THE FONTANA HISTORY OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES

Geography, Geology, Oceanography, Meteorology, Natural History, Paleontology, Evolution Theory, Ecology.

Peter J. Bowler

Fontana, London, 1992.


There can't be many round-ups of all these sciences between two covers, and this is a fine overview, furnished with an annotated bibliography, of where our current theories have sprung from. Such a history is of course a story of struggles in many senses: between people and nature, and between people. Inevitably, evolutionary theory takes up a large part of the book, and Bowler looks at various precursors of Darwinism. Difficult as it is to boil down such a substantial study, I will just make one or two remarks.

The German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) is described as promoting the notion of the unity of Nature by means of monism:

"He argued that matter and spirit were manifestations of a single underlying substance - which meant that even the most primitive form of life had some spiritual qualities." (p.333)

The first part of this sentence is an explication of monism, but the second part seems not to follow. Might we not just as reasonably say that some spiritual phenomenon had material qualities? Monism is not the view that the spiritual is fundamental.

Staying with Haeckel, we can explore interesting counter-currents in ecological and evolutionary thinking. Lamarckism, which argued for the inheritance of characteristics acquired during an organism's life-time, was associated with the holistic view of Nature espoused by Haeckel. Bowler surmises that the Lamarckian, rather than the Darwinian, view of evolution may have contributed more to ecological awareness by its stress on the spiritual transcendance of matter.

Later on in the book, we find a less savoury aspect of this style of thinking:

"Haeckel developed an almost mystical evolutionary philosophy based on the assumption that there was a spiritual dimension built into the material universe. This 'monist' philosophy was taken up by many thinkers who distrusted the mechanical world view of orthodox science, including some who were directly involved with the attempt to revive occult ways of thought. The 'Monist League' was active in early-twentieth-century Germany and promoted a number of anti-democratic values. Haeckel had certainly been a racist who saw the 'lower' races as relics of earlier stages in the evolution of humankind." (p.437)

This is not the only cautionary note concerning ecology:

"Many non-scientists see ecology as a subject devoted to the promotion of a holistic perspective that must encourage a return to a more natural way of life. But many ecologists derive their funds from industry or from government, and will thus tend to favour models that endorse controlled exploitation." (p.537)

Finally, discussing attempts to explain the formation of mountains and continents, Bowler mentions an idea that will perhaps amuse mathematically-minded readers, especially those familiar with Fuller's world map, and the geometrical issues involved:

"Elie de Beaumont... tried to depict the earth as being divided into geometrically regular pentagons by the various mountain ranges." (p.233)

How (on Earth) could he do that?



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