Nature Without Us

Nature Without Us October 7, 2016

In his The Territories of Science and Religion, Peter Harrison gives examples of the shift that took place in the understanding of the natural world. It was a shift from a “symbolic” understanding of the natural world to a utilitarian and mathematical one. He lists some titles that support his case:

Whereas traditional natural histories, such as The Historie of Foure‐Footed Beastes (1607) of the clergyman Edward Topsell (ca. 1572–1625), still enumerated the symbolic meanings of the creatures, this emblematic stance was eschewed by advocates of the “new philosophy.” Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712), a pioneer of plant physiology and active early member of the Royal Society, made a point of excluding “Mystick, Mythologick, or Hieroglyphick matter” from his catalog of the Royal Society’s natural history collection. Instead, he would be focusing on “The Uses and Reasons of Things.” In his Ornithology (1678), coauthored with Francis Willoughby, John Ray similarly announced that he would not be dealing with “Hieroglyphics, Emblems, Morals, Fables, Presages or ought else appertaining to Divinity, Ethics, Grammar, or any sort of Humane Learning.” These were not deemed to have a proper place in a legitimate natural history. (78)

Two observations: First, early modern scientists created the the two cultures that worried CP Snow, deliberately de-scientizing everything mystical, moral, and fabulous. Second, excluding symbolism, allegory, and morality isolates nature from humanity. After all, nature has symbolic overtones only to human beings (and to angels and God, of course). Excluding allegory implied doing science as if human beings didn’t exist, as if these creatures had never been taken up into human culture.

Browse Our Archives