An Ecology of Knowledge

An Ecology of Knowledge

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The purpose of this paper is to outline some contributions that “ecofeminism” can make to the science and religion discourse. This is not meant to be definitive, but only to demonstrate some useful areas of collaboration between feminism—especially ecofeminism—and the science and religion discourse.1

I begin with an underlying assumption: while modern science has produced undeniable benefits, it has had equally undeniable consequences; the destruction of the environment, poverty, increasing injustice, etc. Sandra Harding, Helen Longino and Caroline Merchant, among others, have argued that these consequences are intimately linked to modernism—its epistemology and its understanding of the world.2

I don’t want to belabor this point—it is, after all, an assumption and not a thesis—but I do want to review some of the relevant aspects of the modern worldview. This is symbolized by Allis Chalmers and Minneapolis Moline. While these might sound like the gun-toting heroines of a period novel, the Midwestern among us will recognize that they are actually the names of tractors.

The tractor works as a metaphor because, in the modern worldview, the world is a machine. Like a machine it is made up of parts (particles) which are dead, passive and inert, externally related and interchangeable. This machine is subject to “laws,” which are reducible to mathematical statements. These statements are not metaphorical, but represent things as they really are. This allows one to extract information from nature and predict how it will behave. Further—and here the tractor metaphor is especially apropos—because nature is inert, we have the power, and the duty, to impose order on it: nice, neat little rows out of chaos.

Within this worldview, the preferred epistemological standpoint is the “mind in the vat.” Reliable knowledge is achieved through objective, dispassionate inquiry. This can happen only when knowers are isolated and independent from the objects of knowledge, from subjective distortion and from the influence of society or culture. This is the “royal road” to truth, a universal method leading to a universal, value-free system of knowledge about life, the universe and (pretty much) everything. Knowledge not only allows one to predict how nature will behave, it gives one the power to impose order on it and control it.

Ecofeminism offers several criticisms of this worldview. First, science and scientific method are intolerant of difference. This is partially methodological. Scientific method often involves describing how things are the same. When confronted with difference (an anomaly) one either modifies the theory to show that difference is not really different, or that difference is deemed insignificant. Either way, difference disappears. An example of this is the “Holy Grail” of science—the “Theory of Everything”—which is basically the attempt to show that nothing is essentially different, that everything is reducible to a single theory or equation.

Western science also excludes different kinds of knowledge. Western science often dismisses, for example, Native American oral traditions as “myth.”3 This is partially methodological, in that the exclusion of difference gives the appearance of universalism. But Western science grants itself a kind of exceptionalism, so that Western science alone is seen as able to transcend its context. Thus, If one did not arrive by the royal road, one did not arrive at Truth.

Ecofeminism rejects ontological and epistemological assumptions based on homogeneity, arguing that exclusion reduces our capacity to know nature. To the extent that it excludes the real differences that emerge in nature, and to the extent that it excludes or dismisses alternative epistemologies and ways of knowing, science gives us false universals that are, in fact, constructions.

These constructions are neither neutral nor universal, but are instead the product of a specific worldview. In the words of Evelyn Fox Keller, science was “developed not by humankind but by men.”4 Similarly, Longino speaks of “links . . . between the study of nature on the one hand and social values and ideology on the other, [which] raise pressing questions about such traditional philosophical topics as rationality, objectivity, and the nature of knowledge.”5 Ecofeminism claims that the scientific method, the assumptions of science and the notions of objectivity and autonomy are neither value neutral nor universal: they project ways of thinking and embody values that are Western, Male and Privileged.

These modes of thought are disproportionately destructive. Vandana Shiva writes that modern science, “emerged as a liberating force not for humanity as a whole (though it legitimized itself in terms of universal benefit for all), but as a Western, male-oriented and patriarchal projection which necessarily entailed the subjugation of both nature and women.”6

This destructive connection between women and nature exists first on a symbolic level. Experimental science became possible when nature ceased being an organism and became a machine: as long as the earth was alive or sacred, it was wrong to violate or otherwise exploit it. “The Death of Nature” made science possible, a death linked to her female status. Further, as a female, Nature not only could be dominated, she wanted to be dominated, wanted her secrets penetrated. The rhetoric on this is graphic. Because she was dead, Nature and those associated with her—women, people of color, etc.—could be, and should be, exploited.7

The connection is also methodological. Keller argues that the demand for objectivity leads to a kind of sadistic relationship between the scientist and his or her subject.8 Maria Mies echoes this, stating:

without separating the research objects by force from their symbiotic context and isolating them in the laboratory, without dissecting them—analyzing them—into ever smaller bits and pieces in order to discover the secret of matter (atomic research) or the secret of life (biotechnology), the new scientists cannot gain knowledge. They cannot, it seems, understand nature and natural phenomenon if they leave them intact within their given environment. Violence and force are therefore intrinsic methodological principles of the modern concept of science and knowledge.9

Finally, the connection is practical, since ecological crises disproportionately affect women. This is in part because women’s work is often more closely related to nature (i.e., it is usually women who grow local food sources), but also because environmental destruction has a lopsided effect on the poor, a group that is disproportionately female.

