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Nature In The Twentieth Century

Reflecting the dominant notion of nature as nothing more than atoms–in motion subject to mechanical laws, an unparalleled fusion of science, technology, and market capitalism colored the twentieth century. During the eighteenth century the Newtonian worldview was translated into an economic theory of marketplace capitalism by Adam Smith (1723–1790). Market societies of the twentieth century believed they possessed the power to bend nature to any and all human purposes. The rational exploitation of nature for human benefit was publicly and privately institutionalized. Wild rivers were tamed, deserts made to bloom, old-growth forests harvested. The apparent mastery of the atom heralded an era of nuclear energy in which power would be too cheap to meter. Modern chemistry promised better living. The "green revolution" offered agricultural plenty to the hungry masses. There would be no Malthusian limits to the growth of human population nor to its steady economic advance. Mirroring the dreams of Bacon's New Jerusalem, cultural progress seemed to be virtually a law of nature.

But perhaps the greatest changes were in the life sciences, especially biology and ecology. Both were profoundly affected by the molecular revolution and the Cartesian belief that complexity must be reduced to analytical simplicity. James D. Watson's and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix as the structure of DNA in 1953 promised mastery over life itself. Molecular biology, supported by advances in scientific instrumentation, combined with market capitalism to offer the promise of organisms better than those produced by nature. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) became the rage in the late twentieth century. Biotechnology reinvigorated the Baconian dream of a second world. And yet, as the twentieth century wound down, scientific and other critics raised fundamental questions about the sustainability of a cultural trajectory built around the ideas of the scientific revolution. Classical physics, while theoretically useful, was neither the one, true view of nature nor the final word.

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