Breaking Up With Nature

All this time, we’ve had it drilled into our heads that we have to live in harmony with nature. But nature is brutality. Nature is nihility. Nature is a killing field where often one life is sustained only by another’s demise.
~ Aethyr, Chapter IV "Unfurl"

A long time ago, I was a member of an online forum in which another user went by the handle “capercaillie.” Some time would pass before I learned the origin of his username: the western capercaillie, it turns out, is a type of pheasant, the largest member of the grouse family, found across Eurasia, its name deriving from the Scottish phrase for “wood horse,” a reference to the stance male capercaillie adopt during their mating display. That mating ritual is said to be one of the most unique among all birds, perhaps in the entirety of the animal kingdom.

But as with all things in nature, that ritual isn’t as idyllic as it would appear. When two males compete for mating rights, the alpha is determined through combat. It’s a brutal affair, though the victor doesn’t actually kill his opponent—rather, he leaves the loser mortally wounded, easy pickings for an opportunistic lynx or eagle. Or, worse still, exposed to the elements, likely unable to fend for himself, condemned to a slow death in exile.

You might think that seems cruel—and, I would argue, you would be correct. But that’s the nature of the beast—the nature of nature itself. We can look to any of the myriad species that inhabit this earth, be they plants, animals, prokaryotes, or viruses; we can scan the surface and see a façade of harmony and balance, or we can pull back the veil to expose the brutality, the circle of suffering endemic to sentient life.

And that is why humanity and nature are incompatible with each other.

Biologically speaking, Homo sapiens is part of the animal kingdom—and alas, quite often, its behavior reflects that distinction. But I would argue that, either by the fortuity of Evolution or through our own activities, or perhaps a combination thereof, we have become a species apart from the rest of sentient life, apart from nature itself. There are plenty out there, no doubt including some of you reading this right now, who lament that; you might see humanity as a species that has lost its way, that has fallen from grace. But, succinctly put, I do not. I embrace it. I am thankful for it.

What makes us human? And I don’t mean anatomically human, but human in essence. I would argue two things: technology and morality. Now, these things are by no means unique to our species. Several species, birds in particular, have evolved innovative means of using primitive tools, and we can find actions throughout the animal kingdom that, while we may not fully empathize with their intent, can be conveniently anthropomorphized and viewed as acts of compassion or selflessness (though these are nearly always directed toward other members of the species or the herd, which, in human terms, constitutes something closer to tribalism than charity).

It shouldn’t be controversial in any way to assert that humans are infinitely more advanced technologically than other sentient life. It’s a self-evident truth, like saying the earth is round. But I’m sure to ruffle a few feathers (pun intended) when I say that our kind is equally superior morally.

“Outrageous!” you argue. After all, not long ago did I argue that morality is inextricably linked to suffering, its creation and its mitigation. If morality is indeed the discipline of eradicating suffering, then our species doesn’t have a sterling track record. We might not be the only species that kills other animals or its own kind without reason (anyone who owns a cat knows what I’m talking about—yes, Fluffy is cute, but he’s a serial killer of mice and songbirds, admit it), but when we do, we consciously choose to, in defiance of the moral structures we erect to keep our worst natural impulses in check. And, yes, there is heated debate over the phenomenology of consciousness, and whether “free will” exists. It could be that our rejection of morality is all algorithmic. But whilst I’m no neuroscientist, I’m not buying the notion that a human being shoots another human being in the head, or orders the mass extermination of a group of humans heterogenous to his own, or drop-kicks a puppy, or sets fire to a forest all because of a bunch of electrochemical reactions, without so much as a modicum of choice.

Perhaps I should alter my previous assertion: our species has the capacity for moral superiority. The fact that we even have a concept of morality, that we construct systems, flawed though they may be, to codify that concept, is proof of this. Alas, human morality is fallible. We’ve seen that time and time again. It was because of that fallibility that the Enlightenment failed; we can spend all day paying lip service to the notion that all humans are equal and deserving of dignity, but in the absence of action and policy, those words are worthless. We say one thing and do the exact opposite. We nod our heads to what is noble, then put our hands to work doing what is ignoble, what is bestial. Why? Because we’re still part of nature, still bound by our biological chains, still governed by things like survival instinct that, when filtered through the prism of human emotion and amplified accordingly, become the deadliest weapons among all sentient life.

