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Nially_Bob's avatar

Are humans 'natural'?

Asked by Nially_Bob (3844points) April 2nd, 2009

A rather ambiguous question one may contest but a question nonetheless. Are humans ‘natural’ in that they still remain amongst the natural order of things or have we grown beyond this? Firstly it must be determined precisely what being ‘natural’ is, are we only natural when hairy, nakide and existing solely within hunter/gathered tribes? Are we natural when attempting to maintain a balance in nature? Are we simply natural regardless of how we affect the world, ourselves and others? What is a state of naturality, how is it distinguished from other states and can humans be rationally perceived as being part of it? I beg your thoughts on the matter my friends.
This question was inspired by the eloquent Maldadpermanente upon this question:

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29 Answers

btko's avatar

Hmm – a colony of ants would be considered in an ‘unnatural’ state if it began to destroy the ecosystem on which it depended. To that, ants and other systems of life seem to have checks & balances that limit irreversible destruction but humans do not—or we don’t anymore.

We have been out of sync with the ‘natural’ order for thousands of years if not longer; so, perhaps in that sense it is now our nature? Or perhaps it always has been humanities nature – our only salvation has been the fact that Earth is so big to accommodate our mishaps. However, as the population grows the Earth does not and the margins for error shrink.

oratio's avatar

I don’t think humans can behave in a way that is not in our nature. That we are unique in nature by our level of complexity of thought in unquestionable, and combined with our natural need to investigate and understand, we have gone from mastering the fire to building nuclear power plants. Instead of adapting to the room we live in, we’ve managed to adapt the room to us. But we still live under the rules of nature, in a sense. we just left the being prey part.

Basically, we live in the way of our nature. We still hunt, gather and find mates, we’ve changed methods a bit, but still, we live like the animals we are because it’s in our nature. We cannot be anything but natural in this sense. Sure, stupid, self destructive, and greedy, yes, but we have always been that. We have to fight it, but it is a part of our nature.

Tangent_J's avatar

I think that we humans are natural, but we try our darnedness, to be anything but…change ourselves, change our environment..and if some people have it their way, even change the planet we live on…

bea2345's avatar

We are natural, all right, as we discover when we stumble over some aspect of the biosphere that we cannot control or eliminate (like earthquakes and hurricanes). we had a 4.2 quake day before yesterday and I am happy to say that I did not notice it. We may have a lot more options than, say, a koala bear, but we are very much a part of the natural order of things.

MarshallO's avatar

Nope—our brains have overridden our natural instincts, or we wouldn’t haven’t placed the Earth in such jeopardy as we have.

wundayatta's avatar

I think that when most folks say natural, they don’t mean that it arises out of nature, because, if that were the case, then everything is natural. Humans come from the nature of our world, and everything we do is natural.

I think what most people mean by “natural” is the most basic form of a thing, before it has changed anything else. Even here, “natural” is a kind of fetishistic myth. There is no such thing a a living thing that is currently in it’s most basic form, evolutionarily speaking. Change is constant, and so nothing is natural by that definition.

People fetishize the natural state of things to imply that, before humans came along, everything was perfect. If we could only undo the human impact, everything would be balanced and perfect.

Of course, if you ask how far back we have to undo the impact of humans within our environment, it is impossible to answer, at least, without displaying some prejudice or another. And then, what about all the other “natural” beings that changed the environment? Do we have to undo their impact, too?

No, I think “natural” is pretty much a useless concept. It’s impossible to define. It means whatever the person employing it thinks it means. It is used to hide various agendae. Not deliberatly hide, but just lazy thinking hiding.

The issue, for me, is what do we have to do to survive, as humans, in the future. Global warming? Well, it’s happening, and who knows where it will stop, and who knows how it will impact humanity. I think that it will cause serious migrations of humanity, but these will happen slowly, and we’ll be able to manage them.

Even if we screw up the gulf stream, stopping it and whatnot, we’ll still survive. We might start another ice age, but we’ll still survive. We are very mobile and very inventive, and that will not change.

So why would I fight global warming? Because it will cause us serious dislocations, and will hurt a lot of people. I’d like to head that off, if possible, and if not, at least diminish it’s impact as much as we can.

We can take on the physician’s dictum: “first, do no harm.” Our problem is that we cannot predict the impact we will have on the environment. We don’t know what problems we’ll create for ourselves. We want to minimize problems, so some people say we should advance as slowly as possible, checking very carefully to make sure there are no terrible side-effects to what we are doing. These are “environmentally friendly” folk.

Others say, we have to charge forward, as we always have, leaving waste behind us, for that is the best way to survive. We must invent and travel, and we can’t afford to be good stewards, for we will lose that way.

This is an ancient battle amongst humans. Both points of view have advantages and disadvantages. I believe that if people are honest, they won’t be able to say which is better, because we can not predict the future! I, myself, straddle both camps, if you can believe that.

