Science, Values, and Ecological Vision

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In 1958, just five years after Watson and Crick revealed the molecular structure of DNA, the philosopher Hannah Arendt warned presciently of the growing alienation that science was causing between humankind and the natural world. This warning came in her book The Human Condition at a time when the “biological revolution” was still nascent, and well before the dawn of contemporary genetic engineering and biotechnology. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, “separates human existence from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also ‘artificial,’ toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature.” And she concludes, “The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians” (p. 2-3).

Several points suggested in these remarks are fundamental to this issue of Minding Nature.

First, Arendt, who is not usually categorized among environmental philosophers, has in fact an ecological vision of the relationship between humans and non-human nature, which are interconnected in the relationality—the web or “tangled bank”—of life itself. She goes further and argues that it is within this web of life—as one among many “children of nature”—that human experience of the world has developed, and that we have come to comprehend, not only the natural environment, but also ourselves. To understand nature and life on the one hand, and meaning and humanity, on the other, are not conflicting projects, but are inextricably bound together.

Second, she identifies the essential paradox of human being as residing in the fact that we are at once dependent on the world of natural life and powerful enough to break away from it by creating an artificial world and a technological simulacrum of natural life. Heretofore in history manifested only in limited ways and on local scales, this human power to create the unnatural has reached the threshold of world transforming potential on a global scale. This, for Arendt, is a truly radical possibility not only because it may bring about the loss of biodiversity on a massive scale, but also because it will fundamentally transform our way of being in the world. It will obliterate our humanity. How is that conceivable? It is because “humanity” is not an essence; for Arendt it is a particular condition of body and thought rooted in our connection to the earth, in what she terms our “natality.”

Finally, Arendt associates “science” with this radical, and radically dangerous, transformative power. Science unlocks the inner workings of nature so that nature can be “forced,” in Francis Bacon’s memorable metaphor, to serve human needs and desires. But again it is the step beyond Baconian science that most concerns Arendt, the step that will not merely use or manipulate nature, but replace it, particularly in the biological sphere. Science as power has no value dimension; it is amoral. As such it must be directed by a value-laden vision and control mechanism, which is what Arendt calls the political.

Now, notice one last twist. It is a commonplace for Arendt to say, as she does, that professional scientists do not have the political, value-laden vision to control the power of science on behalf of society and nonhuman nature. More striking is her assertion that the political problem of the governance of science is beyond “professional politicians,” as well. This is a saber thrust against the form of government we know as representative democracy and interest group liberalism. The values and the vision of the political domain reside with ordinary citizens at large, and Arendt here implicitly (elsewhere more explicitly) calls for the participatory or deliberative democratic governance of science. Left to themselves, scientific elites and political elites will not be up to the task; and the stakes are too high for us to continue technocratic business as usual. The fundamental direction of science—the use of bio-power in the face of life—is at stake. Although she never uses such a phrase, it seems to me that what we call “ecological democratic citizenship” here at the Center for Humans and Nature is not altogether foreign to what Hannah Arendt had in mind fifty years ago.

The essays in this issue of Minding Nature converge in various ways on the theme of science and values. Reminding us that disciplined observation of the natural world and rigorous thinking that finds the systematic connections between isolated observations and data—in a word, science—need not be Baconian in intention or effect, Laura Walls and William Forbes reflect on the distinctive scientific work of Alexander von Humboldt and Aldo Leopold. The work of each thinker was influenced in important ways by their encounters with the complex ecosystems of South America. Professor Walls’ essay is drawn from her important new book on Humboldt, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009). The relationship between science and values in the work and career of Leopold were also the topic of a conference at the Yale School of Forestry, on the centennial of his graduation from that school. My CHN colleague Curt Meine and I made brief presentations at that conference.

The type of science that Humboldt pioneered and Leopold practiced is a far cry from the amoral exercise of mechanistic power that Arendt seems to have in mind. Not all of science and not all scientists should be tarred with a Baconian brush. Moreover, if scientific knowledge, properly construed, has a vision of nature and a value orientation embedded in it—not just inadvertently but constitutively—then professional scientists as well as humanities scholars, social scientists, and ordinary citizens have something to contribute to the normative governance of science as well. Ethical professionalism and ecological democratic citizenship can go hand-in-hand.

If a non-reductionistic, scientific understanding of nature does contain an education in values, then everything turns on getting those values right. Here we offer a powerful statement by William Vitek of the values we must embrace today and the changes in our conduct that we must make tomorrow to realize those values. He shares, I think, something of Arendt’s own sense of the radicalism of the question of life that is before us now, and he understands what effort it will take to preserve our humanity and that of future generations.

Finally, an investigation of the ethical principles that should guide freshwater management, and how these principles can be rooted in an ecological vision of both the water cycle and public health, has been conducted by CHN in 2009. Some of the results of that inquiry are presented in this issue.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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