Human nature

Leaning over the metal rail of a small footbridge I looked down, countless times, at the brook, which ran the length of my hometown. The fluid beneath was not pure sparkling water, but a concocted soup – a collaboration of rainfall, natural runoff, and pollutants from chemical and other types of factories operating upstream.

To those imprisoned by the expectation that a brook in a small town should not be polluted, this likely connotes a sad state. The reality, however, for my youthful self was quite different; I took delight in the stream’s daily color changes, from greenish to bluish to iridescent – I especially liked the iridescent days that included foam.

In hindsight, I’m sure that environmental regulations were broken and pockets lined for official-eye-diversion, but that’s just the way things operated in our corner of the world; these were facts, like the earth’s rotation, that didn’t warrant extraordinary consideration.

Standing on my favorite footbridge and leaning against the rail is also where I took part in my first philosophical conversation. Actually, calling the discussion philosophical is a bit of a stretch – it was more like two ten-year-olds arguing. Regardless, the topic up for debate was something I had been thinking a lot about: if an anthill or a bird’s nest is natural, why aren’t houses, cars, or televisions? After all, my reasoning went, humans are animals just like ants and birds. Moreover, the crux of my argument stood on the concept that humans aren’t special enough to warrant giving the things we make a unique delineation: unnatural.

To be honest, I still haven’t come to a comfortable conclusion regarding the natural versus unnatural debate; it is, perhaps, a little essentialist to argue that televisions are natural. (Did I say essentialist? I meant stupid.)

These things said, I’m sure that it’s due to the love I still feel for my hometown’s brook, my appreciation for the smell of cold rain on hot blacktop, and the mystique I recognize in garbage-strewn vacant lots, that my concept of nature is somewhat skewed.

In my eyes, it’s a mistake to assume that nature is a magical realm that exists only in the absence of human hands – whether or not our hands can create natural objects, nature does not exist solely in a human void; it is a reality that overlays and interconnects with ours. It can be observed growing between cracks in the sidewalk, scampering along power lines, or even swimming in polluted brooks.

And now that the unofficial start of summer is upon us, I think it would serve us all well to take a moment and sip some lemonade out of a plastic cup and walk the unnatural city streets in search of some nature.

7 responses to “Human nature”

  1. This reminded me of Jeremy’s anti-nature screed from some months ago. But it also led me to ask: isn’t it ultimately unnatural if we create habitats that work contrary to the survival of the species? wouldn’t that set us apart from other animals building their diverse forms of shelter?

    this also rings w/ something i’ve been thinking about: why is it that the most unnatural farming methods are the ones deemed “conventional”?

  2. Dave says:

    Scott, where were you when I was teaching my gay and lesbian philosophy class? It was like pulling teeth to get my students to see how problematic the natural/unnatural distinction was. Ebola — natural; 18-year-old Scotch — unnatural.

  3. Jeremy says:

    is “work[ing] contrary to the survival of the species” a realistic definition of unnatural? what if an act works “contrary to the survival of the species” in the long term (e.g., global warming, which will kill us all) but propels the species forward in the short term (e.g., mass producing a variety of goods and/or infrastructure that spur population growth)?

    what i like about this post, and one of the many delightful things about scotty, is how it/he recognizes beauty in the mundane…

  4. your example is exactly what i mean by working contrary to the species: if all the plastic lemonade cups eventually lead to the end of life on the planet, the beauty of the moment seems a little short-sighted. but then again, maybe scott’s point is that wearing rose-colored glasses to treat such short-sightedness is the best we can do?

  5. Dave says:

    Species go extinct all the time, many from “natural” causes. The success of the Nile perch in Lake Victoria is poisoning the lake, bringing about the extinction of that population of Nile perch and numerous other fish populations there, some of which are unique species. (Of course, Nile perch was introduced to Lake Victoria by a human. This whole thing is problematic.)

    Bringing about our own extinction is stupid and immoral — why do we have to call it unnatural as well?

  6. Stephanie Wells says:

    I disagree–what could be less immoral than bringing about the extinction of a species that will bring about the extinction of every OTHER species if it remains unextinct?

  7. Dave says:

    I’m a speciesist. If there were no human beings (or other beings with the psychological characteristics necessary for moral personhood) around, there would be no moral reason not to destroy all other life on earth. Morally speaking, when it comes to the continuation of species, we’re the species that counts.