Nature. What comes in to mind when you read this word? Distinctly green imagery? Trees, leaves, ferns or forests? Perhaps shades of blue, the sea, or the sky with its clouds? Animals perhaps? Birds, lizards, blue whales? I suspect few — if any — imagine meteor showers, bush fires, tsunamis, malaria or hatred. Yet, I don’t think it’s particularly difficult to realise that these things are just as natural as any other. Even less, would be inclined to instinctively associate the word with things like digital watches, jet engines, cappuccinos or the awesome network of networks of computers that we have come to know as the internet.

“But Sashin, those things aren’t even remotely natural by anyone’s standards of what the word ‘nature’ seems to entail.”

You would be right to hold the above sentiment, but the problem is that what people mean by nature either doesn’t seem to make much sense, or is a very strange concept indeed. As such, I have decided to write up this blog to demonstrate the following propositions:

  1. There is no clear distinction between what we call “natural” and “artificial”
  2. Mother nature isn’t a particularly considerate parent

What is Nature?

The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.

When people use the word “nature” what they usually mean seems to be “things that happen without people doing things”. Notice something? Like how arbitrary it is. Why would things we do be of any particular importance? Why do we so quick to separate humans and nature as if they were two entirely separable things? Why are we so special? Not only is the concept of nature really arbitrary, it also seems to prove to be rather anthropocentric.

We build towers, railroads and integrated graphics cards and call these “artificial”. Birds make nests, beavers create dams, and termites build complex air conditioning systems for their colonies and we call it “natural”. We create cultures, social circles and superstitious beliefs about the world around us and consider them artificial, animals such as bonobos, dolphins and pigeons do all of these things – yet now they are natural.

So basically, we can take all the events in the universe and we can divide them into two flavours:

  • Events caused[1] by this one species of primate, on a small blue speck orbiting a fairly ordinary star.
  • Everything else.

Whatever nature is, it clearly isn’t sacred. Or at least, it’s a very bizarre thing to hold as sacred. The natural order seems to translate to people not doing things. Real sacred, real profound, real significant, right? Whenever you try to make a point, or argue what people should or should not do, never, ever say anything about how it’s “against nature” or “unnatural”.

The indifference of nature

Some people seem to believe, whether tacitly or explicitly, that nature is in some sense intrinsically good. This simply is not the case. Here’s some low hanging fruit: cyclones, heat waves, greed, a life span of less than thirty, most people dying at childbirth and most of the rest being being killed by each other, or animals.

You know, that sort of natural thing.

The world in its natural state, may not be such a wonderful thing. To put it mildly, nature does not care about us. A picture of a world guided by what we refer to as nature, I think can be summed up in the following from Richard Dawkins’ 1995 popular science book River out of Eden:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.”
Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden

I don’t think I need to need to elaborate any more.

“But Sashin, no one was saying that everything that happened to be natural is good!”

That awkward moment, when your straw man is complaining about you attacking other straw men.

Well first of all you’re right, virtually no one would defend all those things and demand that we return to some kind of primitive era[2], however people seem to tacitly equate naturalness with good, and unnaturalness or artificialness or even human activity with bad. Every time someone tries to make a case something on the basis that it’s natural, this is what they have done (also equating “human activity” with bad, is kind of saying we should never do anything ever).

We are one with nature

“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. You are all stardust.”

Lawrence Krauss

Where is it that nature ends and we begin? Like rainbows, lightning, snowstorms, planets, nebulae and black holes, humans are just another natural phenomenon that occur from time to time under the right conditions. Just like every other species of life on earth, we formed naturally over the past four billion years.

Everything about us, our thoughts, feelings, intentions, memories and experience are expressions of the laws of nature. These things in our minds, in turn give rise to our actions, through which we create everything we could possibly consider artificial including the dichotomy between “natural” and “artificial” itself.

  1. Although it may seem that we’re the cause, our minds are natural products and hence any product of our minds could aptly be described as natural ↩︎

  2. Well, no one worth taking seriously ↩︎