Man and nature


Nature! We are encircled and enclasped by her — powerless to depart from her, and powerless to find our way more deeply into her being. Without invitation and without warning she involves us in the orbit of her dance, and drives us onward until we are exhausted and fall from her arm.


We live in the midst of her, and yet to her we are alien. She parleys incessantly with us, and to us she does not disclose her secret. We influence her perpetually, and yet we have no power over her.

— Goethe, Ode “To Nature”[1]

With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature. The proper exposition of the problem requires a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into four separate sections, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.

After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations. So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified. The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format. It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical,[2] as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history. For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token there are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it. Continue reading

Man and Nature, Part III: An Excursus into the Structuralist Opposition of Nature and Culture

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

The basic distinction between “nature” and “culture” — that fundamental opposition so central to Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology[1] — has been denied, deconstructed, and dissolved countless times by post-structuralist scholars and intellectuals.  But in this respect, it is hardly the only binary to have been so challenged — man/woman, inside/outside, and self/other have all similarly come under attack.  The reality of such distinctions, they say, is far less certain, and far more ambiguous, than the structuralists would have us believe.  An absolute division between any of these pairs, they argue, cannot therefore be established.

And there is undeniably something to the blurring of this distinction: after all, is man (historically associated with culture and civilization) not also an animal? Darwin’s theory of evolution proved definitively man’s derivation from more primitive animal species.  It could thus not be denied that man is simply one species amongst many.  Humanity can claim no special status separate from these other species, by dint of some sort of divine creation or other fantasy.  And so also can humanity not maintain any sort of special dominion over all the rest of nature, as suggested by Judeo-Christian mythology.[2] By what right, then, ask the environmentalists, can mankind dominate and exploit the whole of nature? Humans have no special privilege — at an ethical level — over and above any other sentient animals.  It is unethical, therefore, to live at the expense of other sentient beings, or to intrude upon their natural environment.  Would this not constitute a form of speciesism?

But this argument cuts both ways.  For how is it that the actions of this animal, mankind, be considered so wholly unnatural? After all, it might be justifiably pointed out that all biological organisms exploit their environment, to the extent that they can.  Those species that do not adequately exploit their environment or find their way into an environment in which they can, simply go extinct.  So when environmental activists protest the exploitation of nature by human beings, the argument could be made that we are simply doing what all other organisms do.  We just happen to be especially good at it.  Might it not even be human “nature” to ruthlessly exploit and dominate the rest of nature? In the end, human beings are exceptionally gifted in terms of their ability to think systematically, understand the relationship between means and ends, and contrive complex devices to use as tools to manipulate the environment.  It is as if evolution produced an animal capable of conquering nature in its entirety, and that mankind is merely exercising the gifts bestowed on it by nature.

Continue reading