Return to Syllabus

GLOSSARY

Animism
Seeing natural objects and phenomena as "animated" by personal spirits. Natural forces like thunder and lightning, streams, trees, the ocean, are given personal existence and treated as gods or demi-gods.
Anthropomorphism
Seeing animals or the world itself as having human characteristics, particularly as having feelings and motives like those of human beings. Everything is like us. See Pathetic fallacy.
Anthropocentrism
Seeing the universe as centering on humankind, so that everything in the universe is for human beings. Everything is for us.
Balance of Nature
The idea that nature, undisturbed by human beings, achieves an ideal balance of different species, that, until it is disturbed, it remains in balance, and that it returns to that state after the disturbance. This is connected to the notion, left over from the time of belief in The Great Chain of Being, that every creature has its place in the harmonious workings of nature and is well adapted to its niche. "Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline, and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions; and in these comparatively rare cases of derangement, she sets herself at once to repair the superficial damage, and to restore, as nearly as practicable, the former aspect of her domain" (George Perkins Marsh, cited in Botkin, 54).To References The mythic notion of constancy survived into a more scientific age, according to Botkin, because ecologists were unconsciously applying to ecosystems the physicists' and mathematicians' notions of the stability of mechanical systems. See Carrying Capacity.
Biome
An ecossystem usually identified in terms of characteristic forms of vegetation.
Biosphere
The global realm of all living things.
Carrying Capacity
The constant number that, left to itself, a natural population will achieve in a given ecosystem. The idea there is a constant number is, according to some ecologists, an unwarranted assumption. See Balance of Nature.
Catastrophism
One side of a nineteenth-century geological argument about the forces that have shaped the earth. Catastrophism proposes that the earth was shaped by sudden, cataclysmic upheavals (such as the "Flood" or "Deluge" of Noah in the Bible) and that the laws of nature in the periods between these cataclysms are not the same, that is, "uniform." The issue is this: if the laws are not uniform, we cannot really see back beyond the last major cataclysm and so cannot reliably talk about millions of years in the past. Compare Uniformitarianism.
Climax
An assumed final state of stability in the reconstitution of a destroyed ecosystem.
Commons
"The global commons": Those resources we all have to use to survive but which we do not have to pay for. The term is based on the idea of the village commons: a plot of land owned by no one where all had the right to graze their stock. Because its use was without cost, people overused it, not respecting its fragility or limits or expending any effort or resources to preserve it. The inevitable result was the destruction of the commons. By application, the "global commons" are threatened with overuse precisely because we do not figure in a cost for them. There is a cost, of course, that we are paying all the time, in the diminution or damaging of the commons.
Conservation
The "wise use" of natural resources, managing nature rather than preserving it as untouched wilderness. Gifford Pinchot of the U. S. Forest Service is the name associated with wise use; John Muir is associated with the rival policy focusing on preservation of wilderness. Aldo Leopold was a student in the Pinchot tradition, but seems to have arrived at a balance between the two.
Creation
The divine act by which God brought all things into being from nothing. The idea is both philosophical and religious. Philosophically, the notion of an original creative act is not inherently antipathetic to evolution or to physics, nor is it refutable by science (see the conclusion of Hawking's Brief History of Time along with Harrison's Masks of the Universe).To References It is, however, a matter of belief, not science. Religiously, however, the Western notion of creation roots itself in the first two chapters of Genesis; and these accounts are, of course, incompatible with scientific accounts, though early scientists tried valiantly to reconcile scientific discoveries with a literal interpretation of Genesis.
Creationism or Special Creation
affirms that God created each form of life as it is, and denies the idea that the various forms of life evolved from earlier forms.
Creation Science
The claim that special creation is not merely a belief but a scientific hypothesis, a rival hypothesis to evolution.
Culture
The totality of ways of acting and thinking which a group acquires by experience and interpretation and then passes down by teaching and training. Roughly, culture is the learned behavior which is passed on, as opposed to the instinctual behavior which evolves.
