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.