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Nov 23 2008

The Human Animal: An Atheist’s View of People and Nature

In an atheist’s worldview, what is our relationship with nature?

Let me rephrase that. In this atheist’s worldview, what is our relationship with nature?

Earth in hand
In many religions — traditional Judeo- Christian- Islam in particular — the answer to that question is clear. Our relationship with nature is that nature was made for us. Animals, plants, even the sun and the moon and the planet itself… all were made for people to use. To subdue, to have dominion over, as Genesis 1:28 so charmingly puts it. Every single living thing on the planet — they’re all just one big all- you- can- eat buffet, laid out specially for the human race. (Except for the poisonous living things, and the living things that are trying to eat us, and the living things that are just plain useless. But that’s not important right now.)

But if you don’t believe in a creation made with humans in mind, then how do we fit into nature? What’s our connection with it?

Botany of Desire
A few years ago, I read a book by Michael Pollan (of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), called The Botany of Desire. It’s a history of four different cultivated plants — apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana — written to examine and explore people’s relationships with plants. Fascinating book. Highly recommended. But it’s not what I want to talk about today.

In The Botany of Desire, Pollan talks about the co-evolution of flowers and bees. Specifically, he talks about how certain flowers evolved, and continue to evolve, in response to bees’ very specific preferences. Flowers with characteristics that bees like — certain bright colors and patterns, for instance — will get chosen by the bees for pollination, and will get to win the Darwinian Reproduction Lottery. Flowers that don’t, won’t. (Unless they find some other way to get pollinated.)

And it suddenly struck me:

How is that so different from human cultivation?

Firetulips
Flowers with characteristics that humans like — certain bright colors and patterns, for instance — will get chosen by the humans for pollination (or grafting, or cloning, or whatever agricultural methods we’re using to breed more of the flowers we like), and will get to win the Reproduction Lottery. Flowers that don’t, won’t. (Unless they find some other way to get pollinated.)

Is that really so different? Is there really that much difference between human intervention in tulips’ evolution, and beevine intervention in tulips’ evolution?

(Before you jump all over me: Yes, I think there is some difference. I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, stay with me.)

This is the point I want to make. It’s a point that most of us know and understand consciously… and yet it’s a point that we have a striking tendency to forget.

We are animals.

I’ll say that again:

We. Are. Animals.

Ape_skeletons
We are an animal species: in the primate order, in the mammalian class, in the vertebrate sub-phylum. We are a product of evolution; a product of nature.

Yes, we’re animals with an unusual ability to shape our environment. But it’s an unusual ability — not a unique one. Other living things have made dramatic physical impacts on the planet as well. Coral, for instance. Earthworms. And, of course, plants. Plants breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen made a huge, radical change to the atmosphere of the planet. (A change that, so I’ve read, was a serious ecological threat to plant life, until animals came along and re-balanced the ecosystem.)

Trilobite
And yes, humans are the dominant life form on the planet right now. But even that doesn’t make us special. Other life forms have been dominant in the past: trilobites, for instance, and dinosaurs. They were around for tens of millions of years. We’ve been the dominant species for what — ten thousand years? Less? In geological terms, we’re not even a blip.

It’s so easy to think of human beings as somehow apart from nature. It’s deeply woven into our language and our way of thinking. Nature versus nurture. Nature versus culture. Natural versus man-made. Is such- and- such plant a native, or was it brought to this region by people? Is X (global warming, homosexuality, the tendency of twenty- something human males to get into stupid accidents) caused by human beings and human culture, or is it natural? It’s a way of thinking that’s very pervasive. Even among people who aren’t talking about religion. Even among atheists.

Origin_of_species
When people talk about evolution, for instance, they — we — often do it as if human beings were evolution’s pinnacle, the goal it’s been inexorably moving towards… as opposed to just one tiny, short-lived twig on an enormously huge, four- billion- year- old tree. Ditto when we talk about the food chain. There’s a decided tendency to talk about the food chain as if it all headed straight into our mouths.

And it’s a way of thinking that shows up a lot when science collides with politics or morality. When the question comes up of whether human gender roles are born or learned or both, we tend to forget that we are animals — and that most animals have some sort of innate gender- differentiated behavior when it comes to sex and reproduction. When the question comes up of whether human homosexuality is born or learned or both, we tend to forget that we are animals — and that homosexual behavior has been observed in hundreds upon hundreds of other animal species. We don’t think of zoology as applying to us. We think of ourselves as different.

Honey_bee
Now. I’m not saying there’s no difference at all. When it comes to the tulips’ evolution, for instance, I think there is a difference between human intervention and bee intervention. The difference is consciousness. Humans intervene with the tulips consciously: making observations about what sort of interventions create what sorts of changes in the tulips, making plans for the direction we want those changes to go in, making calculations about how to make those changes happen. Bees, as far as we know, don’t.

