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The Atomistic Machine View of the World

R. C. Lewontin proposes a third approach to analysis.

From Biology as Ideology by Richard Lewontin, Harper Perennial 1991. p 14 - 15.

We have become so used to the atomistic machine view of the world that originated with Descartes that we have forgotten that it is a metaphor. We no longer think, as Descartes did, that the world is like a clock. We think it is a clock. We cannot imagine an alternative view unless it be one that goes back to a prescientific era. For those who are dissatisfied with the modern world and dislike the artifacts of science, the pollution, the noise, the industrial world, the overmechanized medical care that seems not to make us feel better much of the time — for people who want to go back to nature and the good old ways, the response has been to return to a description of the world as an indissoluble whole that we murder to dissect. For them, there is no use in trying to break anything down into parts because we inevitably lose the essence, and the best we can do is treat the world holistically.

But this holistic view is untenable. It is simply another form of mysticism and does not make it possible to manipulate the world for our own benefit. An obscurantist holism has been tried and it has failed. The world is not one huge organism that regulates itself to some good end as the believers in the Gaia hypothesis believe. While in some theoretical sense “the trembling of a flower is felt on the farthest star,” in practice my gardening has no effect on the orbit of Neptune because the force of gravitation is extremely weak and falls of very rapidly with distance. So there is clearly truth in the belief that the world can be broken up into independent parts. But that is not a universal direction for the study of all nature. A lot of nature, as we shall see, cannot be broken up into independent parts to be studied in isolation, and and it is pure ideology to suppose that it can.

The problem is to construct a third view, one that sees the entire world neither as an indissoluble whole nor with the equally incorrect, but currently dominant, view that at every level the world is made up of bits and pieces that can be isolated and that have properties that can be studied in isolation. Both ideologies, one that mirrors the premodern feudal social world, and the other that mirrors the modern competitive individualist entrepreneurial one, prevent us from seeing the full richness of interaction in nature. In the end, they prevent a rich understanding of nature and prevent us from solving the problems to which science is supposed to apply itself.


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