February 6, 2010 § 10 Comments
“The unnatural, that too is natural.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We often hear the squaring-off of the “natural” versus the “unnatural”; we say things like “Natural is good, unnatural is bad.” But, as the quote from Goethe above suggests, I have often though that, whatever happens in the universe, all is natural; there is no such thing as artificial. Or if there is, then “artificial” or “unnatural” needs to be re-defined.
When someone says “natural”, we immediately think of forests and rivers, plants, animals, oceans and mountains. We think of fresh air and clean water. In food, we like to think of “natural” as anything grown without chemicals, or produced without additives. Geologically, we call events like volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides “natural” disasters.
As I have stated before, we live in a truly massive universe, where cosmic events occur on such an unfathomable scale that is difficult for the human brain to comprehend. For billions of years, the universe has been forming, galaxies spinning and drifting, crashing and colliding, objects hurling out of control into each other, creating new objects, new starfields and galaxies. There are truly huge events that happen all the time, and most of it is unnoticed by us. We would all call these events “natural”, as they are things that happen without human intervention.
So what is the true definition of “natural”?
Given that our knowledge of extraterrestrial planets is almost non-existent, we can only make definitions based on observations of the planet around us. There are numerous examples of nature seemingly out of control, out of balance or overtly destructive.
There are numerous examples of insects which reach plague proportions when conditions are either too favourable, or in a state of relative imbalance for that species. In the Amazon rainforests,when local food supplies run low, massive legions of up to 20 million army ants move as a single mass through the forest floor, eating anything and everything in their paths, plants and animals alike. They lay waste to huge tracts of jungle, taking all the movable food they can carry back to the burrows for storage or consumption. Ants also can make massive cities which alter the chemistry of soils, making the dirt somewhat waterproof, thereby making it unsuitable for plant life.
There are also numerous examples in animal species where the destruction of natural habitat happens as a matter of course. In North America, the beaver creates dams to help protect from predators, and to store food over the winter, when the rivers and ponds can freeze over. These dams can be huge, and can flood whole tracts of forests, diverting rivers and flooding land set aside by farmers for livestock. They can fell hundreds of trees in a week, and lay waste to whole areas of forest.
However, we have a habit of saying that anything made or done by human, is unnatural. Why is this?
Let’s assume for a minute, that the habits and behaviours of the ant and of the beaver are cumulative, that they have, over millions of years of outward influences, arrived at the behaviour that we see now. We would all agree, then, that these examples of destruction caused by millions of years of adaptations by a species is natural. So why is it that when we speak of the doings of humanity that it suddenly becomes unnatural?
All species have evolved and adapted over millions of years to be where they are. All species historically have done the same. Some have reached the end of their lineage because of outside forces, others have continued successfully. We too have arrived at this point in time after millions of years of adaptations to adversity. Everything we have created as a species, then, is a byproduct of our evolution. Is this unnatural? Is it unnatural to be the first species in the history of this planet to have the ability to alter our surroundings with intent? Is it unnatural that the human race destroy itself?
We should not put ourselves above nature, for we are not the creators of the universe, but a byproduct of of the universe. As soon as we tell ourselves that we have a higher purpose, we convince ourselves that we are above the natural processes of this universe. We make ourselves so much more important than anything else; is THIS “unnatural”?
So I put this forward: Anything that happens is “natural”, but “natural” may not be as palatable as we’d like to think.
We all inhabit the one planet. We need to recognise that there is only one chance at getting this right. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos says it best:
“Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.”