How Did We Get Here? Part Three

FEBRUARY 28 / Marilyn Milavsky


The Separation of Self from Others

Once again we consider the root causes of today’s social fragmentation, whether it is systemic racism, inequality, populism, disenfranchisement, or mental health issues. Looking back to the time of enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is evident that a number of scientists and philosophers were instrumental in shaping a worldview that is reflected in our current thinking. The introduction of geometry, mathematical equations and linear thinking were highly influential in this evolution, and help to explain why we are “in the ditch” after a fast acceleration on the road to industrial growth.

Galileo [1564-1642] who understood geometry and was one of the great inventors of all time, remarked that “The book of the Universe….is written in the language of mathematics”.
Rene Descartes [1596-1650] observed, “I have described the Earth and the whole visible Universe in the manner of a machine.”
And finally, from Frances Bacon [1561-1626] comes the observation, “We should endeavour to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the Universe”.

It is interesting to me that the most famous figure of evolutionary science was Charles Darwin [1809-1882] who determined that competition for survival in nature was the main determinant in the evolution for all species. More recent science, however, has determined that this is not entirely true. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that symbiosis and collaboration are far more prevalent than competition and that it is one’s adaptability to one’s environment that is responsible for the survival of a species. The mycorrhizal network of trees underground is a very good example of the mutual exchange of nutrients and minerals within the same species, but also among trees of different species.

Nevertheless, Darwin’s theory of evolution had an enormous human impact on how societies were defined subsequently, with the established hierarchical structures (and all that this infers) that we see today. The most horrific example was the domination of men over women, who then had the legal right to protect their progeny. History estimates that in Europe, nine million women were persecuted over a 300-year period, burned at the stake or killed if they were suspected of having medicinal knowledge, owned land, were mid-wives or presumed to practice ‘magic’.

In addition, it was science that justified racists’ beliefs that those who were of white skin were superior to others of different skin colours. Biological classification was used to justify racism. During colonization, slavery from the western coast of Africa was introduced in the 1500s originally in Portugal. Slavery in the United States continued even up to the First World War, although it was officially ended in 1875. However, it was followed by segregation of blacks from the white population, and systemic racism against black communities continues today as we are witnessing many social injustices.

Colonization has impacted all indigenous people across the globe where known atrocities have been carried out. In Canada, children were taken from their families and forced into residential schools where the children were not allowed to speak their language and every effort was made to remove their cultural traditions and way of life. Generations later, Indigenous people are still suffering from a loss of identity and from the impact of physical and mental abuse they or their grandparents or parents experienced. The last residential school was finally closed in 1996; and recently through the discovery of unmarked gravesites located near the residential schools, we are finding that over 4000 children died in or in proximity to those schools across Canada.

There are many other examples of power structures in which those who have power claim supremacy over others, and we are consequently witnessing the ever-widening gap of inequality between the rich and poor created by our economic, political and financial institutions.

How unfortunate that so much of our worldview has been dominated by hierarchical structures, linear thinking and quantitative analysis as our primary methodology for filtering our reality. Now, with a convergence of crises – ecological, social and economic – we must stop and determine a different way of seeing, a different way of moving forward in the world, a different way of relating to other humans and to the natural world.

There has been a revival of interest in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who lived from 1749 -1832. He is considered the greatest German literary figure of the Modern Era, as he was a renowned poet, playwright, novelist, artist and philosopher. At the time, he was not given much credibility for his work as a scientist. His critics did not take him seriously, believing that it was not possible for a single individual to knowledgeably embrace both Art and Science. Indeed, for many years, Art and Science were deemed to be polar opposites.

Today there is a new interest that has been sparked by Goethe’s ability to incorporate art and science into his field of scientific inquiry and examination of the nature of plants. We could consider his interest in nature as a new ecological discipline for our new thinking. Goethe’s mode of understanding, according to H. Bortoft, “… sees the part in light of the whole, fostering a way of science which dwells in Nature”. Bortfort is suggesting that we should have a deeper experience with nature in order to have a fuller understanding; and that we as humans can engage with all of our senses; sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Our ability to deploy our senses fully expands our knowledge and insight, allowing for a deeper experience with the phenomena while moving into an augmented journey with our own participation and process.

This sets us up for a new way to relate and connect to the objects before us, and from that point, we can engage our own inner participation and artistic thinking. Goethe was able to distill his understandings from observations and intuitive perceptions of nature by expressing these qualities in poetry or other artworks.

A philosopher and acquaintance of Goethe, Georg Hegel, states, “When nature is viewed by an alive and open mind, as it is in the apt and effective manner we find so often in Goethe, this mind feels the life and universal relatedness within nature; it has presentiment of the universe as an organic whole.”

This enlightened understanding of wholeness and our perception of nature has led us to acknowledge that Science and Art are complementary. Consequently, we have a multitude of ‘ways to see’. The science offers the factual and the art offers the subjective dimension that brings forward certain qualities and feelings rather than facts or quantifiable data alone. Our experience becomes a more integrated way to see wholeness and relatedness, including our role as a participant in the development of the phenomena.

It was not until the early 1900s that there was further questioning of previous scientific imperatives, and a call for new ways of thinking, mainly through the exploration of Phenomenology. Lynn Margulis [1938-2011] determined that endosymbiosis and cooperation (and not so much competition) were underlying factors in biological evolution. Val Plumwood [1939-2008], an Australian woman who wrote a number of books on ecofeminism, has stated throughout her work that all forms of oppression are linked.

More recently, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have co-authored the book, How Inequality Gets Inside Our Heads, illustrating through their research that most social problems including mental health issues and loss of social cohesion are much more pronounced in regions where there is more inequality.