A number of possibilities for a definition of ‘nature’ have been proposed.
The first I will examine is ‘Wilderness, a physical area unaffected by humanity’.
Personally I consider this to be an unrealistic view of any part of the world. All environments are inextricably linked and we humans have had some degree of impact on all of them. Even places where no human has ever been are in some way affected by us, through our pressure on migratory organisms that do come into contact with us and our impact on the global climate system. In addition, if we only consider things to be natural if no human has come into contact with them, then none of us have ever actually experienced nature.
While it is true that some environments can clearly be seen to have been further affected by humans than others, the impossibility to draw a line makes this definition of nature unrealistic.
Next we have ‘ The opposite to culture, that which is not culture’. This is an interesting one, that at first looks promising to me. Difficulties arise, however, when one has to define culture. Somehow I feel ‘The opposite to nature’ isn’t going to cut it. The definition of culture that I have generally used is ‘Any learned behavior, or product of this behavior, that can pass between individuals’. This definition seemed fine when dealing with human culture as opposed to nature, but I then considered the culture displayed by other animals. For example, styles of bird song are learned. Certain types of song go in and out of fashion for birds in different areas, even those of the same species. While this, by my earlier definition, is certainly a cultural phenomenon, it is something that I generally would have considered natural.
The difficulty with this definition of nature is drawing a line between whether a phenomenon constitutes culture or is driven by instinct (and if it is a combination of the two, is it natural or cultural?). Language in humans, for instance, is universal, indicating that we have some kind of in-built language instinct, but individual languages are culturally developed and transmitted.
The definition of nature that I am most comfortable with is ‘Every element of the world we inhabit’. The implication is that humans and our constructs are not separate from nature, but an integral part of it. Some claim that this would excuse us from our degradation of other natural things, as we cannot be doing anything wrong in exploiting that which we are a part of. I find this most unsatisfactory. It is perfectly reasonable to be worried about one part of a whole damaging another, particularly when one part is self aware.
I am reminded of Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of a selfish gene at this point. A self interested part of a whole, that will ‘try’ to ensure its own survival at the expense of other parts, but has found that cooperation and mutualism are more successful at ensuring its continued existence that all out exploitation. That is not to say that sometimes, it is in the best interests of a self interested propagator to exploit. The fact that humans, unlike Dawkins’ unaware selfish-genes, are able to plan and to think forward gives us two greater opportunities.
One is the ability to propagate ourselves at the expense of other elements of nature with much more efficiency and success.
The other, is to look ahead and steer ourselves away from mindless propagation (in terms of population and of material wealth and power) that will not benefit us in the long term.
I hope that we can see fit to choose the latter option.
This essay is far from perfect or complete, I am using this blog as a sort of sounding board. I am stressing that I really need people to criticize me. This is the way that I sort out what is going on in my head. I really do think I’m on to something with the layers withing layers of selfish propagators, though. Anyway, thoughts?