The Nature of Nature

In his Studies in Words (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967), C.S. Lewis devotes a whole chapter to the word nature.  The various ways in which we use that word today, he suggests, can be traced back to the Latin natura, the English kind (gecynde, cynde, kynde, etc), and the Greek phusis. Of the three roots, it is the Greek phusis which gives the most trouble, and it is a particular development of that word which is the subject of this essay.

Lewis reminds us of Aristotle’s famous definition of phusis as ‘whatever each thing is like  when its process of coming to be is complete’ (Physics, Book II) and then goes on to make the point that, long before Aristotle, the word phusis had taken on another and quite different meaning.  The Presocratic Greek philosophers, he tells us, had the idea of taking all of the subject matter of human knowledge (gods, people, plants, animals, minerals) and assigning it to a class or category which they called phusis. In short, phusis was the ‘whole shebang’. And so, phusis moves from being a word like ‘sort’ or ‘quality’ or ‘character’, to a word describing all of the objects of human thought.  This is why the written works of the Presocratics often bore the title Peri Phuseos – ‘about nature’ or ‘about the things that are’.  In case you think that this latter term takes the cake in terms of all-encompassing titles, then you have forgotten Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness!  I would be interested to hear from anyone who can suggest a more ‘global’ title for a work.

Jonathon Barnes, a modern commentator on the Presocratics (Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, 1987), has a slightly different take to Lewis. He supposes that the Greek word kosmos, as used by Heraclitus, is a description of everything – the whole world.  He leaves us uncertain, however, as to whether kosmos included the gods.  Whatever the case, Barnes finds it extraordinary that these early Greeks should have felt the need for a word to describe the totality of things. But why should it be any more extraordinary for them than it is for us today?  Barnes, I fear, suffers from what Owen Barfield has called ‘logomorphism’ –our tendency to suppose that we can deduce just what the ancients might have thought (or not thought) by projecting our own ideas back in time but imagining them in a ‘primitive’ mind.  In any case, the word kosmos was more often used to describe an orderly arrangement of things or an ‘adornment’.

Irrespective of whether we consider either phusis or kosmos, nature as ‘everything’ is not a very helpful word.  As Lewis points out, nature in this sense has no opposite – ‘when we say that any particular thing is part of nature, we know no more about it than before.’  ‘Everything’, as Lewis says, ‘is a subject on which there is not much to be said.’  Indeed, there is a certain sense in which strict monism creates huge problems for us.  If, for instance, we conceive of the Parmenidean ‘One’ as the only Reality then, logically, we must suppose that the human self is not different from this Reality. But, we cannot talk about ‘the One’ without identifying it as an object of thought over and against oneself as subject.  In other words, merely by positing all human activity (including thinking) as part of an all-encompassing Reality, Parmenides must step outside this Reality in some way in order to say anything about it at all. You cannot describe a total system from the inside.

The Demotion of Nature

In any case, as Lewis points out, nature as a sort of absolute collectivity was soon demoted in the history of Western thought.  Rather obviously, Plato’s famous Theory of Forms saw the objects of the sensible world as mere copies or shadows of the archetypal Forms – there were now two orders of reality.  Opinions may differ as to how Plato conceived of the Forms in relation to the sensible objects of this world but, without doubt, the objects perceived by the human senses were less real than the archetypal Forms.  Now there was phusis, and there was the world of the Forms.  There followed, of course, the Christian conception of nature as a creation of God.  Here, much as in Plato’s Timaeus, the sensible world was an artifact – the creation of an Artist.  Indeed, even throughout the Middle Ages, this idea of a nature created by God retained some of the earlier Platonic ideas. It was generally accepted that the realm beyond the moon contained the unvarying heavens and these were an expression of the divine order.  By contrast, the sublunar realm was the domain of chance, mutability and death. Nature had now been demoted even further.  It was not the kosmos, but only part of it – that part subject to corruption, decay, and death.

