Do we need nature?


‘The most astonishing thing about this question,’ my friend told me ‘is the fact that it is asked at all.’

Twenty years earlier I learned that man could contemplate about anything, even questioning the very existence of things. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ It is conundrums like these that our mind uses to make sense of the world through asking rather than answering. It is astonishing that we can imagine both the real and the unreal. Making a clear-cut distinction between the two is an ever lasting challenge for philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike. Yet such questions do not seem to bother farmers, capitalists, or even politicians, in short doers as opposed to thinkers. A farmer grows corn because his fellow man has to eat. Why contemplate the existence of corn or the necessity to eat? And so it goes with other ‘necessities’ of life. I call them the simple pleasures of life; to eat healthy, to love my wife and watch my children grow. These things are real. And because they are real, they give me peace of mind knowing that my life is not a wasted one.

The other night I woke up thinking about my friend and what he told me about nature. Not what nature is. That would be some naturalist treatise one can watch on PBS and National Geographic Explorer. No, he read to me from a thin paperback called ‘Writing Nature’. I have forgotten the name of the author and her arguments brought forward in this booklet, but I have not forgotten my friend’s message.

‘Writing nature is not writing a documentary about wildlife or a scientific report on climate change,’ my friend told me. ‘Writing nature is about the realization that despite our cultural progression the roots of all things human are firmly grounded in nature. Nature is all we have.’

I have to digress for a moment and tell you that my friend is a molecular biologist; someone who knows much about the biochemistry of living organisms. Thus he would be a guy with a special connection to nature. Turns out, my friend cannot name more than a few flowers and grasses growing in my backyard. At first I thought it was ignorance or at best indifference. Brushing my criticism aside he tried to convince me, and I guess himself, that modern biology will soon make a full circle, combining the molecular with the taxonomic systems botanists and zoologists have established over the last four centuries. ‘In time, biologists will make new use of the Linnaean system. For the time being,’ he exclaimed, ‘we need to understand as much as we can about the molecular mechanisms of the life cycles, diseases, and genetics of organisms.’

‘Mechanism’ is one of my friend’s favorite words. He can explain the molecular machinery of photosynthesis and judging from the tone of his voice, carbon assimilation is to him what chimpanzees are to Jane Goodall; something of great importance. ‘But try to excite the average Joe about osmosis,’ he complained. I could empathize with the reluctance of Joe Average to get excited about biochemistry, not because monkey stories are more fascinating or relevant (not to my friend for all I know), but because they can be told in everyday language drawing from our own immediate experiences. Such immediacy of course is not given when it comes to biochemical reactions.

Barely awake I could still hear the frustration in my friend’s voice when talking about his experience explaining a molecular biologist’s view of life. ‘Most people,’ he went on, ‘resent the idea of equating nature with a bunch of chemical reactions.’ From all this, what I remember best is my friend’s forceful recollection. To him it is naïve to look at nature as something separate from man. This includes man’s activities, the language he uses, the objects he creates, and whatever cultural and technological advances result from all this. A particularly contentious point to him is the naturalist way of worshiping wilderness and the obligation of man to live as close to the ideal of what we call nature. To my friend, every activity of man independent of the degree of technology involved is equally artificial and an intrusion into nature. ‘Show me the pristine wilderness of a million years ago,’ he argued, ‘when man was but another rare predator prowling the earth. Is not all of today’s nature shaped by the presence of man, however indirect? Does what we call wilderness not resemble a garden, taken care of, landscaped, intruded, reshaped, and managed by man?’ he asked me. ‘Is our drive to protect the environment not a survival instinct to safeguard our assets and livelihood? We profess love for wild animals but we don’t let them roam our parks; in real life, we put nature at a safe distance.’