MarshallO's avatar

@daloon Could you be more specific? LOL

wundayatta's avatar

@MarshallO, I could, but then I’d have to kill you! ;-)

jo_with_no_space's avatar

Great question Nially, without a clear answer. We are as natural as everything that surrounds us. We are born as natural beings, and stay somehow as these strange primitives moulded into an unnatural world.

oratio's avatar

MarshallO: You mean our natural instincts to save and protect earth? I’m not sure any animal has that instinct. Well, self preservation is a part of our nature, and that’s a reaction we see today. Ambition, greed and risk taking is a part of our nature, and that’s given us a lot of good things and also put us in shitty situations. The same nature that put us in the crapper, is the one that is trying to do something about it.

We can’t destroy the planet really, we can only destroy our habitat. Are we talking about morality, we have to realize that nature itself has none. It’s a human trait.

asmonet's avatar

‘Natural’ really isn’t the word you’re looking for.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@daloon Quote: Of course, if you ask how far back we have to undo the impact of humans within our environment, it is impossible to answer, at least, without displaying some prejudice or another. And then, what about all the other “natural” beings that changed the environment? Do we have to undo their impact, too?

Our impact is for the worse of the environment. Their impact is for the better of the environment. Big difference as I see it.

Quote: “Our problem is that we cannot predict the impact we will have on the environment.”

But we can predict our impact on the environment for many many actions.

Nature has taken care of us for many many years. It’s our turn to do the same. And I think that survival without it would be quite nasty.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

As creatures of earth we are all natural. It’s our creations that are seen as “unnatural”.

Blondesjon's avatar

We used to be.

if anyone tries to tell me that mcdonald’s is natural i will punch them in the taint

wundayatta's avatar

@RedPowerLady: what is the standard you use when you say something is better or worse for the environment?

Garebo's avatar

Define natural.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@daloon I am not at my best when it comes to semantics. But I will give this a try.

Something is worse for the environment when it degrades the quality of the ecosystem. (one example other than humans would be cows, they degrade the quality of the ecosystem).

Something is good for the environment when it contributes to it in a positive way, especially exclusively so (or near exclusively). For example when buffalo roam they till soil, also they promote the growth of certain flora that only grows where buffalo roam. I would also say that something is “good” for the environment if they leave it neutral (so they aren’t doing harm or good).

mattbrowne's avatar

Nature ended and technology began when the first tools were created, i.e. the material found in nature was being manipulated by human hands driven by thoughts of the human brain.

A human being itself is natural of course, unless he or she gets manipulated with human hands and/or other tools. An example is a combined human/pacemaker sort of “non-natural entity” or a human/artificial hip entity. Some brain implants involve creating interfaces between neural systems and computer chips, which are part of a wider research field called brain-computer interfaces. When this is not done to treat an illness but to create a superior human being, we will have entered the full-fledged era of “non-natural humans”, sometimes also called transhumans or posthumans. Both creatures are definitely NOT natural.

wundayatta's avatar

@RedPowerLady: When you say “degrade the ecosystem,” you are implying that an ecosystem optimized for humans and cows is not as good as an ecosystem that best supports buffalo. If you say that something is “good” and it leaves the ecosystem “neutral,” you are implying that a static environment is more valuable than a changing environment.

Do you see what I mean? You are making value judgements. Buffalo good, cows bad. No change good, change bad. Even if these do not exactly reflect what you think, these are just examples to express my point.

I’m not saying you’re right or wrong. I’m asking where these values come from. Why are buffalo better than cows? What is the principle upon which you can decide this? I’m trying to get at your underlying principles, through which you can decide what you value. This, I do not believe, is semantics. I want to know what lies behind your thinking.

I’m sure your views are informed by your heritage. I think they are similar to the views of many who call themselves environmentalists. I think environmentalists value an unchanged state vs a changed state. This is probably mostly because of a mythological preference for the untrammeled forests that existed before industrialization. Things were cleaner then. You could see stars in the sky. No pollution.

However, even had humans not been around, the environment would have changed, and perhaps dramatically. The buffalo have an enormous impact on the land. Why do we think their impact is better than, say, elephant impact? Or human impact?

Change is constant. There is no pristine state of nature. It changes every second. Wind and rivers scour the land, as do animals. Glaciers show up periodically, and scrub the land clean. The magnetic pole changes, messing up every bird and other creature that relies on magnetism to locate itself.

Why do you prefer one “natural” state of the earth over another? Is it because, as with most of us, it is the “natural” state that benefits you most?

RedPowerLady's avatar

Hey I never said no change equals good. I said no change is better than damage.
Buffalo are better than cows because they improve the ecosystem while cows degrade the ecosystem. Both in quantifiable and scientifically determinable manners. See it is the type of change that matters to me. Buffallo change the ecosystem dramatically and it changes for the better. Humans used to change the ecosystem as well in good way such as by natural fire burning. Now they are (for the most part) changing the ecosystem to be worse off (as stated below more specifically).

I prefer the natural state that is better for the Earth. Oil spills, nuclear toxins, pesticides simply are not good for the Earth. That is bad change. So I value an ecosystem without those things. Yes they benefit me, and all human kind, but they also benefit the Earth.

I understand you are not saying I am wrong per say. But I really can’t wrap my head around the idea that the negative changes humans are having on the environment is okay.

wundayatta's avatar

@RedPowerLady: I am clearly not explaining what I’m looking for so you can understand it, but I don’t know if I can.