And that does confer a moral responsibility on humans that we probably wouldn’t apply to other living things. Nobody would say that algae were immoral or short-sighted for overbreeding and choking a pond to death. We would say that human beings are immoral and short-sighted — not to say stupid verging on criminally insane — for continuing to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when we know it’s potentially choking our planet to death. I’d say that, anyway.

Thinking
But I’m reluctant to draw a bright line between humans and other animals on that basis alone. Not yet, anyway. We just don’t know that much about consciousness yet: what exactly it is, how it works, how the brain produces it. And until we do, I’m reluctant to say that consciousness is unique to human animals. We have a long, stupid, wrongheaded history of assuming that other animals don’t have certain kinds of experiences — they don’t feel pain, they don’t feel attachment, they have no innate morality, etc. — simply because they don’t have language, and can’t tell us about it.

Besides, even if consciousness does turn out to be unique to the human species… isn’t that part of our nature as well? Spiders have the unique ability to spin webs; bats have the unique ability to navigate with sonar. Having an ability that’s unique among all other living things… that doesn’t make us unique. If that makes sense.

And even if our consciousness does turn out to be unique… it is still, as far as all the evidence currently points, a product of our brains. Which are products, yet again, of evolution. Of nature.

So what is humanity’s relationship with nature?

Humanity’s relationship with nature is that we are part of it.

Phylogenetic tree of life
We are an animal species: in the primate order, in the mammalian class, in the vertebrate sub-phylum. We are a product of evolution; a product of nature. Even the things we do that seem most unnatural — building museums, building strip malls, belching greenhouse gas into the air, sending rockets to the moon, buying bras on the Internet — are no more unnatural than coral building a reef, or earthworms turning rocks into soil, or algae blooming in a pond, or plants belching that toxic oxygen crap into the atmosphere.

I’m not saying that everything we do is part of nature, and therefore everything we do is okay. I’m not saying that everything we do is part of nature, and therefore it’s fine for us to be self-serving hedonists. Far from it. Plenty of things are part of nature that we’d consider immoral: rape, torturous cruelty, biting the heads off one’s mates. And if for no other reason, self- preservation alone should inspire us to not act like immoral, short-sighted dolts.

If anything, I’m saying the opposite. We have the capacity for consciousness — and we therefore have the capacity for foresightedness and choice, and the moral responsibility that comes along with it. And that, too, is part of our nature, a fundamental part of how our minds and our social functions evolved. A part that has generally served us well, I might add. It’s a part of our nature that we should embrace. Given the power we have to radically fuck up the world… our capacity for consciousness and foresightedness and moral responsibity is a part of our nature that we really, really should embrace. Hard.

Tree
And I propose that seeing ourselves as a part of nature — not separate from it, not above it or isolated from it, but deeply woven into it, as deeply woven as coral and bats and tulips and algae — is a crucial part of that embrace.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Eric

    Here’s how I think of the bees vs. humans thing: in both cases there’s some “optimization process” going on. There’s something that’s directing the future into a state that would otherwise be extremely unlikely. And the difference is that with the bees, they’re the trigger, but not the process – natural selection is what actually does the optimizing. In humans, we’re the trigger and the process.

  2. 2
    Kris Shanks

    I don’t think thinking about the bees as a trigger is a useful metaphor, because the evolution of flowers and their pollinators is a two way street – changes in the flower may facilitate changes in the bees. Similarly it’s another bit of evidence of the human bias to see ourselves as separate from evolution when we talk about the “invention” of agriculture rather than our co-evolution with plants. Plants are influencing our evolution as well. For example, in human populations with a long tradition of agriculture there’s a common mutation that increases the amount of amylase (the enzyme that degrades starch) in the saliva.

