Breastfeeding is natural, therefore, it is better than bottle-feeding. A snack food with natural flavors is healthier than a snack food with artificial flavors. Non-genetically modified vegetables are safer than genetically modified ones. And a natural pesticide is intrinsically less harmful than a synthetic pesticide. The specious reasoning of the naturalistic fallacy—the idea that if something is natural, it must be good—remains prevalent, even though scientific understanding and literacy are more widespread than ever before. It extends beyond the marketplace and the home to affect our entire conception of the natural world, and it spans the course of human history.
The most ubiquitous personification of Nature has been as a mother. The Mother Earth paradigm dates back to at least Lucretius, who writes that “the Earth deserves her name of Mother” because she “would furnish to the children food; warmth was their swaddling cloth, the grass their bed abounding in soft down.” Nature worshippers have, over the ages, included the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the Deep Ecologists and radical environmentalists. Nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir did not invoke the idea of Mother Nature explicitly, but he conceived of nature as embodying a vital, peaceful essence that nurtures the human soul, such that “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” Thoreau writes similarly about the effects of nature on human psychology: “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”
In contrast to their faith in the natural world, some environmental activists are skeptical that humanity has the moral probity and intelligence to solve the environmental problems we face. Deep Ecologist Paul Kingsnorth writes that “progress is a ratchet, every turn forcing us more tightly into the gears of a machine we were forced to create to solve the problems created by progress.” Deriding the efforts of the neo-environmentalists to solve environmental problems using science and technology, Kingsnorth suggests going back to nature (even withdrawing from society) as the best response to the current ecological dark age.
Though it is appealing to characterize Nature as good, peaceful and harmonious, especially when faced with serious environmental problems, this is contradicted by much of what evolutionary biology teaches us about organisms and their life histories, and is not a prerequisite for environmental progress. And—in additional to being theoretically wrong—the naturalistic fallacy has had dire consequences in practice. The ruthlessness of Nature has been used to justify hierarchy and prejudice, and assertions about the cooperativeness of organisms have been used to inform devastating agricultural policies. Whenever the naturalistic fallacy has been applied, the same basic assumption is always at play: in order to prove that a political or moral principle is good, it must be shown to be natural. In order to justify this, the natural world must be distorted into something that it is not: full of sound moral principles aligned with those of mankind. But, despite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s assertion that “Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies to the evils it produces,” the moral and scientific progress of human civilization over the past two centuries has been very hopeful and shows that humanity can act as a moral conscience on planet Earth, for our benefit and for the benefit of other living things.
Is Nature Balanced?
Nature is often said to be balanced. This is true, on some level, of ecosystems, which are composed of interdependent networks of organisms that have evolved in each other’s presence. For example, there are exchanges of nutrients between plant roots and fungi. Plant roots supply the fungi with carbon, which in turn supply the plant roots with the phosphorus and nitrogen that the plant needs to grow. That so many organisms seem to have relationships with other species that cannot be severed without disastrous consequences provides support for the idea that ecosystems are always in balance and unchanging.
But few ecosystems have gone undisturbed for more than a few thousand years. And many—such as bottomland hardwood forests and fire-tolerant longleaf pine forests in North America—experience disturbances a few times every decade. For example, glaciers receded from North America only 11,700 years ago (a blip on the geological timescale), which means that, only about 20,000 years ago, the swamps of Louisiana were mixed hardwood and conifer forests, reminiscent of those in modern-day New England, and alpine tundra crowned the southern Appalachians. On a shorter timescale, many ecosystems undergo changes due to volcanic eruptions, wildfires, droughts and other occurrences. Patterns of succession across ecosystems demonstrate that newly established ecosystems are very different from 200-year-old ecosystems, which have a much greater nutrient supply and a very different plant community structure from their predecessors.
Additionally, the natural world that academic ecologists study is made up of communities and populations that often follow chaotic and dynamic patterns of change over time, rather than displaying linear regularities. The ecologist Daniel Simberloff argues that the term balance of nature has become a panchreston: it means so many things to so many different people that it is useless as an explanatory or theoretical device.
Humans may have wreaked havoc on Earth’s ecosystems in many ways, but disrupting a pre-existing balance is not one of them. The balance that humans need to pay attention to is that between resource exploitation and protection, not a balance inherent in nature.
Is Nature Cooperative?
