From the Archives: Creating Nature, Part I (chapter six of The Future and Its Enemies)
How we think about nature—and about artifice—informs how we think about the growth and evolution of human societies.
Thomas Cole, Distant View of Niagara Falls, 1830, Art Institute of Chicago
This post is the first of three that originally appeared as chapter six of The Future and Its Enemies, published in 1998. I had to break it into sections to get through the email limitations on Gmail (which I hate as a customer, because they inevitably cut off emails I’d like to read in full, including the headlines from the NYT). I’ll send out the second part in a week.
A couple of updates: In promoting his most recent book, George Will took to boiling down my opening to a one-liner. (For the record, I would never say that the Bible could be reduced to one sentence.) Shortly after my book came out, I was lucky enough to get to know Stephen Toulmin, who died in 2009. Although I can’t say I knew him well, I saw him frequently in 1999 and 2000 at meetings of a local group, and he was always kind and encouraging to me.
Eden is in Western myth the unchanging and pristine paradise, lost through overreaching and lamented ever since. In the biblical story, however, Eden is more complicated. It is a living, growing place whose life depends on water and human labor. God plants the garden only after he has created man from the ground, and he charges Adam to work and keep the garden: to both improve and preserve it. Humanity is to be the source of both change and stability. Adam is part of nature—his very name springs from the earth, h’adamah—yet he is also distinct from it.
Of course, no sooner has God created man, animals, and woman than the creator loses control of his creation. Genesis is the original Frankenstein myth. That man and nature could defy God has provoked theologians for centuries. We can leave the theological puzzles aside, however. Genesis suggests truths that do not depend on a particular religious tradition: Even in Eden, humanity occupies a garden, a place between static order and wild nature, a place we both work and keep. And no creation is completely under its creator’s control. The world changes almost as soon as it is formed, and so does humanity. They change each other.
Yet the ideal of the untouched paradise, of orderly nature undisturbed by human action, still shimmers in many imaginations. Nature is a source of moral authority for some, of security for others. It offers standards and models. It is autonomous and eternal. “The chief lesson is that the world displays a lovely order, an order comforting in its intricacy,” writes Bill McKibben in his best-selling book, The End of Nature. “And the most appealing part of this harmony, perhaps, is its permanence—the sense that we are part of something with roots stretching back nearly forever, and branches reaching forward just as far.” Throughout its long history, this image suggests, nature has not really changed. Its harmony and order are permanent, reminders of the beauty of stasis.
Changeless nature is not just a matter of utopian dreams. Those who seek stasis in the human world argue that they are following nature’s way, that dynamism is not merely disruptive but unnatural. “The characteristic that best distinguishes flourishing ecosystems is never growth, but rather stability (a conservative virtue in its own right),” writes John Gray, the British philosopher, in his appeal for conservatives and greens to join forces. “This is a truth which is acknowledged in the discipline of ecology in all of its varieties....Modernist political faiths which advocate the unlimited growth of population, production and knowledge...are effectively in rebellion against every truth we have established about order in the natural world” (emphasis added.) The open-ended future of discovery and learning is not merely disruptive but downright perverse. The infinite series, Gray maintains, defies the natural order of things.
Pierre-Jacques Volaire, The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1771, Art Institute of Chicago
Clearly, how we think about nature—and about artifice—informs how we think about the growth and evolution of human societies. If what is given by nature is good by definition, then to change it is evil. If nature supplies patterns, distinctions, boundaries, and essences for us to respect, then recombinations are immoral or dangerous. If stasis is the highest form of biological nature, then perhaps it is also the highest form of human society. If human beings and human work are fundamentally unnatural, set apart from the rest of the world, then we must choose either all-out war against nature or separation from it—destruction or quarantine.
If, however, nature is itself a dynamic process rather than a static end, then there is no single form of “the natural.” An evolving, open-ended nature may impose practical constraints, but it cannot dictate eternal standards. It cannot determine what is good. If human beings, human work, human purposes, and human imagination are part of nature in some significant way, then neither destruction nor quarantine is an option. The distinction between the artificial and the natural must lie not in their source—human or not—but in their characteristics, in the way they relate to the world around them.
“Certain phenomena are ‘artificial’ in a very specific sense: they are as they are only because of a system’s being molded, by goals or purposes, to the environment in which it lives,” writes Herbert Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial, which seeks to give such fields as engineering, architecture, design, and administration the same sort of status and theoretical grounding that the natural sciences have. Artifice implies design, goals, external purposes. It requires control. Even the artifacts of non-human creatures, from wasp nests and beaver dams to the moistened sticks chimpanzees use to dig out termites, all extend their designers’ control over the environment. Human artifacts, writes Simon, “are what they are in order to satisfy man’s desires to fly or to eat well. As man's aims change, so too do his artifacts—and vice versa.”
But artifice does not offer complete control. Simon notes that “those things we call artifacts are not apart from nature. They have no dispensation to ignore or violate natural law.” The artificial and the natural are bound together: The artificial serves its creators’ purposes, subject to the limits of nature.
The natural, by contrast, does not require purposes. It simply is. Nature, lacking intent, is amoral. And natural systems are out of control. Purposeless, undirected behavior is characteristic not only of ecosystems, weather patterns, or tectonic plates but of undesigned human systems, such as languages. English grammar is not more or less moral than Chinese; it simply is. And while linguists and copy editors may study or trim a language, as a gardener tends plants, no one can control the system as a whole. It is constantly evolving.
Natural systems often evolve from the purposeful activities of their members, however. Birds pick wild strawberries and excrete their seeds, making it more likely that the sweeter, redder berries that attract birds will reproduce. That natural selection has nothing to do with the birds’ purposes and is not under their control. Squirrels bury acorns, encouraging the evolution of oak trees that produce nuts of a size and shape particularly appealing to squirrels. The animals’ actions must fit within the broader biological system, but they also affect its future direction.
