Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Philosophy of Natural Humanism

During my first years of college, I began to study things like ecology and evolution as a matter of personal curiosity. I found the interwoven layers of natural systems enchanting. I was pulled in by the exchange of breathable air between plant and animal; the evolutionary balance of population between predator and prey; migrations in tune with seasonal weather changes. I came under the spell of complex systems of energy exchange. Ecosystems became the cathedrals of my mind.

What I couldn’t understand was the reaction of most other people to those same things. They were either unimpressed by it, or they insisted on it being the creation of some otherworldly being. They needed something outside this already fantastical universe to be the focus of their sense of spiritual awe. The reasons for that are really complex themselves, but at the time, I just quipped to myself, “Maybe if mother nature could build her own rockets to go out into space, people would be impressed…” And that’s when I realized, she has.

Human beings are after all, a product of the same natural and evolutionary forces that shaped every other living thing on this planet. And just as a termite mound in Africa are thereby a product of evolution, so is the space shuttle. I’ll grant you that the orbital module is a bit more complex than a termite mound, but then, a termite mound is arguably more efficient and better organized than the average human dwelling, so let’s not get too high on our horse here. The point is, they are all products of nature.

So in spite of the imaginary lines we might draw between ourselves and the rest of nature, outside our domesticated sphere, human culture is a natural thing. Our hunting trails have become paved roads, our nests have become houses with windows and doors, and cooperative hunting and gathering have become a complex system of agriculture and divided labor. Human culture has evolved, but still, we are a product of nature.

So here we are, the hairless cousins of apes and we can build roads and rockets. So what? What does that mean? Scientific inquiry has provided us with a new cosmology, but unlike the religious traditions of our culture, it prescribes no direction. It offers no destiny. It gives us no meaning to it all. And that’s really the scary part. The truth will not set you free: There isn’t a meaning. We have to decide that for ourselves.

That’s no easy task, and one as likely to produce as much disagreement as religion. But if we are to decide the course of human culture based on this new cosmology, we should do so from within that perspective. We should learn what termite mounds and tudor cottages have in common. We should also look at the flight of birds, and the flight of rockets. If we live immersed in an understanding of our culture as a part of the natural world, we will be better equipped to give our culture a meaning that we can all share.

In the opinion of people who’s opinions count in such matters, natural philosophy begins with an Ionian Greek philosopher named Thales. In reference to this shcool of thought, a much younger naturalist, E. O. Wilson, coined the phrase, “Ionian Enchantment” to describe an enchantment with nature such I’ve shared above. And with that, I offer this:

The Ionian Garden

I’ve put Jehova to bed with all the other gods of childhood, like Old Saint Nick, and the monster in my closet. They are good for nostalgic stories, or maybe even a moral lesson or two. Mother Earth is the only one left to me now.

She is nothing like they say. She is Kali without a mind; all arms and legs, giving birth and devouring without reason. She is us and everything that lives. She loves without malice, and kills without lust. She is beautiful. She is you.

I could not paint her likeness or shape her form in clay. But we could plant a garden to echo her movement. A garden of Ionian Enchantment. We could make our home there. But we have a lot of planting to do.