  3. 3
    Joreth

    Good post, thank you. You might be interested in reading In Defense Of The Human Species – it’s much along these same lines.
    The “humans are apart from nature” idea is one that really pisses me off. It’s used to justify a great many evils. It’s our “right” as rulers of the earth to do such and such. It’s not our “right” to harm the planet so we harm humans to prevent it. It’s not “natural” so therefore we prevent advances that could save lives, not just human.
    That it’s not “natural”, that it took a conscious, guiding, consequence-seeing hand to create it does not mean it’s not “natural”, since the ability to create (and destroy) came from the natural evolution of our brains that enable us to do so. Nature can create some pretty horrific things too, including, but not limited to, some humans.
    It’s not the natural vs. man-made that makes something bad or good. It’s the moral or ethical purpose that we humans have the unique ability to comprehend, that make it bad or good. “Nature” is neutral. It is neither bad nor good. And what’s “bad” for one may be simultaneously “good” for another.
    Tesla discovered/invented our current most popular form of harnessing electrictity – the alternating current. At the time, Edison was adamantly opposed to AC, he favored DC (direct current), and to illustrate how evil this invention was, when Tesla went to unveil his new discovery, Edison used AC to build the first electric chair and fried a man to death.
    Yet, today, we use AC for everything, including our efforts to consciously save human lives and even to consciously save “nature”. Electricity, even in the form of alternating current, which is a distinctly human invention, is not inherenty bad or good – neither for us humans nor for the planet as a whole. It’s the purpose we put to it. And so far, only humans have exhibited the ability to consciously choose a “good” purpose, an altruistic purpose, even at the expense of our own species, let alone our own selves, in favor of someone or something else.
    And we do so because we evolved, naturally, to be able to.

  4. 4
    Tim Foster

    I think you’re right that the differences between humans and other animals are quantitative, rather than qualitative. However, there is a remarkable degree of difference:
    Humans are orders of magnitude more adaptable than anything else we’ve ever seen in the animal (or plant) kingdom. Whenever something happens to us, it isn’t one troupe that adapts, it doesn’t take generations to change, and we have a population far more stable than anything you see in nature.
    Humans (uniquely, as far as I know) exhibit an enhanced degree of consciousness: self-consciousness.
    If we were monkeys, we might notice that we like tulips better in a sunnier spot, if watered etc. We humans, have developed science through a self-consciousness of the failure of our brains to analyse the data sufficiently, and adapt new reasoning methods for getting around it. And then we articulate exactly why we like the tulips better, and sell the better versions to non-botanists.

  5. 5
    arensb

    While I think you’re right about just about everything you said here, I don’t see it as a consequence of atheism, except insofar as atheists don’t have “I’m a separate creation, most beloved of God” blocking their view of the way the world really is. I have devout Christian friends who, I’m sure, would agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, especially the bit about responsibility.
    “Atheist” simply means “lacking belief in gods”. And while “atheist” strongly correlates with “rationalist”, “skeptic”, etc., there’s still a distinction.

  6. 6
    LissaMonster

    I am in agreement with this post. The Botany of Desire is one of my favorite non-fiction books.
    I am curious to know if you’ve read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (and its sequels, My Ishmael and The Story of B) and, if so, what you thought of them. He discusses the theme of what’s ‘natural’ and other cultural phenomena. I found them enlightening and thought provoking.

  7. 7
    RStretton

    Part of the problem of progressiveness that people percieve in evolution is the poor classification used. You say that humans are part of the phylum animalia, but why? Phylums and all other linneaen classification above genus level are meaningless arbitrary delimiters with no sense or meaning. Scientists use cladistic phylogenetics nowadays to classify organisms which removes the arbitrariness and allows you to understand evolutionary relationships in a meaningful context. We can only hope that eventually someone outside of science realises and the media stop talking about phylums, orders etc. Maybe then people may see how interconnected and animaly we really are.

  8. 8
    I amafreeman

    Don’t have time to read this in its entirety at the moment – but will. So far, GREAT. But, must say:

    You forgot BEAVERS (the animals; Possibly the most purposely (intelligent?)impactive force on the planet outside of humans. The chain of life they engender is nothing short of awesome; and, unlike humans, LAZY is not in their vocabulary.

    2) In contrast, unknowingly huge herds of Bison (and other like creatures) have caused massive erosion of stream and riverbanks when crossing; imagine herds measured in MILES – both in width and depth!! Almost incomprehensible!

    Began thinking this way about us humans many moons ago and have been thinking more and more along these lines of late. It occurs to me it is a question of ego; BIG or STRONG?

    Posed this to someone just the other day; Why do we think it is important/valuable/meaningful to tell someone we love them? They should feel “blessed” by OUR loving them? The enormity of that size ego floors me.

    I use this as merely one (of my latest) examples of how we’uns thnk we are such, well, hot shyte. Perhaps when we stop and consider ourselves as simply another animal species the entire world will come more clearly into focus.

    Then, of course, their is the question of our RESPONSIBILITY brought on by our (peculiar) ability to REASON. Therein lies the rub.

    Without a doubt, organized religions (in our Western sense at least) has brought about the destruction of our planet along with the utter disregard for other life forms – all inter-dependent, I might add.

    To me, this begs the question: WHO,(in their right mind) for example, would purposely punch holes in their own spacecraft that is hurtling through a VACUUM at super-sonic speeds ka-billions of miles from any other source of oxygen/foodstuffs,or any other resource, necessary to their own survival? Absolute insanity!

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