Descartes certainly gave dualism scientific cover, but he was hardly the father of the dualistic worldview. Monotheism, millennia before Descartes and the Enlightenment, declared humans to be the apex of creation with “dominion” over the planet. Humans were “created in God’s image,” an honor bestowed upon no other creature. Monotheism decreed more loudly and proudly than its pagan polytheistic forebears that people had souls (i.e. essences), an essential ingredient if a dualistic worldview is to maintain a semblance of coherence. For a long time the question of whether any other creature outside humans possessed a soul was the subject of serious debate within Christian circles. That the word “dualism” didn’t come along until later is neither here nor there.

I think you’re giving the Enlightenment far too much of the blame for a way of thinking that preceded it by centuries, and exists in the minds of many humans to this day regardless what tradition they come from, or even if they’ve received any scientific or philosophical training. Being a species capable of intense self reflection and elaborate theories of mind, we are incapable of anything approaching objectivity about our own nature. We think the universe more or less revolves around us because it feels like it does, and it feels good to feel that way. Self-awareness necessarily involves a skewed perspective when it comes to our place in nature. We consistently overestimate our abilities and agency while underestimating our limitations with at least equal regularity.

Not all the Enlightenment philosophers were dyed in the wool dualists or so easily taken in by this biased view of humanity. Spinoza wasn’t, to take just one example. Later on Darwin, using the scientific method, articulated why humanity was just as much a part of nature as any other species, including worms and barnacles. Shortly thereafter the science of ecology was born.

The Enlightenment didn’t declare us to be separate from nature so much as it opened the door to a better understanding of where we fit into the history of life on this planet. That philosophers and scientists got some things wrong as they began to think seriously and methodically about questions the Church had decreed more or less settled should come as no surprise. What’s startling is that scientists and other thinkers can admit their errors and embrace change so readily as new information comes to light. That’s something religion in particular and humanity in general has always struggled to do.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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