"An Atheist and his Natural Universe" from Atheist Climber blog

from Atheist Climber blog

I have, in the past tried to put forward my thoughts on the idea that all things that happen in a universe a.... There is no such thing as an unnatural act, because when you look at THIS world on a universal scale, it is little more than a small speck of dust comparatively, and what we do here on earth is inconsequential to anything that happens elsewhere in the universe.

I'd like to expand upon this idea a little more, and forgive me if I think this one through as I go. It's a huge topic, and probably worth more than the several hundreds words I'll devote to it here.

Let's start with a few basic ideas.

Spiral galaxies NGC 5426 and NGC 5427

Humans have evolved from what we commonly call "nature", which could be described as the world around us, the ecosystems and environments untainted by the interference and destructive influence of humanity. For instance, before civilization proper arose, our ancestors were part of this definition of nature. All things within that ecosystem would play a role, the ecosystem's many parts interacting with each other to appear in balance. This common usage of the word "nature" is not what I'm talking about here. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the aforementioned definition of nature is not only lacking, but is actually incorrect, and that "Fern Gully"-like utopian vision of the natural does not exist at all. The natural is not a balance but a continual and brutal struggle for survival, and all things are in competition to expand the dominion of their genes by whatever means they can. Adaptation and natural selection has delivered any organism to where it is now evolutionary, and due to geological and atmospheric changes, these organisms either adapt further or are wiped out. Now this is simplifying the whole process terribly, but I think you get the idea.

We get this skewed view of "nature" as in balance, because of a the characteristics of human understanding, our perceptive abilities as a species, and the way we are taught to look at the nature culturally.

We can't see the adaptations for what they are, because we each only live for a very short time on this planet. Time is against us and this makes for difficulties in gauging activities of our surroundings to all but the immediate past and present. We find it difficult to see the massive changes that happen on a large timescale, because we can only really view changes over a single human lifetime. We do have the collective knowledge of generations past, but we can never really know this from a personal perspective. Our finite individual timescales blinker our ability to see nature as an imbalance which constantly teeters one way or the other, all things adapting or disappearing. The "balance of nature" is only temporary, and is ever shifting.

I'd like to extend this idea beyond our immediate surroundings, and look at a much large picture. The universe, made up as it is by mostly empty space, dotted here and there by stars and planets and gas clouds, and it's easy to think that everything is in balance out there too. But this is far from the truth. Celestial bodies are constantly crashing into each other, ripping what was there apart, stars absorbing matter around them, black holes gulping up matter, asteroids collide, meteors are constantly bombarding the surfaces of planets and moons, all with terrible destructive force. And we fail to see these things happening because for one, earth is tiny and isolated. For another, we can;t possibly comprehend anything like a super-nova star, because there is nothing in human history to compare it to. Also, the numbers involved in calculating these massive cosmic events are staggering, numbers that we abbreviate and round to the nearest string of zeroes just to make them workable or even comprehensible.

The Orion Nebula from the Spitzer Space Telescope via apod.nasa.gov

People so often say that "the universe is in balance", citing the fact that there is life on earth, that all the plants and animals have adapted over time on this planet, that the earth spins and circles the sun "just so", and that everything is perfect. But the universe is chaotic in the macro, just as life on earth is chaotic in the micro. So I'd like toi extend the idea of nature to beyond the little bubble we call earth, and grow to include the goings-on of the entire universe. All things are at the mercy of the basic principles of physics and chemistry.

So let's return to the idea that man evolved from nature. Given that all things in the universe can be considered nature, does this mean that we humans have really removed ourselves from nature? Just because something is "artificial" or man-made, does this make it any less natural?

I'd like to say no, it doesn't.

All things we have created culturally are the products of the human brain's evolution. From societies to sciences, domestication to religion, all are a product of the evolution of the human brain. I'd like to ask this, why do we disassociate our actions as humans from the natural, when if you think of nature, there can be nothing in the universe which is not part of this process? Our brains have evolved to make give us the physical abilities to create all these things in our civilization, who's to say that this is not part of the natural process too? I think to remove ourselves from the natural at all is folly.

We have created all these things as a reaction to our environments, and as adaptations to the changes our past deeds have put upon us. So is there really such thing as unnatural?

Views: 18

Comment by Christopher Berman on May 24, 2010 at 12:51am
I agree with what you have written here, though I would still want to reserve the word 'natural' as separate from what is artificial or human-made, within particular conversations. You are right; insofar as there is nothing (that we know of) beyond our universe, it is fitting to call our world the natural world (where 'world' simply refers to 'everything that is').

