You Make Feel Like a Natural Human
February 28, 2019
I recently saw a Nature Valley (makers of granola bars) commercial with the slogan “Nature makes us better.” One implication of the commercial, inferred partially from the slogan and partially from the imagery, is something like this: “Spending too much time indoors, eating too much processed food, and not getting enough exercise are all detrimental to our health; so, we should get outside, eat more raw or lightly-processed foods, and move our bodies more.” All of that’s fine and probably an accurate diagnosis. But there’s a deeper implication there as well, and it comes from the way the words are used. “Nature,” the slogan implies, is something that can be applied to humans like ointment or that can be taken by humans like medicine or that can be entered into by humans like a sauna; and, having been consumed or entered into, it will “make them better.” On this description (and here I infer more from other cultural sources, not merely from the commercial), “nature” is something that humans may have had at one point in the past and that they’ve now generally lost through technological processes but that they can re-obtain either individually or collectively by untethering themselves from technology and by getting back to “how things used to be.” And it’s this latter implication that I want to question in this post.
Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the sons of men have houses, which are apparently of a different quality altogether from non-human animal habitations. When a human spends too much time indoors, we say, “It’s not good for you to be indoors so much of the time! You need to get back out into nature!” We don’t say any such thing to foxes and birds, however, and I doubt we would say any such thing to them even if they could understand human language. And why would we not say such things to them? Because to most humans, foxes and birds are already part of nature, and therefore their homes are already part of nature, and therefore the time they spend in their homes is just nature doing nature things. But most humans do say those sorts of things to each other because they do not see their own homes as “natural.” But why not? When a bird builds a nest, it selects materials, assembles them in a neat and orderly way, and then spends time sleeping, raising babies, and generally living in the nest. Humans do exactly the same sorts of things, but they don’t consider their own homes to be natural or part of nature. Instead, they encourage each other to get out of their houses and back “into nature.” Why do they do this? Why do they not see their own houses as natural?
There may be lots of factors involved in an answer, but I think that at least one broad, simple answer can be offered: most humans don’t believe that they’re animals. At the moment, the three largest religions in the world are the the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. They all accept the Genesis account of the world’s origin: that God made man separately from the rest of nature and charged him the mission of ruling over nature. I don’t know much about the Quran, but the Jewish and Christian Bibles talk a lot about how nature is chaotic and dangerous and how we as humans should “sanctify” ourselves from our natural impulses. (The Latin sanctus, which is often translated into English as “holy,” literally means “set apart.”) If you have been taught to believe such an account from the time you were born, then it’s entirely conceivable that you’d see humanity as separate and apart from nature, something which needs the “good” parts of nature (like sunshine, raw foods, and exercise) but which occasionally succumbs to the “bad” parts of nature (like the “red in tooth and claw” bits). It’s no wonder that we see both (contradictory) accounts expressed in literature: in Walden, nature is praised as the healing salve to the wounds of civilization, technology, and progress; but in Lord of the Flies, nature is criticized as the enemy of civilization, technology, and progress. We can also see this dichotomy in popular culture: “all natural” lifestyles (like homeopathy and non-GMO foods, both of which eschew scientific progress in favor of primitive or medieval solutions) are “healthy”; but people are rarely opposed to going to the emergency room in life-threatening situations or to eating more robust, tastier foods which have been genetically modified by centuries of artificial selection. In one view, nature is the thing to be embraced and returned to; in the other, it is the thing to be defeated and risen above. These views are really only possible, I think, when one believes that humans are something separate from nature.
I don’t think that humans are separate from nature, though. I think that humans building houses is exactly the same sort of behavior as birds building nests. Sure, our brains are bigger than birds’ brains, and therefore our houses will be much larger, fancier, sturdier, and warmer; but the behavior is still driven by the same underlying impulse, the same need for protection from dangers. In short, we are animals. For some people, this is a very degrading or depressing thought. Personally, though, I find it kind of fun and exciting. Mostly, though, I don’t see how it’s not completely obvious unless you just intentionally ignore the similarities between ourselves and other animals. Admittedly, if you’re new to them, it takes a while to get used to thoughts like: “I’m basically a chimpanzee. I didn’t evolve from a chimpanzee; I’m merely its cousin. But I’m still just an ape. And I’ve been classified that way by biologists, as opposed to being classified as a type of dog or lizard or fish, because of the characteristics I share in common with other apes. At the same time, though, I’m not exactly like other apes; I have features they don’t, and they have features I don’t. For example, I’m more intelligent, but they’re stronger.”
In fact, probably a second reason that most humans don’t think that they’re animals is that humans are far and away the most intelligent animals on the planet, which allows them, even in the absence of religious reasons, to view themselves as distinct from other animals, different in kind rather than in degree. If dolphins and crows and cats were all as intelligent as humans and could communicate with us, then I suspect that anthropocentrism would be abolished quite quickly, if indeed it ever appeared in the first place. But our collective memory unfortunately doesn’t stretch back to the time when we were with other species on a level intellectual playing field, and thus the myth lingers on.
Why is all of this important? What does it matter whether or not some people believe that humans are special and unique among the creatures on the planet?
