If you look carefully through a full-color nursery catalog these days, you may well come to the conclusion that the future of the horticultural trade has a huge stake in the fertile soil of nature’s weird imagination: the color break, the anomaly, the mutant freak, the lawbreaker and the abnormal individual are essential in the race for bigger, brighter and bluer. Hortibusiness loves the genetic oddball and, apparently, so do we all. Can you not almost with unnatural anticipation foresee the day when the first blue Helianthus will nod its cool cerulean head over late summer gardens?
If such things as blue sunflowers were ever to occur in nature, none of us would likely live to see them. But aesthetic whimsy aided by advanced genetic engineering produced in a few short decades what might have taken hundreds of years through natural hybridization and careful re-selection, while the most improbable crosses would never have occurred at all without our prurient matchmaking. Plant breeders have taken evolution into their own hands, leaving little to chance, time and the imagination. They are directed by an aesthetic, a market driven one to be sure, where the public taste for large splashy blooms, double and triple if possible, is one of many factors. Today’s flowers must last longer in a vase for the florist trade, stand up to wind and rain to keep their appearance in the garden better. They must be made of stronger stalks and thicker petals. Certain qualities like fragrance and intricate markings, which make them irresistible to pollinators are often absent from these new hybrids. Small wonder considering that many of these hybrids are sterile. The marketing genius is that one must buy the seed from the distributor every year, or the plants themselves. Genetics is big business.
The scientist is no longer an empiricist, who carefully and faithfully observes the laws of nature, the geological record and animal behavior, but the director of creation itself, or at least its manipulator, who has as his creedo “for the benefit of humanity” and “better living through chemistry.” But better living for whom and what?
What this speeded up evolutionary process may mean is far more startling than a hole in the ozone layer, climatic shifts, and polluted air and water (the “end of nature” as Bill McKibben called it) but the complete rejection of nature aesthetically in favor of a post-natural world.
If the bird (all birds ) should become extinct, and that is hardly outside the realm of human genius (something like 50% of the world’s terrestrial creatures have vanished in the past 40 years), it is certain that flight will not go extinct with them. It only means that birds will cease to function as our favored metaphor for flight. We might speculate, that if the scientist should decide that the bird is passé, too bothersome to economic growth to keep around, then perhaps the new masters of evolution will proclaim some flying machine as the ideal, the very essence of flight. All living creatures may become repugnant to human beings, the way many insects already are—spiders, cockroaches, wasps, beetles, mosquitoes. In the same way, institutional humanity has tried to denature human beings (not only steeping ourselves in a popular progressive view of homosapiens as an advanced post-natural creature, but also subjecting us to same genetic engineering undergone by plants), so all creatures must be domesticated in our image or perish.
Science, as the technocracy, might decide that nature is too much of a nuisance after all, and replace all living creatures with more functional computerized, satellite operated models of birds--recycled aluminum owls and hawks that hunt down the remaining rodents and pests that have not already been eliminated. Or advanced breeding programs will begin to domesticate all wildlife. Look at the success we’ve had with dogs and cats. Perhaps natural instinct will be the final frontier of our mastery.
The question this raises is whether there will be enough true science, and true humanity, to prevent the inevitable logic of our post-natural course? Can we count on scientists who truly love what is wild? It is hard to be optimistic, when nearly all major research is funded by profiteering corporations and short-sighted economic policies.
For a very long time now, wildness has been viewed as something both virginal and obscene. We depend on nature for our sustenance, yet at a very basic level we mistrust and fear it. Whether or not you view human attempts to tame terrestrial wildness in a positive or negative light, our success is quite possibly only an illusion. The poisonous stew of toxic waste that saturates the air, water and soil of our industrial centers is in fact not a controlled substance, but itself a wild force of natural fury, killing off plant and animal life, altering the quality of air and water, even our genetic structure. If deforestation and fossil fuel emissions are causing climatic changes, a new kind of wilderness may shortly come upon us. But it might be a lifeless kind of wild—with raging heat, and dust storms, or another ice age. Wildness is everywhere in the universe, exclusive of life, it is “civilization” that is the exception.
