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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

The Antithesis of Organic: Where Reductionism Could Lead

C. S. Lewis
While not an organic farmer, C.S. Lewis warned about the dangers of reductionism in many of his books

Modern organic farming did not develop in a vacuum. It started in a specific time and place—England in the 1930s. And it was developed as an alternative to a different paradigm that was just beginning to revolutionize European agriculture—scientific reductionism.

Reductionist scientists believed that they could improve on nature by taking organisms and natural systems apart and studying the pieces separately. Once they isolated the most important part of something, they could improve on nature by extracting that component and discarding all the “unnecessary” bulk that naturally surrounded it. White flour, for example, was considered to be more nutritive because it was just pure calories—none of that unnecessary bran and germ. Similarly, agricultural scientists assumed that minerals were the only important part of organic wastes to return to the soil—the rest of organic matter was unnecessary, stinky bulk.

Carried to the extreme, reductionism could be terrifying. H. G. Wells applied the principle of reductionism to human intelligence in his science fiction book The War of the Worlds. Speculating on the idea that the brain is the most important part of the human body, Wells depicted his highly evolved and intelligent Martians as almost all head. They had gotten rid of the “unnecessary” digestive system, which was a crude vestige of evolution.

In his 1946 science fiction book That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis speculated that the end result of reductionism would be the abolition of “all organic life.” In one passage, his reductionist scientist—Filostrato—explains his dream of a future world with no trees or birds:

“Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?...And what do you call dirty dirt? Is it not precisely the organic? Minerals are clean dirt. But the real filth is what comes from organisms—sweat, spittles, excretions. Is not your whole idea of purity one huge example? The impure and the organic are interchangeable conceptions.”…

“In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life, like what you call the blue mould—all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it. By little and little, of course. Slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body: learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds.”

In both authors’ fiction, of course, the reductionists are foiled in reaching their ultimate goal of destroying life on earth. Wells’s Martians are killed by terrestrial bacteria since they have no immune system anymore, having long ago eliminated microorganisms on their own planet. And in Lewis’s story, extraterrestrial spiritual forces intervene to halt the “scientific” reductionist madness which, at root, is actually demonic.

Science fiction, by nature, always exaggerates. But the ideas that Wells and Lewis were critiquing did exist in the scientific community at the turn of the twentieth century. And it was in opposition to these reductionist ideas that Sir Albert Howard would form his holistic system of organic farming.

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