The term "man-made" is often placed in opposition to "natural". We speak of "nature" as being "out there", outside of our cities. We distinguish "natural" materials from "artificial" materials. In response to this some people point out that humans are part of "nature" and so we and whatever we build must be "natural". This is true in some trivial sense, but I would like to discuss just what "nature" really means and how humans fit into it.
There is a certain balance in nature, enforced by the process of evolution. It is a balance of all the forces of nature, of living things and climates and watersheds. Evolution ensures not the survival of the strongest or even the smartest creatures, but of all the living things that participate effectively in the balance of nature. If the balance of nature is thrown off, living things start to die.
Evolution operates on the scale of hundreds of millions of years. Humans have existed as a species for only a million years. Humans have lived in civilization for only ten thousand years. Modern technology has developed dramatically in only the last hundred years. Even with humans having been biologically selected by evolution, our way of living for the last one percent of our existence as a species cannot be presumed to be "natural", as it had no part in that natural selection. The technology we have developed in the last hundredth of one percent of our existence as a species has no necessary correlation at all with what is truly natural.
I want to make it clear at this point that I am no neo-Luddite. Technology is not unnatural, and the pursuit of science (that is, the rational appreciation of nature) is one of our highest achievements. The key is appropriate technology used appropriately.
The human brain evolved for the ultimate adaptability, which has allowed us to transcend our base instincts. Other animals and plants have no choice but to live in the way that has been selected for them by evolution. But we have evolved to a point where we can choose any way of living, whether consistent with nature or not. We can choose to destroy the entire biosphere of the planet in less than a generation, or we can choose not to. Nuclear weapons were not created by natural selection, they were created by an act of the human mind.
The purpose of a human life is not its own pleasure, nor the pleasure of others. It is not production for the sake of production, nor is it some vague collective interest. The ultimate purpose of a human life is the same as the ultimate purpose of any life. The purpose of a human life is beauty, beauty as abundant, diverse life, growing and changing sustainably. The meaning of life is life itself.
Because of the great power of choice that we possess, we have the power of destruction as well as the power of creation. We can destroy nature or we can participate in its continuing creation. Therefore we must consider ourselves collectively as stewards of nature. Our institutions and activities must be consciously designed to promote sustainability and biodiversity. Then humans will be living naturally. §
Copyright 2003 by Justin T. Sampson