August 15, 2012
Humanity’s Changing Metaphors of Nature
In early August, I presented some of the ideas of this blog at two connected conferences in Grand Rapids, Michigan:
At the International Big History Association conference, I gave a presentation on the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex. Here is a pdf of what I presented.
At the Midwest branch of the World History Association, I gave a presentation on Humanity’s Changing Metaphors of Nature. This presentation explains the power of metaphor in human cognition, and shows how humanity’s metaphors of Nature have changed as we transitioned through different stages of our history. It also looks at current metaphors of nature proposed in response to global climate change, and some of their disturbing entailments.
Click on the picture below to open up a pdf of the presentation.
Here’s the abstract:
This presentation employs the emerging discipline of cognitive history, tracing humanity’s changing conceptual metaphors of nature throughout history. It examines how each predominant metaphor evolved at a different stage of human development, framing humanity’s behavior towards – and impact on – the natural world. The four primary stages identified are: hunter-gatherer, agriculture, monotheism and the current scientific age.
The paramount hunter-gatherer metaphor of nature, arising from a foraging, nomadic lifestyle, was GIVING PARENT. With the rise of agriculture, increasingly hierarchical societies became vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature, leading to increased cosmic anxiety and a transformed metaphor of nature as DIVINITY TO BE PROPITIATED. With the advent of monotheism, humanity was given a special dominant place in the divine order resulting in a new metaphor of nature as SUBJECT OF MAN’S DOMINION. Finally, the scientific revolution of the early 17th century introduced the modern predominant metaphor of nature as a desacralized MATERIAL RESOURCE to be subdued and exploited.
This current metaphor of nature underlies our global materialist culture and drives our unsustainable trajectory towards ever-increasing economic growth while plundering the earth’s dwindling resources. A new primary metaphor is required to achieve sustainable living on the earth, but what? Current leading alternative metaphors, all of which are well-intentioned but contain dangerous entailments, are: PROPERTY FOR STEWARDSHIP; SOURCE OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES; and SUBJECT FOR BIO-ENGINEERING EXPERIMENTATION. An alternative metaphor is offered – FRACTALLY CONNECTED ORGANISM – based on the principles and findings of systems biology and complexity theory.