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“Nature,” Part 2

September 19, 2009

After I visited the topic of what is and isn’t “natural,” the subject popped up in a few other places and kind of occupied a space in my mind for a few weeks.  Through a few conversations I think I came to a position I’m rather pleased with.

I think it’s important to remember that the word nature can mean more than just one thing.  When I say nature I like for it to be kind of an accumulation of the different meanings.  Nature is more than just what is out there, what’s 100 miles away from civilization, where there are just the birds, bears, and butterflies.  Nature isn’t just a place, or a thing, but the sum of all things and how all things work.  I don’t think we can think about nature unless we think about the nature of things.  And each thing has a nature of its own, and the nature of the whole is different than the nature of a single thing.

The subject I’m analyzing is essentially the question of How do humans fit in with and interact with nature?  It would then seem natural to question human nature.  There are very different ideas about what is and isn’t in the nature of human beings; however, I sense that it’s popular to just write off bad things as being merely human nature—Oh, there is nothing we can do about it, it’s human nature, so let’s just move on. I think many of these assertions are simply preposterous.  It would be very hard to write up a neat outline of things all humans do and title that outline Human Nature—I don’t actually think it could be done—but it’s rather common for people to only blame bad things on our nature.  It’s only human nature to be bad to one another, they say.  War is the human way; from childhood we’re violent and we have to have that violence taught out of us.  Humankind is silly, stupid, petty, vindictive.  Garbage ideas, I believe, that are actually scornful toward our cultural conditioning and social circumstances rather than our feelings toward the others of our species, but since this post isn’t meant to be an anti-civ piece, I’ll skip all of that.

Earlier in the year I read a good post about the belief that people are innately evil, and I really liked one passage in particular:

So there is a pretty easy reply to people who say that man is innately evil, that without a control apparatus people would just go around killing and stealing, and so on and so forth, the reply being “who would you kill first?” Of course they do not want to kill anyone, and they will say so, although they are convinced that the masses harbour in their hearts a desire to kill.1

As scientific people I do feel there are many parts of our own nature which we can identify.  To do so, however, I think we must look at all of human history.  Since this too goes into the rise of civilization, I’ll leave that for another day, and I’ll be getting at civilization extensively in at least one upcoming post.  The human nature thread will end here.  Related, though, is animal nature.

Totally natural, right?

Totally natural, right?

I have read or heard somewhere, and I’m paraphrasing, that if tigers or sharks (I can’t remember which) had the choice, they too would “rule the world” and watch TVs and fly around in airplanes.  This is supposed to be silly, and it is, but I don’t think it even makes a good point.  The point is supposed to be that any species would choose to live as humans do if given the choice, but I can demonstrate the falseness of this belief rather simply: It is not in the nature of tigers or sharks to do these things, or else they would have been doing these things.  Understandably this might sound like I’m saying it is in human nature to watch TV and fly planes, so the statement requires a clarifier: It isn’t necessarily in human nature to watch TV, but the human has the genetic tools that enable him to—that is, his nature makes it possible.

In Ishmael Daniel Quinn made the point that man was simply the first to reach a certain level of complexity, a level that enabled him to become self-aware.  He wrote that in the future others may also become self-aware, and that it is therefore the responsibility of humans to do a good job at being the first.  The genetic descendants of tigers or sharks, or perhaps dolphins or another primate species, might someday watch TVs and fly airplanes, but it is not in the nature of any of these animals to do these things now.  Might they be conditioned into this behavior?  Maybe, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have the right genetic tools to.  If a tiger could choose TV or the hunt, he would undoubtedly choose the hunt because he doesn’t understand TV.

But to get back to humans, I think I can now explore our place within nature and our interaction with it.  I think a lot of people say “Humans are a part of nature,” but in a way mean “Humans are nature.”  Of course people are only representative of a small part of the whole.  I believe this also illustrates a kind of backward fallacy of division2—that is, since humans are a part of nature, and nature is good, then humans (and all the things they do) are good.  Last time I touched this topic I told of an observation: People who raise the humans are a part of nature; therefore everything they do is natural point tend to raise it in a way that suggests humans can do no wrong; if what we do is natural it’s implied that it’s supposed to be that way, that there is no way to change it, and that we should just not worry about it.

During the conversations I had, and I find this to be true in others I’ve come across as well, the point that humans are indeed a part of nature came up quite clearly.  It’s a messy subject, as we can see, and it’s made messier when you come to a seeming contradiction: on the one hand we want to make sure that everyone knows we’re just another species, a subject in the animal kingdom just like every other animal species, but we also have to account for the very real human differences.  It might be that because of self-awareness people are able to watch TV and fly in planes, and those things might be completely natural, but since no other species does these things it’s very hard to say it is the natural way.  It’s very hard to justify the human destruction of everything non-human just by saying “Oh, it’s natural.”  No other species does this; that is natural.

I’ve realized the total irrelevancy of whether or not wholesale destruction of ecosystems is natural.  Even though I think it’s pretty hard to explain how this premeditated destruction of our own support systems is natural, it doesn’t matter whether it is or not.  It might be natural or unnatural, right or wrong—but one thing is certain: it’s insane.  Who cares what words we use; it’s fucking crazy.  It doesn’t matter that a car would never appear unless a person created it, and whether or not the car is a product of nature doesn’t matter either. What matters is that people are destroying entire ecosystems all over the world, driving a massive extinction as I type this, and that they aren’t stopping any time soon. Whether or not this is natural, or even a part of human nature is completely irrelevant; people are killing everything else in the world, and unless more realize it and stop (this being an important step), they’ll kill themselves too.  And guess what?  That’s nature.  Even if people are acting naturally, it’s not in the nature of our support system to allow itself to be killed, so it will fight back (and win).