But those same medieval commentators who regarded nature as the realm of decay could also think of nature as some great and benevolent force.  In The Romance of the Rose, the fight of ‘Dame Nature’ against corruption and death is beautifully portrayed.  We find nature as ‘the vicaire of the almighty Lorde’ in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foulys (line 379).   We find similar sentiments in Piers Ploughman (Book XI, B text) where the author marvels at Nature and at the lessons she teaches.  Nature, in this sense, remains with us today as a very powerful idea.  Lewis calls the idea ‘Great Mother Nature’.  If I were asked to demonstrate its clearest modern expression, I think I would elect those Disney wildlife films so popular about two or three decades ago.  You can even catch a whiff of it in Sir David Attenborough’s whispered commentaries in spite of his scientific determinism.  Of course, we should not suppose that ‘Mother Nature’ was a medieval creation.  One can trace the idea back as far as Homer where, in Book IV of the Odyssey, we have that account of Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, transforming himself into all of the manifestations of the natural world.  He is a sort of ‘Father Nature’.

While it may be true that ‘Mother Nature’ continues to be an important idea, modern empirical science seems to drain it of any real meaning.  For the empiricist, there is nothing beyond the material cosmos as a vast collection of ‘matter’ and ‘forces’ obeying the laws of physics, chemistry, and evolution.  ‘Mother Nature’ is merely a sentimental depiction, albeit socially useful, for that vast entity called ‘the web of life’.  Moreover, when it is all boiled down, humans are merely one ‘node’ in that vast web of life.


Is Nature a Unity or a Plurality?

And so, the critical question is whether ‘nature’ considered as a whole is greater than the sum of all the parts that make it up.  In metaphysical terms, is the One merely another name for the collection of the Many?  It is precisely here, I think, that the empiricists run into trouble and that particular trouble has been greatly accentuated in recent decades by the rise of what I will call ‘environmental consciousness’. In modern environmental thought, there is that very strong sense of humanity (especially Western humanity) running contrary to nature. There is also an associated idea, albeit somewhat vague, of nature possessing its own élan vital, a la Bergson and, thereby, establishing the basis for qualities like intrinsic value. Many environmentalists also regard the earth as a single, vast organism – the Gaia of James Lovelock, for instance. But, if nature (of which we are a part) is merely a vast collection of materials obeying blind laws (physical, chemical, evolutionary) through a causal chain, then where does the question of value or of right and wrong arise?  These are merely subjective, human tags. Why should nature, in this sense, have a value like beauty, for instance? One man’s waterfall is simply another man’s hydro-electric opportunity. Of course, there are other problems for the empiricist. If we suppose that humans are merely rather intelligent, trousered or skirted apes, then we must at least question what it is in us that allows such an estimation.  How do we explain the ability of reflection in biological terms?

 Is Human Nature ‘Natural’?

Again, if we want to suppose that the human species, like any other species, is totally the product of a natural, evolutionary process, in what sense can the actions of modern humanity be seen as ‘destructive’ or ‘unnatural’?  One might argue that, in multiplying their numbers, building their cities and devouring an ever-increasing amount of the earth’s natural resources, humans are simply acting out some genetically or environmentally determined role under a process of natural selection. Ecological harmony, after all, is the harmony of balanced warfare, since the blind process of natural selection knows nothing of charity and moral virtue.  The cuckoo survives by destroying the embryos of its avian relatives and replacing them with its own so that it holds its neighbours in no higher regard than slavish wet nurses. For humans, there is no room for genuine freedom because this hints at some sort of transcendental Reality. Real freedom would imply that, at least in some respects, humans were not ‘part of nature’. The argument can be put in fairly simple terms: if humans are wholly ‘within nature’, then everything that they do is ‘natural’. Philosophers often put this sort of argument as ‘no ought from an is’. That is to say, from a set of statements about how things are in nature, we cannot deduce how things ought to be vis a vis human behaviour.

