Natural, Artificial, and Man-Made

Posted: March 27, 2012 in Debate, Nomenclature
Tags: ,

Separating things into categories so that proper labels can be applied may be the mark of a subtle and careful thinker, but at the same time, it’s unclear to me what value such distinctions may actually grant. Yet it was with some chagrin that I witnessed in the comments at a blog I follow someone yet again trotting out a familiar canard asserting that because mankind (or humanity) is both product and part of nature, everything we do on the planet is no less “natural” than that of, say, an ant colony, troop of monkeys, or other animal social group. Under such as view, the entirety of activity on Earth is a “natural” outgrowth of processes already underway for eons. I haven’t researched what others have to say about the issue, which I’m certain has been addressed before, but at the risk of reinforcing valueless categories, I would suggest that to collapse everything into one category — natural — is to make a mistake of metonymy, where nothing can ever be “unnatural.”

In a relatively mild example, we distinguish between natural and artificial light readily and uncontroversially. There are numerous light-emitting organisms, but to my knowledge, most possess bioluminescence to attract prey and for rudimentary communication rather than for illumination the way mankind deploys artificial light through synthetic means. Composite pictures of the Earth at night (from space) depict “unnatural” light in the respect that it arises not out of biology but from human artifice, which is several steps removed from the machinations of Nature (capital N). Similarly, numerous other features visible from space result from human interventions and impacts, such as the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, soil erosion off the coast of Madagascar, or more humorously, the Univ. of Michigan football stadium. (That the Great Wall of China is visible from space is only an urban legend.) There are also many examples of synthetic plants (and some animals) created through scientific (read: man-made) intervention, not out of blind, evolutionary processes.

A worthwhile debate might ensue if the argument were simply about the degree of impact a species has on its environment. A keystone species is recognized for being an architect or engineer of its own environment, typically through its patterns of consumption and predation or its passive contributions to the persistence and disappearance of others species in an ecosystem. Examples include sea urchins, mussels, weevils, sharks, prairie dogs, mule deer, beavers, grizzly bears, and elephants. Humans are notably absent from the Wikipedia entry on keystone species, but there can be little doubt that from among the panoply of known species, the degree of our impact on the ecosystem as top predator and worst polluter/destroyer is well beyond that of any other. Also, to say that abandoned radioactive zones around Chernobyl and now Fukushima are natural would be an unnecessary stretch. Curiously, wildlife around Chernobyl is teeming with the top predator gone. The significance of plants, insects, and microorganisms lie beyond my expertise, but I find their omission from the Wikipedia entry similarly problematical. For instance, marine algae and plankton (algae blooms also being visible from space) are both the basis of the food chain and produce 70 to 80% of atmospheric oxygen.

Where the waters get really murky, however, is consideration of human behaviors and cultures. The debate is whether they arise out of nature (human nature or more generally Nature) or are purely abstract — products of human ideation. And it is here that useful categorical distinctions may break down. We are both shapers of and shaped by our environment. Teasing out distinctions between purely mental phenomena (e.g., fiat money and artistic creation) and behaviors observable throughout the animal kingdom (e.g., predation and survival instinct) doesn’t exempt humans from nature but also doesn’t account for the complexity of human institutions as something fundamentally apart from the wildness of nature as we typically understand it.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. ulvfugl says:

    Good.

    Problem is philosophy and science got divorced. Many scientists don’t recognise philosophy as having any relevance whatsoever to anything, and know nothing about it. Many philosophers – to the extent that there are any at all – know nothing about science.

    The way philosophy is taught, as deadly dreary and irrelevant, it’s no surprise. But this is exactly where philosophy should be actively informing us, and explaining to scientists and the lay public, how we should think about these categories, ‘natural’ and ‘un-natural’, etc. Because this is a PHILOSOPHICAL problem, not a scientific problem. It concerns how we define ‘things’ and how we divide up ‘the world’ into categories.

    Consider Borges famous Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, allegedly taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopædia

    The list divides all animals into one of 14 categories:

    Those that belong to the emperor
    Embalmed ones
    Those that are trained
    Suckling pigs
    Mermaids (or Sirens)
    Fabulous ones
    Stray dogs
    Those that are included in this classification
    Those that tremble as if they were mad
    Innumerable ones
    Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
    Et cetera
    Those that have just broken the flower vase
    Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

    My personal definition of ‘natural’ would be something like an island where the fauna, flora and geology had not been interfered with in any way by human activity.

    By that definition, there is nowhere left on this planet that IS natural, because everywhere has been impacted by human activity, by climate change, by plastic rubbish, by acid rain, by the noise of jet aircraft, by radioactive fall out, etc, etc.

    When I have proposed this definition on forums, I have met fierce opposition from some, who insist that humans are natural and everything that humans do is natural. But to my mind, that makes the words manmade or artificial or unnatural meaningless.

    As I see it, the ‘thing’ out there, ‘the world’, the planet, the Earth, that panorama that I embrace with a sweep of my arm, is essentially unknowable and a total mystery and will remain so forever.

    We overlay it with our language and our categories. We do this and then forget we have done it, and then live within the illusion we have thus created.

    We have made a map of the territory, and then mistaken the map for the territory.

    • Brutus says:

      ulvfugl sez: My personal definition of ‘natural’ would be something like an island where the fauna, flora and geology had not been interfered with in any way by human activity.

      By that definition, there is nowhere left on this planet that IS natural, because everywhere has been impacted by human activity, by climate change, by plastic rubbish, by acid rain, by the noise of jet aircraft, by radioactive fall out, etc, etc.

      My guess is that you already know that this statement is essentially the thesis behind The End of Nature by Bill McKibbins. (That book inaugurated my dawning awareness of our collapse trajectory.) Similarly, your statement about mistaking the map for the territory tracks against my remark in the post about the mistake of metonymy.

      • ulvfugl says:

        Yes, I know McKibben says that, how much or if, I got from him, hard to recall, I didn’t read it when it first came out , but I was reading Ecologist, where it would have been reviewed and all the ideas were regularly churned.
        Metonymy ? I better read your post again :-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s