The Chronicle Review

Two Cheers for Nature

Behavior may come naturally, but that doesn't make it good

December 12, 2010

Remember the BP oil spill, and the lessons we were supposed to learn from it? For months last summer, we were riveted by daily updates from the Gulf of Mexico, as pundits galore offered up advice, not least that it is often dangerous and even downright despicable to fool with Mother Nature.

But as the conversation turns (alas, almost exclusively) to compensation for damages in the region, we need to look back at what was—and was not—discussed. There is this surprising and provocative fact: Oil itself, that yucky, death-dealing substance, is altogether natural (mostly compressed diatoms and other plankton). Here, accordingly, is a lesson from the Gulf, not so much about oil as about our shared attitudes and often unstated assumptions: Although we don't always like to admit it, nature isn't very nice.

For many, myself included, criticizing nature doesn't come, well, naturally. My own preferred recreational activities—hiking, climbing, running, snorkeling, riding horses—embed me in nature. I have surrounded myself with animals of all sorts, and I try to avoid consuming pesticides, herbicides, and the antibiotics and hormones to which industrial agriculture has become addicted. I was delighted when a natural-foods supermarket recently opened within a mile of our home, and I patronize it almost exclusively.

Nonetheless, in resisting many things that I view as "unnatural"—nuclear weapons, global warming, chemical pollution, habitat destruction—while also honoring, respecting, defending, admiring, and nearly worshiping many things that are natural (sometimes just because they are natural), it is all too easy to get carried away, to forget that much in the world of nature is unpleasant, indeed odious. Consider typhoid, cholera, polio, plague, and HIV: What can be more natural than viruses or bacteria, composed as they are of proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and the like? Do you object to vaccination? You'd probably object even more to smallpox.

I recall returning soaking wet, cold, and miserable, more than half hypothermic after a backpacking trip in the gloriously natural Canadian Rockies, during which fog and mist had alternated with rain, hail, and snow (in August!), and then encountering this bit of wisdom from the 19th-century English writer and art critic John Ruskin: "There is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather." One may conclude that Mr. Ruskin hadn't spent much time in the mountains. Similarly, I suspect that those well-intentioned people who admire "natural" raw milk have never experienced the ravages of Campylobacter, pathogenic E. coli, or bovine tuberculosis, each spread by the unpasteurized McCoy.

Even in sports, with its cult of the drug-free "natural athlete," devotees strive to move beyond nature's gifts to what is beautiful, elegant, or impressive, fully recognizing that it takes time and work. Hence: spring training, exhibition games, coaches, trainers, and interminable "practice." Dressage, the classical form of horsemanship, seeks to help a horse move with a mounted rider as beautifully as it would solo, in nature. To do so takes at least a decade of effort, pushing horse and rider to work hard and in unnatural ways, in order to achieve harmony and beauty. It is natural for horses to stand around in fields, eating and pooping and swatting flies. It is not natural for them to dance to music.

In short, what is natural is often good, but not always. It may be natural to be a couch potato, to punch someone in the nose if he has angered you, for people to get sick, or for a child to resist toilet training. And of course, bacterial infections, lousy weather, and troublesome behavioral inclinations aren't the only regrettable entities out there in the oh-so-natural world. Don't forget hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts, the devastation wrought by volcanoes, lightning storms, sandstorms, and blizzards. Oh, yes, also by oil.

In his A Treatise of Human Nature, in the 18th century, David Hume presented, and criticized, what has come to be known as the "is-ought problem"—the notion that we can derive what ought to be from an examination of what is. Is there any way, he asked, that we can legitimately connect how the world "is" (which, by extension, I believe, includes our own behavioral inclinations) with how it "ought" to be (including how we ought to behave)? Simply by raising the question, he so conclusively severed "is" from "ought" that the distinction—between the descriptive and the prescriptive, between facts and values—is called "Hume's Guillotine." His insight that it is fallacious to derive "ought" from "is" has become known as the "naturalistic fallacy," a term coined by the British philosopher G.E. Moore in his 1903 book, Principia Ethica.

In 1710, three decades before Hume sliced into the issue, the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz struggled with the problem of theodicy, the theological effort to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in a world supposedly governed by a god all powerful and wholly benevolent. It was—and still is—a tall order. Leibniz concluded that since God is necessarily good (by Judeo-Christian-Islamic definition, at least), as well as omnipotent, and since the deity evidently chose to make the world as it is, then this must be "the best of all possible worlds." That famous phrase proved easy to satirize, most notably by Voltaire in Candide, the picaresque adventures of Mr. Pangloss (a Leibniz caricature) and his student, who experience no end of terrible events but ­always interpret them through a cheerful lens.

Voltaire was especially outraged by a devastating natural disaster, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people. But he wasn't shy about depicting the cruel but equally "natural" behavior of murderers, rapists, and torturers. It's a theme that continued to resonate: In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill argued that "nature cannot be a proper model for us to imitate. Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider what nature does, but what it is good to do."

So philosophy has long taught us, or at least tried to. What does modern evolutionary biology have to offer? "Nature," acting through natural selection, whispers in our ears—cajoling, seducing, imploring, sometimes threatening or demanding—and undoubtedly inclining us in one direction or another. Those inclinations are derived from a remarkably simple process: the automatic reward that comes from biological success. If a given behavior leads to greater eventual reproductive success for the behaver (or, more crucially, for the genes that predispose us toward that behavior), then selection will promote those genes, and thus the behavior. It will seem—and be—natural.