Of course, it would be silly to suppose that these objections to the empiricists’ view of nature cannot be challenged.  The usual objection raised here is that humans have ceased to be under control of natural selection and are, instead, governed by a process of social or cultural selection. But we must then ask how a species can ‘escape’ as it were, from the processes of natural selection. There is a whole new discipline called ‘environmental philosophy’, where these questions are subjected to minute scrutiny and where arguments for ‘intrinsic value’ in nature (to take but one example) are prosecuted with great vigor.  The nature-culture debate is also a hot issue and the empiricists are not without some defense against similarly awkward questions. A case in point is the recent book Human Natures by Paul Ehrlich (Island Press, USA. 2000). In a book marshaling over 1700 footnotes and 2500 references, Ehrlich attempts to show how the totality of human natures (he is opposed to the idea of a single ‘human nature’) can be explained in evolutionary terms. Despite this prodigious show of scholarship, his case is hardly convincing.  As he himself says in a masterly understatement, ‘the details of the process of cultural evolution are not well understood’. The implication is that science will one day provide the needed answers, but it is difficult to see how any new information can obtain an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

The Modern Notions of Nature

Let’s get back to nature!  I have tried to give a very brief account of one particular elaboration of this word – nature as representing the entire material world.  But it is not as simple as that.  In our everyday conversation we often use the word natural as the opposite of artificialNature then becomes all of those things that occur ‘of their own accord’.  We are now getting much closer to the modern ‘environmental’ view of what constitutes nature.  Nature is that which has not been interfered with.  But every part of nature interferes with every other part in a great causal chain, so this clearly is not what the environmentalists mean.  On closer examination, nature is all of that which has not been altered by human activity so as to become a sort of artifice. The natural is the opposite of the cultural. Indeed, this sort of meaning can also be traced back to early Greece – to the distinction between phusis and techne.  But, as Lewis points out, ‘if ants had a language, they would, no doubt, call their anthill an artifact and describe the brick wall in its neighbourhood as a natural object.’

We now begin to see that nature is, in fact, a wholly human creation.  We may not have physically created the matter of the universe but we have certainly created nature.  In the same way, we have created concepts like ecosystem and wilderness area. This is why such commonplace terms as ‘natural ecosystem’ or ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (this last, a term beloved of government bureaucrats and uttered as a sort of mantra) are so problematic.  No two people will have exactly the same idea of what constitutes a ‘natural ecosystem’ or ‘pristine wilderness’. These are not mathematical truths or ‘objects’ with an unambiguous empirical reality (inasmuch as the latter is allowed in these post-Kantian times).  Rather, they are something akin to Universals, whose existence relies on our tacit agreement.

The English writer Peter Coates (Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times, Polity Press, UK, 1998) gives us a very good example of the sort of problem we are up against:

The suburban lawn may seem an unlikely choice but it illustrates nicely the clumsiness of the received categories of nature and culture. We might conclude that, while grass seed and blades of grass are part of nature, they enter the realm of artifice through their collective identity as a lawn. Yet the seeds themselves are completely domesticated, bred for shade tolerance, for instance. Does the lawn become more natural, however, if dandelions, daisies and moss – the spontaneous products of ‘nature’ – establish themselves?

Coates goes on to point out that many of the so-called ‘natural environments’ in the UK are very largely the product of human activity over thousands of years.  Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any reasonably accessible part of Europe as being in a wholly natural state if we wish to define nature in the way I have suggested above.  In his essay Inside the Whale, George Orwell referred to ‘the ancient bone-heap of Europe where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies.’

Nature in the New World

When you come to think about it, the undoubted dominance of American writers in the broad area of nature conservation (I am thinking of people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold) is hardly surprising.  Only in the ‘New World’ could the effects of European civilization upon a certain perception of nature (nature as wilderness) be clearly observed in the course of a few generations.  The changes were both obvious and rapid.  By contrast, in Europe, the landscape had been changing under human influence for thousands of years so that some benchmark or starting point of ‘pristine nature’ was not available.  It is true that the word ecology comes from Germany, not America, but the originator, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was not really thinking of ‘pristine’ nature.  Rather, his emphasis was on an anti-mechanistic and holistic approach to biology.  It was the approach, not the subject matter, which concerned him in the main.

And this, I think, also explains why we in Australia tend to accept the American model so readily.  Like the Americans, we are in a position to observe rapid changes in our ‘natural environment’ over a relatively short time.  When I was at school, the frontispiece of the Victorian Readers Eighth Book included a reproduction of McCubbin’s Pioneers as a fit subject of admiration –here were people who had made Australia liveable for us. Further on in the book one could find similar sentiments in poems and stories. George Essex Evans’ The Nation Builders praised the sturdy timber cutter of the east coast ‘where the axe is ringing in the heart of the ranges grim’. Nowadays, a large proportion of the population regards the cutting down of native forests as a necessary evil at best and an act of vandalism at worst. We now equate all human-implemented change in this category of nature as a fall from harmony.