The problem for science and religion is that to the extent that it adopts the underlying assumptions of modernism, the science and religion discourse runs the risk of furthering the destructive effects of modern science. Time prohibits an exhaustive litany of examples, but this can happen in a number of ways. First, the tendency to focus on areas such as physics and genetics, while ignoring agricultural, environmental and ecological sciences betrays a reductionist bias. A related issue is the inclination to ignore issues of praxis, in favor of doctrine. Finally, we run the risk of furthering the destructive effects of science to the extent that we privilege Western science and perspectives to the exclusion of other ways of knowing, and other ways of framing the questions and the relationship between science and religion.

An example of what I mean occurred a several months ago when I wondered to a colleague of mine why so few African-Americans were involved in the science and religion discourse. He supposed that their energy was directed at issues of more concern to them, such as racism and oppression. This comment is telling in a number of ways, two of which are important here. First, he failed to see that science and religion might be instruments of discrimination and oppression and might be part of the problem that “they” were concerned about.

Second, neither of us recognized the fact that African-Americans are involved in science and religion, and not just in academic discourse, either. When (for example) churches organize to block toxic dumps, that too is science and religion. But this involvement is obscured if our discourse defines itself around the doctrinal implications of science, such the conflict between evolutionary theory and the doctrine of creation. Other areas are obscured as well: Kennewick man, the appropriation and patenting of traditional medicines, dealing with a child’s birth defects; these are all issues in science and religion.

I am not suggesting that creation and evolution is not an issue—it is one, and it is an important one . . . for certain communities. The problem is twofold. First, universalizing particular questions and ways of framing the issues and second, ignoring the importance of praxis. Even defining our discourse around the relationship between “science” and “religion” can become problematic if, by our understanding of “science,” we exclude non-Christian spirituality and religions. As this discourse becomes increasingly pluralistic and international, these issues will become especially pressing.

If the science and religion discourse is to contribute to the struggle to overcome the excesses of a culture obsessed with technology, the abuse of nature, and the wide disparity in the distribution of the benefits versus the cost of science, it must develop a critical edge. This cannot happen within the parameters of modernism. Succinctly put, the epistemological assumptions of modernism rob us of our prophetic voice in relation to science. To the extent that we adopt the assumptions of modernism, any cooperative relationship between science and religion is twofold: religious thinkers can reflect on the truths and discoveries of science (natural theology) or they can make pronouncements about how the results of science (technology) should be used (ethics). In both cases, religious reflection comes after the fact.

My thesis—I bet you never thought I would get here—is that “ecofeminism” provides alternative models and epistemologies that make it possible for the science and religion discourse to be truly transformative, even prophetic. I want now to highlight some epistemological implications of ecofeminism which are useful to the science and religion discourse. This is not to say that ecofeminism does not provide specific critiques that would be helpful, merely that the focus of this paper is on ways of thinking.

An ecology of knowledge sees knowledge arising out of and existing as the product of a series of interrelationships, first, between different ways of knowing. Accurate knowledge does not mean eliminating subjectivity. As Longino points out, “the idea of a value-free science is not just empty but pernicious.”10 In fact, Longino concludes that:

when purged of assumptions carrying social and cultural values, [observation and reason] are too impoverished to produce scientific theories of the beauty and power that characterize even the theories we do have. If we understand integrity not as purity but as wholeness, the integrity of the scientist is honored when she permits her values to play a role in her scientific work.11

This is not a rejection of objectivity, merely the suggestion that objectivity is not distinct from either subjective or social components. This leads to relativism only in the context of an individualistic conception of knowledge.12 Without being intentional about subjective preferences, one runs the danger of unconsciously working with value-laden assumptions. Good science means recognizing our ability to affect the course of knowledge by favoring research programs consistent with the values and commitments expressed in the rest of our lives.

Second, knowledge is the interrelationship between knower and known. We are not distinct from the world. We know the world because we are a part of it. This is knowledge as responsive rationality, what Keller calls a form of love, a dynamic objectivity in which the object is known and affirmed as part of the same world as the subject while retaining an “independent integrity.”13 The object relates to us, and to the rest of the world. Thus, our knowledge and the object of knowledge are both in flux.

Again, this is not a rejection of the ability to know things. Granted, the world does not merely present itself. We do interpret it. But, neither do we wholly construct it. Nature constantly presses to be known, challenging our constructions. There really are things that are known—birds and bees, rocks and trees—although they cannot be understood apart from their relationships.

