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The Changing Relationship Between The Tree of Knowledge and The Tree of Life

BY Wes Jackson

Over the last ten millennia or so the nature of the human condition has changed more in degree than in kind. The rich and many-layered early writings suggest that the dilemma imposed by the subject-object dualism had been addressed through myth in the oral tradition long before writing appeared. I want to honor some of those ancients, both Greek and Hebrew, by using their myths. In Genesis we read the following:

Chapter 2 8And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Chapter 3 1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’.” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” — 23 therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

For the ancient Hebrews, we estranged ourselves from the Creation by disobeying a direct order barring us from the Tree of Knowledge. It was also a theft. For the ancient Greeks the split with Nature had its origins only in a theft. Prometheus stole fire from Nature’s gods, but there had been no warning. Even so, the penalty was pretty severe, for in Aeschylus’s tragedy, Prometheus was chained to rocks on nearby Mount Caucasus and an eagle daily ate from him. It was a jury of one, old Zeus himself, who levied the sentence. Two thousands years later, during the Renaissance, both the Hebrew and the Promethean stories were still around, though mostly for reinterpretation. Some used the Promethean myth to validate defiance of the divine, while others saw it as a blow to the corrupt leaders. Around 1600 Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes helped launch the scientific revolution, followed by the Enlightenment. Prometheus was then a hero. But humanity has never avoided being ambivalent about our alienation from Nature, and has not escaped the dilemma of how to reconcile it. We moderns are ambivalent about the employment of biotechnology, among other things. How are we going to satisfy our desire to sustain ourselves at whatever level without administering discomfort and pain to ourselves and the landscape? Something is wrong with our condition that other species seem to avoid. While too brief a summary, the extension of this reality is infinite. The stalemate in our attitude toward Nature, at least when it comes to practice, traces back to the invention of agriculture. The metaphors of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews capture the enlarged social and cultural reality associated with taking up farming as a way of life. The Tree of Life had long supported gatherers and hunters. All life lived off the fruits of God’s exclusive Creation. Suddenly, with agriculture, humanity became a participant in Creation. But to take such sweeping charge of our own food production was to bite off more than we could chew. Practicing till agriculture requires the destruction of relationships embedded in the biological diversity that would otherwise cover the areas where we produce food. The various species of the wild ecosystem, interacting in relationships that save soil and minimize the consequences of imbalance — be it from microbes, big predators, invertebrates or aggressive colonizing species called weeds — are gone. Now humans must manage the new arrangement in order to eat. Areas that formerly sustained our small numbers without our intervention now rely on the Tree of Knowledge, sponsoring an expanding population at the expense of ecological capital. The original split implicit in the mind of the ancient Hebrews was due to an act of disobedience and a theft. The penalty for asserting our independence was pain and sweat, thistles and thorns, and on balance over the centuries, it has been more than we can handle. That is the fall of the human. A participant in the Creation must take on the role of husbandry of our primary sponsor, that non-renewable resource we call soil. Resources from the global commons — atmospheric nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, sulphur and water — have to be more aggressively managed. Resources from the local landscape — phosphorous, potassium, calcium, manganese, other trace minerals and more — now require our management. That we are ill-equipped is shown by the record. Soil management has mostly failed. Water management in numerous places has led to soil salting. In more recent times, in this century particularly, when we get involved in nitrogen management, usually by using fossil fuel as a feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer in the form of natural gas, we often pollute the groundwater. In the early books of the Bible, much of the content has to do with the making of the Hebrew people. Abraham not killing his child Isaac marked the end of human sacrifice for the tribal peoples. Slavery imposed on the Israelites during their time in Egypt invalidated the idea of slavery as a practice to condone. The Exodus, their time on the desert and their settlement in Canaan shaped their culture. All of the lessons were not positive, from my point of view. Their journey out of Egypt into Canaan amounts to a kind of Manifest Destiny, validating our own taking of this continent. Once settled, these Hebrews were often