This relation between decentralized actions and the natural systems that encompass them is even more apparent in the human world: When someone coins a word to capture a new attitude, invention, or idea, the new term must fit into the broader language, over which the word’s creator has no control. And the new word affects the future evolution of the language. The same is true for an entrepreneur with a new product: He can directly control only his immediate economic environment (and even there his control is partial), not the economy as a vast, complex, natural system. But his success or failure will have ripple effects. Through such consequences, artifice is continually creating nature: generating new patterns and systems beyond anyone’s control.
The tension between the natural and the artificial is a subject as old as philosophy or science, but the industrializing world of the late-18th and 19th centuries was famously obsessed with the question. We have inherited its romantic culture—a suspicion of nature tamed—as much as its technological arts and technocratic government. The romantics set emotion in opposition to reason, nature against artifice, humanity against technology. To preserve nature’s purity, they recommended the quarantine of the human mind. That has never been a choice we could truly accept. It denies the fundamental links between body and mind, humanity and nature. In the name of authenticity, the romantic ideal counsels passivity and fatalism.
William Morris, The Strawberry Thief, design 1883, Art Institute of Chicago. In a reaction against synthetic dyes, Morris drew his colors from medieval tapestries, not accounting for the way the dyes faded over time, leaving the colors muted and turning the greens into blues.
“As a 19th-century position, romanticism never broke with rationalism: rather, it was rationalism’s mirror-image,” writes the historian and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin.
Descartes exalted a capacity for formal rationality and logical calculation as the supremely ‘mental’ thing in human nature, at the expense of emotional experience, which is a regrettable by-product of our bodily natures. From Wordsworth or Goethe on, romantic poets and novelists tilted the other way: human life that is ruled by calculative reason alone is scarcely worth living, and nobility attaches to a readiness to surrender to the experience of deep emotions. This is not a position that transcends 17th-century dualism: rather, it accepts dualism, but votes for the opposite side of every dichotomy.
We have lived with this uneasy dichotomy for a century or more, alternatively believing one side then the other. It has never really suited us. It has never given us a satisfactory balance between body and mind, the natural and the artificial.
Understanding the relation between the natural and the artificial has recently assumed increasing urgency. Ours is, more and more, a biological era: an age defined by its insights into and power over the stuff of life itself. We are self-consciously, and quite literally, creating nature. How we understand what that creation means will determine much about our future. We must either choose between the rationalists and romantics—or their technocratic and reactionary derivatives—or we must find a different way.
So let us return to the garden. In The End of Nature, McKibben muses about the meaning of the greenhouse effect, which he argues has so transformed the atmosphere as to replace autonomous “nature” with a completely man-made world: “The greenhouse effect is a more apt name than those who coined it imagined....We have built a greenhouse, a human creation, where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden.” It is a striking line, adopted even by negative reviewers. And it is quite peculiar. McKibben misses the obvious: Gardens themselves are human creations, which organize and rearrange nature. Natural processes continue in the garden—not everything is under the gardener’s control—but those processes are channeled to human ends; in a garden, the natural is mixed with the artificial. Our very view of nature “sweet and wild” assumes human influence.
Sheet from a Tulip Book, Jacob Marrel, c 1640, Rijksmuseum
The artificiality of gardens was in fact the subject of much poetry in the English Renaissance, an age as concerned as our own with the relation between nature and artifice. In Andrew Marvell’s “The Mower Against Gardens,” for instance, the narrator is a veritable 17th-century Jeremy Rifkin, upset with the innovation that creates unnaturally colored flowers and trees without parents:
With strange perfumes he did the Roses taint,
And Flow’rs themselves were taught to paint.
The Tulip, white, did for complexion seek;
And learn’d to interline its cheek:...
No Plant now knew the Stock from which it came;
He grafts upon the Wild the Tame;...
And in the Cherry he does Nature vex,
To procreate without a Sex.
Like the crossbreeding that produces tulips streaked with color, grafting is highly “unnatural,” a high-tech process that was extremely difficult to discover and to master. We take grafting for granted only because we are used to it: Every vineyard is a colony of clones; every rose garden, cherry orchard, and bougainvillea-strewn trellis is artificial. In modern nurseries, plants regularly “procreate without a Sex.”
We have long since stopped thinking about the artifice of tulips. Instead we imagine that real human influence on nature began a mere century ago, if not last month. In pursuit of a dynamic vision of nature and culture, however, the poet and critic Frederick Turner argues that we should rediscover Shakespeare’s thoughts on the matter: that in 16th-century musings lie lost truths about the relation between the natural and the artificial and between the biological and economic worlds. “Shakespeare’s core insight,” Turner writes, “is that human-created value is not essentially different from natural value. The value that is added by manufacture, and the reflection of that value in profit, are but a continuation of nature's own process of growth and development.” On transforming nature, Turner quotes the disguised king Polixenes’ response to the shepherdess Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. Like Marvell’s mower, Perdita eschews engineered flowers that add art to “great creating Nature.” Polixenes argues:
Yet Nature is made better by no mean
But Nature makes that mean; so over that art
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art
That Nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art
Which does mend Nature, change it rather; but
The art itself is Nature.
The quest for improvement, and for novelty, does not overturn nature. It recreates it. By understanding how biological processes work, we turn them to human ends. We do not overthrow nature, but cooperate with it, using nature’s own art to create new natural forms. Our artifice alters the path of nature, but it does not end it, for nature has no stopping point, no final shape. It is a process, not an end.
To be continued…
Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.
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