Deep time
The discovery that the universe has been around for more than the few thousand years recorded in the Bible, that it has been in existence for billions of years.
Design
An argument for the existence of God. Here, for instance, is Thomas Jefferson's version: "I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. The movement of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organized as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms." (Letter to John Adams, cited in Miller, 32)To References
Ecology
The scientific study of the interrelationship of all life-forms and of their dependency on their environments. By inference: the scientific study of the ties that bind humankind to the natural world. The word is derived from the Greek oikos, a dwelling place. It was coined in German, Oekologie, in 1832 by Ernst Haeckel, a leading German proponent of Darwin. It was "Anglicized at the Madison, Wisconsin, Botanical Congress of 1893" (Botkin, 32; 206, n.5).To References
Ecological community
A set of interacting natural populations.
Ecosystem
A local ecological community: coral reef, prairie, alpine, etc.
Eden
The mythic place where Adam and Eve lived before their "fall" into sin, which some interpret as their discovery of self, of consciousness, of self-consciousness, and so, their alienation. It is connected to the Pastoral Ideal.
Empiricism
In its naive form, the belief that one can examine "the facts" without any beliefs or assumptions at all to guide the examination and a hypothesis will emerge. In most cases it appears that scientists begin with a theory, test it empirically, find it wanting, and move toward new theory.
Environment
The surroundings on which animals and humans depend for life, especially, but not exclusively, the inanimate environment: air, water, topsoil, weather, wetlands, ozone shield.
Evolution
A scientific explanation of the development of life from the earliest one-celled animals to the variety of species we see today. The major assertion here is not that there is variation within a species--which is obvious--but that variation can be so fundamental that a new species arises. The mechanism of evolution is Natural Selection. This process does not lead inevitably toward greater complexity or to "higher" forms of life. To say it does is to give Teleology, purpose, to an accidental process. The larger brain of the shark does not indicate, as Louis Agassiz thought, that the shark is a later, higher form of marine animal than fish with smaller brains.
Extinction
The disappearance of a species, which is always irreversible.
Gaia Hypothesis
Gaia is the Greek goddess, Earth. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis have proposed the idea that "the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment" (Cited in Botkin, 146).To References
Genus
A group of similar species.
Great Chain of Being
A complex of ideas about nature: that all creatures were created at the moment of original creation, that nature is harmoniously designed, that creatures are arranged in a hierarchical order from lowest to highest, that all the species that could be created have been created; that none have died out or can die out and no new ones can arise. This represents a kind of ecology or economy of the natural world: the completeness of nature is crucial to the understanding of nature. "Nothing incomplete is beautiful ... [nature must be] the perfect image of the whole of which all animals--both individuals and species--are parts" (Lovejoy citing Plato's "Timaeus," 50). This is the central conception that motivated objections to evolution. Jefferson, for instance, insisted that nature is complete in this way.
Habitat
Usually used to refer to the local conditions necessary for the survival of a particular species.
Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics
The disproven idea, held by the French evolutionist Lamarck, that characteristics like knowledge or muscular development, acquired during life can be passed on, genetically, to one's children, and thus influence the course of evolution.
Linnaeus, Carolus (b. 5/23/1707, d. 1/10/1778)
classified all known plants and animals and devised a system of naming plants and animals. The system assigns a two-word Latin name to each organism: the first word is the genus; the second, often descriptive, is the species name. For example, the house cat has the scientific name Felis domesticus; the lion, is Felis leo. He became interested in classification while studying the stamens and pistils (male and female sex structures) of flowers. He used the numbers of these structures to classify all known flowering plants in his Systema Plantarum (1753). His Systema Naturae (1758) classifies more than 4,000 animals, even human beings. Linnaeus first gave humans the scientific name Homo sapiens.
Materialism
The affirmation that only material things exist, that there is no such thing as spirit. In the eighteenth century, materialism countered the religious belief that there was a soul to survive the death of the body, and thus, that there was an afterlife. Today materialism expresses itself in the effort to link neuro-science to conscious experience: thought is purely material behavior. Materialism is a part of the belief system of some in the Enlightenment and of many scientists and others today. It is a necessary working rule of science, without necessarily being a "belief" of all scientists, i.e., scientific investigation assumes materialism for purposes of science, whether the scientist is a materialist or not.
