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The rest / Is Man the "Unnatural Animal?"
« on: May 14, 2019, 01:39:48 AM »
For the last year and a half I've been fascinated by traditional distinctions between natural and unnatural. My interest emerged out of a conflict with government over the management of a species-at-risk. The argument that we should "allow nature to take its course," was made repeatedly in defence of government inaction.

Recently I was watching a video called "Early Anthropogenic Transformations of Earth's Climate," in the thread "Early Anthropocene." In it, the lecturer, Ruddiman, makes the comment, "What can you think of as ‘not natural?’ Well, humans."

Of course the antropogenic vs. natural distinction is one that is commonly used, and generally does not lead to any confusion. However, I argue that the distinction is actually untenable, and leads to the perpetuation of a mythology that undermines science and clear thought.

There is much that can be written on this topic, and there are some philosophers who have (for example Steven Vogel). For the sake of this thread I will try to be brief.

The main problem with the above distinction is how to reconcile it with evolutionary biology, which describes human beings as just one of many species that have evolved according to the same sorts of processes as all other species. To separate our consciousness and our products from the rest of nature seems to require a kind of intrusion, whether supernatural, or unnatural, that gave rise to our consciousness. This should sound familiar, since it is the kind of story we find in many mythologies and religions.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to ask, according to the definition of "unnatural" as anything caused or made by humans, are beaver dams natural? The answer is obviously, yes. Is a  pile of rocks made by a human to mark the direction they're traveling natural or unnatural? According to the definition, it is quite clearly unnatural. Now, it is obvious that beaver dams have much more impact on their ecosystems and the environment than a pile of rocks made by a human to navigate. The value of putting these into unique ontological categories is dubious. If beavers have evolved to build dams, and modify the environment in doing so, why should we think of it as unnatural that human beings build things that modify the environment?

Of course, there is a difference between a pile of rocks and a project like the three gorges dam. But the standard definition does not distinguish between the two. It simply places our artifacts in a unique category distinct from the rest of the world.

The consequence, I would argue, is that we smuggle in a kind of dualistic thinking that sees human beings and our consciousness as something alien to the universe. As a result, it alienates us from our environment, as we fail to recognize how we are another creature on the planet shaping our environment that arose out of this planet, not something that arrived here and started mucking around, that doesn't belong here, that can only either interfere or not interfere.

As far as this relates to climate change, I think this kind of hidden moralism makes the environmental movement less attractive. It ends up being romantic, always harkening back to a "nature" or "natural" that in fact, by definition, excludes us, and so we could never return to anyway. It can also lead to a primitivism, and the kind of mistrust of the intellect that is sometimes found in Fascism. It seems strange to wonder, what would have happened if we weren't here, since, though we may be an accident in the sense that all evolution is accidental, we are an accident of this earth, the natural history of this earth. Our choices are part of that history. Our choices, one way or the other, are natural. All of our politics, our follies, our plastic, all of it, part of the natural history of this planet. It's time we reconcile ourselves to that, accept that this is our home, and that we had better adjust our behaviour if we want to keep it.

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