How We Think About Nature

It is so commonplace to think of nature as that which is free of human presence or interference that few people ever pause to consider how unnatural such a concept is. If human beings and their activities are not natural and do not occur in nature, where do they take place? If the answer is “in cities,” then we can further ask, “Where do cities exist?” Also, what are cities made of. Etc.

But in truth, human beings are as natural as grizzly bears and dandelions. We are animals; we have bodies which are composed of the same stuff as the bodies of all other mammals, of all other vertebrates as well, and at the microscopic level, our bodies’ cells are very like any other living cells. We reproduce as other animals do, we have DNA just as they do, and our brains, while noticeably more complex and capable that those of other animals, are otherwise pretty much the same as theirs. Like other animals, we must eat, breathe, and drink; we seek and/or build shelters, like beavers we divert water courses to our own benefit, and like many if not most creatures we create niches that are conducive to our well being.

It may also be said that we do not do anything that other animals don’t do, although we may do those things on a far greater scale. For example, we occasionally have carried companion organisms, whether deliberately as domesticated or useful, or inadvertently as parasites, to environments where they have not been present before and where they prosper in the absence of their traditional enemies: pigs, rats, and cats on islands, buffel grass in the American Southwest and Mexico, roses in South Africa, rabbits in Australia, foxes in New Zealand—there is a very long list. Those of us who are concerned about such things (apparently, not everyone is) call these creatures “invasive species” and would like to eliminate them from their colonial possessions. I agree: it is awful that Guam no longer has any native birds because of the introduction of the brown tree snake, and terrible that rabbits and mice wreak such destruction in Australia—an object lesson in how tragic it can be for a species to be without its predators, even for that species itself.

On the other hand, few of us would consider wheat an “invasive” species, yet with our help it has invaded every habitable continent and has taken over much of the American landscape from the native grasses; tomatoes, potatoes, and maize have spread from the Americas to the rest of the world, taking over vast tracts of land. But because we consider these species to be our allies, we do not call them invasive.

While island ecosystems can be disrupted by the introduction of new species, it is worth remembering that island ecosystems would not exist in the first place if islands were not invaded by organisms that had not previously existed there. When a new island forms, for example from a volcanic eruption from the ocean’s depths, there is no life on it, yet a few hundred or thousand years later it will be as verdant as the islands of Hawaii: green with flowering trees and shrubs, busy with the doings of birds and insects—all of which are, in a sense, invasive, their ancestors blown there by storms and winds or carried there on rafts of driftwood and debris. Organisms, even nonmobile ones like plants, do not stay in place—they wander, they spread, they invade, they take over, they flee, the die out, creating new species and new wonders in the process—a very long process, generally speaking. I’m sure that birds blown off course and landing on a less than ideal island in the storm may have had the seeds of some mainland plant in their digestive system, which, regardless of whether or not the bird survived, managed to sprout and struggle and survive and propagate, just as the seeds of some exotic plant have ridden on a human vessel and found themselves an hospitable new home. Kudzu, for example (intended), or Russian thistle (unintended).

What, then, is the difference between a seed carried in the gut of a bird and a seed carried in the pocket of a farmer, or an animal floating in on a raft of driftwood and seaweed and an animal floating in on the deck of a Polynesian canoe? They both accomplish the same thing, dispersing organisms to new ecosystems and keeping the evolutionary process churning. And the process of evolution over the billions of years to date has been marked by as much extinction as innovation. Human beings, themselves products of the same processes, are not engaged in an unprecedented activity—though we do seem, especially in the last 500 years or so (at least since 1492), to have accelerated the process to, comparatively, lightning speed. But aside from that, we are not actually doing something unusual, or even unnatural, in the annals of evolutionary time.

The difference is in ourselves, and is, broadly speaking, a moral difference. We are as capable of regret as we are of hope, of looking backward as forward; and while we often indulge in planning for the future and work towards improving our lot in life, we as often look to the past and itemize our mistakes as much as our triumphs. We can regret the passing of the dodo or the passenger pigeon, although none of us living has ever seen either; we can regret in foresight the impending extinction of the monarch butterfly or the African elephant—some of us can. Perhaps the moral sense arises from this ability to anticipate and retrospect, rather than (as some evolutionary psychologists are unduly prone to believe) from a moral molecule or altruistic gene. It is unlikely that our concern for the fate of other creatures is, or is entirely, out of concern for our own survival; we may have to adjust to a changing climate and a less “natural” world, but adjustment is not the same as extinction. From a practical point of view, i.e., from the view of human material needs, we probably have less to fear than the prophets lead us to believe—that is, if we learn to live without greed, that parasite that makes us want more than we need.

My concern, at least, is not with human survival, but rather with the survival of the many other creatures who also live on this planet, and insofar as aesthetics is a component of a moral vision, with the survival of the beautiful—I cannot see that human life is worthwhile without the beautiful. In one of his essays, Montaigne opined that voluptuousness is the equivalent of penitence; in religious terms, sin is its own punishment. One can also say that greed is its own punishment, for it destroys its object without gaining satisfaction. Of all the creatures on this earth, only human beings are greedy. Perhaps that is what makes us unnatural.

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