Food and Nutrition
Peace and Nonviolence
Trees and Forests
Life is a Miracle
An Essay Against Modern Superstition
Berry argues that religion and art are not subject to the reductionist and materialistic
assumptions of modern science, and cannot be contained within its boundaries or explained
by its explanations. He says the aims of science have become hard to distinguish from those
of industry and commerce, and he advocates a new Emancipation Proclamation to free life itself
from enslavement by the corporations and their scientific underlings. The aim, according
to Berry, is not consilience, but conversation.
Praise for Life is a Miracle
"[A] scathing assessment [of E.O. Wilson's bestselling book, Consilience]. . .
Berry shows that Wilson's much-celebrated, controversial pleas in Consilience to
unify all branches of knowledge is nothing more than a fatuous subordination of religion,
art, and everything else that is good to science. . . . Berry is one of the most perceptive
critics of American society writing today."—Lauren F. Winner, Washington Post Book World
"Though a conservationist, like Wilson, Berry strongly believes that the materialist
prescription for what ails us--ecologically, culturally and spiritually--will simply bind
us more tightly to the often destructive, profit-driven triad of science, technology and
industry. It will also move us further away, avers Berry, from what he sees as the sense
of propriety that calls on us to base our thoughts and actions on our inescapable interdependency
with the planet's other life forms. Berry also opposes the belief underlying Consilience,
that scientific analysis can ultimately explain everything: 'to reduce the mystery and miracle
of life to something that can be figured out is inevitably to enslave it, make property of
it and put it up for sale.' In opposition to this view, Berry proposes evaluating our behavior
and work on how they affect 'the health and durability of human and natural communities.' "--Publisher's
Quotes from Life is a Miracle
"The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal
adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are
machines—that is, that there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture,
thought and computation. Our language, wherever it is used, is now almost invariably conditioned
by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with
the mechanisms of medicine, industry, and commerce; and that minds are computers fully compatible
with electronic technology.
"This may have begun as a metaphor, but in the language as it is used (and as it affects
industrial practice) it has evolved from metaphor through equation to identification. And
this usage institutionalizes the human wish, or the sin of wishing, that life might be, or
might be made to be, predictable."
. . .
"I am aware how brash this commentary will seem, coming from me, who have no competence
or learning in science. The issue I am attempting to deal with, however, is not knowledge
but ignorance. In ignorance I believe I may pronounce myself a fair expert.
"One of our problems is that we humans cannot live without acting; we have to act.
Moreover, we have to act on the basis of what we know, and what we know is incomplete. What
we have come to know so far is demonstrably incomplete, since we keep on learning more, and
there seems little reason to think that our knowledge will become significantly more complete.
The mystery surrounding our life probably is not significantly reducible. And so the question
of how to act in ignorance is paramount.
"Our history enables us to suppose that it may be all right to act on the basis of
incomplete knowledge if our culture has an effective way of telling us that our knowledge
is incomplete, and also of telling us how to act in our state of ignorance. We may go so
far as to say that it is all right to act on the basis of sure knowledge, since our studies
and our experience have given us knowledge that seems to be pretty sure. But apparently it
is dangerous to act on the assumption that sure knowledge is complete knowledge—or on the
assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of
the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust 'progress' or our putative 'genius' to
solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion."
. . .
"If we lack the cultural means to keep incomplete knowledge from becoming the basis
of arrogant and dangerous behavior, then the intellectual disciplines themselves become dangerous.
What is the point of the further study of nature if that leads to the further destruction
of nature? To study the "purpose" of the organ within the organism or of the organism within
the ecosystem is still reductive if we do so with the assumption that we will or can finally
figure it out. This simply captures the world as the subject of present or future "understanding" which
will become the basis of further industrial and commercial optimism, which will become the
basis of further exploitation and destruction of communities, ecosystems, and local cultures.
"I am not of course proposing an end to science and other intellectual disciplines,
but rather a change of standards and goals. The standards of our behavior must be derived,
not from the capability of technology, but from the nature of places and communities. We
must shift the priority from production to local adaptation, from innovation to familiarity,
from power to elegance, from costliness to thrift. We must learn to think about propriety
in scale and design, as determined by human and ecological health. By such changes we might
again make our work an answer to despair."
Copyright © 2000 by Wendell Berry
Table of Contents of Life is a Miracle
- I. Ignorance
- II. Propriety
- III. On Edward O. Wilson's Consilience
- 1. Materialism
2. Materialism and Mystery
5. Creatures as Machines
6. Originality and the "Two Cultures"
7. Progress Without Subtraction
- IV. Reduction and Religion
- V. Reduction and Art
- VI. A Conversation Out of School
- VII. Toward a Change of Standards
- VIII. Some Notes in Conclusion