Thursday, September 8, 2005

Nature: Do We Belong?

We have already dealt with the question, "Is Nature cruel?" Perhaps now is a good time to ask a related but perhaps even more critical question (in terms of our future survival on this planet): "do we belong?" That is, are we a part of Nature, or are we Her separate and unequal Master?

I have written about this very question, and the possible consequences of our arriving at what I suspect is the wrong answer to it, in my book. Further along, I'll present another quote from the discussion of Nature in that chapter, but first I want to present a couple of links that will provide some very topical context to this question.

The first comes from a New York Times editorial published last week and written by Mark Fischetti, a contributing editor to Scientific American. He had written an article in Sci-Am some four years ago in which he presented validated and compelling scientific evidence of the cataclysm to come in America's Gulf Coast, with a plan on how we might avert disaster. In that piece, he had recommended that we adopt a model based on successes in the Netherlands to protect ourselves from natural disaster by working with the forces of Nature. Fischetti reminds us, "The conceit that we can control the natural world is what made New Orleans vulnerable."

Fischetti's piece is worth reading primarily as a reminder that, as Einstein repeatedly urged us during his lifetime, humility is the energy from which true insight upon the world and the universe blooms. When a scientist begins from the perspective of humility—that is, the realization that we are not the Masters of the Universe, but rather unique components of a vast natural diversity—then the scientist's work becomes a synergy of knowledge and feeling, otherwise known as wisdom. Needless to say, this is the condition under which the greatest and most enduring scientific insights are realized, from which the most beneficial and practical advances arise. In short, when in humility we honor our place within the cosmic whole, then the benevolent purpose of science is advanced in its work, and the forced division of knowledge and spirit dissolves.

So here's the excerpt from my new book:

Most of us in this culture have been trained to believe that our animal nature is a part of our “lower nature,” our “baser self,” to which is ascribed all our evil, taboo, primitive, and ungodlike impulses, such as deviousness, violence (“bestiality”), and sexuality. This, again, is the ideological divorce that I referred to earlier: could it be that many of the more familiar (and manifestly painful) divorces of our lives are somehow related to this divorcing of ourselves and Nature? From our earliest childhood, most of us are subjected to this form of conditioning, until it becomes so deeply and insidiously programmed into us that it seems a part of our nature! As we grow up, we learn to make compromises with our animal nature-to tame it, train it, and channel it into socially-acceptable forms of expression and indulgence. This is the compromise that is embodied in all the dominant religious ideologies of the West, in many of our codes of governmental law, and in much of our science, such as the Freudian canon of psychology.

Perhaps there is also an evolutionary lesson contained in these circumstances surrounding the tsunami disaster: we are being called back to a living relationship of equivalence with Nature and her creatures. Evolution is not the linear, survival-of-the-fittest, exclusionary movement from primitive-to-civilized that has often been drilled into us. No: evolution is probably more accurately conceived in that more transformative of geometric shapes, the circle . It winds through overlapping arcs and ripples of growth, none of which can be identified as definitive or superior.

Could it be that we humans are on one such arc of transformation, wherein the limitations of intellect-in-isolation are coming to be generally realized-a period of return to a broader perspective on ourselves and our planetary neighbors? For several millennia, we have pushed our forebrains naked and alone out onto the stage of life, in an ever-increasing isolation of aggrandizement and distortion, only to discover-on a deeply visceral, maybe even a genetic basis-that we can't truly survive or endure this way. Are we in the midst of an evolutionary ripple that is taking us, through the developmental shocks of crisis and tragedy, into a more intimate and equivalent relationship with Nature-with the animals and plants, rocks and soil of our world-that will lead us back from the delusion of the monarchy of intellect, toward the complete and regenerative experience of ourselves as individual threads in the eternal fabric of Being?

I do not know the answers to those questions, yet I feel deeply that if we can recover a sense of our animal nature, of our equal and living relationship with Nature, then we are very likely to find the humility that will lead us toward a renewal in all the other relationships of our lives. Such a movement of “personal evolution” will lead us out of the estrangement and inner divorce that so often poison our relationships with co-workers, spouses, lovers, and perhaps most crucial of them all, our children. I also feel that if only some of us can take that developmental step in the recovery of a feeling-awareness of our animal nature, then it will in turn contribute toward a transformation in our social structures that may help in the preservation of our planetary Home.

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