Third, knowledge is the product of the interrelationship between the knower and society. Ecofeminism includes an exploration of the interconnection between social, cultural, economic and political systems. Neither science nor scientific worldviews are distinct from these systems. This does not make science “wrong,” but it does create problems when those connections are ignored. As suggested above, worldviews can become embedded in science. Science’s purported neutrality and universality can then provide an unimpeachable imprimatur to those systems.

People do not produce knowledge. Cultures produce persons who think. At issue is not what rules one should follow to think well, or what one should do once a discovery is made, the question is, what kind of a society produces good scientists and therefore good science. Feminist theories suggest that it is those societies that embody participatory values. According to Harding:

Objectivity is not maximized through value-neutrality—at least not in the way the traditional science discourses have constructed these concepts. I have argued that it is only coercive values—racism, classism, sexism—that deteriorate objectivity; it is participatory values—anti-racism, anticlassism, antisexism—that decrease the distortions and mystifications in our culture’s explanations and understandings. One can think of these participatory values as preconditions, constituents, or a reconception of objectivity . . . .14

Thus, an important aspect of ecofeminism is a stress on difference, diversity and pluralism. 15

The connection between knower and society is a two-way street: social transformation leads to intellectual transformation, intellectual transformation becomes embodied in social change. Whether for good or for ill, knowledge affects society. This introduces the notion of “praxis” into science and challenges the distinctions between “science” and “technology.” Seeing knowledge as “pure” is a dangerous fiction that allows one to ignore the consequences of his or her actions. Thus scientists—and, let’s be honest, a whole lot of theologians—can ignore the implications and effects of their theories. Ecofeminism rejects this distinction.

This has significant implications for the religion and science discourse. First, and foremost, it implies that “science and religion” are more than natural theology and ethics. They are about what a community (some of whom are scientists, some of whom are theologians, some of whom might even be neither) has to say about the goals, structures and values of science.

Second, “science and religion” includes more than the relationship between science and religion. Neither of these disciplines, nor the conversation between them, exists in a vacuum. Economics, politics, institutional structures, popular culture, history, social context, etc. all have an impact. All research programs impose a scale, and we have to choose where to bracket those relationships we examine. Anything else just gets too complicated. But, that choice effects what one sees and there must be an awareness that there are losses and gains in the choices made.

Third, we need to be intentional about maintaining open and diverse communities. This is critical if we are to resist universalizing particular methods, worldviews, questions, etc. The epistemological demand for openness and the resistance to universalizing has strong theological counterparts such as, for example, Paul Tillich’s “Protestant Principle.” These similarities are not incidental. Framing the issue as science versus religion masks the reality that those institutions that have resisted scientific knowledge have also squelched religious diversity. Closed communities produce neither good science nor thoughtful religious reflection.

Finally, communities not only influence science and religion, science and religion influence communities: praxis again. All science, all knowledge or belief has real effects on people’s lives. Knowledge is not only in response to a community, it should be responsible to a community. We need to be intentional about the values that are embodied through our knowledge. Objectivity requires a community, and the commitment of this discourse must therefore be to a definable social community whose members can hold us accountable and not an imagined one or nature itself.16

Brief Postscript

I want to conclude with a brief postscript, to address the question of why a feminist should care about the science and religion discourse. Many of my friends were surprised by my interest in this discourse, especially when I took a job at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley. The reason can be summed up in the question: “Can someone who loves justice be involved in the science and religion discourse?” One of my professors was more blunt. Upon hearing I had taken the position, she wondered why. She saw the discourse as an abstract, masculine, privileged distraction from the real problems of the real world. It was, in her words, “irrelevant.”

With all due respect, the science and religion discourse is not irrelevant, because science is not irrelevant: it has a force, it impacts the world in very real ways. Keller argues, and I agree, that feminists need to take account of that force, to grapple with why this “particular” worldview seems to have universal efficacy: Doesn’t E=MC2 everywhere? It does, of course, but this begs the question of what this has to do with anything. It strikes me that the tension between these two questions—the universal efficacy of science and the limits and meaning of that efficacy—has not been adequately addressed within feminism or ecofeminism. As Sandra Harding has pointed out, “It works” is not an epistemology, but neither is the charge that science has a social component.

Feminist (or, for that matter postmodern) theories have not resolved this tension. This remains a challenge posed by science and religion—or, more accurately, science. Feminism and ecofeminism will need to pay more attention to the logical and empirical constraints that make scientific claims so compelling and to understanding their strengths and weaknesses. To the extent that we do not do so, we abdicate any ability to criticize its idolatry.

Further, we miss the opportunity to harness the power of science for positive transformation. As Keller states, if science has a force it must have a vector, a direction in which it moves.17 Science and technology represent a significant threat to the planet, but they also offer great opportunities. It is vital that feminists, ecofeminists and others who are interested in justice become involved in the sciences to influence their direction.