persuaded by their Canaanite neighbors to worship their farm gods called Baals. The local Canaan agriculturists were sort of agrarian pantheists whose agronomic achievements served them well. They also stood as a threat to a still emerging people. The environment might be less under siege had such pantheists prevailed. But it wasn’t to be. The Hebrews could have surrendered their belief that their success was embedded in one God, the God of the Mountain and Storm, not an array of gods that had been amalgamated. But they held out and it had a payoff. When their belief combined with those of the Greek philosophers who found their answers in reason from within the individual and thought we could improve on Nature, the potential for dominion of the earth increased. Historian Daniel Boorstin pointed out that Christians brought faith and reason together in the dogmas of the church and its communities, in monasteries and universities. St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74) in Summa Theologica aimed to show that reason could operate within faith and yet according to its own laws. Now we live in what Boorstin calls the Age of Experience. Reason and faith seem to have become instruments. Perhaps this recollection of ancient wisdom is too great a stretch for us modern readers. It is fair to ask: What does any of this history of assumptions and interpretations matter, given that our life-giving soil still erodes, and our soil and water still absorb alien chemicals? Modern science has told us not to rely on the authority of the ancients, but to learn our lessons from experience. We do have new ways of asking questions, more fluid ways of thinking — but soil still erodes. The biblical Creation story with a fixed and recent date has been supplanted by growing evidence of a long geologic past, whose firm documentation began about 200 years ago. I am glad to know the new facts — but soil still erodes. In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1809-82) placed all life forms into a prehistorical context firmly locked in that geological record, and provided an explanation of how varying life forms came into existence. But what about soil erosion, chemical contamination and fossil fuel dependency? Edwin P. Hubble (1889-1953) expanded our concept of space when he found evidence that some nebulae are galaxies. Our place in the universe shrunk by orders of magnitude, our sense of awe about cosmic scale expanded — but what about the soil, the water and the air, now all polluted? Louis Pasteur (1822-95) revolutionized medicine, and physicists exploring the atom introduced a nuclear horror that only the Tree of Knowledge could have produced — and soil erosion continues and the chemical industry expands. We learn from the prehistorical and historical record the valuable lesson that nothing in our world is really stable, all is fluid. The firmament isn’t firm. Even continents drift. Fixed dogmas are gone. Science is now about process. I am glad to know all this — but soil erosion continues. New varieties of chemicals are introduced and fossil fuel dependency increases. We keep reaching outward, paying too little attention to what supports us. In his book Religion and Science, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) wrote: “Individual existence impresses man as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.” To Einstein this mysterious, “cosmic religious feeling” was “[t]he most beautiful experience we can have. … It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Maybe so, but again, neither the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge nor this fundamental emotion have stopped soil erosion or any of our other ecological problems. In our long journey, with all of its successes, the plot remains constant. Wrinkles are added here and there, important wrinkles, but the most substantive reality of the human condition that worried the Greeks and ancient Hebrews remains constant. Now in this new century, many of us ask what it will take to save the soil and contain our excesses, and not just those fueled by oil or uranium, but also those driven by our discoveries, insights and inventions. No excess is containable so long as we operate as though knowledge is adequate to run the world. To sustain ourselves, we pluck one fruit after another from the Tree of Knowledge and more or less ignore the Tree of Life. Maybe we ignore the Tree of Life because we think we lack access to it. Maybe we remember the Angel with the Flaming Sword and believe it is axiomatic that access is impossible. Let’s return to the historical chronology for a moment. The dating of the scientific revolution is often, if not usually, set at 1500 to 1700. The industrial revolution is often said to have begun 100 years later in 1800. These are very general dates with important notable exceptions lying outside them, but let’s allow them. During the scientific revolution, most scientists simply tried to understand how the world is, exploring deeper into the nature of God’s laws. It is easy to understand that the cognitive transition from how the world is to how the world works required a subtle but profound shift for the human mind. It then was made ready for the era of the inventor, who became