Nevertheless, insofar as humanity is unique on earth in its intellectual capacities, it is sometimes useful to refer to the natural world (where 'world' here has a much smaller scope than before) as a certain rough and brutish hunt for food and water and shelter that is characterized by fear, and our own, human world, where we have developed to a different sort of life that is not present elsewhere. Some humans still live a fear-based life of hunting and fleeing, in primitive tribes around the world. But much of the world now lives in an age of cellular telephones and romantic marriages and football. Such things are hardly supernatural, but they are not 'natural' in any Rousseauian sense. There is certainly a precedent for using the word 'natural' in this fashion, without positing anything supernatural, and I do not think this is terribly problematic.
Comment by Allen Sneed on May 24, 2010 at 1:46pm
Competition is only a small part of the equation in biological systems, although I think it gets unfairly hyped in our capitalist culture. If one really looks at different living ecosystems it becomes obvious that cooperation is much more prevalent. Pack animals cooperate in the hunt; herd animals form tight knit social groups to defend against predators; plants have developed flowers to attract pollinating insects and other animals who get food in exchange for helping the plant to propagate itself; plants develop fruits to attract animals who get food in exchange for helping to spread the plant's seeds; single celled organisms have congregated to create colonies with specialized cells performing separate functions for the whole; and on and on, etc.

Another thing that I think is over-hyped is the idea that the wild or the "natural" world is all tooth and claw or a constant struggle for survival. While such dramatic scenes make for great TV and nature documentaries seem to focus on that theme a lot, the real world is not really so "rough and brutish." Careful observation of animals in the wild shows that the vast majority of their time is spent in more pleasurable pursuits, sleeping, relaxing, playing, mating, etc. Most animals in the wild do not live in a constant state of fear or distress. I recommend reading "Pleasurable Kingdom" by animal behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe for more on this topic.

The reason I bring this up is because I think that these over-hyped ideas of what separates man from beast, or humans from non-human animals, plays a big role in our definition of "natural" and is the reason that many people view humans as outside of natural processes.

For example, Christopher mentions a few examples of human behaviors he feels are unique to humans and therefore take us beyond "nature" as experienced by other animals. While I don't disagree that human intellect is somewhat unique, I don't believe it separates us from the rest of the natural world in any way.

For starters, many other animals exhibit complex play behaviors that could be compared to organized sports. In fact, some ants engage in team sports similar to soccer whereby one group of ants attempts to role a seed past another group of ants and into a hole. The seed is then removed from the hole and the next round of the game begins.

Geese mate for life and show strong signs of romantic love. In fact, there are many cases of geese dying from grief when their mates are killed by hunters.

And although the human mind has allowed us to develop the technology to use microwaves to communicate long distances with each other, whales and other animals have developed biological characteristics which allow them to communicate around the world using ultra sonic waves.

I know of no human characteristics that cannot be shown to exist in at least some other animals and know of no good reason to exclude humans from the realm of nature or natural processes. While many modern humans need no longer fear being eaten by lions, survival of the fittest is still at work with our species. And by survival of the fittest, I don't mean the strongest or the smartest. I mean those who have the most offspring who survive to reproductive age. In American culture, where the least educated people tend to have the most offspring and the most educated people have developed a system for keeping people alive longer, survival of the fittest may mean that our species is getting dumber.
Comment by Martin Pribble on May 24, 2010 at 6:47pm
I'm going to copy these comments over to my blog and comment on them there, come have a look!

Comment by Martin Pribble on May 24, 2010 at 8:20pm
What I posted at my blog:

I'll extend here on what I was saying in my blogpost.

I'd argue that there are far more incidences if competition in nature than we give credit to when looking at the natural world around us. Sure there are plenty of examples of intra-species cooperation, and more than we probably know. In no way am I implying that the chaos and competition we see in nature is ALL that there is. There are even brilliant examples of inter-species cooperation that we see around us, like the small fish that clean the teeth of larger fish.

But I think it's folly to say that there is more cooperation than competition. Look at the plant world, and in particular, in a rainforest environment. There are so many plants in that environment all striving for light and competing against one another directly for sunlight and nutrients. The mosses are not cooperating with the giant forest trees, merely they are getting by on what they can get in the darkness below, and adaptations over time have allowed them to get what they can from their situations. The snail and the lettuce leaf are not in cooperation, and the wasp that steals the pupae to lay eggs in are not cooperating.


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