Ultimately, I blame nature for humanity’s moral failures. Instincts honed over epochs of evolution don’t die with bipedalism, and they sure as hell can’t be eradicated through legislation or philosophizing. And that is why I’m sick and tired of all the pontificating about the need to “live in harmony with nature.” Because there is no harmony in nature. That illusory “balance” you think you see? It’s all a charade, a porcelain mask upon a rotting corpse. Behind that pastoral tapestry is a reality replete with suffering, where the only law is survival, where the powerful prey upon the powerless, where life is little more than a commodity. All notions that we, as moral beings, claim to despise.

And I think that, deep down, most of us are cognizant of that, which is why we accept such a pronounced dichotomy between natural law and human morality. Predation among animals is seen simply as the nature of things, but we unequivocally condemn a human who kills animals for sport, and sometimes even for sustenance. I’m not critiquing this perspective, but rather noting the different standards we apply to different organisms. As I write this in early 2020, Australia is being ravaged by wildfires of—I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say—apocalyptic magnitude. As we mourn the loss of life, both human and nonhuman, and gasp at the devastation, we condemn our own actions. Rightfully so, I might add; the recklessness and negligence that have led to the climate crisis, as well as the increasingly vociferous denialism coming from world leaders, is absolutely exacerbating this disaster. (Also, I don’t know how true this is, but I’ve heard reports that the fires might’ve been set, or worsened, through arson.)

But wildfires happen. Natural disasters happen, sometimes of incomprehensible enormity, as they have since eons before human civilizations industrialized. Do we blame nature, call it immoral? No, of course we don’t. That’s all part of the balancing act, the “circle of life” that we so blithely admire. Even those who believe in gods, or that the earth itself is a living being and that all matter and energy contain consciousness, wouldn’t dare to blaspheme against our purely benevolent Mother Nature.

Funny how that unwillingness to apply moral principles to nature, even from those who believe that there are sentient and even sapient forces within it, is an implicit admission of humans’ moral supremacy.

Morality is human. Immorality is natural. When we divide ourselves into tribes based on skin color or ideas or some other ultimately meaningless distinction, and discriminate, oppress, and war against other tribes, we are acting in accordance with nature. When the strong slaughter the weak, or use them for their own advantage, we are merely enacting the law of survival of the fittest. When we invade land occupied by other humans, slaughter them and displace the survivors, and take all the natural resources for ourselves, we’re really not acting any differently than our fellow primates. Are these actions moral? Absolutely not. But they come from very natural instincts. Maybe we have the choice not to do these things. I’d like to think we do; the notion of an entirely deterministic existence is discouraging, to say the least, not to mention a disturbingly convenient cop-out for those who commit atrocities. I’d rather think it’s just because we’re also programmed to follow the path of least resistance, and trying to suppress our instincts is going to give a whole lot of resistance. But then I wonder why so many of our kind seem to take such delight in cruelty and destruction. I’m just going to say it: I think Evolution really fucked up with us.

And that’s where the second determiner of our humanity comes into play: technology.

Many readers will undoubtedly bristle at this notion. So many of us, perhaps from reading too many dystopian novels or watching too many movies, lament the increasing influence of technology in our lives, even eying the profound improvements it’s enabled with suspicion. Thus, we’ll don our rose-tinted spectacles and romanticize the prelapsarian innocence of our ancient ancestors. But that “ancient wisdom” we pine for is a myth, a construct of minds desperately searching for some esoteric meaning to this grand biological accident that we call life, unwilling or perhaps unable to ennoble it or endow it with meaning for themselves.

But the story of technology is the story of humanity. Our species, and its direct antecedents, survived nigh three hundred millennia not by living in accordance with nature, but by bending nature to our will. From the most primitive stone tools to genetic engineering, our technology has shaped who we are. We are not reliant on it; rather, we are one with it.

So, let’s put it to its ultimate use: our transcendence as a species. This, to me, is the real promise of transhumanism: not just radical life extension or augmented knowledge, but the ability for humankind to reach its full potential as a moral species. To fight suffering and iniquity in a meaningful way that pays lasting dividends. I’ve written before that, although I do not discount the concept of free will out of hand (and, verily, wouldn’t want to), I believe that the human mind is, in essence, a machine, an algorithm programmed by that entirely amoral phenomenon that we call Evolution. But, somewhere along the line, we created a glitch in the code, a glitch we call morality. No longer did we find it natural or rational to suppress the weak, or banish them to the elements, or outright slaughter them. We deemed it right, just, and even rational to exalt the weak, to sacrifice for them.

