Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 29, 2017

Work with Nature or Against It?

Paddling-Upstream-01b1

Should we work with nature or against it?

Yes, and yes. It depends.

The question assumes that nature is either on our side or against us. If nature supports us and our ideals, then we would work with it. If nature is against us, then we’d work against it. A third option is to get frustrated and deny that nature exists at all. In practice, the third choice means claiming that nature is whatever we want it to be.

Those choices lead some very smart people to say things like “nature is what we are put in this world to rise above,” or that ideologies like feminism can bring about ill-defined “race, class and gender equality” on some permanent basis.

But the assumptions are wrong.

Nature exists, but it doesn’t care what we want. It doesn’t try to help us or to hurt us.1 It simply is what it is. If the stove heats up our coffee, it’s not because it likes us. If a rock falls on our foot, it’s not because it hates us. Things act consistently with what they are: that is, consistently with their nature. So do people.

Because nature doesn’t care, it’s neutral. It’s neither consistently helpful nor harmful to us. We must look at the facts of each situation, and decide what to do on that basis:

“whether nature in this instance is to be regarded as a friend or as an enemy.”2

Our Basic Choice

Our most basic choice is not to work with or against nature. Instead, our choice is to accept or deny reality. Only if we accept reality can we act in ways that are likely to achieve our goals.

Accepting reality means recognizing, for example, that a river flows in one direction and not the other. If we paddle our canoe downstream in the direction of the current, we reach our destination easily because the current helps us. If we paddle upsteam against the current, we struggle to get there because the current hinders us. Our trip takes more time. If we stop paddling for a moment, the current carries us backwards.

If paddling downstream with the current won’t get us where we want to go, then of course we have to paddle upstream, or else find another way to reach our destination.

However, if both directions lead to an acceptable destination, then we should paddle downstream and let the river help us. We’d be foolish to claim that upstream is really downstream, or that the river has no direction at all. Paddling upstream is stupid.

That’s the point of Francis Bacon’s advice, usually paraphrased as “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed:”

“Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice.”3

Accept Facts and Respond Appropriately

Recognizing nature doesn’t mean leaving it as it is: it means accepting it as it is. When we know the facts, we can decide whether they’re good or bad. If the facts are bad, we can try to change them. But pretending that facts aren’t true does nothing to change them. It usually makes the situation worse. It certainly handicaps our ability to change things for the better.

For example, good health is people’s natural state: it’s usually the “direction” of that particular river. As a result, we can paddle with the current to maintain and improve people’s health: encouraging them to follow a sensible diet, get regular exercise, and avoid harmful habits such as smoking or careless sex.

On the other hand, diseases are also natural but they flow in a direction we don’t want. In those cases, we should paddle against the current and cure the disease if we can. But even to paddle against the current, we need to accept the river as it really is, not as we might wish it to be. If we pretend to believe that influenza is caused by evil spirits instead of viruses, then our treatments will be ineffective.

Denial of Human Nature

Rodney-King-Get-Along

Nowhere is denial of reality more costly than in social issues. Particularly harmful is the belief that all people are the same; that differences are merely “social constructs” and that vastly different populations can live together harmoniously.

That denial starts with a commendable wish for universal goodwill. Then it mentions a few anecdotal encounters between highly educated, culturally assimilated, and morally pacifistic members of different groups. Finally, it concludes that what applies to a few very unusual people, some of the time, applies to people in general, all of the time.

Unfortunately, it isn’t true. It never has been. As long as people are humans and not angels, it never will be true.

To pretend otherwise is to pretend that the river has no direction: that up is down, that male and female are interchangeable (or “social constructs”), and that it makes no difference whether you drink coffee or cyanide. It is a prescription for social conflict, both violent and nonviolent. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily … participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”4

Recognition of Human Nature

It’s not as if recognition of “groupish” behavior is a new insight. Human beings’ preference for in-group members and hostility toward out-group members has been known for millennia.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, violent conflict resulted from the large communities of Greeks living in Turkey and Turks living in Greece. After World War I, the victorious Western powers:

”to end the ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks that had sparked so much conflict over so many centuries … all ethnic Greeks living in Turkey were expelled to Greece and all ethnic Turks living in Greece were transferred to Turkey.”5

The separation worked as expected: social strife between Greeks and Turks subsided, and the two countries resumed friendly relations.6

As conservatives are fond of saying, “That’s what separate countries are for.”

