Oct 27 2009

Nature’s Economy Part II: Thoreau as Ecologist

by at 11:41 pm

As an “active field ecologist and a philosopher of nature,” much of Henry David Thoreau’s ideas, David Worster asserts, have anticipated modern day ecology (58). This would explain why Worster devotes three full chapters to the Romanticist in his history of ecology.

Thoreau as field ecologist: excavating America’s ecological past

Thoreau meticulously documents the change of seasons in 1852. A self-described “inspector of snowstorms” during the winter of that year, Thoreau documents the coming spring in a “journal of no very wide circulation” (ie: his own private journal) (Worster 59). Thoreau assembles his  very own naturalist library of local flora and fauna and even makes trips into Boston to visit the rooms of the Natural History Society (Worster 59). “The Thoreau of this decade of ramblings, the 1850s,” Worster notes, ” is not nearly so well known today as the man who lived from 1845 to 1847 in a house built at Walden Pond” (61). Hmm, peculiar isn’t it? Questions: Brown’s stint as a translator of a french naturalist text is overlooked, Thoreau’s work as a field ecologist is all but forgotten. Why is this? Is this because of a tradition in the humanities that has cringed from anything related to sciences? Do we not want to think that Brown could have been a naturalist because then we would have to, God forbid, read his scientific writing? Do we choose to forget the scientific productions of these literary figures and philosophers, because it’s, let’s face it, less sexy? In overlooking these works, do we do a disservice to our research? Well, I certainly think so.

Worster makes note of Thoreau’s years after writing Walden. Once again, this sounds similar to the lack of scholarly interest in Brown’s translation:

Unfortunately, no book like Walden emerged from that last decade or so of his short life, and so that continuing and deepening intimacy [with nature] has been widely ignored. But his journal of some two million words should be sufficient proof that  Thoreau himself took these years seriously. It was the time, one might say, of the maturation not only of his science but also of his personal ecological philosophy. Therefore, in interpreting this philosophy here, the principal source of evidence will be the often neglected entries in his journal from the early 1850s until the spring of 1861, when, fatally ill with tuberculosis, he gave up writing altogether. It is not too much to claim that the attitudes toward nature conveyed by Thoreau in these volumes may be his most important legacy to another age. This body of work is also perhaps the best single expression we have of the shift to Romantic ecological thought in England and America (Worster 61).

In Thoreau’s Fact Book, a collection of notes from his reading, he copies long passages from Charles Linneaus, the noted eighteenth-century naturalist. In his journal of 1852, he even includes the following note-to-self: “Read Linneaus at once” (Worster 63). While this doesn’t seem related to my studies, I will sum up the crux of Worster’s argument in two sentences. Worster asserts that  Thoreau saw in nature an overabundance and tendency to wastefulness in contrast to Linneaus’s view of nature as a “careful and tidy economist” (65). Thoreau noted that the mildewing of acorns before they could be eaten exposed, ” a glaring imperfection in Nature, that the labor of the oaks for the year should be lost to this extent” (Worster 65).

Thoreau as ecological historian

Much of Thoreau’s ecological work, Worster argues, stems from his desire to reconstruct America’s not-so-distant ecological past.

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Oct 21 2009

Nature’s Economy, Donald Worster: Excavating Our Ecological Past

by at 1:36 am

I figure it makes sense to begin my orals reading with what I know least about, which would be the entire field of ecocriticsm.  Shameful, I know. And so orals reading begins. I give you selections from Donald Worster’s important book, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas.

Importance of language and metaphor in ecological science (and, by extension, science as a whole):

The omnipresence of metaphors in the ecological enterprise, and the extent to which they have shaped research, surprised me and made me realize how intimate is the relation between science and other creative, imaginative, human activities. Metaphors are in essence nonrational ways of perceving and communicating: They spring out of the soul of a society (or out of its machinery) by some mysterious, irrepressible process and find their way into every corner of its life. Science, for all its devotion to reason and culture-free thinking, has not been sealed tight against them. the very title of this book was selected to make that point (Worster viii).

