In an atheist’s worldview, what is our relationship with nature?
Let me rephrase that. In this atheist’s worldview, what is our relationship with nature?
In many religions — traditional Judeo- Christian- Islam in particular — the answer to that question is clear. Our relationship with nature is that nature was made for us. Animals, plants, even the sun and the moon and the planet itself… all were made for people to use. To subdue, to have dominion over, as Genesis 1:28 so charmingly puts it. Every single living thing on the planet — they’re all just one big all- you- can- eat buffet, laid out specially for the human race. (Except for the poisonous living things, and the living things that are trying to eat us, and the living things that are just plain useless. But that’s not important right now.)
But if you don’t believe in a creation made with humans in mind, then how do we fit into nature? What’s our connection with it?
A few years ago, I read a book by Michael Pollan (of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), called The Botany of Desire. It’s a history of four different cultivated plants — apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana — written to examine and explore people’s relationships with plants. Fascinating book. Highly recommended. But it’s not what I want to talk about today.
In The Botany of Desire, Pollan talks about the co-evolution of flowers and bees. Specifically, he talks about how certain flowers evolved, and continue to evolve, in response to bees’ very specific preferences. Flowers with characteristics that bees like — certain bright colors and patterns, for instance — will get chosen by the bees for pollination, and will get to win the Darwinian Reproduction Lottery. Flowers that don’t, won’t. (Unless they find some other way to get pollinated.)
And it suddenly struck me:
How is that so different from human cultivation?
Flowers with characteristics that humans like — certain bright colors and patterns, for instance — will get chosen by the humans for pollination (or grafting, or cloning, or whatever agricultural methods we’re using to breed more of the flowers we like), and will get to win the Reproduction Lottery. Flowers that don’t, won’t. (Unless they find some other way to get pollinated.)
Is that really so different? Is there really that much difference between human intervention in tulips’ evolution, and beevine intervention in tulips’ evolution?
(Before you jump all over me: Yes, I think there is some difference. I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, stay with me.)
This is the point I want to make. It’s a point that most of us know and understand consciously… and yet it’s a point that we have a striking tendency to forget.
We are animals.
I’ll say that again:
We. Are. Animals.
Yes, we’re animals with an unusual ability to shape our environment. But it’s an unusual ability — not a unique one. Other living things have made dramatic physical impacts on the planet as well. Coral, for instance. Earthworms. And, of course, plants. Plants breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen made a huge, radical change to the atmosphere of the planet. (A change that, so I’ve read, was a serious ecological threat to plant life, until animals came along and re-balanced the ecosystem.)
And yes, humans are the dominant life form on the planet right now. But even that doesn’t make us special. Other life forms have been dominant in the past: trilobites, for instance, and dinosaurs. They were around for tens of millions of years. We’ve been the dominant species for what — ten thousand years? Less? In geological terms, we’re not even a blip.
It’s so easy to think of human beings as somehow apart from nature. It’s deeply woven into our language and our way of thinking. Nature versus nurture. Nature versus culture. Natural versus man-made. Is such- and- such plant a native, or was it brought to this region by people? Is X (global warming, homosexuality, the tendency of twenty- something human males to get into stupid accidents) caused by human beings and human culture, or is it natural? It’s a way of thinking that’s very pervasive. Even among people who aren’t talking about religion. Even among atheists.
When people talk about evolution, for instance, they — we — often do it as if human beings were evolution’s pinnacle, the goal it’s been inexorably moving towards… as opposed to just one tiny, short-lived twig on an enormously huge, four- billion- year- old tree. Ditto when we talk about the food chain. There’s a decided tendency to talk about the food chain as if it all headed straight into our mouths.
And it’s a way of thinking that shows up a lot when science collides with politics or morality. When the question comes up of whether human gender roles are born or learned or both, we tend to forget that we are animals — and that most animals have some sort of innate gender- differentiated behavior when it comes to sex and reproduction. When the question comes up of whether human homosexuality is born or learned or both, we tend to forget that we are animals — and that homosexual behavior has been observed in hundreds upon hundreds of other animal species. We don’t think of zoology as applying to us. We think of ourselves as different.
Now. I’m not saying there’s no difference at all. When it comes to the tulips’ evolution, for instance, I think there is a difference between human intervention and bee intervention. The difference is consciousness. Humans intervene with the tulips consciously: making observations about what sort of interventions create what sorts of changes in the tulips, making plans for the direction we want those changes to go in, making calculations about how to make those changes happen. Bees, as far as we know, don’t.
And that does confer a moral responsibility on humans that we probably wouldn’t apply to other living things. Nobody would say that algae were immoral or short-sighted for overbreeding and choking a pond to death. We would say that human beings are immoral and short-sighted — not to say stupid verging on criminally insane — for continuing to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when we know it’s potentially choking our planet to death. I’d say that, anyway.
But I’m reluctant to draw a bright line between humans and other animals on that basis alone. Not yet, anyway. We just don’t know that much about consciousness yet: what exactly it is, how it works, how the brain produces it. And until we do, I’m reluctant to say that consciousness is unique to human animals. We have a long, stupid, wrongheaded history of assuming that other animals don’t have certain kinds of experiences — they don’t feel pain, they don’t feel attachment, they have no innate morality, etc. — simply because they don’t have language, and can’t tell us about it.
Besides, even if consciousness does turn out to be unique to the human species… isn’t that part of our nature as well? Spiders have the unique ability to spin webs; bats have the unique ability to navigate with sonar. Having an ability that’s unique among all other living things… that doesn’t make us unique. If that makes sense.
And even if our consciousness does turn out to be unique… it is still, as far as all the evidence currently points, a product of our brains. Which are products, yet again, of evolution. Of nature.
So what is humanity’s relationship with nature?
Humanity’s relationship with nature is that we are part of it.
We are an animal species: in the primate order, in the mammalian class, in the vertebrate sub-phylum. We are a product of evolution; a product of nature. Even the things we do that seem most unnatural — building museums, building strip malls, belching greenhouse gas into the air, sending rockets to the moon, buying bras on the Internet — are no more unnatural than coral building a reef, or earthworms turning rocks into soil, or algae blooming in a pond, or plants belching that toxic oxygen crap into the atmosphere.
I’m not saying that everything we do is part of nature, and therefore everything we do is okay. I’m not saying that everything we do is part of nature, and therefore it’s fine for us to be self-serving hedonists. Far from it. Plenty of things are part of nature that we’d consider immoral: rape, torturous cruelty, biting the heads off one’s mates. And if for no other reason, self- preservation alone should inspire us to not act like immoral, short-sighted dolts.
If anything, I’m saying the opposite. We have the capacity for consciousness — and we therefore have the capacity for foresightedness and choice, and the moral responsibility that comes along with it. And that, too, is part of our nature, a fundamental part of how our minds and our social functions evolved. A part that has generally served us well, I might add. It’s a part of our nature that we should embrace. Given the power we have to radically fuck up the world… our capacity for consciousness and foresightedness and moral responsibity is a part of our nature that we really, really should embrace. Hard.
And I propose that seeing ourselves as a part of nature — not separate from it, not above it or isolated from it, but deeply woven into it, as deeply woven as coral and bats and tulips and algae — is a crucial part of that embrace.