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Book Review: ‘Nature the Artful Modeler’ by Cartwright

Updated on March 4, 2020
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Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, an industrial engineer, a mother of two, and a published sci-fi and horror author.

Expectations Versus Meta-Reality

Nancy Cartwright is probably best known for her book “How the Laws of Physics Lie”. I was given a copy of her 2019 book “Nature, the Artful Modeler” by the publisher to review.
What was I expecting? I was expecting a book describing the scientific and mathematical principles of why spider webs and conch shells form spirals, the principles behind shark skin’s amazing properties being carried over to diving suits, the design elements of insects’ bodies and their application in robotics design.
What did I get? A mix of idealization and anthropomorphism of Nature to a nearly religious degree, a lot of vague metaphysics, and repeated references to the same few experiments as if that is sufficient proof for various concepts.

The Cover of 'Nature, the Artful Modeler'
The Cover of 'Nature, the Artful Modeler' | Source

Forget “the devil is in the details”. The metaphysics of this book are best described as “Mother Nature and the unknowable divine are hiding in the big pictures”. The book doesn’t quite reject basic laws of nature like the law of gravity. Instead, the inability to formulate a unified field theory is used as proof that there is an unknowable, likely aware universe behind this … that conveniently explains every case where things come out differently than we expect. That’s not science. That’s not scientism, though the author relies heavily on this. No, it is Buddhism or Unitarian religious belief wrapped in a scientific mantle.

I understand looking out at the majesty of nature, feeling both at one and small in the face of the wonder. Christians may look at that and see the handiwork of God. Buddhists look at it as a reflection of the impersonal, conscious divine behind the universe. Many environmentalists look at nature in a similar way, and they revert back to pagan nature-worship. As a system modeler for the Nature Conservancy, the odds the author is worshiping Mother Earth while denying it is a religious belief is high. Why do I say this?

• The author says you must have nature or God … a direct religious comparison.
• Quantum mechanics is used to say anything is possible and can be a source of things in violation of the laws of physics.
• The discussion on economic equations by Pissarides to prove that nature abhors a vacuum is followed by a leap to “you need higher goals”.
At least Doctor Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life” honestly presents itself as an attempt to formulate universal rules for living while admitting the Christian religious basis of said rules, as it pulls from a variety of historical, mythical and scientific sources.
• The final chapter attempts to say we can draw ethical and political ideas from natural models, then suggests we can only solve the root problems by changing the system.
The author doesn’t explicitly endorse socialism as the solution, but it is implied to be the only solution. That for the greatest good, you just have to go along with replacing existing systems with a well-designed working whole that dictates everything in order to treat root causes. I say this because the author not only cites British and Canadian medical studies but considers such a system moral and to be replicated elsewhere.


In summary, I expected to be reviewing a scientific or technical book. In sections describing the design and outcome of medical research studies and environmental systems modeling, it was. Unfortunately, the majority of the book is metaphysics that denies it is veering into the religious. At least when I review Christian books, they typically admit they are religious. A generous two stars for “Nature, the Artful Modeler”.

© 2019 Tamara Wilhite


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