Second, science is not irrelevant because it is central to our culture. In many ways the scientist has replaced the politician in shaping public policy. And, as if that is not bad enough, Margaret Wertheim in her book Pythgoras’ Trousers argues that the scientist has also replaced priests.18 While that might be a little overstated, the point remains: if we truly want to transform culture, we must contend with and transform science.

But why religion? Why wouldn’t one opt to be a scientist if one wanted to transform science? Ecofeminism suggests several reasons (to which I would add that religious thinkers have long dealt with issues emerging within the so-called science wars: the limits of language, values and pluralism). First, the underlying justifications for science are intertwined with religious symbols. Recognizing, transforming and demythologizing those symbols is the task of religious thinkers. Second, whether it is seeing nature as a sacrament, recovering a covenantal relationship, seeing the world as God’s body or otherwise recapturing the sacred depth of nature, religious and spiritual questions are central to the task of reviving nature. Finally, transforming science involves a deep transformation. It is not a matter of changing scientists; it is a matter of transforming culture, the way we understand the world and our interactions with it. This is a central tenet of ecofeminism, at least of the variety associated with “deep ecology.”

This is why we need to avoid essentialism. I have been intentional about speaking of modernism rather than “Privileged, White, Males,” patriarchy or “masculinist bias” because this language obscures the extent of the needed transformation. The problem is not gender, race or privilege, the problem is a mindset—which is admittedly largely traceable to privileged white males. But, not all privileged white males agree with that mindset, and not all people who believe in the mindset—or participate in or benefit from the structures that form around it—are privileged white males.

Take my Grandmother, for instance. She’s 99, and in the summers when I visit Litchfield, Minnesota I drive her out in the country and past the old farmhouse that her parents built over 100 years ago. The present owners don’t farm the land—they work “in town”—and instead lease it to the DNR which has let it return to swamp. It teems with life: ducks, pheasants, herons, loons, muskrats, even a pair of Sandhill cranes that once scared the daylights out of me. When I need a break from writing, it provides an ideal place to take my dog for long walks.

When Grandma sees the swamp she is appalled: “Isn’t that just AWFUL! Such a mess! Look at those WEEDS! These people have just let it go!”

I try to explain to Grandma the reasons the swamp is good, even for farmers. But it’s no use. We are operating out of different paradigms. To me, it is an idyllic place to walk my dog. To Grandma, it is proof that nature won.

To speak of “Privileged, White, Males,” patriarchy or even a “masculinist bias” reinforces the belief that the problem is rich, white men and not, for example, my grandmother . . . or me. It ignores the permeation of the mindset, and the multiplicity of beneficiaries. Transformation of science must involve deep transformation. It must include grandmothers. And that, I think, is a religious issue.

The world is literally dying for a new understanding of science, and of the relationship between science and religion. If the science and religion discourse is to contribute to the emergence of that understanding, feminist philosophies and ecological perspectives (ecofeminism) will be indispensable. The question is not “Can someone who loves justice be involved in the science and religion discourse?” The question is “How can someone who loves justice not be involved?”


1 The problem with the term “ecofeminism” is that not everybody agrees on its meaning. To alleviate confusion, let me start by saying that I will be using “ecofeminism” in its broad sense, meaning feminist theories and activist interests blended with and informed by those of the ecological sciences and movements. This would include not only such thinkers as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Vandana Shiva, but also feminists like Sandra Harding, Helen Longino and Evelyn Fox Keller.

2 See, for example, Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) and Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature : Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution( New York: Harper and Row, 1980 ).

3 For an excellent critique of this tendency, see Sandra Harding, Is Science Multi-Cultural: Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998) and Vine Deloria, Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americas and the Myth of Scientific Fact (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing1997).

4 Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 69, fn. 1.

5 Longino, Science as Social Knowledge, 3.

6 Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (Halifax Voa Scotia: Fernwood Publications, 1988), 22.

7 See, e.g. Merchant, The Death of Nature.

8 Keller, Gender and Science, 106.

9 Mies and Shiva, Ecofeminism, 46-7. In addition, mathematical assumptions rely on a rigid and limited notion of reality that ignores the impossibility of abstracting the structure of reality from its context. In the real world, nothing is independent of context. Chaos and complexity theories tend to support this argument, suggesting that this enormous complexity means the world cannot be reduced to simple elements.

10 Longino, Science as Social Knowledge, 191.

11 Ibid., 219.

12 Ibid., 216.

13 Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, 117.

14 Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, 249

15 The question that needs to be explored is how to adopt and adapt these models so that we can have a coherent discourse, without losing particular voices.

16 Longino, Science as Social Knowledge, 192.

17 Evelyn Fox Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science(New York, Routledge, 1992), 74

18 If nothing else, the proliferation of theOlogy books written by scientists would tend to support her thesis.