The view that organisms are attuned to group, population and ecosystem-level interests has figured prominently in scientific—and often pseudoscientific—and philosophical theories, especially those that advance particular political ideologies. In his famous essay collection Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, geologist and anarchist theorist Pyotr Kropotkin argues that cooperation promotes the survival of human and animal communities. He writes, “In the long run, solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.” Kropotkin is right to look for a utilitarian reason behind cooperation. Following in the footsteps of Darwin, he seeks out the advantages of acting cooperatively. Kropotkin fails, however, to elucidate the right mechanism of cooperation, and he also fails to understand that the same selfish evolutionary process that drives predation and competition also drives altruism and cooperation. Mutual Aid has become a key text in anarchism, fallaciously buttressing its values with its misunderstanding of the natural world.
Soviet biologist and agronomist Trofim Lysenko proposed the idea of natural cooperation, in opposition to natural selection, as part of the Soviet program to reconstruct biology to render it compatible with dialectical materialism. Lysenko believed that individuals within the same species cooperate with each other. If a farmer planted a row of unrelated corn plants, the crops would ensure each other’s success, rather than compete for resources. He also espoused Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired traits—long after the doctrine had died in western biology—planting crop seeds in cold conditions so that they would acquire cold tolerance and pass the trait down to their offspring. The influence of these two pseudoscientific ideas led to the firing or imprisonment of over 3,000 biologists and widespread starvation, and were responsible for an estimated thirty million deaths. Lysenko’s crank ideas provide a good example of the most extreme consequences of idealizing nature in support of a political cause. Ironically, this attempt at making the processes of biology fall into line with the cooperative moral values of state socialism resulted in an unequivocal tragedy.
The mechanism of natural selection is not itself cooperative, but closer to fundamentally competitive. This does not mean that a competitive process necessarily results in clear-cut ecological winners and losers. If a species is always outcompeted by another species in the exploitation of a resource, the population may gradually evolve to rely on a different resource. Individuals that compete for the same resource tend to be worse off than organisms that avoid competition altogether by using different resources. This is why niche partitioning evolves. Cooperation evolves because each individual benefits from reciprocal cooperation with every other individual. Or, in the case of family, an individual can gain indirect fitness benefits by helping to raise young other than its own, even if that help is not reciprocated. The existence of these cooperative strategies, however, also proves the importance of competition as an evolutionary mechanism. Its outcomes may sometimes be cooperative, but natural selection itself is fiercely competitive.
Limited Resources and Selfish Genes
Why is competition so prevalent in the natural world? In part because the evolutionary play happens on an ecological stage that is fundamentally resource-limited. The amount of light energy that reaches the Earth’s surface is limited and uneven, as is the amount of essential nutrients present at any given place on the planet’s surface. The fact that phosphate fertilizer runoff from farms causes vast algal blooms in bodies of water is proof of this: nitrogen and carbon are in high supply relative to demand, while phosphorus is in short supply relative to demand. Only once phosphorus is added to the system can algae bloom and thrive, a restriction not faced in systems where phosphorus is abundant due to the weathering of rock. For millions of years, organisms have solved adaptive problems of energy and nutrient acquisition, obtaining as much of these resources as they need to build increasingly complex survival machines. The abundance of carbon and nitrogen available to organisms today is not an inevitable consequence of Mother Nature’s generosity. The key component of organisms, carbon, must first be captured, for which energy is required. Mechanisms that use light energy to assimilate carbon and convert it into a usable form had to evolve in organisms. The same is true of nitrogen fixation. Rhizobia bacteria solved the problem of nitrogen acquisition by harnessing light energy to break the triple bond of atmospheric N2. These abilities were not bestowed upon organisms by a loving and caring Mother Earth. The adaptations that we now take for granted are the outcomes of a brutal process. As biologist Geerat Vermeij argues in Nature: An Economic History, evolution “occurs because economic units compete locally for resources, and because only those entities that acquire and retain the necessities of life in the face of such competition and of uncertainty persist.” Organisms are beset with tradeoffs, costs and constraints, so this competitive game is not about perfection but about relative survival and relative reproductive fitness.
Given the economic nature of life on Earth, selection tends to favor genes controlling organisms that avoid competitors, minimize costs and make the best of limited resources. Nature is chock-full of cheaters, swindlers, gangsters, murderers and tricksters. It is full of organisms that dismember, poison, trap and asphyxiate other organisms in order to consume them as sources of energy and nutrients. As John Stuart Mill writes, “If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals.” There is no special intentional design behind this pattern, but the pattern is real and nonrandom. Because the evolutionary process lacks moral values and favors genes that cause organisms to make the best use of their environments, devouring another organism may be just as good a way of ensuring reproductive success as cooperating with that organism. As Richard Dawkins puts it in The Selfish Gene, “To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited.” The other component of the gene-centered view of evolution is that the reproductive fitness of both individuals and of their kin (who have a high probability of sharing their genes) affect the persistence of genes and the phenotypes they control over evolutionary time.