When conducting experiments, scientists make changes to one group and compare its results to a “control group” that gets no changes. In the late 1940s, the British colony of India provided a kind of control group for the Greek-Turkish separation. India’s large Hindu and Muslim populations had frequently engaged in violent conflicts. To solve the problem, Britain divided the country into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. However, that half-measure didn’t stop the conflicts:

“In the months immediately following partition, inter-religious violence only intensified. The bloodshed eventually triggered a massive population exchange, as religious minorities sought safety among their coreligionists. Over seven million Muslims fled India for Pakistan. And approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan for India.”7

Human nature is a fact, based in biology. People belong to tribes in which authority is hierarchical. If there’s no obvious basis for membership or hierarchy, people will make something up. Tribe members often behave with hostility and suspicion toward non-members. Almost every major group difference in a society is a fault line along which the society can fracture into separate, warring tribes.

We can work with those facts, work against them, or pretend they don’t exist. The facts will stay the same. If we ignore them — or even worse, are guided by wishful thinking — then we doom our societies to strife and bloodshed.

Works Cited

Brog, D. (2017), Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace, Kindle edition. Regnery Publishing, Chicago.

Davies, P. (2008), The Goldilocks Enigma. Mariner Books, New York.

Jardine, L., ed. (2000), Francis Bacon: The New Organon. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Stephen, J.F. (1993), Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis.

Wilson, E.O., The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright Publishing, New York.

Footnotes


  1. At the level of individual events and actions, the universe neither favors nor opposes us. However, at the level of physical laws, the universe seems tuned to values that support life: it’s called “the anthropic principle.” Based on the anthropic principle, some people argue for God’s existence: physicist Paul Davies makes that argument in The Goldilocks Enigma. Others, such as popular science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson and entrepreneur Elon Musk, speculate that we live in a computer-generated virtual reality created by intelligent non-Divine beings. 
  2. Stephen, J.F. (1993), Chapter 1. 
  3. Jardine, L. (2000), Book I, Aphorism 3. 
  4. Wilson, E.O. (2012), p. 58. 
  5. Brog, D. (2017), loc. 166. 
  6. Ibid, loc. 174. 
  7. Ibid, loc. 

Responses

  1. Well argued. But the last section of this article frustrates me nevertheless. That makes me think I have biases that I don’t yet understand. Maybe I just believe in the American melting pot and have never critically examined that belief.

    • I don’t think it’s a question of bias. Every decent person wishes that we could all get along without regard for morally irrelevant differences. Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t. We are finite beings with specific weaknesses and limitations. All I’m saying is that we should accept the fact and try to prevent it from causing needless problems.

      Your mention of the “melting pot” is precisely on point. To take immigration as an example, earlier immigrants embraced the American dream and were eager to prove themselves as “American” as anyone else. That helped to overcome any differences that still existed. On the other hand, contemporary identity politics encourages people to cultivate separation, grievance, and hostility toward other groups in society. It is not only harmful, but is predictably so and is entirely avoidable. That compounds the tragedy.

  2. Some fascinating observations here. It occurs to me that our modern internet culture is creating opportunities for “forming teams” that never existed before. We are no longer restricted to the old race/class/religion/location divisions we used to be stuck with. Now, how to deal with it. I presume this will be part 2? 🙂

    • I’m not sure how “new age teams” would go. Obviously, we see some of that happening already, as when Twitter mobs harass people online. However, I’m not sure if there’s any in-group loyalty among team members. I would expect durable social groups to depend on at least some face-to-face contact between members, but life is full of surprises.

  3. […] My friend and colleague N. Scott Palmer makes a gently but cogently reasoned argument that there are cultures incompatible with ours, and that allowing people from incompatible cultures to mix will end in strife every time. I’m not sure I agree, but at the same time I struggle to refute his argument. Read Work with Nature or Against It […]


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