The Mechanical and the Organic - On the Impact of Metaphor in Science

Abram begins by recalling that the earth-as-machine metaphor was introduced by Descartes and continues to influence how we interact with nature today. He contrasts the epistemology of mechanism with the epistemological implications of Gaia, arguing that implicit in the mechanistic metaphor are three ideas: First, the ‘material world’ is inert and devoid of any creativity of its own, and therefore it is predictable. Second, if the earth is like a machine, then it was built from the outside, and (if we extend this line of argument) by a divine being. This second idea, he argues, is why experimental science on a mechanical world was acceptable at the time: It aligned with European religious thought. The third assumption is that the creator of this machine – Earth – must be like us humans. The implication of this, according to Abram, is that humans have a ‘divine mandate’ to interfere with the Earth’s processes. He ultimately argues that viewing the Earth as mechanistic fails to capture our ‘perceptual experience’. Instead, Abram suggests that Gaia hypothesis enables a science that cooperates with nature (7). The Gaia hypothesis allows us to return to the subjective experience of our senses, and it “entails an embodied, participatory epistemology” (9).
Abram, David. 1991. “The Mechanical and the Organic - On the Impact of Metaphor in Science.” In Scientists On Gaia, edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston. M.I.T. Press.