But the climate has changed even further in some quarters.  If one has some concept of a pristine nature – a modern ‘wilderness area’, let us say – then there are other interesting situations which arise.  Take the question of wildfires, for instance.  If a lightning strike causes a wildfire in some ‘wilderness area’, should we as humans endeavor to put it out?  The situation is similar regarding the notion of ‘maintenance of biodiversity’ (another very hazy term beloved of bureaucrats).  At the present time we have a certain suite of ‘indigenous’ species of plants and animals.  Every effort is being made to prevent further extinctions and yet, as the evolutionary biologists tell us, extinctions are a normal process in nature.   Of course, we can argue that recent human activity has greatly hastened the process of extinction of species.  Nonetheless, it remains true that if we were able to completely prevent further extinctions we would, and in so doing, we would be acting against ‘evolutionary forces’.  In short, our actions would be unnatural.  Had we been about in the days of the dinosaurs and taken every effort to prevent their extinction, the particular degree of biodiversity that we now have may very well have been less.  Who knows?

Nature, Purity, and Health

There are many other curious features of the modern view of nature.  One is the view that prehistoric human societies (and, indeed, many historical hunter-gatherer societies in the ‘New World’) were ‘part of nature’, whereas modern and premodern human societies are not.  In other words, the whole history of Western civilization is seen in terms of a sort of ecological declension.  One other very strange notion of nature can be seen in any supermarket aisle.  This is the identification of natural with pure, or health giving.  Hence product titles such as ‘Pure and Natural’, ‘Nature’s Own’, ‘Nature’s Bounty’, etc.  What exactly does natural mean here?  It cannot mean ‘unprocessed’ (in the sense of not being interfered with by humans) because there it is in a plastic bag, or tin, or cardboard box.  Neither can it mean ‘healthy’ in any general sense because many ‘natural’ products are deadly poisonous.  Botulinum toxin is natural.  So is fluoroacetic acid – a deadly poison occurring in many native plants.  When, in Auguries of Innocence, Blake wrote ‘The Strongest Poison ever known/Came from Caesar’s Laurel Crown’, he was giving us a double truth.

Closely allied to this are particular usages of the words organic and environment.  A neighbour down the road – one of the last farmers in this district – sells organic milk!  Indeed, it is only because he has organic milk that he is still able to operate his business as a small family farm.  He has a marketing edge over the big operators.   Our local supermarket has ‘chemical-free’ chickens and our greengrocer has lines of organic vegetables.  Here, organic and natural are almost interchangeable words.  And yet, of course, the vast majority of human-manufactured chemicals are organic chemicals. For the biochemist, of course, the idea of ‘chemical-free’ chickens is a bit hard to take – the more hard-line biochemists would probably suppose that a chemical-free chicken was an entity entirely lacking in substance – a mere potentiality!.

Likewise, the word environment really means ‘surrounding; surrounding objects, region, or conditions, especially circumstances of life of persons or society’ (OED).  But that is not how the word is generally used today.  In our district, most of the waste disposal people class their trade as ‘environmental services’.  As far as I am aware, only one brave soul sticks to ‘desludging of septic tanks’.  I am particularly impressed with the professionalism of this operator.  He calls his business ‘Smithy’s Takeaways’ and, just above the main outlet valve on his huge tanker truck are the words ‘Another load of politicians’ promises’.  ‘Smithy’ himself is a very likeable and intelligent character who loves his job and takes the septic tank business very seriously indeed.  He obviously takes a keen and discerning interest in politics too!

Environment now means ‘clean and green’.  A healthy ‘environment’, is generally one devoid of any sort of by-product resulting from human activity –right the way from human excretory products to carbon dioxide emissions from industry. In other words, environment is gradually being transformed so as to have a meaning almost synonymous with natural (in the modern sense of that word).  Hence, the term human environment is almost an oxymoron.

