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Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr.'s The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community

"Science teaches us to doubt and in ignorance to refrain" - Claude Bernard

Liberation of Life is a unique book. Its combined philosophical breadth, scientific rigor and specificity, and interdisciplinary scholarship make it one of the very few works to successfully weave together a micro and macro explanation of life's complexity and interrelatedness. In an outward movement from the biological to the social, Birch and Cobb attend to molecular ecology and then move slowly towards wider issues of sustainable economics as well as social and environmental justice. Here, they examine a diverse spectrum of topics, including modern technology and its accompanying myth of "progress," the nature and relations of market and socialist economies, sustainable agriculture, animal rights, genetic engineering, and sustainable energy production. Whether attending to the micro or macro dimensions of existence, their explicit goal is to liberate the concept and reality of life at the molecular, individual, and population levels. Writing from a Christian perspective, biologist Birch tries to show how a better understanding of life's scientific basis can release us from the bonds of outdated and untenable scientific theories concerning life itself. Philosopher and theologian Cobb tries to show how new ecological conceptions of life, that are suggested by current scientific research, both support and expand scientific and religious views of life, which have been impeded by mechanistic science and dualistic religion.

As the title implies, the book's purpose is to help liberate - or reinterpret - the concept of life in all of its dimensions. The authors outline their thesis by calling for a two-fold liberation of life:

There is the liberation of the conception of life from its objectifying character right through from cell to human community, for the concept of life itself is in a bondage fashioned by interpreters of life ever since biology and allied sciences began. Secondly, there is the liberation of social structures and human behaviour such as will involve a shift from manipulation and management of living creatures, human and non-human alike, to respect for life in its fullness.Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Denton, TX: Environmental Ethics Books, 1990), 2.

Thus, the authors are not merely concerned with the theoretical consequences of shifting assumed paradigms of life in the sciences and religion, they are also concerned with practical ethical outcomes from such shifts. In other words, to liberate the concept of life in the sciences and religion theoretically is to liberate ourselves from current paradigms that impede the flourishing of life in actuality. For this reason, the book concludes with the ethical considerations of economic, ecological, and social justice as they relate to worldviews conditioned by various conceptions of life.

In seeking to scientifically support and philosophically promote what they call an "ecological model of life," Birch and Cobb specifically challenge what they see as the three principal contending models of life: the mechanistic, the vitalistic, and the emergent evolution models. Their redefinition of life is ultimately aimed at widening our conceptions of what we consider "alive." Although the mechanistic model is most antithetical to their proposal for an ecological model, they do affirm its value in describing structures or elements that exist in relative independence from their environment, such as, inorganic stones or metals. However, as a method for understanding and explaining the full multidimensionality of life, the mechanistic model is limited by its most fundamental premise that organisms and their constitutive parts are essentially just composites of atoms, molecules, and other elements. As such, the mechanistic model tries to explain living organisms through reductionism, breaking down the totality of entities into simple chemical and biological reactions. Accordingly, organic life is seen by analogy as a machine, only a more complex one. The scientific and philosophic determinism inherent in this view excludes any concern for non-human forms of life from the scope of ethical consideration. Unlike the modicum of freedom that humans seem to possess, this model sees animals and other non-human life forms as completely bound by the stimulus-response reactions that condition their existence. In short, they are viewed as inferior machines in the hierarchy of life - a view first propounded by René Descartes.

Not surprisingly, this model poses clear and difficult problems for those who believe that life should be explained in more rich and complex terms. But, as Cobb and Birch point out, the alternative models of vitalism and emergent evolution are often no more illuminating than the mechanistic one they seek to challenge and replace. Since they want to undermine the reductionism of the mechanistic model, "vitalists have been those who . . . asserted that the living organism consists of physical atoms and molecules plus another entity of a totally different nature variously called vital spirit, life force, élan vital and entelechy."Ibid., 75. Emphases added.In other words, while vitalism essentially upholds the view that living beings are composed partly of atoms and molecules which operate mechanistically, it tries to transcend a mere physical explanation of life by attributing an additional life quality to living beings that inorganic entities lack.

In the early 1900s, Lloyd Morgan attempted to go beyond both mechanism and vitalism in his book Emergent Evolution. Morgan argued that several miraculous events were spawned in the course of evolution: the two most important miracles were the emergence of life and mind. In contrast to both mechanism and vitalism, Morgan's emergent evolution theory posited life as inherently unexplainable.

In developing their ecological model, Birch and Cobb are concerned primarily with the fact that vitalism and the emergent evolution models merely point out mechanism's limited ability to explain life adequately. The two alternatives do little to offer any further scientific basis for life's constitution. Basing their model on recent advances in sciences, such as quantum physics and ecology, Birch and Cobb argue that living things can only be properly understood and explained in the context of their interactions with all the organic and inorganic entities that constitute their environment. In this way, we come to see that in the molecular and ecological dimensions of life there is a fundamental interconnectedness that conditions the personal, physical nature of the individual, as well as the communal nature of relationships between individuals. From Cobb and Birch's perspective, to explain the life of an organism or population without attending to this principle of interconnectedness misunderstands the true nature of life itself.

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Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr.'s The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community

Introduction: Beyond Lynn White, Jr.
H. Paul Santmire's The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology
Calvin DeWitt and the Evangelical Approach to Environmental Ethics
Thomas Berry on the Mythical-Cosmological Dimension of Environmental Ethics


Richard Randolph and Jeremy Yunt

See also:

The Future