May 23, 2023

One of my biggest critiques of the environmental movement is a kind of false optimism about the primacy of nature. There’s an underlying believe that Mother Nature knows better than humans and that, left to her own devices, she will provide an optimal world of teeming life.

Freeman Dyson has the best summary of this conflict between what he calls the naturalists and the humanists:

The Naturalists:

Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tuna fish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.

The Humanists:

The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and the biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease, and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The human ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay if worldwide development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts the responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet.

The naturalist ethic coincides with a bucolic view of the world: green pastures, lazy lions on beautiful grasslands eyeing other charismatic megafauna, and blue water with coral reefs teeming with life. We project onto nature our human perspective of the best world and what nature means. We anthropomorphize so strongly and so naturally that it’s hard to tell we’re even doing this. We see something beautiful and believe that this beauty is fundamental and inherent and natural. We project our human ideas of nature and beauty onto the fitness functions we believe nature drives.

Our view of nature is false. One of my favorite ways to breakdown this viewpoint is to give examples of a thriving Mother Nature that don’t fit into our view of what a better world is like. Here’s some examples to see what I mean:

  • Malaria is caused by infection from one of the members of the Plasmodium family. These parasites are incredibly adaptive and thrive globally infecting all sorts of vertebrates and using mosquitos as a traveling mechanism. They’re a highly successful and adaptive product of nature. It probably killed 2-5% of all humans that have ever lived and still kills millions per year.

  • The hydra is one of a few “immortal” organisms, or technically “non-senescent”. We take aging for granted as a universal biological fact, but there’s no fundamental physical reason for this to be true. In fact, the estimates suggest that every single atom in your body cycles out about every 5-7 years (probably 98% every year). You are literally an entirely different person than you were before. Anyway, hydras. Hydras can still die through trauma, of course, but there’s no material aging as we usually know it. Oh, and they reproduce both sexually and asexually.

  • Traumatic insemination. When bedbugs mate, the male literally breaks open the shell of the female with a sharp appendage and dumps a bunch of sperm into the wound. They don’t usually die, but as you imagine this is not particularly great for the females. I have no idea why this is a positive adaptation, but bedbugs aren’t the only species to do this. Our ideas of sex are clearly somewhat species-ist.

  • Duck sex is another weird perspective on sex in vertebrates and one that I knew nothing about until reading The Evolution of Beauty. Ducks have these crazy corkscrewed sex organs. The reason? Forced copulation is rampant; females evolved to try to stop it, males evolved to allow successful insemination. It is every bit as insane as you’d imagine.

  • The bacterium treponema pallidum which has evolved as a parasite to humans, spreads based on something humans decidedly must do (have sex to reproduce), and can even pass from pregnant mother to child and continue on in another host. It only exists in humans, there is no vaccine and no known cure, but penicillin and other antibiotics limit the effects. When symptoms show, it’s known as syphillis and some of the effects are truly horrifying.

  • The background extinction rate is very high, with the average species lasting about 5-10 million years before going extinct. Over the course of history there have been five mass extinction events that have destroyed anywhere from 70-96% of all species.

  • The genetic cycle of the single-celled eukaryote tetrahymena thermophila is pretty wild. It has a very large number of genes and 7 mating types or “genders”. I’m just going to quote:

    The species reproduces by asexual reproduction with binary fission and conjugation. In nature the species is an outbreeder. Tetrahymena thermophila has 7 mating types determined by a single locus with various alleles. The mating types are named I, II, III, IV, V, VI and VII. The mating types can reproduce in 21 different combinations, and a single Tetrahymena cannot reproduce sexually with itself. Each organism “decides” which sex it will become during mating, through a stochastic process.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch outlines an argument from John Haldane and Richard Dawkins that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” He then calmly and methodically destroys the argument by detailing why the explanatory knowledge that human beings hold is special in the universe - you should read it, it’s really quite something.

Whether we are the the only species in the universe with this capacity or not, our explanatory capability lets the capabilities of the universe go much farther than they otherwise could. Explanatory knowledge is what lets us have radio telescopes, fusion reactors, electric light bulbs, and cars. This unique human trait seems to be tied directly to consciousness (at least right now) and we have no idea how any of it works.

The entirety of the biological sphere, except for us, has zero need for explanatory knowledge to achieve the fitness functions and fill their ecological niches. If ever you want a reason to question your anthropocentric view of what is nature and what is not, this is it. We have a fundamental selection bias based on our currently unique explanatory capabilities and the beautiful, bucolic, and artificial environments we have been able to create.

The Anthropic Principle was coined to consider the fundamental bias that exists when considering the nature of a universe that can support life. I’m not rigorous or capable enough to formalize this argument, but I do think there’s a corollary “Bucolic Principle” that we humans need to get past if we’re going to have serious conversations about the nature of our planetary ecology and our fundamental role in it.

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