The Intersection


Male chauvinist pig? Or worse?

I haven’t even read Copernicus yet, and probably won’t at least until this weekend. As far as my reading goes, the scientific revolution hasn’t yet started and I’m still stuck with Ptolemaic glasses on.

History 293, though, is churning away, and yesterday we did our section on Francis Bacon and The New Atlantis. (Not satisfied with the course packet excerpt, this is the version I ordered from Amazon.) Man, here was a dude who, although writing in the early 1600s, sounds stunningly “modern”–a term I must now put in quotes due to the fact that I’m studying history.

Consider: In The New Atlantis, published circa 1624, Bacon envisioned a utopia that sound strikingly like institutionalized science today. The premise is that some European sailors go off course in the Pacific and wind up on a strange island where, lo and behold, systematic inquiry into nature has been perfected, and a highly structured social system exists to support learning everything possible about how the world works, as well as how to manipulate it. Consider the following passage, describing one of the many things that they have on the island that ordinary Europeans do not:

We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials, that thereby we may take light what may be wrought on the body of man. Wherein we find many strange effects, as continuing life in them, through divers parts, which you account vital, be perished and taken forth; resuscitating of some that seem dead in appearance, and the like. We try, also, all poisons, and other medicines upon them as well of chirurgery as physic. By art, likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is, and contrariwise, dwarf them, and stay their growth; we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is, and contrariwise, barren and not generative; also we make them different in colour, shape, activity–many ways. We find means to make commixtures of divers kinds, which have produced many new kinds, and then not barren, as the general opinion is. We make a number of kinds of serpents, worms, flies, fishes, of putrefaction, whereof some are advanced (in effect) to be perfect creatures, like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we do this by chance, but we know beforehand, of what matter and commixture, what kind of those creatures will arise.

So: Animal research, selective breeding/genetic manipulation, chimera creation, and perhaps Stephen King’s Pet Cemetary thrown in to boot. Is this not crazy stuff for the 1620s?

The New Atlantis goes on like this for some time. They’ve got everything on this island (it doesn’t say, but you really have to wonder about the sex toys they’ve discovered). They even send out secret missions around the globe to gather more stuff and bring it back to put it in their pens and cages and rooms and ovens. Weirdly, all the stuff resides in a place called “Salomon’s House”–sometimes also called “the College of the Six Days’ Works”–because this is the institution “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.”

Bacon’s vision of science–systematically prodding and poking nature to get it to reveal its secrets, so that those can then be managed for the yield of new goods, medicines, and technologies for mankind…well, not everybody likes this idea so much. Perhaps in part as a provocation, paired with the Bacon reading Burnett also assigns an excerpt from a feminist work, Carolyn Merchant’s 1980 book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, one of whose chapters takes Bacon completely to task for, like, everything. According to Merchant, he “fashioned a new ethic sanctioning the exploitation of nature”; he stood behind the “transformation of the earth as a nurturing mother and womb of life into a source of secrets to be extracted for economic advance”; and so on.

Much of Merchant’s argument focuses on the fact that in his daily life, Bacon, as a powerful legal figure, was actually involved in witch trials–and this, she alleges, filtered back into his science: “Much of the imagery he used in delineating his new scientific objectives and methods derives from the courtroom, and, because it treats nature as a female to be tortured through mechanical inventions, strongly suggests the interrogations of the witch trials and the mechanical devices used to torture witches.” And again:

The interrogation of witches as symbol for the interrogation of nature, the courtoom as a model for its inquisition, and torture through mechanical devices as a tool for the subjugation of disorder were fundamental to the scientific method as power. For Bacon, as for Harvey, sexual politics helped to structure the nature of the empirical method that would produce a new form of knowledge and a new ideology of objectivity seemingly devoid of cultural and political assumptions.

Wow, huh? I have to say, I found this anti-Bacon screed more than a little over the top, and I suspect so did the students. It’s eye opening, but ultimately, with the 1990s “Science Wars” long over, reads as rather dated. Context is important, but what’s the point of judging a guy nearly 400 years dead based on modern sensibilities?

But it isn’t just some feminists who are ticked off at the project outlined by Bacon for science (a project that has very much been realized). In my next post I’ll introduce Bacon’s other enemies, but for now, what do people think of this?

Note: Part II of this post is now available here.


  1. #1 Ray Ingles
    February 10, 2009

    For Bacon, as for Harvey, sexual politics helped to structure the nature of the empirical method…

    No. How the empirical method was applied, at most, but not the ’empirical method’ itself.

  2. #2 Lilian Nattel
    February 10, 2009

    Salomon’s house I assume was a reference to the biblical Solomon the “wise” who also had birds and beasts from all over the world according to legend. Interestingly as I was reading your post and came to the title of the book that criticizes Bacon, I thought to myself, hmmm, wasn’t he contemporary with witch trials? Then I continued on to read that he was involved with them. Yes the guy is 400 years old, but an understanding of history is also an understanding of where our underlying assumptions come from and therefore an awareness that we could proceed from different assumptions. What would that look like and which is preferable? Women’s position and freedom deteriorated from the middle ages through the renaissance which, from a different perspective, was a time of discovery that presaged the enlightenment. But the witch trials were symptomatic of a broad social shift that limited women’s roles and derided the medical knowledge of midwifes and herbalists for professional medicine, which at that time did more harm than good. Think leeches and blood-letting as the best part of it. So before you make a judgment one way or the other on the criticism of Bacon, I think you’d need to do more historical reading, not only in science, to give you the broader context. It is relevant, not because we can or should erase what we now know or the technologies we have, but for the current assumptions about how we conduct ourselves with, just to give one example, animals. Should they be experimented on? That is not a given.

