“A Second World Within the World of Nature”
- Nature and the Idea of a Man-Made World, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), p. xiii–xviii (Preface) and p. 3–27
"We enjoy the fruits of the plains and of the mountains, the rivers and the lakes are ours, we sow corn, we plant trees, we fertilize the soil by irrigation, we confine the rivers and straighten or divert their courses. In fine, by means of our hands we essay to create as it were a second world within the world of nature."
— Cicero, De natura deorum,
- We consider nature as “everything else”—everything outside us. Ancient societies understood that nature was in charge and they were at its mercy; all dealt with nature directly throughout the course of their lives. Ancient peoples tended to see themselves more a part of nature than fully outside it as we do.
- Romans (as in the Cicero quotation) recognized their power to change the face of the world. The more one assumes a power over nature, the more emphatic the conceptual difference between what is natural and what is man-made.
- Do you see yourself as a part of nature, or as separate from it?
This is sometimes called “the man/nature duality”—an intuitive conceptual framework through which we understand the natural world and our place in it.
Homo Faber – Man the Maker
- When we make things, we distinguish them from nature. We design an architectural façade to be perfectly balanced, or a tool to be beautiful as well as useful, or a piece of furniture to appear as beautiful, balanced, in harmony with the room in which it will be placed. Ancient peoples and so-called primitive societies today tend to ascribe each man-made place and each artifact as analogous to something in nature.
- Has it always been this way? —Have human societies always sought a kind of perfection in the part of the world of their own making? Some believe that an enormous change in the attitude toward nature came with the advent of agriculture and settlement.
“If human beings had been content for several hundred thousand years to roam shelterless and with only a minimal technology, why, all of a sudden (historically speaking), should they become seemingly obsessed with architecture, with not just settling down in one fertile place protected from the elements but erecting buildings and cities that contested with nature itself for grandeur?”
— Peter J. Wilson, The Domestication of the Human Species (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), xii.
- It seems reasonable to suppose that before agriculture (~10,000 BP, or 8,000 BC), as it still is for hunter-gathers today, nature is seen—broadly speaking—as a much more intimate, tactile, immediate thing. When we die our bodies decay just like other creatures. In this there is a recognition that we are subject to the same forces of nature as other creatures, and in quite the same way.
- Something compels us to seek order in the world around us. It must surely be innate, integral with “human nature.” Or is it? There are two opposing views on this. One point of view is most associated with John Locke—the notion that the human mind is a tabula rasa. Kant, on the other hand, as well as Aristotle long before him, saw the search for order as innate—a part of what makes us human. (Also see H. Arendt’s The Human Condition).
The Idea of HarmonyOrder in nature and the order of things we make, especially architecture and settlements, have often been regarded as necessarily associated, that is, the idea of a harmonious relationship between two worlds, with the man-made carefully attuned to the natural world in which it resides. This is true for the ancient world and reoccurs in the West especially in the Renaissance.
“The man-made world is an alternative nature . . . created by artifice and born as a human reflection of the wonder we find in the natural world—the heavens, the seasons, landscapes and seascapes, plants and animals. The assumption that there is a direct connection between the two worlds [ours and the cosmos] at both the subliminal and conscious levels informs [ a considerable part of the exploration we will pursue in this course].” — Nature..., p. 7
- But what about those who argue today that, for instance, radical changes to nature for immediate short-term economic advantage do not present a problem because we have the scientific prowess to re-create the effect of natural systems? Biologist E. O. Wilson answers rhetorically (as stated in the introductory material for this course):
Perhaps it is enough to argue that the preservation of the living world is necessary to our long-term material prosperity and health. But there is another, and in some ways deeper, reason not to let the natural world slip away. It has to do with the defining qualities and self-image of the human species. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that new species can one day be engineered and stable ecosystems built from them. With that distant prospect in mind, should we go ahead and, for the short-term gain, allow the original species and ecosystems to be lost? Yes? Erase Earth’s living history? Then also burn the art galleries, make cordwood of the musical instruments, pulp the musical scores, erase Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Goethe, and the Beatles too, because all these—or at least fairly good substitutes—can be re-created.
The issue, like all great decisions, is moral. Science and technology are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do. The ethic from which moral decisions spring is a norm or standard of behavior in support of a value, and the value in turn depends on purpose. Purpose, whether personal or global, whether urged by conscience or graven in sacred script, expresses the image we hold of ourselves and our society. A conservation ethic is that which aims to pass on to future generations the best part of the nonhuman world. To know this world is to gain a proprietary attachment to it. To know it well is to love and take responsibility for it.
— E. O. Wilson, “What is Nature Worth?” The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2002, p. 39
Questions for Reflection
- What is your idea of Nature? How does that effect the way you live? Or does it?
- If you could live anywhere in any sort of domicile, what would meet your most stringent requirements for an ideal relationship with nature (Consider this week’s reading with its comparison of two houses by two internationally known 20th cent. architects)?
- If you were to propose a utopian city, what would be its relationship to nature? How might it accommodate fundamental human nature? Consider this in light of the present acknowledgement of ongoing environmental changes brought about by industrialization.
We’ll explore these ideas later in the course, but you should consider them now so that you can begin to build upon what you know.
- See two examples in the text: a house by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and one designed about the same time by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier; and the comparative discussion of gardens from Persian, Western Romantic, and Western classical traditions. After having read the discussions in chapter 1 about Villa Savoye and Fallingwater, what would be the ideal domicile in which you would like to live?
- What is “human nature” and how might your idea of what it is effect your ideals with respect to “the environment” or “environmentalism”?