increasingly present from 1700 to 1800. Practical utility became a force to deal with, science an instrument. The distinction is still with us. Basic science has to do with how the world is, applied science with how the world works. The latter tends to be more narrowing of our imaginations. The myth of the Tree of Knowledge is aboutknowing the difference between good and evil. The irony is that this distinction cannot be known until evil has been discovered. To participate in the Creation, to take charge, is to undo the sustainable integrities with our limited perception. Evil is now loose in the world. I am reminded of a passage from a book by Dr. Roald Sagdeev, a plasma physicist who led the U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission, a former member of the USSR’s Academy of Sciences and a man who played a major political role during the first five years of perestroika. He is now a professor of physics at the University of Maryland. In his book, The Making of a Soviet Scientist, he has this to say:

The development of a revolution in science is controlled by its own internal logic. To build a new, revolutionary concept, to make a breakthrough, requires a certain hidden incubation period, during which time there is the accumulation of experimental data, the painful assessment of difficulties, careful invention, and then the injection of new scenarios and explanations. Science and physics have always progressed in this way. Somehow we, the nuclear physicists of the twentieth century, were spoiled by quick successes like the Manhattan project and, a few years later, a parallel breakthrough with a nuclear bomb on the Soviet side. Many of us, even … wise and experienced leaders … thought that if an appropriate budget were given it would almost guarantee immediate technical progress in resolving any problems nature presented us. If we physicists had subconsciously become somewhat arrogant, our punishment was not long in coming. Controlled thermonuclear fusion, unlike the uncontrolled one with its apocalyptic hydrogen bomb explosion, was not an easy nut to crack. As it turned out, the very nature of plasma — the hottest state of matter and at the same time the least controllable substance — destroyed the legend of Almighty Science versus Nature. What was originally perceived as a quick victory of the new, inexhaustible source of energy became a long, protracted war against plasma instabilities. It created almost a deadlock and proved to be a setback and a warning of even bigger future failures of humanism, which saw itself as the master of nature.

Here is a fruit that rotted early. But now the metaphor has the potential to fail us, for the valuable lesson learned over a few years by a few physicists in the Soviet Union could be dismissed as being from science at the edge of the envelope. Away from the envelope’s edge, where the legend of Almighty Science versus Nature still dominates in the scientific culture, the assumption remains: Knowledge is adequate to run the world. Those of us who embrace or look to Nature as a standard or measure are in a small minority. Scientists at work in the dominant paradigm either ignore Nature or seek to subdue Nature. But what if the dominant paradigm does not work or leaves unacceptable debris behind? Should we not hedge our bets? The legend of Almighty Science versus Nature with the weight on science as the superior factor is unlikely to die very soon for most of us. It was short for those Soviet fusion scientists. It will be a bit longer for fission if we expand nuclear power after the portable liquid fossil fuel epoch. But if we embrace nuclear power, we must remember that no human technology is exempt from Murphy’s Law. Life would be easier if the implementation of a technology or practice allowed us to live or drop dead immediately. Smoke one cigarette and you die. Use methyl bromide on a crop one time and you die. Instead, we’re faced with a world of uncertainty, and we have to call on fields like epidemiology and other sciences dependent upon statistics. Because we don’t drop dead, we allow ourselves to draw our boundaries of consideration much narrower than the boundaries of causation. To put it another way, “Out of sight, out of mind.” What is out of sight is the true, longer-term cause-effect relationships of our taken-for-granted lifestyles and fundamental assumptions. When we extend our vision, we come face to face with more of our ignorance, more of our ambiguity. Precaution becomes the watchword, but even that is not enough. Most biologists, including many evolutionary biologists, are not what I would call Deep Darwinians. If they were, they would not stand by when dead sheep are fed to cattle — resulting in Mad Cow disease. Nor would they sit idle as huge cattle, hog and chicken confinement operations are put in place, operations which require heavy doses of antibiotics, which in turn breed resistance by disease-causing organisms. Some antibiotics are already useless in hospitals. Deep Darwinians would count any human-made chemical with which humans have not evolved as guilty until proven innocent. Yes, we are highly adaptable. Our balance, vision, upright stance, much of which evolved east of the Rift in Africa, are such that we