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Should we “go against nature”?
Also: Two recent podcast interviews
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Should we “go against nature”?
Should we “go against nature”? Or live in “harmony” with it? There are two senses of “nature.” Teasing them apart clarifies this issue.
“Nature” can mean immutable natural law. We defy this at our peril. If we dump raw sewage where we get our drinking water, we will suffer epidemics. If we expose ourselves to radiation, we will die from cancer. If we fail to irrigate our fields, we will go hungry at the first drought. (These are Kipling’s “gods of the copybook headings.”)
But another sense of “nature” is: whatever exists and whatever happens apart from the agency of humanity. It is the chance arrangement of molecules and their motions, before or separate from the conscious, directed, purposefulness of human beings. A river, pursuing its natural course, whether or not it is navigable, whether or not it causes dangerous flooding. A field, with whatever natural level of fertility it happens to have, and whatever plants happen to be growing in it, whether or not they are edible. Wild animals, whether or not they are good companions, whether or not they attack us, whether or not they destroy our crops or our homes, whether or not they carry disease.
This second sense of “nature” is amoral and indifferent to the needs of life. All living organisms survive through an active process of exploiting the resources of their environment. The only difference between humans and other life forms is that we do it using conceptual intelligence. I’ve been admonished that “we are a part of nature.” Of course, we are—but science, technology, and industry are a part of our nature.
To champion “nature” in this sense is not, strictly speaking, to be for anything. It is not in favor of animals or plants, who face a brutal struggle for survival in nature. It is not in favor of rocks or rivers, which are inanimate and have no needs or desires. It is only against. It is against humanity and human agency—choice and purpose—because it is for whatever humans have not done, have not touched, have not interfered with. If pursued with clarity and consistency, it is nihilistic—as in the case of biologist David Graber, who wrote: “I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line … we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”
The advocates of “harmony with nature” constantly conflate these two senses, as if every attempt to overcome the randomness of indifferent nature were an attempt to flout some natural law, the supposed “limits to growth.” But it isn’t. We can improve on nature. We have done it in so many ways: fertilizing and irrigating our fields, building canals and levees for our waterways, heating and air-conditioning our homes, sanitizing our water supply. To assume that we can’t continue to solve problems like this is simply defeatism, unsupported by the facts—or it is a cover for anti-humanism.
Bacon had it perfect: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” The paradox there depends on the two senses of “nature.” To put it in less poetic but clearer language: To command the natural environment, we must obey natural law.
This essay inspired by a recent podcast with Arjun Khemani.
Original post: https://rootsofprogress.org/should-we-go-against-nature
Two podcast interviews: Arjun Khemani, Alex LaBossiere
Good conversations recently on a couple of podcasts with young, up-and-coming hosts:
We talk about the need to study progress, tackle the question of whether progress makes humans any happier, optimism and solutionism, and some more.
0:38 Why we need a new philosophy of progress
3:54 “Almost nothing about progress is linear…”
9:56 Why bother making any progress in the first place?
11:56 Should we “go against nature”?
18:01 Does progress make us happy? Are we on an intergenerational hedonic treadmill?
27:52 Optimism and solutionism
35:15 What’s your message for people living a thousand years from now?
“On optimism, progress in technology, drivers of stagnation, and how to think about innovation.” Here’s a teaser, about William Crookes and his “alarmism” about the fertilizer crisis (which I covered in depth in the MIT Tech Review). Listen on the show page or on Apple podcasts.
Links and tweets, 2022-11-01
Improving the culture and social processes of science (by @michael_nielsen and @kanjun)
Good histories of how governments figured out how to run stuff? (@F_McCullough)
Anybody working on habitation domes? (@Ben_Reinhardt)
Alexis De Tocqueville on social media cancellation (@curiouswavefn)
Tweets & threads
It’s been a great year for vaccine discovery (@salonium)
GPT-3 versus Google Search (@dweekly). As I commented, one thing LLMs might be useful for now/soon is as a kind of search engine
BioNTech founders expect a cancer vaccine “before 2030” (@therecount via @jmhorp)
The product culture that ignores fatal flaws (@warren_craddock)
The astronaut as the visual successor to the cowboy, 1959 (@ChasingMoonBk)
The space race vs a Seattle bus/bike lane (@pushtheneedle)
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