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Unnatural Acts

I am bloody sick of nature romantics.

I realized this today, having read one more "Humans are unnatural and the bad guys, animals all live in harmony with their environment!" post. As the Valley-dwelling natives of years past might have said--"Gag me with a spoon!"

I like nature. I love animals. Frogs fill me with glee. I gots no beef with plants, either. I resent clearcutting and monocultured forests, and I will sign any petition you like to save the endangered spotted rumped sapsucker. I cheer when I see a wild trillium. If and when I am financially successful, I will dump money on the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy with a glad heart. But I do all this because I like and respect nature, and have a great affection for the myriad of animal species, not because I'm some kind of fruitcake wandering around saying "Humans bad! Animals live in harmony with each other!"

No. They don't. Ecosystems don't balance because all the predators are careful to husband their prey. Wolves eat the sick and old not because they've got some kind of mandate from Mother Earth as clean-up crew, but because the sick and old are easy to catch. (They also eat the young and stupid, but this fact seems to get glossed over a lot.) Ecosystems balance because everybody wants to stay alive, eat, and have as many of their kids survive as possible in the long run; and a healthy ecosystem is where everybody keeps everybody else in check. And as for the unnaturalness of humans...well, animals wreak huge amounts of change on their environment. Huge, huge, huge. Look at cattle wallows, or what happens to a forest when a group of pissed-off elephants decides to knock things down. Look at beavers! Look at goats, fer cryin' out loud! Look at plants, at those primitive single-celled buggers billions of years ago, who figured out that if they produced oxygen as a by-product, they could annhilate the competition, who were products of an anerobic atmosphere and couldn't handle the nasty, toxic, corrosive poison that is oxygen. 99% of the life on earth died in one fell swoop from those smug little oxygen-excreters, one of the first acts of chemical warfare, and something that humanity has not yet come even remotely close to duplicating.

Is this unnatural? If a red tide kills fish for fifty miles in any direction, is it unnatural? We have records of them from thousands of years ago, when human alteration of the environment was minimal. And the lemmings--let's not forget the lemmings. Is this unnatural? Is making any change to your environment "unnatural" or, as I suspect, are these just categories constructed by humans?

Either humans are animals, and thus our effects are as natural as elephants knocking down a forest, or nature commits grossly unnatural acts--you cannot have it both ways. Me, I'm saying that humans are animals. Big brained, clever, brilliant animals, animals with opposable thumbs, animals who can worry about whether or not anything is "natural" or not. Animals who sometimes romanticise nature as this glorious thing in which everyone lives in harmony with their environment and is happy.

Now. That said, why am I irritated by the "romanticization" of nature? Is it hurting anybody? Well, frankly, yes, I think it is. Sloppy thinking irritates me, but beyond that, if we romanticize nature, we run the risk of putting it on a pedestal and saying "anything natural is good." But it isn't! Smallpox and plague are natural, broken legs are natural. Medicine is terribly unnatural. The leading causes of death among early hominids were childbirth and tooth decay--that was natural. Getting eaten by leopards was pretty damn natural, let me tell you. Rape and murder and infanticide are all very natural, as is beating the crap out've your neighbor because you want their banana. And right now, humans, in their effort to live as long as they can and have as many kids as possible live, are acting VERY natural, and that has gotta stop!

If we're gonna survive, and be a species that can look itself in the mirror, we gotta stop acting like the other animals. We have to limit our numbers and our impact and think about the long term effects of what we do, and not beat other people up for their bananas. We have to live with our environment, not in some kind of starry-eyed notion of harmony (which springs from this romanticized notion of what harmony is), but in a way that no other animal does--carefully. Thoughtfully. Practically. Understanding that what we do will have repercussions.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that if humans are unnatural, then embrace it, because acting unnaturally is the only thing that's gonna save nature. And, completely unnaturally, I have a fondness for many parts of it.

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Hm. If the comment about lemmings refers to the mass suicides, it's an urban legend. Check out http://www.snopes.com/disney/films/lemmings.htm or do a search on 'lemmings mass suicide' on google.

I only found this out a few months ago. Very strange.