But even with this realization, I still think there is some reason to defend the word, to guard it from complete abuse.

In all discussions it’s generally agreed that natural is taken to mean that which occurs without human intervention (agreed by most, that is; there are usually the one or two people arguing against everyone else and saying, “No!  Humans are natural!  Everything humans do is natural!”).  I already said that I don’t like the fanciful idea that humans aren’t a part of nature, so it makes sense that I don’t find this definition entirely agreeable either.  Still, it makes sense in most instances.  One of my friends put it rather well when he said, and I’m paraphrasing once again, that we wouldn’t have a word for it if the word didn’t represent something.  I liked that a lot.  So long as humans go on changing environments to suit them instead of changing themselves to suit environments, which is what every other evolving species does, we do need to represent the world without human influence.

Natural works—it provides that representation for now.  But I’d like to make an amendment.  Instead of just saying it’s human action that determines whether or not we use the word we should consider nature what just is without any external phenomenon.  Thunderstorms and tornadoes are totally natural, but they aren’t what we would expect on a daily basis.  Nature is the sum of all parts, but some of the parts can’t be representative of the whole.  A tornado isn’t nature; one forested region isn’t nature; humans, tigers, and sharks aren’t nature.  Human behavior might be natural, but it cannot be what defines nature.  A tornado cannot define nature.  Nature defines itself.

Notes and Links

  1. The belief that people are innately evil. (part 1/2) at francoistremblay.wordpress.com
  2. Fallacy: Division at nizkor.org
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5 Comments leave one →
  1. jakemoran permalink
    September 22, 2009 6:45 pm

    Dang, I think I just got paraphrased unless my goldfish-like memory is betraying me. Anyway, I get the gist of what you’re saying, even if you’re writing makes it seems like you still aren’t sure or can’t quite put an exact definition on it yet. I could be wrong though.

    • September 22, 2009 7:24 pm

      You did.

      I wasn’t really trying to find a solid definition. I guess my main point is that it’s pointless. If people are going to say everything is natural, then what use is the distinction? Self-destruction is stupid and crazy regardless of whether or not it’s natural. The habit to self-destruct should be changed because it’s crazy, not because it’s unnatural. People are going to go on saying it’s only natural to self-destruct, and if (hopefully) that habit is changed, they’ll say that that too is natural.

      I guess what I was getting at in the last paragraph is that, even though it’s irrelevant, special events shouldn’t be main defining characteristics of what is natural. Self-awareness, as in humans, is a rarity in nature. Self-destruction is rare. Tornadoes are rather rare. All of them are technically natural, but self-destruction is still crazy if you care about continued existence, just as it would be crazy to go for a walk in the middle of a tornado. The idea could probably be expressed better, but I don’t know how.

  2. jakemoran permalink
    September 22, 2009 8:21 pm

    That clears things up for me. I agree on all the points.

  3. jleeger permalink
    October 8, 2009 5:59 pm

    Lots of stuff here, Tony. Keep going. I disagree that it’s pointless to define the term “Nature” or “nature.” I think it’s very useful to have as clear a definition as possible.

    Usage, versus definition, is an entirely different subject.

    There have been animal groups in different areas that have “eaten themselves to death” – i.e., they overwhelmed their natural habitats to the point that their food source could not replenish itself. This isn’t rare in nature.

    What is “human nature,” though, as separate from “animal nature?” Ever read anything by Nietzsche? Highly recommended. Try “Beyond Good and Evil” to start.

    My definition of Nature is – that which is, without non-reflexive human activity.

    I say “non-reflexive human activity here,” because, in many places in the world, people still live in harmony with Nature…they are still part of it…their engagement in life is still reflexive. That is, they don’t build things that don’t feed back into Nature in some way.

    • October 9, 2009 1:42 am

      To say that it was “pointless” might have been a little heavy-handed on my part I guess, but maybe not. The point I was really trying to drive home was that destroying your own ecosystem is a stupid thing to do when you have the knowledge to know better, and with regards to that, whether or not this is natural isn’t really relevant.

      There have been animal groups in different areas that have “eaten themselves to death” – i.e., they overwhelmed their natural habitats to the point that their food source could not replenish itself. This isn’t rare in nature.

      This is a good point, and even though I didn’t address this in my post it’s something I’m entirely aware of. It’s how we know about ecology: we’ve watched other animals do most of these things at some point or another.

      I guess when I said that it was “rare” I really should have clarified. The thing is, most other animals, but of course human tribal societies too, live in balanced ecosystems that don’t allow them the opportunities to totally denude the system of their foodstuff of choice. Of course certain ecological events occur on their own that occasionally cause one species to eat everything up, but when things are working how they’re supposed to this doesn’t happen—predators eat prey, prey eat plants, plants eat dirt, everything turns into dirt when it dies, etc., and when one part of that equation drops out, everything goes to shambles. (A partial aside: The Lion King was probably the best kids movie of the ’90s.)

      What civilized humans have been doing for thousands of years is the direct opposite of what happens in a balanced ecosystem. They’ve systematically destroyed their support systems and eliminated all competitive species. That they have done this purposely and willingly is what is rare in nature, not that an ecosystem collapses.

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