Humans As Natural
Humans are a natural part of nature and have an ecological purpose. I don’t see any separation between the human and the natural world at least on the macro scale. Humans are part of nature and therefore natural. Those who treat humans and nature as separate are equivalent to those who say that it is not natural for humans to fly because they don’t have wings. In reality humans don’t fly with wings but with their minds.
Assuming that humans evolved on this planet then they arose out of the wider environment and are a fundamental part of it. In this sense they were not artificially placed in it by some extra-terrestrial entity or Divine power. Even if they were this would just imply a broader conception of nature stretching deeper into the visible and indeed invisible universe. But that is probably too deep even for this essay.
Image Above Right: Evolutionary History of Man. Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pedigree_of_man_(Haeckel_1874).jpg
The Ecological Purpose of Man
Human beings are the only life form on Earth that is capable of deliberately leaving the environment in which it evolved. It may seem like an ‘out there’ idea but I think if humans have a role in nature it is to export the biosphere to places where it does not exist. If humans are to survive beyond the Earth they will have to take their environment with them. That means learning to understand it with an entirely new level of precision.
The current debate on climate change may ultimately give us the understanding to fulfil such a destiny.
James Lovelock and The Gaia Hypothesis
James Lovelock saw the Earth as a self regulating system, a cybernetic organism in its own right. I see in his concept of Gaia, the global ecosystem is like an overlapping system of systems. However, I don’t think he recognised the ecological destiny or purpose of man. In the chapter on cybernetics in his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth he states the following:
“One of the most characteristic properties of all living organisms, from the smallest to the largest, is their capacity to develop, operate, and maintain systems which set a goal and then strive to achieve it through the cybernetic process of trial and error. The discovery of such a system, operating on a global scale and having as its goal the establishment and maintenance of optimum physical and chemical conditions for life, would surely provide us with convincing evidence of Gaia’s existence.”(1)
He did grasp the truth that man could mess the whole thing up and destroy his own environment. If that happened humanity would surely die out and Gaia would simply have another go at evolving a life form that would fill the human ecological niche and go on without us. I think he is right about this.
Humans cannot be allowed to fail their ecological destiny in this way. They certainly need to strive to learn to work with the non human component of nature, learning its inner workings in their entirety in order to eventually fully merge with it.
Anthropogenic Nature and Primeval Nature
I distinguish between two different views of nature, primeval and anthropogenic. What I refer to as primeval nature relates to the view that human beings are somehow above the natural world and separate from it. What I refer to as anthropogenic nature relates to the idea that human beings are an intrinsic part of nature and have their own ecological purpose.
An interesting article about vertical farming by A. C. Stark helps me make the point I am trying to make. He talks about how some parts of the environment that we regard as natural are actually massively shaped by man. He sees this as a problem and vertical farming as a potential solution that would allow the countryside to return to its actual natural state.(2)
While I have great respect for his far sighted vision for farming and fully approve of both vertical farming and his desire to return to a more natural environment, I don’t see the fact that nature has been shaped by man as a problem per se.
As I have mentioned earlier I see man as part of nature and something that cannot be separated from it. What man does to the world is natural for good or bad. A volcano destroys but it also creates. Stark seems to want to keep primeval and anthropogenic nature apart whereas I want to create an integrated synthesis. I see such an outcome as both natural and inevitable.
An Evolved State of Nature
I think that vertical farming is one of many technologies that are emerging that will help humankind understand nature with far greater precision and their study should be pursued for their own sake in order to fully understand the natural world. I think the outcome would of course allow vast tracts of the Earth to return to a more primeval state. However, at the same time new forces will inevitably be released by man to modify this primeval state to some degree, not least the technological evolution of the human race itself. However, if man’s understanding of the workings of nature becomes more precise then impacts will be predictable and planned for.
I believe humans, whether naturally evolved or of Divine manufacture, or indeed in the future of human manufacture, will eventually become agents of their own evolution. They will create new life and new life forms from the biological raw material found around them on Earth and perhaps elsewhere. That would certainly move us away from primeval nature, and would perhaps be much resisted, but this would not make it any less natural. This evolved form of Gaia will be what spreads beyond the Earth as humans realise their ecological destiny and intrinsic purpose.
(1) James Lovelock (2000). Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, page 45-46, Oxford University Press.
(2) Vertical Farming: A Huge Piece to a Gigantic Puzzle. A.C. Stark, 11 March 2016.