Lemmings aside, however, I've always thought it was pretty strange that there are people who consider beaver dams to be natural and human dams to be unnatural. It's obviously in our nature to build 'em, and we're as much creatures of the earth as anything else. Ah well.

Nah, actually I meant the periodic population explosion where they eat themselves out've house and home then half of 'em starve and the others migrate. It's not what you'd call an act of blatant harmony with the environment. But the point about the non-suicide is well made, and oughta be more widely publicized, since the poor lemming had become more widely viewed as an analogy instead of a rodent.

You point about beaver dams reminded me of a quote by Robert Heinlein, a favorite science fiction author:
There are hidden contradictions in the minds of people who "love Nature" while deploring the "artificialities" with which "Man has spoiled 'Nature'". The obvious contradiction lies in their choice of words, which imply that Man and his artifacts are not part of "Nature"--but beavers and their dams are. But the contradictions go deeper than this prima-facie absurdity. In declaring his love for a beaver dam (erected by beavers for beavers' purposes) and his hatred for dams erected by men (for the purposes of men) the "Naturist" reveals his hatred for his own race--i.e., his own self-hatred.

In the case of "Naturists" such self-hatred is understandable; they are such a sorry lot. But hatred is too strong an emotion to feel toward them; pity and contempt are the most they rate.

As for me, willy-nilly I am a man, not a beaver, and H. sapiens is the only race I have or can have. Fortunately for me, I like being part of a race made up of men and women--it strikes me as a fine arrangement and perfectly "natural".

Believe it or not, there were "Naturists" who opposed the first flight to old Earth's Moon as being "unnatural" and a "despoiling of Nature".
This is from "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long" in the book "Time Enough For Love". An excellent book, and highly recommended.

===|==============/ Level Head

Amen to that. We are the only animal who knows what effect we're having on the environment as a whole. That's about the only difference. Unfortunately our big ol' brains seem more suited to inventing new and more toxic ways to poison the planet and weaseling around environmental laws. Animals may not live in harmony with Nature, but at least I've never met one who was a lawyer.

You forgot the myriad of parasites who make other creature's lives hells, or, at least, quite unpleasant. I don't think it's hardly kind of nature to have entire genera of wasps who pretty much only have sex, then lay their eggs in another insect and their larva devour that insect in a slow and gruesome way. That arguement pretty much obliterates the "Nature is nice and friendly and happy and blah blah blah!" idea.

Your comment almost seems like a perfect reply to the previous "I've never met an animal who was a lawyer" comment. ];)

===|==============/ Level Head

A similar distortion goes on with the "First Nation" or American Indian tribes. It is fashionable to think of them as peaceful, gentle, tree-huggers living in harmony with Nature and their neighbors.

This is baloney. The "First Nation"--a "politically correct" name--belies the fact that they were the second wave of immigrants across the Bering Strait, and slaughtered the previous settlers; there are relatively few remains. Then they slaughtered each other, raping, torturing, murdering by the thousands and tens of thousands and eradicating entire tribes before Europeans ever set foot in the western hemisphere.

In other words, they are people, just like other people. As I have ancestry from three of these tribes, when circumstances call for battle it is the part of my heritage that is most well-equipped and inclined to this.

===|==============/ Level Head

Oooh....I did my senior project in anthropology on false romanticization of indigenous peoples. I could go off on this for pages. (I won't. But I could.) We could also add the contribution of natives to the extintion of large mammals which coincidentally follows their arrival on most continents, the tendency of semi-nomadic peoples to travel to get away from their trash (which is fine for archaeologists--garbage dumps have taught us volumes) and the fact that most native peoples, contrary to popular belief, have rates of murder, abuse, and rapine on par with most industrialized societies. We could add...well, we could add lots, but I won't. Yet.


I could go off on this for pages. (I won't. But I could.)

Aw. Please? What if we ask nicely?

*chuckle* No, no...someone will have to do a "noble savage" post or article or something in my presence before I can summon up the proper vitriol. My intent isn't to deride native peoples after all, just to point out that we're all of us human, and none of us have any particular vice or virtue over the others. Treating someone as a noble savage is as bad in it's way as treating them as subhuman--both ways you're treating them as Something Other, when, as I find myself saying over and over again, day in and day out, we're all just people gettin' on as best we can.