I really like this quote from Worster’s preface. I think he’s getting at a really crucial point here–that science is inextricably tied to language and metaphor. Science relies on language to develop a set of terms to “describe” the known world. For example, “sperm” and “egg” may be objective scientific categories, but the set of metaphors that are used to describe their interaction are often gendered (ie: sperm is active penetrator; egg is passive receiver). As I look through primary nineteenth-century scientific works, I will be paying close attention to the particular kinds of metaphors that are used to explain or describe so-called objective science. I’ve already seen how Schwann utilizes architectural/spatial metaphors to describe the cell, and I’ll be curious to see what kinds of metaphors are used in the atmospheric sciences.

Question: If science requires metaphor and language to operate, could scientific works be treated as literature, and by this, I mean can scientific texts, on the level of language, be deconstructed just as we do to works of literature? Can we, as literary and cultural critics, legitimately lay claim to a sphere that has long been forigen humanities?

Cannot scientists go about their work of explaining in a value-free way? Of course, on one level they can and do. Some have called this the pursuit of ‘normal science,’ where the researcher is merely filling in details, doing limited experiments, paying little heed to larger conceptual problems or to the role of science in society. That dimension of ecology is worth noting and writing about too. But finally, it seems ot me, one must see that, in its narrowness of focus, the history of normal science involves a serious distortion. It disregards the fact that science is always, in some measure, involved in matters of value and moral perception. We cannot escape such matters by ignoring them or by retreating to the ecology textbook or the laboratory (Worster xii).

Notice Worster’s reference to normal science. This is a key term Kuhn uses in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I will be reading more of this for my orals examination, but from the little I had skimmed for my prospectus I have a pretty good idea of what normal science is. Normal science basically exists during moments of scientific stability. Normal science encompasses the wide array of research that supports a given paradigm. Over time, normal science eventually gives way to paradigm shifts, when enough experiments begin to refute a given theoretical framework. Here, Worster refers to these more stable scientific periods, when scientific experiments work with (and not against) the existing paradigm. In these moments, eras, time periods, whatever, “new” sets of vocabularies aren’t really necessary and these experiments could be viewed as more benign–they simply reaffirm that which has been articulated. And, yet, Worster notes how even “the history of normal science involves a serious distortion” because “science, is always,  in some measure, involved in matters of value and moral perception” (Worster xii). I think Worster is absolutely right here. Science, whether “normal” or “revolutionary,” is always loaded with values and is never entirely objective. If it were objective, it wouldn’t relie on metaphor and language to explain the “value-free” world.

Worster’s aim in writing Nature’s Economy is to chart the history of ecology:

  • Worster calls “our time” (the later half of the twentieth century) the “Age of Ecology” because of the proliferation of talk about ecology and man’s relation to nature in recent years. Worster’s objective of his book is not to explain why ecology has become such an important topic in the last half of the twentieth century. Instead, he says, “the aim of this book, however, is not so much an account for the appeal of ecology to our own time as to understand what this field of study has been prior to its recent ascent to oracular power (Worster xiii).
  • “There are compelling reasons for seeking such a historical perspective. Like a stranger who has just blown into town, ecology seems a presence without a past” (Worster xiii).
  • “Before committing ourselves too firmly to its tutelage, however, we might do some digging into its [ecology’s] previous life–not in the expectation of uncovering grisly deeds, but simply that we may know our teacher better. In that inquiry we might learn more about the kind of science ecology has been, and also more about those aspects of nature which this science has revealed to us. We might see, too, what ecology has not told us about nature. How the living world has been perceived through the aid of the science of ecology is thus the main theme of this study in the history of ideas” (Worster xiv).

As part of Worster’s desire to “excavate” our ecological past, he notes:

This account will make clear that ecology, even before it had a name, had a history. The term “ecology” did not appear until 1866, and it took almost another hundred years for it to enter the vernacular. But the idea of ecology is much older than the name. Its modern history begins in the eighteenth century, when it emerged as a more comprehensive way of looking at the earth’s fabric of life: a point of view that sought to describe all of the living organisms of the earth as an interacting whole, often referred to as the “economy of nature.” This phrase gave birth to a rich set of ideas out of which emerged the science of today…” (Worster xiv).

Worster uses the term “economy of nature” to refer to the eighteenth-century view of nature that sought to describe all living organisms of the earth as an interacting whole.