Somewhere along the road, we woke up. We realized that the gods were cruel. And for that, we cast them down.

Transhumanists have long argued for transcending nature, from every waypoint along the sociopolitical spectrum, from every theological and philosophical angle. Some of their ideas have been profound; others, profoundly repulsive. Zoltan Istvan proposed not too long ago that humans ought to consummate their dominion over the natural world; he insisted we should disband the National Parks and give them over to industry, that we should give more power to ruthless capitalists who will further the cycle of greed and economic growth. Pesky things like climate change and loss of biodiversity needn’t concern us; nature isn’t sacred, and we’ll soon have the technology to survive even if our planet is wasted. David Pearce suggests that we should endeavor to abolish suffering in all sentient life, going so far as to propose genetically modifying predator species so that they’re no longer carnivorous, and thus, won’t cause suffering to their prey species.

I find Istvan’s arguments (along with almost everything else he’s proposed of late) shockingly abhorrent and unconscionable. Pearce’s, while well-intentioned, are misguided and quite reckless. Therefore, I’d like to propose a third option.

A divorce from nature.

Yes, you read that right. Our species’ relationship with nature, like our relationships with so many things, is broken. Our impact on other species and the planet as a whole cannot be ignored, and I refuse to accept any “solution” that involves the killing or neglect of even one person, or that compromises the dignity of any human life.

This doesn’t have to be a messy breakup. We can still be friends when it’s over. In fact, we must be. I’m not calling for a complete separation; no human (or posthuman) should deny themselves the majesty of this beautifully brutal world we’re so fortunate to inhabit. All I’m saying is that, for the sake of both parties, we need to go our own ways. Think of it like this: we speak of Mother Nature, do we not? Well, in both the natural world and most human societies, mother and child eventually part ways. Now if we’re good people, we still love and care for our mothers long after we’ve left the nest. As things currently stand, we’re choking our mother to death and pissing on her corpse, but, with wise and ethical applications of technology and purpose, we can mend that relationship whilst emphasizing our species’ sovereignty.

We’ve already started the process. We’re engineering our technology, our cities, and our food supply to lessen its impact on the natural world. Let’s keep it up. Enough of this “back to the land” nonsense. Enough of the libelous campaigning against bioengineered food. If we’re going to combat climate change and simultaneously improve human society, if we mean to be good stewards of our planet while supporting a robust and growing human populace, we need to use less land. We need to give some of that land back to wildlife and wilderness.

But we can’t stop there. We need to take the next step, the transhuman step: engineering our bodies, our minds. I’ve previously argued for what I termed a Moral Singularity; that must extend beyond our interactions with our fellow humans. With this parting from nature must come a mutual contract; our part of that bargain must be to minimize  (and, in time, potentially even negate) our impact on nature—to truly become a species apart from it. We’re probably a long way from that. I may not live to see it; indeed, if at least incremental change doesn’t happen in the very short-term, not many of us will. Humanity stands upon the precipice; will that moral supremacy we cling to be enough to pull us back from the brink, or will our nature prevail, leading us down the path of least resistance—the path that leads to our doom?

Yeah, I know. I’m crazy for thinking this stuff. In my defense, I am a fiction writer; crazy ideas are the currency I trade in. And I get why you might feel that way. But at the same time, I pity your cynicism. You admonish those like me for wanting to play god, and that probably makes a lot of sense to you. It probably made a lot of sense to those who said humankind would never take flight, or reach the moon, or have the courage to declare that disease would no longer defeat us. (Also, the god I was raised to believe in is a genocidal dick, so if I were playing god, I’d be looking for ways to drown the world, not save it.)

I’m not afraid to dream of a better world, a transcendent humanity—a species beyond nature. I’ll still marvel at the beauty around me, to be sure. Every human should experience some of the things I have, be it the dance of the aurora over pine-dressed snowy hills or a simple sunrise over a frozen lake. Everyone should take a moment to ensconce themselves in wilderness, breathe in the unpolluted air, drink in the pristine waters.

And do so without ignoring the brutality that lurks just beneath the surface.

All photos by Sean E. Kelly.

© 2019 Sean E. Kellly