International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture

by Carolyn Merchant

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

This thought-provoking book explores in depth the question of how we can bring harmony into the chaos that pervades the world as a result of (Western) Man’s intrusion into Nature and the rest of the world. The mythic Eden of the Old Testament, where Adam and Even were let lose to sport, has long disappeared. This book considers the history of modern Western civilization as a project to reinvent Eden. “We have tried to reclaim the lost Eden by reinventing the entire earth as a garden” [2]. Carolyn Merchant argues that “In settling the New world, a new earth could be reconstructed using the original garden as the paradigmatic ideal” [61]. She describes the science-enlightenment mindset thus: “It was men’s role to keep unruly women, nature, and ‘uncivilized peoples’ in check, it was civilization’s role to keep wilderness in check” [84]. In  North America, “The Fall and Recovery narrative of modernism had replaced the Fall and Salvation narrative of the Middle Ages” [115]. In this enormous land, the new-comers had enormous power and ingenuity to transform it all into an Eden where they could play and profit without constraints.

Since ancient times there have also been in Western culture awe and reverence for the same Nature that science was trying to dissect and understand, as well as the technology to conquer and exploit it. “It was a common nineteenth century conceit to refer to nature as female – virgin, vixen, or mother” [134]. The romantics looked to ‘her’ for personal salvation and wisdom” [136]. So began the conservation movement. At the same time, “the reinvention of Eden by a heroic Adam acting to improve a nature… is the mainstream story of most European Americans” [143].

Then again, the process of transforming Nature to build an Eden called for the dehumanization of many: women, Africans and Amerindians. Indians could be bought and bullied. As Samuel Bowles wrote, “Let us say to the Indian, we want your hunting grounds to dig gold from, to raise grain on, and you must ‘move on” [149]. The slaves from Africa were there to grow tobacco and cotton. 

New forces emerged to reclaim rights and demand entry and equal status. Two kinds of responses arose in this unexpected predicament. On was to liberalize thought and to include one and all in the project of building a new Eden. Perhaps the Eden thus constructed would be even better. This was progressive thinking. But another movement also arose whose goal was to recapture reverential, ancient attitudes towards Nature, and to renounce, if necessary, science and technology. These were the tools of the new Eden but they also caused environmental damage, species extinction, and marginalization of minorities. Given all this, Carolyn Merchant calls for an altogether new narrative for the future. In her vision, “A postmodern ethic and story would posit characteristics other than those identified with modernism, such as many rather than one authorial voice, a multiplicity of real actors; acausal, nonconsequential events, nonessential symbols and meanings” [241].