Mechanistic
As in "mechanistic universe." The idea that everything works mechanically, like a clock. It is the idea of the universe associated with Newton who discovered the laws of gravity and planetary motion. Such a universe is a deterministic universe. According to another thinker, Laplace, if we had all the data, we would be able to predict everything that is to happen in the world, as we can predict where the hands of a clock will be three weeks from this moment. Einstein put it this way: "I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world." This notion is rejected by the quantum theory that rules contemporary physics, which shows that randomness, accident, a degree of chaos, is basic to matter.
Miracle
An event that contravenes the laws of nature. Such events were not thought of as freaks but as signs of the action of God. Thus, the miracle stories of the New Testament were used to "prove" the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the legitimacy of the church, etc. They were at one time much more important to the argument between science and religion than they are today.
Natural History
An obsolescent term: the non-systematic study, description, and classification of animals, plants, minerals, and other natural objects: zoology, botany, mineralogy; with emphasis on study in the field rather than the lab. It is not usually applied to astronomy, physics, chemistry.
Natural Law
The idea that not only is nature governed by laws, but that nature has written in the hearts of human beings the laws by which they should govern their lives. In other words, we can know without the help of the Bible the difference between right and wrong. Natural law is conceived to be the foundation on which positive law, the specific laws of individual groups, tribes, nations, is built. It is considered a universal law and is still an operative concept, though the term itself may not be used. The notion of natural law is almost universally rejected by modern social science. Nevertheless, the Nurenburg war-crimes trials after World War II, for instance, had no foundation in written laws, and were based on the assumption of natural laws binding all human beings; the present insistence on human rights also implies the affirmation of a kind of natural law.
Natural Philosophy
Jefferson: "To describe the phenomena of nature, to explain their causes...and to inquire into the whole constitution of the universe.... But natural philosophy is subservient to purposes of a higher kind, and is chiefly to be valued as it lays a sure foundation for natural religion and moral philosophy; by leading us, in a satisfactory manner, to the knowledge of the Author and Governor of the universe" (cited in Miller, 91).To References In the eighteenth and preceding centuries natural philosophy was the general term for most of the studies we group under the term natural science today.
Natural Religion
A Renaissance idea that survived in the Enlightenment. According to the Renaissance idea, God had revealed certain religious truths to Adam and Eve, and these had been passed down to all peoples, so that the residue of this revelation could be found in all cultures of the world: There is one God; we must worship him; we know right from wrong as exemplified in the Ten Commandments of Moses; we know there will be reward and punishment after death. This is the idea that the Jesuits had when they went to China; they thought they found this in Confucius. In the Enlightenment the notion of a primitive revelation was dropped, but some of the basic ideas survived: observation of the natural world taught the notions of one God, the need for worship, natural knowledge of right and wrong, perhaps even reward and punishment.
Naturalist
Someone who studies Natural History, probably in the field rather than the lab.
Natural selection
The process by which individuals sufficiently adapted to their environment to survive and breed successfully have their characteristics passed on to following generations. Those that aren't sufficiently adapted either do not themselves survive to breed, or their offspring do not survive.
Nature
The tell-tale word of the Enlightenment, the one that slips into every argument without challenge, and so the one with the most slippery meaning. Nature is best understood according to what it is opposed to:
To Supernature
or the action of God in the world, e.g., divine grace or help in living a good life, divine revelation, or God's telling human beings the truth about Himself and the world in the Bible, divine intervention in history to select a chosen people or redeem humanity. Nature is what is left when you exclude all these influences. The idea of the supernatural is denied by the Enlightenment, which raises the question: if there is a God, as many Enlightenment thinkers believed there was, is he natural, a part of nature, or is he, as the creator of nature, beyond nature, i.e., supernatural? Perhaps the way to address this question is this: God is "natural" in that he created the world according to certain laws and lets it operate by those laws. He is not arbitrary. A "supernatural" God would be a God who arbitrarily manipulates creation, who violates its laws at will to bring about events that he happens to be interested in. This is the kind of God the Enlightenment didn't want to have to deal with because what worried the Enlightenment was Miracles, events that violated the laws of nature and presumably came about through the work of God or, perhaps, the devil. These were considered important to the arguments for and against Christianity. To the Enlightenment, miracles were superstition.
