Humanity and nature… it’s complicated

Sunday 14 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher Auditorium 2Scientific skirmishes


The idea that ‘natural is best’ is widely accepted. Big-name manufactured foods proclaim as much as possible that they are free of ‘artificial’ additives. Luxurious skincare products extol the virtues of being natural, organic or vegan. TV shows like Escape to the Country feature big-city dwellers longing to ‘get back to nature’. Why is ‘natural’ so often regarded in such positive terms, while ‘man-made’ and ‘artificial’ often have negative connotations?

Creationists aside, most people believe that human beings evolved from other, more primitive forms of life, from some kind of ‘primordial soup’ billions of years ago, to creatures walking on land through to earlier forms of ape. We are a product of nature and for the vast majority of our evolutionary existence, we have lived in a relationship with nature that has been simultaneously harmonious and hazardous. It is only really with the development of agriculture and the ability to create a surplus of food that we began to separate ourselves from nature, but we still absolutely rely on natural processes for our existence, even if we have become more skilled at shaping them. Our changing relationship with nature has been central to our existence throughout history and remains so.

This relationship has not simply mattered in material ways – through the influence of weather on obtaining food or the need for shelter, for example. Nature has also been, in various ways, a source of identity and authority for societies. Ancient tribes would identify with a ‘totem’, a natural object or animal that was adopted as an emblem or even as a spiritual guide whose characteristics defined the group. Egyptian pharaohs identified with and drew authority from the sun, the Nile and the bull – marking life-giving elements and permanence – and the pharaoh’s role was the managing of those elements. Themes of stewardship, of humans having both the right to exercise ‘dominion’ over nature and a duty of care towards nature, appear in the Bible and at many other times, too.

The Industrial Revolution marked a sea change in the relationship between humanity and nature, allowing a sharp increase in the ability of humanity to exploit natural resources and transform the world. The medical revolution – through vaccines, pharmaceutical drugs, antibiotics and more – enabled humanity to deal with disease. But there has long been a romantic reaction to these developments, placing an emphasis on the past and favouring all things natural. Naturopathic and other ‘alternative’ medical treatments remain popular, even though such treatments have little scientific basis, while vaccination continues to face significant opposition. The result has been rising rates of almost-forgotten diseases like measles and scarlet fever and even cancer patients dying through shunning chemotherapy in favour of ‘holistic’ alternatives.

More broadly, nature continued to play an important role in national identity, whether it was the forests of Germany, the rolling hills of England or the highlands of Scotland, placing an emphasis on the past and on the natural world as a source of human experience and meaning. Processes in nature, like the ‘survival of the fittest’, have been used to justify hierarchies in modern society, too.

Often, it seems, our views on the relationship between humanity and nature are contradictory. Many people favour ‘natural’ products, even though they are also a product of mass production. Appeals to nature provide an important source of authority and identity in our lives, even in an increasingly ‘man-made’ world. We enjoy visiting the countryside, even though our landscapes are rarely truly wild but the product of centuries of human intervention. We seem to worry about the use of chemicals in our homes, food, clothing and farms even when an ‘artificial’ intervention can be beneficial for both humans and natural flora and fauna. We worry about greenhouse gases warming the Earth while demanding ever-greater economic growth.

Is there a way out of such contradictions? Do they simply reflect two very reasonable if sometimes opposing goals for the future? How should we view our relationship to nature today?