Human Nature

Photo of the Portland skyline, trees, and Mt. Hood“[It] appears that we must recognise at least two principal meanings in the word 'nature.' In one sense, it means all the powers existing in either the outer or the inner world and everything which takes place by means of those powers. In another sense, it means, not everything which happens, but only what takes place without the agency, or without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man. This distinction is far from exhausting the ambiguities of the word; but it is the key to most of those on which important consequences depend.” John Stuart Mill, On Nature, 1874

Nature as a term can be inclusive and exclusive. It may include everything in existence or exclude products of human agency (e.g. cities, corn fields, art, technology, pollution) from the rest of the world (e.g. old-growth forest, boulders, elephants, fire, snowfall). Photo of Dolly the cloned sheepThe distinction is blurred when we think of tree farms, artificial lungs, and cloned sheep. Many words have dual meanings, but perceptions of nature can influence our place in the world. When nature is viewed exclusively, where does this leave humans?

The city is often considered separate from the natural world. As a remedy, some call for the integration of nature (usually trees) into urban settings. While I consider this a good thing, the terms imply that cities are not already part of nature. When people use these terms, they don't necessarily intend to be exclusive. It just reflects a deeply ingrained idea of nature without a clear alternative. According to inclusive views, cities are no less natural than birds' nests. Both are constructed by animals with material derived from the Earth. This is not a justification for environmental abuse, but simply an understanding of human activity as within the scope of nature.

Photo of Earth seen from spaceI like the idea that we are arrangements of atoms -- the same atoms that constitute the world around us. Some arrangements result from human action while others may result from the actions of bears, rain, or geological faults. Fortunately we are capable of conscious decisions, which can and should include a sense of responsibility for environmental well-being.

Perhaps it is enough to refer to streams, flowers, jets, and sculptures individually, reserving nature to describe the whole. All of the examples above are human concepts, and all are composed of material from the (natural) world. If this view of nature is too inclusive to be useful, is there a simple way to distinguish beehives from buildings, ponds from swimming pools, sunsets from street lights ... ?

(Photo of Portland from Adrian's Photo Blog; Photo of Dolly from Next Nature; Photo of Earth from Wikimedia Commons)


Gavin said...

You make god points about the distinction we often make between the natural and "artificial" world. The urban environment is as much a creation of nature as an ant hill colony. I think it goes back to the mindset that humanity is somehow above or separate from the natural world, which is rooted in Judeo-Christian values. William Cronon, a noted environmental historian, makes much the same point in one of his essays, I forget the name. Most people hold to the belief that nature/wilderness can only exist in some pristine form untouched by human activity, but the reality is that almost every inch of the world has somehow been shaped or affected by human activity. The point he makes is that what is human and what is natural are not two distinct concepts but exist as part of an integrated whole.

Daniel Nairn said...

I think it's actually fairly easy to pick out the inclusive and exclusive uses of the word "nature" based on context.

"I'd like to experience nature this weekend"

Probably referring to chipmunks - not vending machines.

"Physics is the study of nature"

Probably, Chipmunks AND vending machines.

Although there may be occasions of ambiguity, it's fairly rare in my experience (and I could always ask for clarification).

I would say that the exclusive use of the word did not become all that useful until after the industrial revolution, when there was a reason to pick out things that were obviously effected by industry from things that were less effected. That's when the Romantic movement and Emerson, Thoreau, and friends developed a counter-culture aroud "nature".

I disagree entirely that this use of the word is a result of the Judeo-Christian distinction between human agency and the rest of creation (which is, in fact, a part of that worldview). The Greek words for "nature" hypostasis and physis used in the New Testament and early Christian writings are complex, but most certainly not of post-enlightenment exclusive varieties. They refer to the metaphysical constitution of the entire world - including humans and their impact.

Peter Sigrist said...

That's really interesting to think about when and how the exclusive meaning originated. I'll also have to check out William Cronon.

True that you can pretty much always tell which meaning people are referring to based on context. Just wish I knew of a way to say "I like being close to nature" (as in going for a walk in the woods) without feeling like I'm denying cities their place in the natural world.

It seems that as human technology becomes more and more sophisticated it will better approximate or even improve upon things that were not designed by humans.

That sounds presumptuous I know, especially given the brilliance of nonhuman technology (for example, the way spiders can scale walls and swing from their webs like super heroes). But I guess we might as well aim high.

Benjamin Hemric said...

For a very thoughtful (it's a product of at least 30 years of thinking), very well-researched and very thorough (yet relatively brief and entertaining) discussion of this topic, I highly recommend Jane Jacobs' "The Nature of Economies." (It's a much shorter book than "Death and Life . . . ," and its written in the form of a little novel, or long short story -- although it is more commonly said to be in the form of a "dialogue.")

Also, while it seems to me that her thoughts on this topic inform ALL her other works too (and are even explicitly discussed briefly in "Death and Life . . ."), I think those who are interested in this topic will also find Jacobs earlier "novella," "Systems of Survial" to be relevant, useful, and entertaining.