While relatedness can influence altruism or cooperation between kin, the genetic differences between kin (and even between sperm in the same individual) can cause competition, particularly when resources are scarce. In some mice, intragenomic conflict between heterozygous alleles at one locus causes sperm with one allele to kill 90% of sperm with another. In a heterozygous mother, the Medea gene in flour beetles results in the death of progeny that do not inherit it, causing it to be present in close to 100% of surviving offspring, as opposed to the 50% predicted under normal inheritance. Parent-offspring conflict between mother and fetus has been documented in the womb, where the infant siphons off resources from the mother in order to benefit itself. Sibling competition results from the asymmetry in inheritance of genes between members of the same brood. In many bird species, the strongest (often the oldest) fledgling takes a larger share of the food brought by parents, sometimes killing its weaker siblings when food is scarce.
Mating is also fraught with competition for scarce resources. Most females, especially in organisms with internal fertilization like mammals, invest more in reproduction than males, and so are usually choosier about reproductive decisions. For males, the demand for mating opportunities is high relative to the supply of willing females, which results in high male-male competition. Weaponry and violence play important roles in allowing individuals to prevent others from securing resources that they need for themselves or their kin. Male caribou, for instance, use their antlers to fight other males for access to females. The violent pounding of horns and heads by Bighorn sheep, the brutal fights of ground squirrels and the lethal aggression of male elephant seals are evidence of the competition surrounding mating, for males. These contests are very high stakes. In elephant seals, 4% of males are responsible for 85% of successful mating attempts in any given season, and the majority of males do not father any offspring at all.
If natural processes often result in failure and suffering for many organisms, are they really something humans should desire to emulate? And if humans are also part of the natural world (as we are), is a sorry fate inevitable for much of mankind too?
Human Progress: An Antidote to Natural Amorality?
Genes are, of course, not literally selfish, and organisms generally do not have sufficiently complex motives to be described as selfish either. Rather, the constraints and limitations of life on Earth generally favor the reproduction of genes that control phenotypes with self-benefitting effects. Though this process occurs without foresight or intention (and so cannot, in itself, be considered either moral or immoral), natural selection has consequences that are often repugnant to human morals. In his classic work Evolution and Ethics, T. H. Huxley writes, “Thus, brought before the tribunal of ethics, the cosmos stands condemned.”
Only humans can judge whether something is good or bad—that it is a reality in nature is no proof of a thing’s goodness. For thousands of years, societies had moral codes that many people would baulk at today. Humans were tribal, groups waged war against each other, religions practiced human sacrifice and women were routinely bought and sold as sex slaves. Although certain moral values—such as preference for kin over non-kin, fairness in exchanges, group loyalty and respect for property—have an evolutionary basis and generally remain as valid today as they have been at any time in human history, it is only within the last two centuries that humanity has made dramatic moral progress. The emancipation of women, the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance, pacifism, racial equality and environmentalism are all outcomes of this. The website Our World in Data shows dramatic declines in child labor and homicide rates and increases in levels of education and wealth. It also shows increases in the acreage of forests in developed western countries with the resources—and the values—to conserve them and increases in the percentage of electricity generated from alternative energy sources. Steven Pinker attributes such moral progress to the widespread adoption of liberal, humanist, Enlightenment values and the application of reason to human problems.
Using reason to imagine the suffering of other people and other beings—even unrelated beings in distant lands—has allowed humanity to ascend morally on what Peter Singer calls “the escalator of reason.” Along with identifying problems, reason allows us to find ways of solving them. The environmental movement need not look to nature for solutions. Instead, humans should rationally decide, using scientific evidence, which environmental problems are worthy of our attention, based on what and whom they affect. Rather than letting nature run its course, humans must devise the best evidence-based solutions to climate change and a host of other environmental problems. The human mind may have been a partial cause of climate change and other maladies, but it is also the solution. Misrepresenting nature will not help solve our problems. Advancements in human morality and an ever-growing supply of ideas—not apocryphal rhetoric that idealizes the natural world—will help us understand and solve environmental problems. Nature may not be inherently maternal, but human reason and morality can operate in spite of this. As Richard Dawkins reminds us, we must not worship or emulate natural processes, but instead “rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” in order to serve humanity’s moral goals.