To Technology or art
Nature is what is not made by human hands, what is not the product of human technology.
To Nurture or Culture or History
Nature is those aspects of human life which are attributable to heredity, to biological configurations and not to the influences of culture.
To Europe and the Authority of Tradition
(An extension of the opposition above). Jefferson: "Nature was America for Jefferson. His interest in nature and his use of the word was therefore a form of nationalism. In Europe national sentiment was expressed through a common history, a royal family, a culture, or a literature. In America and for Jefferson it was expressed through, and as, nature." (Miller, 3.)To References
To The Church or Feudalism
, before the Enlightenment, and to large corporate enterprise and the state after the Enlightenment. "Nature was a valley between two ranges of social control" (Miller, 8).To References
To Consciousness
Emerson: Nature is anything that is not me; by implication, all that is not part of my personal consciousness, including other people and my own body as an object of consciousness.
Nature essay
A literary form. It is hardly necessary to define essay; it is more important to define literary writing in terms of scientific writing. Here are a couple of sentences from John Burroughs: "Details are indispensable to the specialist, but a knowledge of relations and of wholes satisfies me more.... All the facts of natural science that throw light upon the methods and the spirit of nature are doubly welcome... The ground underfoot becomes a history, the stars overhead a revelation, the play of the invisible and unsuspected forces about me and through me a new kind of gospel...." (cited in Elman, 201)To References
Newtonian Universe
The idea that the universe works mechanically, like a clock. It is called Newtonian, because it arose from the Newtonian discovery of the laws of gravity and planetary motion. The Newtonian Universe is a deterministic universe. See Mechanistic.
Noble Savage
The idea, connected with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that the source of human evil is civilization, and that human beings untouched by civilization are naturally noble, moral, good. See Savage.
Organic
The opposite of mechanistic. The basic metaphor, if you look at the world this way, is living things: the universe is like a living thing. How? A living thing is not a bunch of separate things, like the wheels and cogs of a clock, but a single, thing. It grows from a seed which contains all that is necessary to organize its growth, though it is affected and changed by outside influences. The Romantic movement adopted this view of things in opposition to the mechanistic, Newtonian view of things. There is a suggestion of large-scale "animism" in this view, that the universe is inhabited and given shape by an inherent spiritual principle, God or what Emerson called the "oversoul." Which moves us towards Pantheism.
Pantheism
That all things are suffused by divinity, are, in fact, God.
Pastoral
Nature as harmonious and continuous with human life; nature tamed into farm lands and hedge rows and orchards, but not so overwhelmed by human presence as to be damaged, rather "improved." A Frenchman, Buffon, famous for his contention that all animals degenerated in Western lands, insisted that America was an inferior continent, and the human beings who lived there were naturally inferior. He represents the underlying notion of pastoral: that human beings are necessary to the beauty of nature. Nature without human beings is ugly wilderness. Human beings establish order, harmony, cultivation. They must drain marshes, transform stagnant waters into canals and brooks, set fire to old forests, destroy with iron what cannot be destroyed by fire. Human beings are in this way necessary to the divine order of nature. (Botkin, 86, notes that the "wilderness" Buffon describes is hardly wilderness, but a landscape typical of abandoned farm lands.)To References
Pastoral Ideal
Living one's life in complete harmony with nature, growing one's own food, making one's own clothes, being born, living, dying, without depending on those divisions of labor that characterize civilized life.
