Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Nature in Humanity

There's something to be said about how we humans make a point of endlessly categorizing and labeling things. It's certainly useful, since part of what has made our continued survival possible is our ability to recognize patterns and forecast phenomena. It's also what has allowed us to create such highly sophisticated systems like governments, markets, and technical infrastructure. It also gets us in trouble. The same instinct that tells us that two sticks rubbed together get hot enough to make fire also tells us that we should eat only chicken before a big baseball game. A more common (so common we rarely consider it) failure of our pattern seeking ways manifests itself in our fidelity to the artificial categories we create. All dichotomies lose their significance at some level of consciousness. Whether or not someone is an American is irrelevant when a doctor is suturing a deep cut. On the other hand, it would be extremely relevant to a German soldier in the Second World War. Context determines significance. People arguing over how to categorize things are frequently trying to reconcile semantics. Sometimes though, a dichotomy is so functionally useless that we effectively call it false. The one that separates technology from nature is particularly interesting to me today.

I was reading an interesting post on the Bad Astronomy blog regarding the potential end to the Ares 5 program. As I was reading down the comments, I came across one in particular that struck me as problematic in a number of ways. The commenter, David, let loose a diatribe about "technological civilization" and essentially argued that we had ruined the planet and are all doomed to irrevocable extinction. (Believe it or not, this actually fits into the context of the discussion going on there.) I pointed out to him that overpopulation and the concept of population collapse aren't simple things to predict and model. I assumed he had watched the conspiracy and paranoia-laden "documentary" called Zeitgeist. I've been running into more and more people who have apparently seen it and swear by its precepts. I haven't seen it, but from what I understand, overpopulation is an important theme. I said that Malthusian model of population growth, that of exponential growth, was too simple to describe the real world phenomenon of how population fluctuates. I specifically singled out the formula P(t)=Ce^(kt) as being insufficient, where C= the initial population (or quantity- depending on what's being measured); e=Euler's number; t= time elapsed; and k=some constant growth or decay rate. (Different people use different variables, but the basic equation is the same.)

This formula for exponential growth and decay isn't useless, it does adequately describe true exponential growth, and you can use it to describe the decay of radioactive materials quite nicely. The problem is that the human population doesn't work that way for a number of reasons. As an extreme case, see the Chinese population, where the male-to-female ratio is being artificially increased. The Malthusian mathematical model doesn't work as well when male-female parity can no longer be taken for granted (though across short periods of time, it can be predictive across within one order of magnitude). Other factors, such as contraception, disease, fertility, sexual selection, and mating frequency all complicate matters quite nicely.

All of this is sort of tangential to what this post is about, namely why nature and technology are really part of the same edifice for all practical purposes. The response by David to my response was, "As it turns out, I happen to spend my time in Nature and have observed that everything which has a beginning also has an end. " (Notice the capitalized "N" in "Nature".)

Later, responding to someone else, he says,

"I am not at all impressed by human technology and I pity anyone who is so easily impressed. I wouldn’t destroy a living planet for the sake of technology, to do so makes as little sense as destroying your kidneys so that you might rely upon the technology of dialysis.

Technological civilization is a dead end.

Technological civlization is already dying right in front of our eyes.

Shall we continue to destroy the Earth for the sake of machines and drive humankind extinct in the process?"

Then, "Well, now that you mention it, that is precisely the case. A species which has destroyed its only home doesn’t merit any special favors from God or Nature."

It's obvious from his tone and the context we get from culture that he views technology and scientific advancement as being somehow at odds with nature. Yet if we look at history, the term "naturalist" was essentially synonymous with "scientist". One of the most prestigious scientific journals, one which publishes peer-reviewed articles in the physical and biological sciences, is actually called, Nature. The name isn't designed to deceive, quite the opposite. Scientists, and by extension, technologists, are all observers and users of nature. How we define the bounty of nature, however, is simply more expansive than I suspect David would define it.

Living off of nature, is to a scientist, unavoidable. Nature provides us with energy in the form of the fundamental forces of electromagnetism, gravity, the weak nuclear, and the strong nuclear forces. Scientists and technologists don't ask favors from nature- quite the opposite, we are bound to obedience. It is only by understanding the laws and restrictions nature places on us that we can improve our lot.

The tradition of observing nature is more than simply looking at the ecology, flora, and fauna of this world with our eyes. Richard Feynman, a physicist, wrote in his memoirs about ants he watched as a child, and shuttling them from place to place. He would observe how they formed paths and navigated. Yet the difference between this, and the use of a mathematical formula, such as the one I wrote above, to make determinations about the world around us is also the observation of nature. If mathematical logic is not an immutable feature of nature- imagine the chaos. Suddenly one ant joining another on one day is two ants, but tomorrow they could be negative three!

Instead what David seems to do is define Nature as the exclusion of humanity. Yet, this makes no sense. humanity must interact with nature. Everything that makes humanity what it is, from its biology to its behavior and consequent machinations; is defined, restricted, and ruled by nature.

This proposal in certain civilizations at certain periods in history would be deemed heretical. This way of thinking, at least superficially, is nigh paganistic. After all, isn't it God (or some other entity or set of entities) that defines, sets into motion, or rules our existence? While I wouldn't argue that scientists identify as Neo-Pagans it is clear that scientists, at least on some level, acknowledge the autonomy of nature as a phenomenon.

The dichotomy that David wishes to express is not internally consistent. Technology and mankind are as much a part of nature as anything else. That said, he is right that extinction is inevitable. Yet the reasoning and the way he chooses to derive this knowledge (by deliberately choosing to exclude those principles of nature that fit into his artificially narrow dichotomy) have lead him to believe our extinction is nigh, and not just unavoidable.

The reason I bring this up at all is because it's such a common and conventional way of viewing "nature". Nature is the world around us, plus us. A world where we do not exist, is by definition impossible and unnatural- the same way a world where light does not exist or interact is only a hypothetical, an imaginary reality and fun game we can play in our heads. It does no practical good and makes no sense to abstract humans out of the category that is nature, even if nature is synonymous with ecology. Instead we must continue to understand our role in nature and how we manage to obey its laws.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree. However, there's still issues with chemists saying things like "learning from nature"...or generally in technology circles: doing things "better than nature". We really need some consciousness raising over the way we use these phrases.


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