You make all these value judgements. You say buffalo improve the environment while cows make it worse. What are the criteria you are using to say something is better or worse for the environment? You say it is quantifiable. What are you counting?

What is the basis on which you can say that oil spills, nuclear toxins and pesticides are not good for the earth? I’m sure you’re thinking, “how can he not get it?” I can think of many ways of saying these things are bad, but I’m just asking you to articulate them, because, while the reasons may appear to be obvious, I suspect there is more to them than we might observe on the surface.

Why, I would ask, do we consider a green field beautiful, compared to one covered with nuclear waste and trash? Could we not simply switch our aesthetic sense, and make the trash beautiful, and the verdancy ugly?

Are these things necessarily good or bad, or are they just what they are? Neither good nor bad.

Good or bad depends on purposes, I think. And not all humans have the same purposes. Nor the same aesthetics.

To you, I think, it is so patently obvious why some changes humans are causing to the environment are negative, that you don’t even think about why you believe that. I’m not necessarily questioning you to challenge your view, but I do want to know the basis on which it stands. It’s not enough to say this is good, and that is bad. I need to understand why. Or rather, why you believe it to be so.

I have my own reasons, but we may not have the same reasons, and in some cases, our reasons may vary. However, if you can’t explain your principles for determining good or bad, I can’t see whether we differ or not.

RedPowerLady's avatar

So what about these explanations is not right then? I am attempting to explain my principles for what determines good and bad.

Good is it promotes a healthy ecosystem.
Bad is it damages the ecosystem.

Here are definitions I found online for healthy and unhealthy ecosystems:

“Healthy ecosystem : an ecosystem in which structure and functions allow the maintenance of biodiversity, biotic integrity and ecological processes over time”

(this one is for aquatic ecosystems but could be easily changed to fit all ecosystems)
“Symptoms of poor ecosystem health include the following: 1) The loss of species. 2) The accelerated proliferation of organisms. One example is algae blooms caused by an excess of phosphorous and nitrogen compounds in the water. This condition is called “eutrophication”. 3) Increased incidences of tumors or deformities in animals. 4) A change in chemical properties. Perhaps one of the most significant has been a reduction of pH in water caused by acid rain. 5) The presence of certain organisms that indicate unsanitary conditions. Coliform bacteria, for example, are a sign that the system may contain organisms that cause a variety of human diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera. 6) The loss of traditional aboriginal culture associated with the ecosystem. Many symptoms of poor ecosystem health occur simultaneously. For instance, increased lake acidity may kill certain species, thereby allowing the temporary proliferation of species more tolerant of acidity.”

wundayatta's avatar

Now we’re cookin’ with gas! That all makes sense. I think there’s one final question. The “healthy” ecosystem is one that is designed for the long term benefit of humans, no?

I ask, because the algae blooms probably think they’ve got a really healthy ecosystem, when it allows them to bloom. The cows probably think they’ve got it good because humans like them and help them proliferate.

If it is a healthy ecosystem for all life forms, it seems hard to judge, other than to presume there is some kind of balance, even though we can’t say for sure what that balance is. Then it gets back to what’s good for humans, since that’s all we can really know.

RedPowerLady's avatar

Phew! I’m glad I got that part figured out. LOL

Okay to answer this question: “The “healthy” ecosystem is one that is designed for the long term benefit of humans, no?”
I say it’s what is good for the Earth and what is good for the ecosystem instead of what is good for humans. Of course there has to be an inherent bias, as you have said, because we are the ultimate deciders of what is good for the Earth. But I think that the Earth gives us clues about what is healthy and what is unhealthy. And ultimately what is healthy for the Earth is what is healthy for humans.

wundayatta's avatar

Gotcha! Thanks for putting up with my interrogation.

oratio's avatar

All life exist only for their own benefit. No animal seek balance. There is no plan or natural state. The balance occurs always because an unbalanced state of things can’t be sustained. It goes for particles of matter as well as ecosystems. The destruction of a species or a whole ecosystem opens up for others who get an opportunity. As with the buffalo whose behavior gives an opening for specific fauna to flourish, it in the same time destroys the opportunity for other fauna to do the same.

Destruction or unbalance is not a good or bad aspect in nature. It is a part of it and temporal. Nature has no problem with killing off species and destruction in general. Nature does not have morality, it is a human trait. But poisoning rivers and killing of the Dodo bird is not in our long term interest. The human is the one animal that can and have to look for balance. Not because we should, but because we have to.

Shuttle128's avatar

@daloon You have a very good point. To determine what is good is making a value judgment. If we are simply seeking an environment that is human friendly or promotes the continued existence of man, it may take a form vastly different than environmentalists would like. Environmentalists seem to believe that good is simply a state of continued “biodiversity [and] biotic integrity,” however this is a value judgment. If one were to value their continual comfort and happiness above the biodiversity and biotic integrity of the environment then the same is true. Good is subjective in this case.

Most environmentalists won’t go to the extents that VHEMT proclaims. However, VHEMT has a legitimate argument provided the goal is a “healthy ecosystem.”

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