One day he got quite passionate about my spraying pesticide in an effort to save my home-grown tomatoes dying of an infestation. ‘How can you use this stuff?’ Emphasizing the ‘you’ he argued that as a buyer of organic food I should refrain from using this tool of last resort. His point is well taken, but the plant was dying and the clerk at the nursery assured me that the oil it contained was non-toxic. In my friend’s mind naturalists like me are getting it all wrong with their love for pets and potted plants. ‘Home-grown tomatoes,’ he elaborated, ‘are bred into degeneracy for the benefit of a single quality, the beauty of the fruit, and as a result depend wholly on the support of humans. How can you call your tomatoes natural? They wouldn’t cut it in the wild.’ To him, breeding of animals and plants is no more natural than genetic engineering. To me, the latter is one of those scientific advancements I hope we will live without in the future.

I believe it to be unnatural, this tinkering with the blue print of life. But my friend believes that genetic engineering and cloning of animals only proof that man’s fate resides safely within the boundaries of nature and that we cannot escape its realm. ‘To escape the chains of nature, man invented God, for better or for worse.’ In his mind, and God bless him for his optimism, there is nor will there ever be synthetic food, nor will man create self-replicating machines like nanobots, these machinations of late of science-fiction writers and dooms-day prophets. What I call tinkering will in his mind never equate to a violation of the laws of nature and thus there is nothing to fear. ‘While biomedicine pushes the boundaries, biology cannot transcend from the natural to the purely synthetic. No Frankensteins or cyborgs here,’ my friend insisted.

As for me, I believe that every coin has two sides. The age old dichotomies of heaven and hell, good and evil, natural and synthetic, organic and chemical protect from the unknown, guard against risk, and restrain the would-be-Gods in the laboratories around the world. A duality is a useful thing because it offers a simple strategy. To me, simplicity is most important, because we want to make the right choices. And for these reasons, it is self evident in my opinion that what is natural is good, and that which is not, first has to be proven safe.

‘Don’t you believe in good and evil?’ I asked in exasperation. The claim made by scientists that their profession is value-free and simply a matter of testing hypotheses has never sounded right to me. My friend’s thinking questioned the validity of this dichotomy I do not dare questioning at all. Are their opposites not evident?  Not in my friend’s mind. To him, the distinction of what is natural and what is artificial is not a helpful one, for the artificial cannot escape the realm of the natural. The two have to be compatible and nature is primordial. ‘Nature dictates a machine’s inalienable essence.’

What followed was a monologue fraught with religious overtones, a side in my friend’s thinking that caught me off guard. ‘Nature is omniscient, is already there and man can but work with it, improve it or destroy it. But he can never make it unnatural or supernatural. Man needs nature as he needs water and air. Why else would so many people worry about natural resources being depleted by modern technology, if not for the fact that all our objects are made of natural precursors, that all our energy comes from natural sources, and that all we do is to modify, mold, and select from the offerings of nature.’

‘Select,’ I shouted, ‘how can you select if not based on some value that you believe in?’ His choice of words was proof to me that some sorts of decisions have to be made even in scientific inquiries and that these decisions must be based on personal believes. No scientist can escape this basic truth as surely as man cannot escape nature. That much I was willing to admit. Matter of fact, both I and my friend agree that the answer to the question if we need nature is self evident. It is not that we need nature as much as we are part of it.

My friend was unimpressed by my moral objections. ‘The question remains how we got to the point to ask ourselves, if we need nature?’ He did not wait for me to answer him. ‘A question surely is provoked by something. And if it were true that we are part of nature, the question is obviously absurd. How could one question the need of something that you are part of? The real question is why we distinguish ourselves from nature at all. Standing on our hind legs we oversee a nature at our disposal; with our hands free we craft artifacts, with our communities we create civilizations, with our technology we defy our biological roots, with our minds unchallenged we dream of immortality. The question about nature is a question of identity. Conscious about the distance between the heavens and the earth we are carving a niche for mankind asserting our uniqueness and call it being human. Every civilization is built on the assumption that what makes us human is unlike anything else found in nature, making mankind different from God’s other creations, light and darkness, heaven and earth, air and water, birds and fish.’

‘Your friend called.’ My wife shook my arm and I realized that I dozed of. ‘He’s expecting us for dinner,’ she said. ‘He had a dream and wants to talk with you about it.’  

Lukas Buehler, November 20, 2010

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