Do We Need Nature?

Perhaps we need each other.

Michael Phillips and Sara Alexander

While humans have been shaping their views of nature, nature has been shaping her views of us. We are told that when Charles Darwin first visited the Galapagos Islands all the animals ignored him; birds, turtles, each and every one of them. On the Galapagos today this is still true and it is still true even closer to home. The last time I was scuba diving forty feet down near Monterey Bay, I found myself drifting among sea creatures who neither avoided me, nor seemed to fear me. Even my full costume of black rubber scuba gear did not attract their attention. A gorgeous school of iridescent fish surrounded me and then swam past with utter indifference.


These creatures under the sea are the ones as yet untransformed by their relationship to us although most certainly they one day will be. We seem to have terrified most of the rest of the animal world. On this planet most animals now belong to one of two groups, the domesticated ones who depend on us for their survival, and all others who are afraid of humans and stay out of our way, apparently (and wisely so) for fear of being eaten. Whether this fear of being eaten is from information transmitted by their genes or communicated in some fashion directly by their parents, it is just one of the ways in which our millennia of efforts to conquer nature have also affected how nature sees us. The animal conquered and the human conquerors have both been forever changed.


Modern man and human society are the product of millennia of human encounters with nature. Language is an early example. Like beo and hunig and hyfe -early words in the Assyrian language - linguists have found that beekeeping words are the earliest common words in all languages. This might allow us to imagine that perhaps the earliest human conquest of nature, on a modest but systematic basis, was learning to control bees. In order to get the honey without being stung, man had a problem to solve, and began the evolution of language as we know it.


Carrying salt for trade also vies for a place in the early history of human endeavor to conquer nature. We needed salt and it required working together to extract enough from the surrounding environment to support a large tribe living where salt is scarce. Agricultural irrigation was another early development of social intercourse in the evolution of man conquers nature. Irrigation truly required considerable social organization. Cities grew up around agriculture because irrigation needed, and still needs, maintenance. Maintaining irrigation sluices demanded systematic, regular human cooperation at recurring intervals. Cities with social hierarchies grew to cope with the complexities of agricultural irrigation and with agricultural famines (read conquering nature again) and also to build walls against the jealousies (maybe nature again) of other non-agricultural humans.



The maintenance demanded by irrigation, particularly rice irrigation created some of earliest of humanity's greatest and most enduring societies: two thousand year old Imperial China and a thousand year old Shogunate Japan. Even today learning rice cultivation for Japanese elite students is like learning sports at English Public Schools - integral to the development of character.


Back here on the Atlantic, our modern world comes out of the Netherlands. Dutch dike builders holding back the sea (definitely conquering nature) in order to develop their rich farmlands organized the first democratic Republic. The democratic Netherlands was the first home of innovative technology and science, the great Enlightenment and the microscope. Amsterdam became the center of a great trading nation and the site of the first corporation (The West India Company, chartered in 1621) founded in order to gather spices from the other side of the planet. Amsterdam created the first stock exchange to spread the risks of long distance shipping (read nature in the form of vast open seas).



Nature, conquered by science and technology, created modern man, with our electricity, high speed travel, engines of war and great nation states that connect to each other all over the planet with daily commerce and social intercourse. Most people understand that this conquering of nature has shaped the nature of humans, but a counter-veiling consideration is perhaps less obvious. Humans also create the human view of nature.



The Netherlands was the home of the microscope, home of vast global collections of plants, animals, rocks, shells and insects and the earliest center of telescope based astronomy. The microscope, the collections of biological and geological specimens and the telescope are the other part of our story of scuba diving with fish. Before these early tools of science helped man to know nature, a human's views of nature were based on magic and fantasy. A European at the time of Columbus's first voyage was certain that the earth was a thousand years old and the center of the universe; that lead could be turned into gold and that Satan and devils were the cause of most natural disasters.


Of course some people still hold those views. But our more widely accepted view of the world and of nature has changed every year since Columbus set sail from Spain. The earth is now considered billions of years old, humans have common ancient ancestors with all other life, our atmosphere is only a few miles high, and the earth is thousands of miles thick, very hot and magnetic at the core.


The scuba diver is, like the microscope and the telescope, an instrument of science helping us form our idea of nature. With exploration and the tools of technology, science and the Enlightenment, humans have created an ever more fruitful understanding of nature. Still there is much that we do not know about nature and vice versa. Most of the ocean on the surface of our planet is unknown. Which takes us back to Monterey Bay. The indifference of ocean creatures says much. It reminds us that we are in the beginning stages of human understanding of the ocean which we have only recently begun to visit and explore.


This vast expanse of ocean that is unknown is not unlike the vast amounts of the universe that were unknown before telescopes and microscopes. Nature has been explored, discovered and some might say imagined by humans. We create our view of nature as we explore. We sure don't know what is there in advance. The mix of what we are certain we know, what we think we know and what we definitely don't know is constantly shifting.


There are also historical patterns of nature that we don't know about. Maybe we really need to know more about them. We know that ice, cold thick sheets of ice, covered much of the earth 12,000 years ago and had done so for the previous 100,000 years. These mountains of ice shaped the landscape that we see everyday. The ice sheets appear to have been a part of a multi-million year old regular 110,000-year cycle. 100,000 year of icy winter, 10,000 years of spring. We don't have any idea what generates this cycle and we don't have any idea why we are 2,000 years past the date when the cycle of ice should have returned. We don't know who - or what - left the refrigerator door open. We don't even know how fast the mountains of ice can re-emerge. Some humans suspect that the mountains of ice in temperate zones can be built up over one decade.


The more humans are changed by the societies we live in, the more we set out to learn about the nature that shapes our societies. We are always learning about nature, that has become part of what it means to be human. As we learn more about nature, we use our knowledge to conquer more of nature, and the more we conquer, the more nature shapes us. A considered view of nature might suggest that we are inextricably bound together in our interactions with nature, in our understanding of what nature is, in our ignorance of what nature is and certainly in our ignorance about the reality of our interactions.


Michael Phillips and Sara Alexander ©2003