in science led to "the dethronement of man." Scientists discovered that there were entire species that died out before man even came to the earth. In a single drop of water were found entire worlds of tiny microorganisms, completely indifferent to human activity (167). Findings such as these started to erode the idea that all things on earth were made for the express purpose of man. People’s views started changing. New interpretations of the Bible brought us from the view in Tudor England that "the creatures were not made for themselves, but for the use and service of man" (18), to the view in the late 17th century that "God loves the creatures that creep on the ground as well as the best saints" (166). What science seems to have done for the natural world, according to Thomas, is to bring mankind down from his self-appointed throne. So while Thomas never asserts that the organic view of nature made a full recovery, he does imply that, with new theological interpretations raising moral standards and with new scientific discovery, nature was, so to speak, given back some of its rights as a living organism.

While Thomas and Merchant argue different sides of the same coin, the two authors do agree on one thing: that, like the lyrics of a popular rock song, "video killed the radio star," something new seems to have "killed" the organic view of nature in the early modern period. But while Merchant stops there, pessimistically asserting that we have not moved beyond the "death of nature," Thomas believes that science, as opposed to being merely an enemy of nature, actually resuscitated it, saving it from the earlier, anthropocentric view of Tudor and Stuart England.