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Environmental Ethics

Volume 1, Issue 2, Summer 1979

Don Howard
Pages 159-176
DOI: 10.5840/enviroethics19791224

Commoner on Reductionism

Barry Commoner has argued that the environmental failure of modern technology is due in large part to the reductionistic character ofmodern science, especially its biological component where the reductionist approach has triumphed in molecular biology. I claim, first, that Commoner has confused reduction in the sense of the reduction of one theory to another with what is better called analysis, or the strategy of breaking a whoie into its parts in order to understand the properties of the whole, this latter being the actual target of his attack. I then argue that his criticisms of molecular biology fail since each of the properties of the cell which he claims cannot be understood in an analytic fashion, such as reproduction, development and inheritance, can be so understood, and that, in fact, each of his putatively nonanalytic accounts of these properties is the result of analysis. Similarly, Commoner’s claim that ecosystenls possess properties that cannot be understood analytically is refuted by comparing ecosystems with automobiles, which Commoner acknowledges are susceptible to analysis, and by showing that there are no essential differences between the two. FinaIly, l observe that while it is false that ecosystems canna! be understood in analytic terms, it is true that they are not usually thus understood, and that the explanation for this is not that scientists subscribe to amistaken philosophy, but that our social institutions for the teaching and application of science do not adequately stress the importance of exploring the connections between the parts of such complex wholes.