She writes, "The female earth was central to organic cosmology that was undermined by the Scientific Revolution and the rise of a market-oriented culture...for sixteenth-century Europeans the root metaphor binding together the self, society and the cosmos was that of an organism...organismic theory emphasized interdependence among the parts of the human body, subordination of individual to communal purposes in family, community, and state, and vital life permeate the cosmos to the lowliest stone." (Merchant, The Death of Nature, 1980: 278)
Merchant tells us that prior to the Enlightenment, Nature was conceived of as the benevolent mother of all things, albeit sometimes wild. This metaphor was to gradually be replaced by the 'dominion' model as the Scientific Revolution rationalized and dissected nature to show all her secrets. As nature revealed her secrets, so too she was able to be controlled. Both this intention and the metaphor of 'nature unveiled' is still prevalent in scientific language. Conceptions of the Earth as nurturing bringer of life began slowly to change to one of a resource to be exploited as science became more and more confident that human minds could know all there was about the natural world and thereby effect changes on it at will. Merchant cites Francis Bacon's use of female metaphors to describe the exploitation of nature at this time was telling: "she is either free,...or driven out of her ordinary course by the perverseness, insolence and forwardness of matter and violence of impediments...or she is put in constraint, molded and made as it were new by art and the hand of man; as in things artificial...nature takes orders from man and works under his authority" (Bacon in Merchant 1990: 282). Nature must be "bound into service" and made a slave to the human ends of regaining our dominion over nature lost in the 'fall from grace' in Eden.
In combination with increasing industrialization and the rise of capitalism that simultaneously replaced women's work like weaving with machinery, and subsumed their roles as subsistence agriculturists also drove people to live in cities, further removing them from nature and the effects of industrialised production on it. The combined effects of industrialization, scientific exploration of nature and the ascendancy of the dominion/domination metaphor over the nurturing Mother Earth one, according to Merchant, can still be felt in social and political thought, as much as it was evident in the art, philosophy and science of the 16th century.
Carolyn Merchant received her A.B. in Chemistry from Vassar College in 1958. She then went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in History of Science and later received a Doctor Honoris Causa from Umea University in Umea Sweden, where she was studying on a Fulbright Scholarship. Currently, she is a professor of environmental history, philosophy and ethics at University of California, Berkeley.
In 1954, as a high school senior, Merchant was a Top Ten Finalist for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a nationwide competition that has existed for over seven decades. Merchant was one of the first women to be awarded the E.B. Fred Fellowship, a program established to demonstrate that women could make significant contributions to professional fields at University of Wisconsin Madison. In 1963, Merchant, along with 13 other women, was awarded the three-year grant out of a pool of 114 applicants to fund field non-specific graduate research. In 1984 she was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar, at the University of Umea in Umea, Sweden where she taught in the Department of History of Ideas.
Prior to the University of California, Berkeley where she started in 1986 and still teaches, she was a lecturer in the History of Science, Department of Physics and Natural Sciences Interdisciplinary Program at the University of San Francisco from 1969 to 1977. She was a one-time visiting professor at Oregon State University in the History of Science Department and General Science Department in 1969.
Merchant has been a member of the History of Science Society since 1962. She was chair of the Committee on Women of Science from 1973-1974 and co-chair from 1992-1994. From 1971-1972 she was co-president of the West Coast History of Science Society. She has had membership with the American Society for Environmental History since 1980 and has held positions such as Associate Editor of the Environmental Review, Rachel Carson Prize Committee for best dissertation, vice-president and president.
Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution leaves a scholarly legacy in the fields of environmental history, philosophy, and feminism. The book is considered groundbreaking due her connection between the feminization of nature and the naturalization of women. Along with this connection, she backs up her claim with historical evidence during the time of enlightenment. Merchant was not the first to present on ecofeminist ideals and theories. Françoise d'Eaubonne coined the term ecofeminisme to portray the influence of women and their ability to generate a ecological revolution in his book Le Feminisme ou la Morte. Susan Griffin's book, Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, also talks about women ecology was written in 1978 before the Death of Nature was written. The Death of Nature is influential despite these earlier works because it is the first interpretation of an ecofeminist perspective on history ecology.
Carolyn Merchant has published numerous literary works focusing on interaction between humans and their natural habitat. Merchant examined the trends and behaviors individuals develop through time. Additionally, she started concentrating on ecology and women's movements and their development in society. Merchant's passion for environmental history, philosophy and ethics is demonstrated in her publications.The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980, 1990).
Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (1989, 2010).
Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World (1992, 2005).
Earthcare: Women and the Environment (1996).
Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (2002).
Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (2003, 2013).
American Environmental History: An Introduction (2007).
Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution (2015).
The Death of Nature is Merchant's most well received book. In this book she emphasizes on the importance of gender in the historiography of modern science. Additionally, she focuses her book on "the sexist assumptions that informed sixteenth-and seventeenth-century conceptions of the universe and human physiology." Merchant expresses the importance of gender in early modern writing on nature too, and its use of environmental, social, and literary history to have a context for the history of science.