can ride bicycles. Yes, there are many technological activities we engage in with impunity to the ecosphere and ourselves. This reality and the need to wait into the long run for many effects to take hold masks, in the short run, whether we have got away with something or not. By mentioning evolution, ecology and the molecular oneness of life at a basic level, I am advancing the bedrock disciplines for an operating philosophy that, given enough standing, has the potential to offset the hold that Bacon (1561-1626) and Descartes (1596-1650) have on our modern minds, especially the minds of scientists. Bacon gave us the outline for the institutional requirements of practical knowledge in the midst of the period when scientists simply wanted to know how the world is. Biographer Perez Zagorin maintains that Bacon was the first to see science as “a public, collaborative, and progressive enterprise.” Bacon was “a thinker about science: the conditions favorable to its growth; the changes and procedures required to insure its progress; its contribution to the inauguration of a new regime of knowledge.” As early as 1592, at age 31, Bacon wrote in a letter that he was taking “all knowledge to be my province.” Such a challenge helped lay the groundwork for the “knowledge as adequate” worldview that nearly all of us hold today. Utilitarian science was also in the mind of Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, the 41-year-old mathematician who revolutionized algebra insisted that a combination of math and experimentation would provide us with “knowledge which is very useful in life.” Had Descartes stopped there with the mere “usefulness” of knowledge, we might be able to forgive him for the excesses his ideas helped spawn. But surpassing usefulness, Descartes thought that through science we could (and should) “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” Few of us in industrial society really want to do without science. I certainly don’t. And so the question comes: What would ‘doing science’ look like in an ignorance-based worldview? Or, what would it look like if we truly employ the precautionary principle as a dominant way of operating in our science? In our daily lives? The precautionary principle is not new, of course. In fact, it is widespread in our daily lives. The Oath of Hippocrates included the injunction “First, Do No Harm.” Men get checked for the prevalence of the prostate-specific antigen in their blood. Scopes check our colon and intestines, and increasingly a cancer is caught in time. Still, many problems build up before we catch them, too often when it is too late to reverse the consequences. Precaution is still not a sufficiently dominant way of being. And if it were, I doubt that it would be enough, because scale makes for differences. A new crop variety tested in the small plots of an experiment station for resistance to a pest, when planted over hundreds of thousands of acres, may become quickly susceptible, for it has increased the possibility of picking up a mutant resistant form of the pathogen. My younger daughter and her husband, both high school teachers, a few years ago moved to a small Kansas town with their 3-year-old son. In a few months this son, my grandson, would welcome his new baby brother. My older daughter, her husband and their then 3-year-old daughter paid them a visit. Four young adults, one of them pregnant, and two 3-year-olds did what Sunday visits often occasion. They went to the park, got hot and sweaty, and become thirsty. But in this town small children and pregnant women are warned by the city to not drink the water. When the younger daughter and her family moved in, a neighbor, noting my daughter was pregnant, handed her a letter warning them that the nitrate level was unsafe for children including those in utero. The letter also said that for one year, the family was entitled to free bottled water from the grocery store. I know this is only one example in a list of ecological compromises that have been going on for a hundred years and more, but where is the outrage that would stop and reverse the problem? Where is the money required to remove the nitrate? The Des Moines River runs through Des Moines, Iowa. Nitrate pollution is a problem for that river. The city of Des Moines, however, is sufficiently rich that millions of dollars can adequately remove the toxic nitrates. Small Town, Kansas, cannot. Who is to blame for the nitrate problem in the first place? The farmers who spread commercial fertilizer on the fields? Area feedlots? Eighty percent of the feedlot nitrogen becomes airborne to fall who knows where. The reality of non-point source pollution means that no one is to blame even though all are to blame. We all live in a fallen world. Where does the precautionary principle fit here? It should be an automatic derivative of the evolutionary-ecological worldview, since high nitrate concentration runs beyond what Homo sapiens has historically experienced. The Tree of Knowledge is inadequate. Within the Baconian-Cartesian worldview, we learn precaution through experience. We learn to tread carefully only after we’ve tripped and fallen. This approach is increasingly perilous. Precaution informed by a deep sense of our evolutionary