Categorized | Our Town

How We See Nature and What We Make of It, Part I

Posted on 17 October 2013

By Richard Gambino

As I was walking along Long Beach recently, I picked up a shell from a long-gone conch. It is largely covered, outside and inside, with several kinds of other shell-coated creatures that attached themselves to it. Scientists can tell us about the “survival advantages” gained in such actions. E.g., the creatures attached on the shell’s inside may gain more protection by being hidden from the sight of potential predators. Those on the shell’s outside may appear to certain potential predators as part of a larger creature, and so not as vulnerable to the predators. And/or perhaps the attached organisms are taking calcium and other minerals from the shell to aid in their growth.  But it is common for us also to “see” other things in this and all natural events, beyond what science tells us in its neutral way of describing events.  So we seek to draw general wisdom from natural behavior like that of the creatures on the shell — e.g., are they “parasites,” “opportunists,” “heirs”?

For thousands of years, humans have sought to perceive and understand “natural laws,” i.e., rules or patterns in nature, for guidance in how to understand ourselves, both as individuals and as a species — as in our concepts of “human nature.” Great thinkers have led us in this, from Aristotle, who explored which of our “natural potentialities” to be cultivated to achieve “happiness,” to the Stoics in ancient Rome, who urged us to “Follow Nature,” to Albert Einstein, who advised us, “Look deeply into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” And religious thinkers, e.g., Moses Maimonides in Judaism, and St. Thomas Aquinas in Christianity, who sought to find and deeply understand natural ways and their significance for us, greatly motivated by the conviction that they are laws created by God. Baruch Spinoza even went so far as to use the phrase, “God or Nature,” equating the two, not by diminishing God, but by elevating Nature to God.

Detractors from natural law theories have pointed out that its proponents have come to very different ideas of what are natural laws, and what is the significance of each of them. Yet, I predict humans will always try to apply conclusions they draw from the behavior of non-human living creatures to themselves — again, beyond what science tells us about those behaviors. This because of a very important truth that each of us knows: We are all natural and inextricably linked to the vast system of living nature all around us. So, limitless unity becomes a possible answer to limitless loneliness. And we can be very emotional about it. E.g., our responses to certain news stories involve us being very distinctly upset because we see natural laws that are violated. Consider two news stories in September. One alleges that a woman murdered her partially disabled grown son by stabbing him many times with a knife and beating him, and another says a woman has been charged with imprisoning and denying food to her six year-old twins, who were found malnourished and underweight. In each of them we see a great violation of what we think of as basic natural laws of motherhood among all humans, and, in fact, in all mammals. (Try mistreating a bear cub in the presence of its mother.)

C.S. Lewis, in his 1943 book, The Abolition of Man, said: “Natural Law … is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.” Even if we find this view wrongly absolutist, it is worth pondering when we think about what we see in nature at large, and its relation to “human nature.”


RICHARD GAMBINO will focus more on our emotional responses to what we see in nature in Part II of this article in November. 

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