Pastoral Design
A literary technique: Imagining oneself living outside civilization and according to the Pastoral Ideal, as a shepherd (ancient Greece and traditional European), a farmer, a cowboy; the purpose of placing oneself in this pastoral dreamland is to reflect on civilization. This depends on the sense that living the pastoral life purifies one's vision, makes one better able to judge civilization (This distinction is made by Lynen, "The Pastoral Mode: Symbolism and Perspective," 1-47).To References
Pathetic fallacy
Seeing animals and inanimate objects as having human emotions. See Anthropomorphism.
Perfection of nature
The idea that nature is not only complete, with all possible species in their place, but that nature is perfectly ordered and perfectly stable, and, when disturbed, will return to its original stability.
Picturesque
A way of describing nature which emphasizes its prettiness and its charm, as opposed to the Sublime, which emphasizes its force and overwhelming power. More literally it inverts the idea that a picture imitates nature, by looking at nature as though it were a picture. This was taken to an extreme by the French and English gentry of the eighteenth century who "framed" a natural scene by looking at it through a "Claude glass," a yellow piece of glass which gave it both a border and a yellow tint like the tint varnish gave to the colors of painted landscapes. Claude was Claude Lorraine, a French landscape painter.
Predators
They take on importance in "balance-of-nature" approaches to the environment: The ancients had to explain the presence of these fierce beasts on a "good" earth, and they did so by saying they were necessary (1) to keep populations in control, that is, to preserve the balance of nature, and (2) to furnish the natural world some protection from human beings.
Primitive
As opposed to civilized. The notion of "culture" has freed us somewhat of the rigidity of the opposition between the primitive and the civilized. Conventionally, hunter-gatherer cultures are primitive; agriculture would mark the beginning of civilization.
Racism
This managed to express itself in both pre- and post-Darwinian understandings. In the pre-Darwinian scheme of things, based on the idea of the Great Chain of Being the question was this: do the various races occupy different levels on the chain, some higher, some lower, or are they all basically human? In the post-Darwinian scheme of things, based on evolution, the question was: are some of the races more primitive than others, that is, isn't the "obvious superiority" of the white race an indication that it evolved upward out of more primitive races (Gould).To References
Reason
"Jefferson held that reason is implanted in both physical nature and human nature. The reason of physical nature is its order. The reason of human nature is our ability to understand a fair portion of that order." (Miller, 4.)To References This is an idea typical of the Enlightenment. The idea of reason inherent in nature goes back to Plato's notion of a universe of "divine" ideas of which the natural objects of our universe are imitations. There is a certain ambiguous allegiance, still, to this idea among scientists. The modern world no longer looks to the rational structure of the universe to discover the grounds for its moral ideals, but when Einstein protests that "God does not play dice with the universe," he is expressing a sense of an inherent rationality in the natural world.
Savage
A human being who does not feel the restraints of civilization. Savages are at the stage of cultural "childhood" according to such nineteenth-century thinkers as the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. See Noble Savage and Primitive.
Social Darwinism
An extension of the idea of biological evolution to human culture. An extreme laissez-faire notion that the poor are poor because they lack certain genetic characteristics that would fit them for economic survival. As the argument goes, society has no obligation to its poor since to help them would be to allow inferior types to survive, and thus interfere with evolution and weaken society. The theory is based on ignorance of the great variety and relativity of social and economic systems, ignorance of the possibility that certain people who seem inferior in one sort of society might be heroically successful in another sort of society, e.g., Indians with great hunting skills found it hard to survive in an agrarian culture.
Sociobiology
The study of social animals, insects, bees, etc., who are genetically programmed to create certain social structures. This suggests that there may be genetic grounds for certain aspects of human behavior, that human society may not all be the result of "learned" behavior. This idea, propounded most importantly by E. O. Wilson, has been opposed by Stephen Jay Gould.