history, evolutionary mechanisms and ecological arrangements instructs us in the wisdom of treading carefully before we fall. Both worldviews call upon experience to teach us; the Deep Darwinian view simply draws from a much longer and larger range of experience. It extends our sight and thus broadens our minds. It gives tribute to the Tree of Life, and that is a healthy start. Too much water has gone through the turbines for us to ignore the Tree of Knowledge. We need it in this world of more than 6 billion people. But more than the Tree of Knowledge, we need the Tree of Life. We cannot totally abandon the one, and yet we need the other because our long-term security on this beautiful planet will come not just by an acknowledgment of our fallen condition but by embracing nature as our standard or measure — by embracing the Tree of Life. Genesis Chapter 3, Verse 24, tells us, “So he drove out the man: and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” Does this mean that, because we have so long relied on the Tree of Knowledge, we no longer have any access to the Tree of Life? What if we were to try to strike a bargain with the cherubims, with Nature, with God? How would we prepare our part of the script? It is always good when reading to keep in mind the author’s intent. What was the intent of Moses, who is given credit for the first five books of the Bible? Better still, since most scholars contend that there were multiple authors, what was their intent? It seems clear that they were less interested in historical accuracy and more in recognizing certain truths of the human condition, the human dilemma and — perhaps most important — human relationships. Karen Armstrong notes, in her book In The Beginning, how Genesis has a timeless quality, because the tales there “address those regions of the spirit that remain opaque to us and yet exert an irresistible fascination. A reading of Genesis suggests how it was that psychoanalysis began as a predominantly Jewish discipline. Long before Freud, the authors of ancient Israel had already begun to explore the uncharted realm of the human mind and heart. They saw this struggle with the emotions and with the past as the theater of the religious quest.” The authors of Genesis are dealing with fundamental and difficult matters. Armstrong continues: “There are no glib or facile messages in Genesis. It is impossible to find a clear theology in its pages; the authors share no moral consensus. … Even though Genesis has played so significant a role in shaping the Judeo-Christian tradition, the book shows that it cannot adequately express the frequently baffling reality to which it directs our attention.” (Emphasis added.) Too much of human history has been built on the Tree of Knowledge for us to completely forsake it for the Tree of Life. Or, in terms of the Greek myth, it is safe to say that we are not going to quit using the fire we have stolen even though we recognize that the earth has been scorched by it, especially during these blazing 200 years of industrial revolution. There have been gains for humanity: in the arts, in science, in medicine, where knowledge has directed that flame to rid much of humanity from countless cruel anxieties and at the same time allow a wide array of artful expressions unavailable to the fire-free species of our planet. And so the question is, do we dare approach the angel with the flaming sword turning in all directions? I think the answer is “yes.” How do we do it? We approach with humility and with a promise, the promise that the Tree of Knowledge will remain subordinate to the Tree of Life. We promise that we will look to Nature’s patterns where agriculture has not invaded or dominated. We will look to alpine meadows, to tropical rain forests, to deciduous forests, to unplowed native prairie, and we will elect to use them as our standard or measure. For fisheries we will look to parts of the ocean where fishing’s effects have been minimal. In a professional sense, this means that ecologists and evolutionary biologists must have veto power over the biotechnologists and even the plant breeders. We will say that those who have studied original relationships, who have been descriptive — ecologists and evolutionary biologists — have a primary say over those who have had the burden of being prescriptive. At the end of our speech we will request that the flaming sword be sheathed so that we can gain access to the insights sustaining the Tree of Life. We will promise that every effort will be made to reduce the Tree of Knowledge to a vine supported by the Tree of Life, not to strangle it, but to depend upon it. And in our everyday thoughts, the world of Bacon, Descartes and Newton will decline in size, while that of Darwin and those steeped in natural history will increase in scale. Both trees will remain, both kinds of scientists remain, but the Tree of Life will have the dominant standing. With the vine dependent on the tree for support, perhaps the subject-object dualism that goes back at least to the ancient Greeks and Hebrews can diminish. Soil health and human health can become one subject, and paradox the crucible for creative work of a different and higher order.

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