Natural selection (the very term reverberates) has a very efficient way of getting animals and people to do things that are "good" for the organism, or at least for the genes involved. Call it pleasure. Living things find it pleasurable to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired, obtain sexual satisfaction when aroused. The evolutionary benefit to genes for, say, self-nourishment would not be well served if those genes induced us to refrain from eating. But whether, in Mill's terms, such things are necessarily "good to do," in the sense of ethics and morality, is another matter entirely.

Should we refrain from cleaning the house, since the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a fundamental natural law, dictates that disorder necessarily increases within any closed system—in which case it follows that entropy is good and struggling against it is wrong? Is it unethical to exceed the speed of light, or simply impossible? Similar absurdities arise if one attempts to "naturalize" ethics from chemistry, geology, astronomy, mathematics, and so forth. When it comes to biology, however, many people seem to feel otherwise.

Isn't there something good—maybe even magnificent—in the song of a nightingale, the majesty of a bull elephant trumpeting? If nothing else, they bring pleasure, even delight, to people. And isn't it downright estimable for a mother robin to feed her nestlings? It's certainly good for the baby robins, and thus for the evolutionary success of the adults—or, more precisely, for any genes that predispose adult birds to feed their offspring. It is easy to assume that the working of biological nature—as distinct, perhaps, from physical nature, or chemical nature, or geological nature—is not only admirable, but also ethically instructive.

The result, however, can be disquieting. Take advances in reproductive technology. Contraception has long been opposed by those—especially, but not solely, in the Roman Catholic Church—who claim that to interfere with the "natural" act of reproduction is, ipso facto, wrong. Ditto for much of the objection to cloning and stem-cell research. Consider, as well, in vitro fertilization: For decades the developers of that immensely beneficial medical option were vilified for "playing God" by promoting unnatural "test-tube babies." (The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Robert G. Edwards, who, with the late Patrick Steptoe, pioneered the technology, undaunted by the criticism that it violated the presumption that only the natural is good.)

Any dispassionate look at the natural world should confirm just how fallacious the naturalistic fallacy really is, along with its implied and oft-assumed inverse: What is unnatural is bad. It simply does not follow that biological nature is necessarily good for giving us insight into morality or ethics. To an extent that should trouble any "natural ethicist," the living world is a zero-sum game, in which benefit for one organism often comes at the expense of others, and where no sign of overarching ethical restraint, no independent claim to goodness, can be discerned.

After all, many carnivorous animals devour their prey alive. The usual method seems to be to subdue the victim by downing or grasping it so it can't flee. Snakes eat everything whole, often dislocating their own jaws as they stuff their prey—sometimes alive—into their mouths. Ants don't even have to catch their quarry: In the spring they swarm over newly hatched, featherless birds in the nest and eat them tiny bite by bite.

Annie Dillard's marvelous meditation on nature, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, contains an unforgettable account of her encounter with a "very small frog with wide, dull eyes," whom she watches being devoured by a huge water bug. Dillard notes with understatement that "it's rough out there, and chancy," that "every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac," and that "cruelty is a mystery," along with "the waste of pain." We must, she concludes, "somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what's going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise."

Rereading that section of the book, I must confess that I am not at all sure what is the right question, or indeed, whether given the myriad unknowns that intervene between our human consciousness and the rest of the natural world, there are any inquiries that could support the designation "right" or "wrong." (As for choiring the "proper praise," my atheist self declines that, right off the top.)

Nonetheless, I think I know what Dillard means, at least insofar as there is a profound and desperate need, a deeply human responsibility, to wail or choir, or in some other way to impel an urgent inquiry into what it means to take a wider view, and not just describe what's going on in this gorgeous but deeply troubling landscape of which we are a part; to figure out what our rightful place is, and how to occupy it.

Some especially devout Jains hire sweepers to walk before them, brandishing large fans to displace any tiny invertebrates, lest they be stepped upon. But even Jains and Western vegans must eat. To survive—never mind, to prosper—is to perpetuate a grim tragedy, one that goes beyond simple ethics, be they Kantian, utilitarian, situational, deontological, consequential, theological, or whatever. As beautiful as it is bountiful and awe-inspiring, life proceeds via the taking of life, and is therefore no less likely to be ugly, amoral, and awful. And we are stuck in it, up to our necks ... and more. Indeed, our immersion in the natural world goes further and deeper than that of any other life form, insofar as we are masters at manipulating, distorting, and restructuring it, all the while knowing—or at least bearing responsibility—for what we are doing.

In Stephen Sondheim's dark musical Sweeney Todd, we learn that "the history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat." In the nonfiction world we all inhabit, there is pleasure and pain, suffering and delight, eaten and eater, life and death, growth and decay, luscious Louisiana salt marshes teeming with innumerable, natural, glorious lives and horrendous pollution and destruction wrought by noxious eruptions of equally natural petroleum. One could argue that nothing on this planet can ever be unnatural—including our own actions, since everything (not least our own DNA and neurons) is necessarily composed of the elements of the periodic table.

And yet just a moment's reflection tells us that it is precisely because some things are wholly natural, and also wholly loathsome, that they had best be left alone, Pandora's boxes that should never be opened. If folly and avarice (acting, for example, via hunger for petroleum) do so nonetheless, those things must be struggled against with all the strength and determination, natural or not, that we possess.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, written with Judith Eve Lipton, is Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Sex, Evolution and Monogamy (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009).