exercises in compound storytelling

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wendell Berry: Life is a Miracle (part one) Berry hates Wilson

A page from Medizinal Pflanzen (Koehler's Medi...Image via Wikipedia
For better or worse I've waded into Wendell Berry's slim volume Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Of 150 or so pages, 60 are devoted to a critique of Edward O. Wilson's 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

I want very badly to like Berry: he's a Christian (and a Baptist, no less) who is after a fashion an idea leader of sorts. He writes well. People I like read and like him. He's even dealing with a question I really like, regarding the relationship between the individual and scientific knowledge.

Berry's premise is that the scientific community is arrogant: considers everything within its grasp, ignores anything that cannot be easily measured, doesn't have a concept of place, expects too much of its practitioners, expects to be taken at its word despite past shortcomings, etc. Berry's life themes, regarding the value of place and community, give him a framework of sorts for his critique.

Unfortunately Berry is long on rhetoric and short on insight. Sure, there are some real nuggets here, but Wilson mostly pushes his arguments by appealing to abstractions, making emotional appeals to vague concepts, and using "scare quotes." We all understand that there is such a thing as "local culture," for example, but when Berry appeals to this as an absolute and inviolable good I have a hard time following him: surely evil and oppressive practices are as abundant in small communities as they are in large communities. Aren't they? And while I understand the appeal of an heirloom apple tree or the magnificence of the view out Berry's kitchen window, I don't see a fair comparison between that and the global scientific enterprise. I have to agree with Berry's basic fuzzy premise: that the map is not the territory, and people are not just segments of population, and averages are not real things, and life and the data derived from it are not the same thing and shouldn't be treated as interchangeable, but I'm put off by Berry's arguments.

Certainly many evil things have been done in the name of science, engineering, and industry. And certainly it is dangerous to equivocate between brains, minds, and machines. But Berry reads like a Fundamentalist preacher: he doesn't let Wilson speak: he picks individual words and terms that are pages apart and places them side by side; he contextualizes small quotes from Wilson in a narrative of his own and gives the terms his own definition. For example, when Berry quotes "the mind ... is the brain at work" and Berry rephrases this as "mind = brain = machine" (p. 47) I can't believe he's giving Wilson a fair reading, so he can't be giving a fair critique.

Finally, Berry is warning that Wilson's mindset is toxic to all of society, and he's right generally that amoral technocracy is bad for society. However, he doesn't (or hasn't) taken the positive step of suggesting anything that can actually become policy. Locality and community are worthwhile values, but as we in the conservative Christian community are still learning, values are not themselves policies.

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