Nobody, ever, in the history of humanity, has ever walked that lightly on the earth. But that's okay. Nobody ever used toilet paper, either or penicillin. We just got figure out a method to do it, for the first time, and make it work.

And to you, friend.

Yes, "Modern Industrialized Man" has been contributing to extinctions for tens of thousands of years.

And I shall, in turn, not use your journal to talk about overhyped "global warming" issues... ];)

I enjoy your artwork and your writings, having been pointed to your night musings long before I had ever seen a piece of your other art.

Thanks for sharing!

===|================/ Level Head

You left out clearcutting forests to make room for more grasslands for their prey.

That said, they're still cool people, they're just human, with all the power and nearsightedness that brings with it.

Though I am but a high school student without much archaelogical background, I've heard that the mass extinction of megafauna may have not been due to hunting, but possibly diseases that humans introduced into the wild population of the creatures living there, possibly with their domestic animals that they may had have (dogs, in all likelihood). I personally think that the disease idea is a bit better then overhunting, because a lot of those creatures were very big and could have easily killed any human hunters. A lot of those creatures did exceed 1000 pounds and had nasty, nasty protusions all about them. Anyway, this is mostly a piecemeal of my own opinions and things, whatever that's worth to you.

Well, the extinction of megafauna goes back and forth, depending on who you ask.

That humans killed megafauna is absolutely not in doubt, however--we've got kill sites where they ran mammoths off cliffs, we've got bones with spearpoints stuck in 'em and where there are obvious signs of butchering (butchery leaves very specific and obvious markers on the bones.) Whether they killed ALL the megafauna...well, it depends on who you ask.

I hadn't heard the disease one before. Usually it falls in two camps, the "climatic change" one and the "humans are bastards" one. The truth, if we're being objective, is probably somewhere between the two--species already weakened by the changing climate are dealt the death blow by the sudden migration, via land bridge, of a group of highly intelligent predators who can now kill from a distance (being in excess of a half-ton and covered in pointy bits didn't stop anybody--they had atlatls, they had fire, they didn't have to get anywhere near a pointy bit.) The fact is, much as I like to bitch about the mammoth, the odds are pretty good that the mammoth was goin' down anyway--mammoths died everywhere--but still, there were literally hundreds of big species who thrived elsewhere despite climate change, like camels and horses, llamas, wild pigs, and so on and so forth, who mysteriously bit the big one when humans arrived. That human hunting of megafauna was not what you'd call ecologically friendly is also undeniable--some of the cliff kill sites are just unbelievable, and unless they were feeding a tribe the size of Detroit, there's no way they could have used even a large proportion of the meat. But hey, all's fair in love and mammoth.

This is all North America, however. In other places, such as Australia and New Zealand, the megafauna die off seems to follow the arrival of humans practically instantaneously--one day you've got wombats the size of dumptrucks, the next day you don't. When I was in college a few years ago, I think it was generally assumed that the arrival of what are now termed "indigenous" peoples bore the large part of the blame on those particular die offs--that could definitely have changed, and if anyone knows the latest on megafaunal extinction, feel free to pipe up--my stuff is definitely dated.


I hadn't heard the disease one before.

It's not a very widespread theory, I'm guessing because it doesn't stand up well to close scrutiny. Humans arriving in Australia, the Americas and later New Zealand are all carrying some kind of mysterious pathogen that can jump the species boundary -- and all the way down to the class boundary, in the case of the moa -- but generally only to animals that are delicious and/or fashionable, leaving no evidence of its existence in the remains of humans from those places and eras, yet vanishing before the present day? No. And it would have to have been a single pathogen, because the possibility of this happening more than once, at different times, in different places, with different diseases-- No.

And that still wouldn't explain the scratch marks on the bones. Humans can and will kill anything, given enough pointy sticks and a little time to plan.

(Deleted comment)
It seems that after dinner, they could be lumped together.

In the Western Hemisphere, few people know that the Caribbean Sea (home of tropical resorts by the hundred) is named for a large tribe of cannibals.