The Demonisation of Human Activity in Nature

We might argue that this whole business of our use of nature, natural, etc. is harmless enough and that common sense usually prevails.  But I think there is a danger, and I see that danger increasing as time passes.  It is the danger that young people, continually bombarded with these ideas, will come to see every human production as being in some way a ‘denaturing’ process.  It is, of course true that the idea of human as intruder in nature is not a recent invention.  In his Intimations Ode, Wordsworth laments his loss of innocence in nature:

But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

We ought to note, however, that Wordsworth was no denigrator of humanity.  He could find ample recompense for his sense of the loss of ‘natural man’ in the power of human imagination, so beautifully expressed in the Tintern Abbey poem.

Perhaps closer to this modern sense of the ‘unnatural human’ is Albert Camus’s idea of the absurdity of human life and a feeling of alienation from nature.  Thus, for instance, in The Myth of Sisyphus he says:

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise.

Or again,

We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty.  Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them and the blood that trickles from them is the colour of printer’s ink.

But Camus wrote this before the advent of the ‘age of ecology’. A new brand of hopelessness has since entered the scene.  And so, in the end we come to a sort of contemptus hominis – hatred for all that is human- made or human altered, especially if the humans happen to belong to Western civilisation.  A typical example comes from Ian McHarg (Design in Nature. Natural History Press, N.Y.1969)

Such is our inheritance.  A ragbag of ancient views, most of them breeding fear and hostility, based on ignorance, certain to destroy, incapable of creation.  Show me the prototypical anthropocentric, anthropomorphizing man and you will see the destroyer, atomic demolition expert, clear feller of forests, careless miner, he who fouls the air and the water, destroys whole species of wildlife: the gratified driver of bulldozers, the uglifier.

Commenting on similar but more extreme examples from the writings of animal liberationists, Bernard Levin, a well-known English columnist, has this to say:

This is, I think, a phenomenon very much of our time.  St. Francis loved the beasts and preached to the birds; indeed, he spoke kindly of a flea.  But his love of animals stemmed from his love of mankind, and it would never have occurred to him that the one precluded the other; in his father’s house there were many mansions.  Now, we hear on all hands that man is the enemy, that the planet cannot stand much more of him, that only animals are noble and pure.  I think it is worse than that; I think there is a hatred of life itself somewhere down in the cellarage, an unbearable rage at the very fact that there is a universe and that we are in it, for good or ill, along with the animals.

There is something in what Levin says.  We need to realise, as Peter Coates says, that nature is, in a sense, never itself but always ours.  If we downgrade the human then, automatically, we downgrade nature as well.

In all of the above, of course, I do not deny that the environmentalists have real concerns.  We are causing real damage in nature. No one could deny, for instance, the reality of the salinity problem in Australia.  My point is that we cannot hope to find a solution to our problems by relying totally on scientific advances or, alternatively, by reverting to some sort of hunter-gatherer livestyle.  A large part of our problem is deeply connected with our perception of what it means to be human. In a contribution to Quarterly Essay (Issue 10, 2003), Barney Foran, a well-known and respected environmental scientist in Australia, urged us to ‘start valuing people as solutions rather than relying on technological wizardry’.  He spoke also of needing to substitute ‘the rush and excitement of a real life for the rush brought on by buying and owning things.’

It is something of a savage irony that at a time when we can boast of having ‘conquered’ so much of ‘nature’ in the Baconian sense, we now feel so isolated from that which we purport to understand so well.  In successfully demythologising nature and our own past we have, in that very process, lost all sense of meaning and purpose for human life.  In becoming fully ‘part of nature’ as intelligent apes in the evolutionary schema, we now perceive the whole human enterprise as being no more than a destructive perturbation on the idiot face of a blind nature. We are no more than a brief irruption – like a mouse plague – on a tiny planet in a tiny corner of an immense universe.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago (in The Abolition of Man), we have not conquered nature; she has conquered us.

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Brian Coman

A former research biologist, I returned to the Academy after retirement to take up postgraduate studies in the humanities. I am interested in most aspects of the Western Tradition but, in particular, I have focused on that grey area between philosophy and religion.

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