Descartes’ Great Mistake, The #1 Quality in Organizations, and a Modern, Western Understanding of Why the Cow is Sacred in Indian Traditions

(7 MIN READ + Videos)


I suppose the body to be just a statue or a machine made of earth.            ~Rene Descartes

Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it. ~Rene Descartes

I am indeed amazed when I consider how weak my mind is and how prone to error. ~Rene Descartes

Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else. ~Leonardo Da Vinci


I. Introduction

A group of friends and I decided to do an intense workout challenge together. We’re all enjoying it, for the most part. We live in different parts of the world. We use a WhatsApp group to encourage, groan, tease, joke, and share the experience.  Other friends who get wind of it seem to be joining daily. There are any number of observations I could share about it. 

One of the women in the program, Tanya, shows great endurance and determination. The fitness professional leading the program has dubbed her, “The machine”.  It's intended and received as a compliment.

When a team or organization functions well, we often call it a well-oiled machine.

From where do these mechanistic conceptions arise? What are the implications?

It paints an outdated relationship to ourselves, life, animals, and the planet. The wide-ranging implications include our ongoing survival and well-being.


II. Descartes’ Great Mistake

Prominent historical ideas gain traction and can exert influence even centuries later. Descartes' underlying principle was that the world and living organisms are machine-like, mechanistic. The essence of this belief lies potent and largely unexamined in our culture. Our mechanistic analogies hint at the lingering power of these historical artefacts.

An important corollary of mechanistic thinking is breaking things down to analyze them.  Yet, Life itself emerges as something wondrous, beyond an assembly of natural, periodic elements. We disregard our own wisdom that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. As a Cartesian habit, we miss the possibilities of systemic, holistic thinking.

Of course, his methods and accomplishments have also benefited society. Certain problems are indeed best solved by analysis and breaking them down. There are shades of grey.  Context always remains vital.

Our mindsets express through our speech and action. As one commentator put it:

Descartes and his followers performed experiments in which they nailed animals by their paws onto boards and cut them open to reveal their beating hearts. They burned, scalded, and mutilated animals in every conceivable manner. When the animals reacted as though they were suffering pain, Descartes dismissed the reaction as no different from the sound of a machine that was functioning improperly. A crying dog, Descartes maintained, is no different from a whining gear that needs oil.


Today, most agree this is inhumane. Yet, mechanistic analogies also go further, limiting our potential in other destructive ways. The underlying thought process ignores higher potential perspectives. I touch next in the context of organizational life because many can relate. I then go onto a bigger, deeper challenge facing us.

I like to focus on the learning always inherent in the current moment. I am not a fan of regret and critique for the sake of being a critic.


III. The Virtue of Learning in Organizations

Most societal forward movement comes from organizations. Organizations are groups of people banding together to achieve a common purpose. In some cases, the purpose is survival, status, and material well-being. In other cases, it is something more than that. (There’s low hanging fruit there but we’ll ignore it for today.)  For now, our primary org references remain mechanistic. This comes at great cost to our effectiveness and fulfillment.

In the early 1900’s, Frederick Taylor, measured people with a stop-watch. He timed them doing repetitive, simple, mind-numbing tasks, minute after minute, hour after hour. He encouraged managers to get their staff to reduce “wasteful” movements. This came to be known as“scientific management”.

This organizational approach limits adaptability at the very least.  (Change is constant. And it seems to only get faster and faster. Machines breakdown when used for unintended purposes.)

From the Harvard Business Review:

“Since the early 1900s, this [mechanistic] model has been the prevailing paradigm for how organizations are designed and run.

The problem is that while this approach enables large-scale production, it doesn’t seem to work for innovation. Over the past several years, we have compared... teams in a dozen global organizations. One of our key findings was that teams functioning more like machines – blindly following highly defined processes and execution plans — were the least effective at achieving their goals and coming up with innovations. The most successful teams, on the other hand, operated less like highly efficient machines and more like ant colonies. These teams were able to quickly adapt to changes in their environment, because they had a set of simple [principles] and a clear goal, allowing them more flexibility and ability to learn along the way.”


And the digitalist has this to add:

"In the knowledge economy, the business was typically considered “a machine.”…

Machines remain static; however, companies must grow… An organism’s purpose comes from within. An organism strives over time to realize its goals in the world. As conditions in the environment change, an organism responds…it learns. [emphasis added]

For many years, the “machine” mindset has prevailed. As a result, many companies are designed as information-processing and production machines…But information processing is not learning. Production is not learning. Learning is a creative process, not a mechanical one.

Inherent in the mechanical viewpoint, all knowledge is explicit and can be represented in manuals, documentation, and quantitative metrics….This harkens back to Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management. His theory is based on measuring and analyzing work with the making it more efficient. Scientific management is focused on defining and measuring work in the form of words, charts, and numbers. In other words, what can be seen and recorded is the only thing that matters.”