Soul
The spiritual component of the human being. According to Plato, the soul is a spiritual principle of thought that should govern human choice and action. According to Aristotle, each living thing is composed of "matter and form," the soul is the human "form," the organizing principle that shapes the chaos of matter into a human creature rather than some other kind. Christian elaboration of these two philosophical ideas make the soul the seat of intelligence and free will, the "purely spiritual" activity of humans. The immortality of the soul is based on the notion that it has a purely spiritual activity, and must itself be purely spiritual and able to survive the loss of the body. The contemporary question is this: is human intelligence reducible to the firings of neurons studied by neurology, or is there something more, a soul, for which the neurons are merely the supporting organ.
Species
A group of individuals that can interbreed and beget fertile offspring.
Sublime
A habit of appreciating nature as beyond human control, immense, powerful, awe-inspiring. Associated with mountains, cataracts, the ocean, stars. The standard sources are Longinus, On the Sublime, and Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757.
Succession
"An orderly process of community development that is reasonably directional and, therefore, predictable [that] culminates in a stabilized ecosystem" (Eugene Odum, cited in Botkin, 54). "A term perhaps first used by Thomas Pownall in 1784 ... and reintroduced in 1860 by Thoreau to describe the development of pine woodlands following the logging of hardwood stands in New England and used again in 1864 by George Perkins Marsh" (Botkin, 52).To References Succession moves toward Climax.
Supernature, or the Supernatural
The action of God in the world, e.g., divine grace or help in living a good life, divine revelation, or God's telling human beings the truth about Himself and the world in the Bible, divine intervention in history to select a chosen people or redeem humanity. See Nature.
Survival of the fittest
As the environment changes, those members of a species who, by accidental genetic variation, happen to have traits best fitted to the new environment are most likely to survive long enough to generate offspring. Illegitimately extended to human societies in Social Darwinism.
Taxonomy
The science of classification, assigning names, assigning living things to the proper genus and species.
Teleology
Seeing natural things in terms of purpose: eyes are for seeing, wings are for flying. It was one of the major efforts of science to break this habit in order to clear the way for deeper insights into nature, specifically into evolution.
Uniformitarianism
One side of a nineteenth-century geological argument about the forces that have shaped the earth; in this case, the notion was that, with the exception of volcanoes and earthquakes, the earth has been shaped by the slow, almost imperceptible working of natural processes which are still going on and can be measured. The issue is this: if the laws are uniform, we can see back beyond the last major cataclysm and so can reliably talk about millions of years in the past. See Catastrophism.
"Utilitarianism"
The Puritan Cotton Mather: "What is not useful is vicious," that is, whatever cannot be eaten, worn, sold, or otherwise used by human beings is evil. The term is in quotation marks to distinguish this use of it from the Utilitarian school of philosophy.
Wilderness
Nature untamed, untouched by humankind, potentially hostile, indifferent, destructive, but also awe-inspiring, sublime, exhilarating.
Biblically
Historically: the wasteland through which the Jews had to pass on the way to the Promised Land; metaphorically, the American landscape to the Puritans, the place of evil, Satan, devil worship, savages.
To the medieval mind
Wilderness, mountains, the sea, were terrifying, and therefore ugly, unpleasant, the opposite of what was called a locus amoenus, or pleasant place, a garden, where all the species of plants and gentle animals were represented.
To early American settlers
The wilderness was ugly because hostile to human beings; if it was seen as beautiful it was beautiful because it might be tamed, "improved," its wetlands drained, its forests cut down and turned into farmland.
To the European Romantics
And to Thoreau, the wilderness, mountains, forests, the ocean were seen as beautiful, awe-inspiring. Wilderness corresponded to the dark and mysterious forces within human beings. For Thoreau, as we know, "wilderness is the preservation of the world." In the history of the environmental movement, wilderness, defended by John Muir, is opposed to conservation and management, defended by Gifford Pinchot.

References

    Botkin, Daniel B. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
    Elman, Robert. First in the Field: America's Pioneering Naturalists. New York: Mason/Charter, 1977.
    Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.
    Harrison, Edward. Masks of the Universe. New York: MacMillan, 1985.
    Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam, 1988.
    Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. 1936, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965.
    Lynen, John F. The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost. 1960, New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.
    Miller, Charles A. Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.