Well, it’s generally important to have justified, true beliefs wherever possible, not necessarily because truth is “good” in some supernatural, metaphysical sense (though it may be), but because true beliefs are more likely to lead to survival. Sadly, this is only generally true. It’s been shown that holding some kinds of false beliefs can lead to happiness and longevity. Religious people tend to outlive non-religious people, for example. I’m not saying with certainty that all religious beliefs are false, but enough of them are mutually exclusive enough that at least some of them are wrong some of the time. So, in those sorts of cases, holding unjustified or untrue beliefs can increase survival through a kind of placebo effect. But, generally speaking, true beliefs increase survival rates much more than false beliefs. (In fact, it may be universally true; it just may be that placebo-like effects from holding false beliefs represent a kind of local optimum which we could potentially surpass if we could get ourselves out of the rut.) For example, a gazelle that has true beliefs about the location of a lion is much more likely to survive than a gazelle that has false beliefs. In other words, having true beliefs about the state of the world means having true beliefs about the nature of potential threats, which means being much more likely to avoid those threats or being more knowledgeable about how to defeat them. And, of course, threats come in a variety of forms; predators aren’t the only danger out there. Threats can come in the form of hunger, or thirst, or poison, or disease, or inclement weather, or accidents like falling or drowning or choking. (Geez, we can die in so many horrible ways!) A lot of knowledge is required to avoid or to mitigate all of those threats. Holding false beliefs only decreases survival rates, whether individual or collective.
Specifically, then, I think that anthropocentrism leads to the conclusion that the rest of the world is ours to do with as we wish, which leads in the end to the destruction of part or all of the world’s ecosystem. It leads there not because we’re individually bad or suicidal, but because evolution is short-sighted and doesn’t necessarily produce creatures who survive in the long term; it only continues to produce creatures who can live long enough to clone themselves. Daniel Quinn’s hypothesis in his book Ishmael is that humans don’t just compete with other creatures; they actively destroy their competitors to achieve a monopoly. For example, we don’t just grow crops; we label as “pests” any creatures that compete with us for those crops, and we annihilate them with extreme prejudice. In the short term, this behavior leads to more humans, which means that humans seem to be “winning,” evolutionarily speaking. But in the long term, a continuation of that behavior must lead to the destruction of the ecosystem, since in the very long run, we will compete with every other species on the planet for every possible resource. Only very recently have we begun to question our use of pesticides, though that questioning has been prompted primarily by our own survival concerns and not as much by regret for the suffering inflicted on other creatures. The public has just begun collectively to notice what scientists have been telling them for a long time: that we’re part of a vast ecosystem and that the destruction of that ecosystem is the destruction of ourselves. And yet we’re still not noticing it quickly enough because too many people are mired in the fiction of anthropocentrism, a fiction that tells them that they can exploit the world however they like without consequences.
One needn’t be an atheist or agnostic to let go of the anthropocentric worldview. One could probably easily believe that humans have souls and that they go to heaven or hell when they die and that they’re animals who are part of a delicate ecosystem. But for some reason, anthropocentrists (who are usually religious fundamentalists, I think) not only exist, but they also happen to be in possession of a frightening amount of global power at the moment. This, of course, is how we’ve ended up in the position we’re in, fighting for survival against some of our own world leaders and media organizations.
What’s needed, I think, is more science education among the general public. But I want to be clear that this shouldn’t involve merely more facts or measurements or calculations. Too many people, I think, suffer from a kind of trauma from math and science education, leaving them feeling that math and science is too hard, too distant, too impractical, too cloistered, and only useful for spitting out fun toys every once in a while. Therefore, I think that science education should more time asking its core question “What is the world like?” rather than merely telling students the answers to that question. It shouldn’t force-feed students a list of facts to remember; it should encourage them to question, to observe, to categorize, and to experiment. It should teach them to accept facts no matter how bewildering or humbling. It should, perhaps above all else, include a re-envisioning of the world through the lens of “humans are animals.” Such an education would teach neither that nature is wholly good for us as in Walden nor wholly bad for us as in Lord of the Flies, but that we are nature and that it is us. It would teach that it is good for us to be outdoors insofar as we need fresh air and sunshine and community, and that it is good for us to be indoors insofar as we need protection from predators and from the elements. It would teach us that our bodies have many of the same needs as other animals and that we should no more destroy our environment than we should destroy our own bodies. It would teach us that nothing is unnatural, including technology (because humans are natural and therefore what they do is natural), but that, just like genetic mutations, some innovations are beneficial and some are detrimental.
On paper, public science education probably already attempts to do those things in many parts of the world, but it is apparently hindered in its ability to penetrate into minds already full of the old fictions, and it simply can’t penetrate into the wild west of unregulated homeschool and private school education. And I think I know why: education can be emotional and can even feel dangerous. It can genuinely hurt to hold one set of views and then to have them ripped from you without your consent (not because you had it hammered into you by unrelenting professors, but because you were so compelled by the evidence that your beliefs changed in spite of your attempts to keep them the same). I went through it, so I know how it feels. It does involve the giving up of one worldview for another. But there’s actually something quite noble, I think, in being willing to follow the facts wherever they lead. It takes real courage. I can’t claim to do it all the time, but I certainly want to be that kind of person.
Well, I’ll stop preaching at you now. Thanks for tagging along. I’ll leave you with an Alan Watts quote (from The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are) that summarizes the worldview I’ve been trying to describe.
“We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.’ Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”