Notes from Windward: #69

Nature and Gender

should Nature be thought of as feminine?


     It's fairly common for people to refer to Nature in the feminine form. Nature is often referred to as "she" and often given the feminine name of Gaia. I find that to be both troubling and misleading, and I've long wondered when that practice entered our language.

     Part of the answer to that question is presented in Clifford D. Conner's A Peoples History of Science. In the middle of the seventeenth century, England went through a period of revolution and counter-revolution that shook loose the old order, and laid the foundation for England's industrial revolution.

     Today we tend to think of change as being driven by science, but back then it was more a matter of science driven by change. A key part of that process involved the scientific establishment struggling to understand the advances being made by the uneducated "miners, midwives and low mechanicks" who were transforming the industrial landscape.

     Sir Francis Bacon was arguably the leader of the scientific establishment of the seventeenth century.

     Clifford describes Bacon's impact this way:

     The patriarchal imagery in Bacon's writings reflected the social position of women at the beginning of the seventeenth century in England. Bacon invariably portrayed Nature as a female who was hiding her secrets. He wrote of the secrets "locked in nature's bosom" or "laid up in the womb of nature", and said she would have to be forcibly penetrated in order to make her give them up.

     "I am come in very truth," Bacon declared, "leading to you nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave." We cannot "expect nature to come to us." He said, "Nature must be take by the forelock" (grabbed by her hair). It is necessary to subdue her, to shake her to her foundations." He cited the way women suspected of witchcraft were tortured by mechanical devices to extract confessions as a metaphor to indicate the methods of inquisition by which he thought Nature's secrets should be extracted from her:

howsoever the use and practice of such arts is to be condemned ... for the further disclosing of the secrets of nature ... a man [ought not] make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object.

       Nature, Bacon said, "exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of [mechanical devices] than when left to herself."

     The sexual imagery of penetrating, torturing, and enslaving Mother Nature should not be dismissed as harmless figures of speech unrelated to the way seventeenth-century English gentlemen scientists perceived the world. The subordination of women was an essential component of their worldview, which was entirely committed to maintaining male dominance in a patriarchal society. To believe that the early scientists' pronouncements were "value-free" with regard to women or any other social matters would be extremely naive."

quotes from Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature,
pp. 168-172.

     Bacon's shocking and repulsive language goes a long way towards showing just how deeply rooted is the concept of Nature being feminine. Culture has evolved considerably since Bacon's time, but for the most part, human society still retains a profoundly patriarchal perspective. Referring to Nature as "She" would seem to play into the same gender dichotomy that is expressed and reinforced when people reflexively refer to God as "He."

      While I strive to remember to refer to Nature as "It," old habits of thought and speech are hard to eliminate.

     Another reason for resisting the immunization of Nature which gives rise to expressions such as "Mother Earth" is that nature is not maternal. While mothers give of themselves to insure the welfare of their children, a serious look at reproduction would have to acknowledge that the process is founded on a ruthless battle between offspring for survival.

     As a general rule, less than a quarter of mammals born in the wild make it to their first birthday. For other life forms, the survival rate is one in a hundred, and for still others, one in a thousand.

     The offspring who are best able to adapt to their circumstances survive, and the rest become food for the other creatures, large and small, who are also struggling to survive.

     Parasitic wasps form an essential line of defence against caterpillars by laying an egg inside the caterpillar just behind it's brain. The egg hatches out into a larval stage. The larva paralyses the caterpillar, and then proceeds to eat its host alive.

     As an example of how "cold blooded" Nature can be, consider how vernal frogs in Arizona reproduce in ponds created by seasonal rains, and have to complete their life cycle before those ponds revert to sun baked mud. The tadpoles eat the algae that grows in the pond, but that doesn't support fast enough growth. In order to mature, mate and lay eggs before the moisture's gone, about a quarter of the tadpoles become carnivores and consume their siblings.

     Why is Nature's gender an important distinction?

     For eons, humankind has been a small factor in the unfolding of the natural order, so whatever misunderstandings humans had of how nature functioned had only local and temporary impact. Folks who didn't figure out sustainable ways of living died, thereby leaving room for those who were able to adapt in ways more consistent with how Nature functions.

     That day is behind us, and humanity can no longer afford to indulge in a pattern of thought that leads people to believe that nature will protect humans the way that a mother bear protects her cubs.

     The words we use frame the way we think, and carry a complex web of associations--some helpful, some not. Thinking about the implications of the words we use enables us to think more clearly, and enables us to break through the threads of habit and custom that hold us back from achieving our potential.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70