Feminism and the Historicity of Science

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Author: Karl Kroeber
Editor: Russel Whitaker
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,055 words

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[(essay date 1994) In the following essay, Kroeber stresses the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to an ecologically oriented literary criticism, noting especially the need for an understanding of scientific ecology.]

In calling for an ecologically oriented criticism I appeal to intensified awareness of the historicity of all our intellectual disciplines. It would seem banal so to appeal, but that Cold War critics, even new historicists, have paid minimal attention to the evolution of our understanding of the natural world, despite their fondness for the truism that conceptions of nature are cultural constructs. An ecological criticism must be historically more self-conscious, if only because ecology is a relative newcomer in the world of science. Such self-consciousness, moreover, is a requisite for any kind of useful interaction between scientific and humanistic studies. It is the dangers of metaphysical universalizing (some of whose disguised self-mystifyings recent feminist critiques have exposed) from which ecologically oriented criticism principally offers to liberate literary studies.

To understand better how this might come about, we need to understand how ecology came into being. The word ecology was coined by the zoologist Ernst Haeckel in 1866. Haeckel needed a name for a new science, one just then coming into its own as a systematic discipline. Ecology, he said, was

the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature--the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; including above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly into contact--in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.1

Although today there are many diverse forms of scientific ecology whose practices require refinements or expansions of Haeckel's definition, its two key features remain undisturbed: ecology treats of total interrelationships of organisms and their environments, and ecology depends upon Darwinian evolutionary thinking.2

These features explain why ecology as a scientific discipline could not fully emerge before the middle of the nineteenth century. It required the development of other scientific disciplines. The word biology, after all, entered our language only in the first years of the nineteenth century, just when chemistry in the form we recognize was attaining its first successes. Until these studies had achieved systematized efficacy--until, one might say, there was matured genetics, physiology, and biochemistry--it remained impossible effectively to develop encompassing studies of the total interrelations of individual organisms and their environments.

Haeckel asserts ecology's dependence upon Darwin's articulation of the theory of evolution, which of course emphasizes the temporal dimension in biological processes. The struggle for existence is a historical struggle, survival of the fittest being survival over time. This view of nature as temporalized, as existing historically, produces the seeming paradox of the evolutionary stress upon individuality. Individuality of course had loomed large in Lamarck's evolutionary ideas about the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The subtler paradox in the Darwinian focus on...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058695