This book was both a surprise and a delight; I very much enjoyed the reading. Gaia’s Gift is ordinarily presented as simply an analysis of Copernican heliocentric theory, as it applies to James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, with a powerful refutation of both scientific and religious androcentrism. For example, the description from amazon.com suggests the book “asks that we complete the ideological revolution set in motion by Copernicus and Darwin concerning human importancene [sic] … [which] challenged the notion of our God-given centrality within the universe and within earth’s evolutionary history.” In this way, the book sounds like no more nor less than any other tract suggesting we not foul the metaphorical nest. The jaded, in fact, might consider this a yawner: what’s new or interesting about that idea?
It wasn’t until Chapter 8, in fact (of a nine-chapter-long book) that the author’s brilliant and elegant subtlety finally dawned on me: she is doing far more than simply asking people to treat the earth with respect. Instead eco-thealogian Anne Primavesi has recognized — as author and ecofeminist Carol P. Christ points out in her ground-breaking article “Why Women Need the Goddess” — that:
A symbol’s effect does not depend on rational assent, for a symbol also functions on levels of the psyche other than the rational… The symbols associated with … important rituals cannot fail to affect the deep or unconscious structures of the mind of even a person who has rejected these symbolisms on a conscious level — especially if the person is under stress… Symbol systems cannot be simply rejected, they must be replaced. Where there is not any replacement, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis, bafflement, or defeat. (Christ, p. 274-275; italics mine)
In a nutshell, symbol systems function on non-rational psyche levels, and are creators of long-lasting, powerful, and pervasive moods and motivation in people and cultures. Religious iconography and myths, in particular, craft emotional conditions which lead people to feel comfortable with, internalize, and cling to sociopolitical arrangements which correspond to the “reality” presented within the symbol system. This particular mythic “truth” can be seen embodied in Western society’s desperately fierce, still-extant clinging to homocentrism — a faulty belief first rooted in religiously-based species- and gender-bigotry; later “supported” by scientific hubris.
Primavesi definitely recognizes the insidious tenacity of the modern Western symbol system: “It is still the case … that any worldview which is commonly held and is reasonably workable can be and will be adhered to, even against compelling evidence, as this involves no expenditure of energy or need to abandon cherished theories or ways of working” (Primavesi, pg. 14). As example, she first explains and explores Copernicus’ then-shockingly revolutionary concept: that the earth actually travels around the sun. This not only threatened to shatter the previously-held belief of the God-granted centrality of Man, but also to disrupt the then-current perception of the celestial geography (so to speak) of the universe: Earth was gross matter beneath us in every sense of the world: a spherical wrapper around Hell itself. However, Heaven above — God’s home — was to be aspired to, being all that was good and pure, elevated and ethereal.
Primavesi laments that Copernicus unfortunately didn’t take this amazing new idea to its fullest logical conclusion: if the earth revolves around the sun and is not actually the center of the universe, then maybe the supposition of Man’s God-granted reason (the religious and theoretical basis of his universal centrality/supremacy) giving him the “right” to (ab)use the Earth “below” him is equally misplaced. Primavesi continues this conceptual exploration through Darwin and its migration into a “scientific” justification as well — with all the ramifications arising from such a starkly positivist, androcentric epistemology. In the process she ends up brilliantly debunking this morally bankrupt, androcentrically self-obsessed mythos. She concludes the book by presenting a vibrantly new rendition of a very old and powerful mythos: that of all life on earth as being part of a natural gift economy. As she fascinatingly notes of the salmon ceremonies she describes:
This clear and poignant example of … a gift exchange culture (that responds to its life-support systems with ritual expressions of gratitude and sharing of the gifts) … may seem so remote that it bears little relation to ours, not least in its mythic vision… But a moment’s reflection on the four opening chapters of this book reminds us that equally mythic visions influence contemporary western culture in all kinds of ways…
True, these [Christian] revisions focus on ‘the heavens’ rather than ‘the waters of the sea’. But that surely made them more mythical, in the generally accepted sense of being a solely imaginative exercise without the empirical evidence of the salmon’s annual return. Yet the[se mythic revisions] remain powerful enough, as we know, to govern much of western cultural and religious imagination. Above all, they continue to influence our perception of how we are related to earth: as ‘controlling’ minds rather than dependent bodies. (117-118; italics hers)
Not only has Primavesi deliberately written a fascinating and mythic work which offers fresh new symbolism to replace the damaging current political conception of human independence from Nature (Primavesi, quoting Margulis, p. 6), but in the process of doing so she even cleverly follows in Copernicus’ literary footsteps — though we are fortunate that she did not have to also emulate him by waiting until the year of her death to publish (Primavesi, pg. 13). For example, Copernicus framed his startlingly radical (for the time) new idea of heliocentrism as simply a return to more correct understanding — in this case to the divine symmetry created by God (58), which Man had supposedly not yet recognized. Further, in his dedication to the Pope, Copernicus explained how he was not the first to advance this particular theory (13).
Similarly, Primavesi describes a more correct understanding of the actual relationship of dependency for life which humans have with the earth, when she gives an example of an earth-respectful ceremony of reciprocity. As she notes, the Native American peoples of the Pacific coast gratefully recognized the gift of life offered them by the salmon, and returned the salmon’s intact bones to the water as thanks for its generosity in feeding them (116-117). Primavesi then notes her new mythos is not actually that new — but rather is a much-needed return to a powerfully beneficial older mythos which existed long before today’s dangerously destructive homocentric consumerism. This saner worldview can, if re-adopted, allow us as a species to return to and continue in a healthier balance of reciprocal life on earth.