International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community

by Charles Birch , John B. Cobb

Introductory Essay by James Huchingson

The authors of The Liberation of Life, Charles Birch, a biologist, and John B. Cobb, a philosopher and theologian, share a commitment to the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and to its application both to science and society. Particularly influential to their thinking are Whitehead’s critical insights into mechanism, the prevailing, some would say reigning, paradigm of the natural sciences.

Process metaphysics is often characterized as organic because it gives an account of reality as relational and consisting of events that interact. In contrast, mechanism interprets reality in terms of material systems that mostly behave by reacting to external forces or internally determined structures. Biology is the science that most closely exemplifies the fundamental entities of Whitehead’s system. These entities are subjects, that is, enjoyers of experience. On this basis, the authors broaden the notion of life to embrace all beings, animate and inanimate, that are capable of at least some form of rudimentary experience.

In contrast, mechanism objectifies nature, thereby denying its creatures the status of agents, that is, subjects capable of experiencing the world and even deciding upon some aspects of their own destiny by interacting with their environment. The authors seek to liberate Life (all the way from the cell to inclusive human communities) from its bondage to the mechanistic world view and from those who, by applying this ideology as a source of their power, treat nature and human communities as instruments for their ends. 

In this “ecological model,” the reach of the notion of community is broadened from human societies to all systems of subjects who interact with their environments – in other words, with each other. The destructive dichotomy between nature and human culture or history is thus removed.

The authors further extend the ecological model into the sphere of ethics. This extension is itself a pioneering achievement because it overcomes the stubborn anthropocentric bias that recognizes humans alone as morally valuable. Birch and Cobb argue that humans are subjects of value because, like other subjects in the wider community of life, we seek to maximize the richness of experience, which is the only true intrinsic value. It then follows that, if we are of value, so are these other creaturely subjects. This affirmation leads to a universal moral principle; preserve and encourage the increasing richness of experience by promoting the fulfillment of subjects in community. As a “cosmic power” the thrust or aim of Life is toward ever greater organic interaction (integration) within communities of subjects through the increase of value and novel experience. Loyalty to Life as a fundamental duty is nothing less than contributing to this process through one’s action.

With this imperative in hand, the authors examine specific cases where the liberation of Life is at stake. They include: sentience and animal rights, the environmental crisis, justice in medical science (scarce medical resources and cloning), sustainability on a finite planet, global economy (the dominant “cornucopian” vs. the ecological model), and sustainable agriculture (with an emphasis on justice for women). In a detailed analysis of each issue, the ecological model and loyalty to Life trump the prevailing principles and policies of mechanism and its derivative strategies.