International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution

by Carolyn Merchant

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This is one of the defining works of the “ecofeminist” movement, a joining together of environmental concerns with an agenda for raising the status of women, centering on notions of nurturing and care for our planet, seen (either metaphorically or literally) as the mother of us all. The book states and reinforces that message through a historical telling of the way in which, during the Scientific Revolution – the events in science in the sixteenth and seventeenth century from Copernicus to Newton – the hitherto successful “organicist” view of nature was replaced by a “mechanistic” one.

Author Carolyn Merchant begins in the Middle Ages, showing that the organic metaphor was commonplace and influential. It followed naturally from an immediate and deep personal acquaintance with nature, our seeing it go through the seasons – springing to life in the early months of the year, flowering and fruiting in the summer, and then slowly declining and dying by year’s end. Craftspeople and other workers knew and respected this picture. Women in such a society had an important and respected role, for they were intimately and essentially involved in what was basically a rural, agriculture-based way of life.

Moving into the time of the Scientific Revolution, Merchant argues that a major methodological strategy of those who sought to replace the organic metaphor was to portray nature as somehow threatening, especially inasmuch as it was seen as female. Merchant makes much of the extent to which efforts to eliminate witchcraft were in primarily directed against women, who were seen as using the forces of nature for illicit ends. Turning to the mechanistic world picture was therefore portrayed as a moral undertaking, apart from any pragmatic benefits.

From here the story moves smoothly into the seventeenth century, when industrialization starts to make an appearance, and a growing demand for modern technology based on a mechanistic science. Merchant argues that the philosophers of the new world picture, especially Francis Bacon, introduced their own new metaphor systems wherein, even when the feminine is still acknowledged, the attitude is one of contempt and domination.

Finally Merchant shows that there were still those who resisted the move to mechanism – she details the late seventeenth century philosopher Anne Conway, for example – but that they were largely marginalized and forgotten. Woman’s relationship to the world, especially to the world of science, became one of passive reception. She could read popular science but no longer had an active role to play in a society with a male-dominant ideology influencing and directing its science.

This work is essential reading in its own right as a feminist telling of the coming of modern science. It is also important for its influence on a significant moral and cultural strand in modern society. The reader is cautioned that the work has, however, been controversial from the start, with challenges raised to the overall historical narrative and some specific claims. It should be read in conjunction with more conventional histories of the Scientific Revolution.