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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Tradition of Exploitation (p. 19)

From chapter "Coyotes, Kittens, and Conversations"

It is not too much to say that a primary purpose of Descartes’ philosophy, and indeed much of modern science, is to provide a rational framework on which to base a system of exploitation. Descartes himself stated this plainly, as when he observed, “I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature”

Had Descartes been a lone lunatic wishing to become a “lord and possessor of nature,” none of us would ever have heard of him. But he had an entire culture for company. His fame and influence make plain that he articulated what continues to be a powerful cultural desire.

Another of the progenitors of the scientific method was Francis Bacon, who formalized the process of inquiry by which a scientist develops a hypothesis, then gathers data in order to support or invalidate it. Bacon’s intent was clear: “My only earthly wish is . . . to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.” The language of dominance saturates his writing. He talks of “putting [nature] on the rack and extracting her secrets,” and of “storming her strongholds and castles.” At no time did Bacon hide his agenda: “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave. The mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”

It would be as pointless as it would be easy to blame Descartes, Bacon, and other early scientists and philosophers for the sorry tradition of exploitation that has been handed down to us by our elders. These people merely articulated, brilliantly, urges that are woven together throughout our culture like rivulets in sand. These are the urge to deny the body and the urge to dominate the bodies of others, the urge to silence one’s self and the urge to silence others. The urge to exploit. The urge to deny death and the urge to cause the deaths of others, or more accurately, as we shall see, to cause their annihilation. These urges are clear in the philosophy of Aristotle, and they are vivid—blood-red—in the Bible. They go as far back as Gilgamesh and the other formative myths of our culture, and they are as close as today’s newspaper, where new mythmakers continue in the path of Descartes and Bacon, attempting to provide rational justification for that which cannot be justified.

The examples are everywhere. Yesterday, I saw a modern echo of Descartes’ megalomania as rendered by the prominent theoretical physicist Gerard J. Milburn: “The aim of modern science is to reach an understanding of the world, not merely for purely aesthetic reasons, but that it may be ordered to our purpose”

The day before, I had seen an account of scientists at Tokyo University, who have created what they call Robo-roach, an insect which (or who) has “been surgically implanted with a microrobotic backpack that allows researchers to control its [or rather his or her] movements.” The scientists remove the roaches’ wings and antennae and place electrodes in the wounds. As if they were playing a video game, the scientists are then able to push one button on a remote control to force the roach to move left. Another button causes it to move right. There are buttons for forward and backward as well. Once the “bugs” are worked out, these half-creature/half-robots will be fitted with television cameras and used as miniature spies. Not surprisingly, the scientists like their artificial roaches better than the real thing. “They are not very nice insects. They are a little smelly, and there’s something about the way they move their antennae. But they look nicer when you put a little circuit on their backs and remove their wings.”