  3. #3 SmartDogs
    February 10, 2009

    “By art, likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is, and contrariwise, dwarf them, and stay their growth; we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is, and contrariwise, barren and not generative; also we make them different in colour, shape, activity–many ways. We find means to make commixtures of divers kinds, which have produced many new kinds, and then not barren, as the general opinion is.”

    Was it Bacon who said this…
    or Jemima Harrison?

  4. #4 Mike
    February 11, 2009

    Haha. The feminist Sandra Harding is also notorious for this kind of nonsense. She’s a big name in feminism and postmodernism (refers to “Newton’s rape manual”). You should check out a couple of books: “Professing Feminism” or “Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology.”

    Here’s a couple of fun links for your class:

    “In Defense of Bacon” by Alan Soble

    And, ironically, Bacon was probably gay:


    UCONN student

  5. #5 David Bruggeman
    February 11, 2009

    First, Ray’s point is pretty important, and unfortunately gets lost a lot of time when this kind of criticism is first read.

    “I found this anti-Bacon screed more than a little over the top, and I suspect so did the students. It’s eye opening, but ultimately, with the 1990s “Science Wars” long over, reads as rather dated.”

    Criticism of Bacon pre-dated the “Science Wars” and wasn’t necessarily involved in that particular conflict. Critical studies of science and technology, likewise pre-dated these wars and not all of those studies were engaged in the conflict.

    Feminist science and technology studies is of a kind with other work that focuses on the role of underrepresented groups in science and technology. To counter the weight of centuries of scientific and technological practice, predominantly by white men, the pattern of this critical scholarship is to heighten the criticism to a point that it causes some cognitive dissonance. The idea is to try and shake loose some of the old ways of thinking. I don’t consider that strategy as effective as it used to be, in part because the old prejudices are not as deep-seated as they once were (as much by death of the old guard as anything else).

    These writers are going to be cognizant of things like the struggles of people like Rosalind Franklin, the disappearance from consideration of whole classes of science workers who happened to be female, and the challenges that the industrial-scale application of scientific thinking placed on local knowledge.

    So, over the top, I understand that reaction (you should probably avoid Haraway for a while). Dated, maybe. But the major point – that some scientists in their thinking ignored and/or denied (actively or passively) the participation of other groups in science and technology – is no less valid. Trying to increase the participation of these groups is a big emphasis of education policies (under the category of STEM), and could inform what you and Sheril are trying to do in your public engagement projects.

  6. #6 Christophe Thill
    February 11, 2009

    In his book on the formation of the scientific mind, Gaston Bachelard quotes a book by German chemist Justus von Liebig (yes, definitely the same name as the canned soup, and for a good reason), “Francis Bacon”. In it, Liebig describes Bacon’s investigation methods as unconsciously derived from his activities as a judge. So it seems it’s not only the opinion of one feminist.

    By the way, I find her view very naive, and rather uninformed too. The idea that nature is for mankind to use and exploit has roots in the biblical worldview. But the real exploitation started much later than Bacon’s lifetime. It would be more justified to link it to the Industrial Revolution. And it was done by people who hadn’t really spent much time reading old books, and were not really trying to apply the ideas of some philosopher.

  7. #7 freelunch
    February 11, 2009

    the struggles of people like Rosalind Franklin

    Meanwhile there are reactionaries who claim that Marie Curie didn’t do the work that she was honored for. It’s not completely over.

  8. #8 Wes
    February 11, 2009

    I think tackling problems such as the under-representation of women in science by attacking Francis Bacon is tilting at windmills. Whether Bacon was sexist or not just isn’t relevant to the question of how we can overcome gender biases today. And trying to tar all of science with these exaggerated claims about Bacon is confusing historical derivation with epistemological justification.

    Also, the notion that prior to Bacon nature was viewed as a nurturing mother, and that Bacon himself is responsible for a complete paradigm shift which introduced the notion of “torturing” information from nature, is a complete myth. Paul Gross has written some good stuff in which he goes through pre-Baconian writings and finds many of the same metaphors that were supposedly invented by Bacon. There never was a utopia in which everyone treated nature as a nurturing mother, but then evil Bacon came along and raped nature. That’s a myth.

    Bacon was a man of his time, and that’s reflected in his writings. Certainly he was sexist and bigoted in many ways, but in the 17th century pretty much everyone was. The same can be said of Darwin, Einstein, or any other major historical figure: They reflect their times, for better or worse. But saying Bacon invented sexual inequality in science is just as absurd as saying Darwin invented racism in biology. Both the feminist epistemologists and the creationists are guilty of false cause and poisoning the well fallacies on this one.

    Many people in the comments so far have pointed to consciousness-raising as being important in the study of history and women’s rights. And certainly that’s very important. However, it is wrong to accept a terrible argument merely because one agrees with the conclusion. Yes, consciousness-raising about the plight of women in science is important. But a fallacious argument for consciousness-raising is still a fallacy. The mere fact that one supports women’s rights does not require one to accept the nonsense spouted by people like Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, or their ilk, any more than being a Christian requires one to believe in creationism or intelligent design. Nonsense is nonsense, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with a person’s politics.

    That said, Bacon’s views of science are more an idealization than a reality. The actual process of science is almost always much murkier and more uncertain than what Bacon envisioned.

New comments have been disabled.