Worster’s method (which sounds a lot like mine):

The reader should not expect in these chapters a traditional treatise on the history of science. By intention as well as training, I approach my theme as an intellectual historian, curious about the origins of our present ecological ideas, their contents, and their practical effects in the past. From this vantage point I have come to believe that the ideas of science are open to much the same kind of treatment as other ideas, such as theological or political thought. Like all of man’s intellectual life, scientific ideas grow out of specific cultural conditions and are validated by personal as well as social needs. They are, in short, more closely interwoven with the general fabric of thought than is commonly supposed. Thus, unlike many traditional historians of science who are convinced of the onward and upward march of “truth”[…], I have blurred the edges a great deal. In fact, my subject is not simply the growth of a narrowly defined field of science but of the larger penumbra of “ecological thought,” which is meant to include literary, economic, and philosophical conections ecology has made (Worster xv).

But, here, we disagree:

Unconventional as it may first seem, this approach works especially well with the history of ecology. While it may be more nearly true to say of mathematics or themodynamics that they take their course apart from prevailing intellectual fashions or economic forces, it would be a false assumption to make about the study of ecology. Perhaps because it is a “social” science, dealing with the interrelationships of living creatures, it has never been far removed from the messy, shifting, hurly-burly world of human values. The historian of this interaction must therefore by alert to much more than who contributed what bits of knowledge to the present state of science; he must range widely over the intellectual landscape of the past (Worster xv).

I have major problems with this passage. Throughout the preface, Worster is clearly on the defense. He claims that he is “unconventional” and will treat the sciences like any other intellectual historian interested in tracking the social forces that influence ecological science, and yet he justifies his methods here because ecology is a “social science.” Worster claims his approach would be less successful in the “hard sciences,” like the mathematics or thermodynamics. According to Worster, the “soft sciences” fill certain social needs, but the “hard sciences” exist in a culutral vacuum. But my my whole project depends on the fact that the hard sciences are, in fact, influenced by the surrounding culture pressures, and I don’t believe I’m wrong over here. Sorry Worster, but Math, Chemistry, and Physics all rely on language and metaphor to explain the “known,” and language is always influenced by the surrounding culutre. Always. I’ve said my peace.

More on paradigm shifts:

To be as manageable as possible, this book is organized episodically. I have tried to select and focus on major formative moments in the life history of modern ecology. Each of the book’s five parts is about one of those moments, a time when ecological thought underwent significant transformation. Key figures appear in each part, not as heroic revolutionaries or even as thinkers of great influence in every case, but simply as individuals who participated in those changes and best reveal their meaning to us (Worster xvi).

This is an important point that I’ll have to keep in mind as I work through my ideas. Lavoisior, Priestly, Dalton, Schwann, etc. aren’t THE revolutionaries in scientific thought. It’s not like Priestly got up one day and said let me discover Oxygen and let me change science as we know it. Scientific change is extremely gradual and it is precisely in those moments of paradigm changes that it becomes especially difficult to locate where this change actually begins. Did Priestly discover Oxygen, or was it Lavoiser? Who actually discovered the cell? And when we say cell, are we talking about plant cells or animal cells, because there’s a difference? See, what I’m talking about? It’s enough to make you crazy. So, all of these questions are incredibly important and are going to be crucial to how I will confront these primary scientific texts. I can’t possibly read all nineteenth-century scientific texts (this includes the array of pamphlets, etc.) that contributed to these paradigm shifts, but I will have to keep in mind that I’m choosing to focus on certain individuals not to locate these revolutions in any one individual and his findings.

In his book, Worster focuses on 5 paradigm shifts in the field of ecology, beginning from the 18th century and ending the in the 20th century. As Worster correctly puts it, in “overthrowing” the past paradigm shifts do not completely wipe away everything that has come before them. Instead, they build upon and modify what has preceded them, and thus the traces of the past can be found. I think I’d like to call this a vestigal past–a Darwinian term that applies to those organs that remain but have lost their function. I think applying the notion of Darwinian evolution to the evolution of scientic ideas could be useful. Would it be more frutiful to view scientific revolutions as evolutions? In any case, here’s the passage that got me thinking all of these things:

These five episodes might be characterized according to the jargon of scientific history, as “paradigm shifts,” in the course of which an older model of nature is overthrown and a new one takes its place. But it must not be concluded that such shifts wiped out all traces of the old; on the contrary, the present corpus of ecological thought is a conglomeration of all its pasts, like a man who has lived many lives and forgotten non of them (xvii).

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