Yet, many of us have learned the mechanical viewpoint doesn’t feel very good. ~70-80% of people are disengaged at work. Projections say 50% of the work force will be freelance or entrepreneur by 2020. People are exiting work environments that are mechanistic and unnatural. The feeling of unfulfillment is strong.

Perhaps the Life or magic in work emerges from beyond what can be broken down and measured.  Whole > Sum.

(For those interested in the topic of learning organizations, the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge is the seminal work.)

Let’s continue to other terrible implications which unfold from the mechanistic model.


IV. On the Sanctity of Cows

There are tremendous positive developments connected with our environment. But there is tremendous distance to travel yet. The mechanistic view contrasts with seeing the interconnectedness of all things.

Our relationship to animals is the greatest source of environmental destruction. Most people don't know that and the systemic connections are missed.

I accept the sanctity of each one’s choices. I encourage people to inform themselves and make conscious decisions. Our guiding principles should be eminently practical--higher forms of well-being.

Here are some interesting facts (find the infographic below at the bottom of this post):

  • 51% of Global Greenhouse Gas emissions come from livestock and their byproducts, 13% due to transport
  • Livestock covers 45% of the Earth’s total land
  • Animal Agriculture and mostly cattle agriculture is responsible for 91% of the deforestation of the Amazon, sometimes called the lungs of the earth. Another 1-2 acres are cleared every second.
  • The waste from 2500 Dairy Cows = the Waste from a city of 411,000 people
  • 1 Hamburger takes 660 gallons of fresh water to make
  • Every minute, 7 million pounds of excitement are produced by animals raised for food in the US
  • 110 species go extinct everyday because of rainforest destruction


These figures are self-evident. The way we raise, slaughter, and eat cows, is one of the single biggest threats to our world. (Nuclear codes in the hands of kids is one of the others.)

We often look for huge ways to contribute to a better world. But the solutions are often not so complex as clear, simple, and straightforward. Small is beautiful.

Most people also shrug their shoulders at or ignore the rate of climate change. Cartesian thinking is part of the problem, because we tend to isolate our behavior from the impact on the whole. We don’t think systemically and see the interconnection of all things.  We don't see our connection to everything else. 

Here’s a video that can help us remember how nature relies on balance and interconnectedness.

In Indian traditions, cows are seen with Shiva, Krishna, Indra and other Indian deities. They are inherently associated with divinity and nature.

The ancient yogis in India had great insight and wisdom. They studied the nature of life.  They saw the interconnectedness of all things. They recognized that how we treat cows is deeply symbolic of how we treat the earth. They perhaps intuited we would imperil ourselves and our existence in how we relate to cows.

One view of man places him atop the animal kingdom. In this view, inhumane treatment is acceptable. Top of the food chain.  This puts forth man’s animalistic aspects. We see self-destruction in this perspective.

Another view of man places him as friend of the earth. This connects to wiser ways of being.

It's practical to see how our actions impact our surviving and thriving.

Here is an inspiring video which shows how man’s relationship with nature could be different:



Ignorance includes stepping away from the satisfaction of being in integrity with ourselves. Especially once we know better.  Who wants to be willfully ignorant?

Ahimsa, which we often translate as nonviolence, is the foundation of Yoga. By yoga here, I mean more than asana/postures. I mean the science, study, and practice of the highest forms of living. At its root, it is exactly the same word as religion—which is union. Nonviolence is nothing other than the Golden Rule actually. Its fundamentals include acknowledging the sentience of animals.

There is much further we could go with this that includes bulls raping cows, in the dairy industry. I also focus only on small elements of environmental and ethical considerations. There are many other dimensions we could explore. I’ll leave that aside for today.

I am not making a specific comment on whether you choose to eat meat or not. Yet, our impact on the whole is in some way felt by us. It may be of practical benefit to consider even one meatless day a week.  Be informed and do as you please.

Many dis-empower themselves, not seeing their choices matter and have real-world impact. Cheap clothes made in sweatshops and plastic entombed convenience items reflect the issue too.  Lisa once showed me how the shrimp industry creates slavery and cyclone destruction in Bangladesh.  A messy world accumulates from dis-empowered people believing their choices don’t matter.


V. Conclusion

The mechanistic view continues to wield destructive influence across broad swaths of life in this world. Seeing the deep interconnectedness of things helps us to make better choices.

For those who don't know Leonardo Da Vinci beyond his artwork, he might be considered one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. He studied art and science with such intensity that they became each other. He saw the interconnectedness of all things.  As many commentators have noted, he also studied the nature of life.  He was in his own way a yogi.

I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men. ~Leonardo Da Vinci


PS- Here's the InfoGraphic I referred to above.