===|==============/ Level Head

Yeah, I snrrked at that little tirade as well. People who whine about how Terrible Hy00muns Are, I suspect, are those who least often leave their computers and check out the reality of nature. As mentioned by you and others, animals are neither nice nor noble nor admirable. They just are. They're amazingly cool in their variation, yes, but hardly more natural than humans.

I agree, definately. I like civilization. Nature's all well and good, but I like my tools, my toys, and my settlements.

A lot of the folks I see that ar nature romanticists, are young, or hate themselves, or hate their dads.


Now if humans could just back and think about how and why they behave the way they do, instead of beating other people over bananas, we'd have a much better world. I live by the philosophy that yes, humans are absolutely animals, and 95% of our behavior stems from that fact, and that most of our behavior is dictated by our biology and evolutionary history. I also belive that humans are the lucky few who have *minds* large enough to realize this and can do something about it. It works on the grand scale, and works in everyday life. Seems to me tons of personal conflict comes from the biological needs, wants, instincts, and drives, survival of the fittest, and whatnot, that may have been useful in the times when we still lived out in the wild and in caves and such, but is screwing us over today. And it seems obvious to me that wars, racism, etc. come from that built-in ancient hardwired fear that "different is dangerous". If it, be it animal or man, is not the same as you, and the small band of people you live with, it could be stronger than you, and kill you. Well, that's pretty useless in the relative safety of todays world, but it still seems to be a major factor in human life these days.

And don't get me started on the mating instinct. ;)

I can't really say anything that hasn't already been said. Only I think I know which thread you're referring to (but then again, if you hang around at "furry" messageboards for more than a day, you'll see at least one, so maybe not. :) ).

I find them extremely annoying. Though those are usually some of the same people who .... Hmm. I just realised that anything I say could apply to people who A) read your LJ and will track me down and rationalise their behavior and B) might not nessessarily be entirely crazy. ^_^; Let's just say "annoying in other ways".

To quote he author of _Biological Exhuberance_, that thick book about homosexuality in animals:

"When animals do something we like, we call it 'natural;' when they do something we don't like, we call it 'animalistic.'"

This was in accompaniment of a few pages detailing how, over the last several centuries, the overwhelming majority of scientists and naturalists just so happened to be puritanical Christian. I don't own the book (I only read a quarter or so of it in Borders once), so this is paraphrase, but the author basically said this: when scientists would observe a male and female, say, deer, mating, their descriptions would almost always be flowery and in awe of the spectacle. "I obvserved a miracle of nature, the male and the female joining in perfect harmony after their beautiful dance of courtship." On the other hand, when they would observe two males doing pretty much the same thing, they would describe it about like this: "The buck, in a terribly cruel and frightening manner, forced himself the other more helpless buck and proceeded to assert dominance over him. I observed this horrible scene twice again within hours and was simply mortified."

As usual, people will see only what they want to see, how they want to see it. They see a cheerful bird cleaning an alligator's teeth and say, "aww, nature is so beautiful and balanced." Then they realize that their male hamster is blissfully chowing down on his newborn babies, and recoil in disgust at how cruel nature is.

The natural system of things may be violent and destructive- but it has worked to preserve and improve life for millions of years. "Morality" is a system that we use (or adapt to justify our actions), and in only a few thousand years- it hasn't been doing so well.

I also hear people often describe the natural order of the woods like it was a moral thing- which just doesn't fit. I've heard people describe morality as a better solution for life; something we created and can control because we are capable of making that choice- which is bullshit too.

I doubt any people understand nature. I doubt any people who talk about either natural or moral ways as being better then the other can see the full picture. I doubt anyone who talks about how they would choose to live as animals do, because much of what animals do is considered "evil" by every culture. I doubt anyone who talks about humanity being better the animals (or unatural) because, most of the time, they are unwilling to admit that systems like economics, war, religion, and segregation also follow a pattern of "survival of the fittest".

This is a topic that has been close to my heart for a long time. Problem is- I don't yet see what the point is of talking about it. I don't know if there is a solution or some great truth in it. I doubt that if we were albe to see what the reality of the situation is- it would improve anything.

I think Paf even called me out on this a little...
I wonder if anyone would have the patience to talk it over with me anyway :P

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