Friday, November 7, 2014

Proto-Naturalists and Proto-Science

Does anyone remember the good ol' days, when religion and folk superstition had all the answers? The peasants would gather around the measly kitchen fire, bowls of pease porridge in their laps, and reminisce about friends who had been stricken with the Black Death for their sinful ways. During Lent, the lords and ladies would dine on fish — and its closest natural relative, the chicken — in observance of the Lord's fast.

And the clergy would spend their time writing and copying passages such as this one:

De tribus principalibus naturis leonis.\ Phisici dicunt leonem\ tres principales naturas habere. Prima natura eius est, quod per\ cacumina montium amat ire. Et si contigerit ut queratur\ a venatoribus, venit ad eum odor venatorum, et cum cau\da sua tetigit posttergum vestigia sua. Tunc venato\res investigare eum nequeunt. Sic et salvator noster, scilicet\ spiritualis leo, de tribu Iuda, radix Iesse, filius David, cooperuit\ vestigia sue caritatis in celis, donec missus a Patre descenderet\ in uterum virginis Marie, et salvaret genus humanum quod perierat.


Of the three main characteristics of the lion. Those who study nature say that the lion has three main characteristics. The first is that it loves to roam amid mountain peaks. If it happens that the lion is pursued by hunters, it picks up their scent and obliterates the traces behind it with its tail. As a result, they cannot track it. Thus our Saviour, a spiritual lion, of the tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse, the son of David, concealed the traces of his love in heaven until, sent by his Father, he descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary and redeemed mankind, which was lost.

A cutting-edge study of the natural world, no? This passage is taken from the Aberdeen Bestiary, a Medieval bestiary which once belonged to the library of Henry VIII.

In all seriousness, though, this writing contains something that I'd very much like to see return...

Consider the above "observation" of the lion's tail: According to "those who study nature," the lion uses the tuft of fur on its tail to brush away any traces that it leaves behind. How did the bestiary's writer — or his erroneous source — imagine this? What train of thought led him to that conclusion? This is my best recreation:

Everything was created intentionally by God, right? Therefore, everything in nature has a distinct purpose, whether or not that purpose is visible to humans. Why, then, would a lion have a single tuft of fur on the tip of its tail? What purpose could that serve? Since lions are rare beasts — having eluded the civilized world for so many years one can only conclude that it has adapted to eluding hunters. Perhaps it uses that tail fur to wipe away its footprints? Etc.

For a person with no knowledge of lions beyond their appearance, that isn't so bad. It's actually quite reasonable, if a little silly. And it's reasonable because the author assumed that everything in Nature is important, and that Nature's components work in special harmony. (Here it's "Nature," not "nature.") Today's natural scientists don't follow a literal Creationist theory for how the world came to be, but they still believe the underlined portion very strongly. That's what guided the research behind Darwin's theory of natural selection; that's what motivated Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring.

The Middle Ages were, objectively speaking, horrible — but they were the "good ol' days" in one regard: Everybody, not just the educated scholars of the day, believed that the Earth was a holy thing. I'm not religious, nor do I want to see any religious institution meddling in today's science...

...but I find it difficult to imagine today's environmental crimes in a society that thinks the Earth is sacred. Monsanto Seed Company would be excommunicated faster than you can say "DDT."

So I reiterate what I've been saying in most of this blog's posts: It's hard for normal people to care about hard facts that have been stripped of their societal relevance. The Earth is indeed sacred, but this truth now needs to be supported by reasons from our society. Flashing a color-coded map of the hole in the ozone layer — with temperatures and percentages and distant projected dates isn't going to make people care.

1 comment:

  1. You're right about maps and soothsaying and doom predictions and their relative inefficacy to make people care. But how does one do it? That's something I've pondered a lot, particularly this semester. The answer isn't any clearer than it was on September 3, when we met. Though, I believe it's still important to make people aware of the state of things, and of the unbelievably awesome plants, animals, fungi, etc that share the planet with us. That has been my goal this entire time. Hopefully, through this increase in awareness, some caring has taken root and is growing in some of your hearts and minds. I like to tell myself that, at any rate!

    Nice post as always! I look forward to the next one, and to your essay!