Because we are so steeped in the minutia of our own time, so very conscious of ourselves and of our history, we could never be reconciled to the scale and pace of evolutionary time: it’s infinite patience, the painfully slow advance and retreat of glaciers, the millennia of micro-evolution that eventually crawls to the precipice, the leaping off point for the inception of wildly different forms. The rapid changes in the world over the last two hundred years, points to the human consciousness as the new seat of evolutionary intelligence, one that does not work through the processes of nature, but works upon nature, altering, suspending, tweaking natural law into submission at a breakneck pace.
As living organisms, we have not changed much. The natural results of our lives on earth are more or less like those of all other creatures: we copulate, bear offspring, or fail to bear offspring. Everything else we do in life--besides eating, sleeping, eliminating, and dying--is unnatural. Getting dressed in the morning is perhaps the greatest perversion of natural intent. In fact, representing socialized behaviors as natural, while presenting natural behaviors as perverted is one of the hallmarks of civilized hubris, and the surest sign that humankind is truly alienated from nature.
Emblematic in labeling of socially unacceptable behaviors as unnatural is the view that same sex love is outside of nature. It must be said, that this likens it to every other activity, mode of production, or recreation that humans are involved in, besides those few essentials I listed above. On the one hand, same sex love produces nothing in the procreative sense, beyond the old-fashioned marriage of convenience. On the other hand, same sex love requires nothing unnatural, no institutional framework laden with economic incentives to exist, no apparatus other than the human faculty and body for its apprehension and enjoyment. It continues to appear in human society, as it has over and over again in virtually every society across the ages, including many animal species, despite often severe social penalties inflicted for its practice and a strong religious zeal to stamp it out. Efforts to change it are the product of social pressure and behavioral suppression, the failure of which over thousands of years points to an immutability in this form of attraction indicative of natural origin (at least under our old definition of natural). Because the effort to punish it and root it out comes from the social order, which is highly mutable over time and place, the efforts of society in this direction must be seen for what they are: opposition to the natural order.
If there is really only one category of sexual desire, and gays and lesbians are really confused or just perverse heterosexuals deep down, then the idea of choice is a double-edged sword for these social engineers. For, if sexual behavior can be changed in either direction on a whim or by relational dysfunction, then sexual behavior is either not strictly natural (using our earlier definition of nature as an immutable law or force), or it is not naturally strict. That is to say it is naturally fluid.
Of course, our journey to the post-natural world would not be complete without a battle over semantics. I’m afraid natural, like the word democracy, is used to describe anything deemed to be good, while unnatural, like socialism, has become widely synonymous with anything we wish to label as bad or harmful, despite the fact that socialist democracies are the norm in Europe. There is nothing empirical, or even rational, about these cultural designations.
There is a metaphoric ratcheting for control over language and meaning in the battle over the future of nature. In the world of food production, the battle between political progressives and corporate profiteers goes on full tilt over exploitive and environmentally destructive practices. The closest most of us come to the front lines is reading the labels on the grocery shelves. We know about free range chickens, grass fed beef, organic produce, mad cow disease and fair trade coffee.
Seventy years ago, the so called greatest generation had just finished waging one war, and wasn’t about to start another one over the advent of highly processed foods, even if this new food had little to do with the real thing it had replaced. Grape flavored, cheese flavored, chocolate flavored seemed like harmless enough designations for the unsophisticated and dutiful survivors of depression and world war. Flavor is flavor. People gobbled it up without the slightest qualm that what they were eating was unnatural, possibly antithetical to health and life. In the language of food production, the word natural only means that a particular product, such as peanut butter, is made mainly of ground peanuts and perhaps salt with no additives; while other kinds of peanut butter not deemed natural may be whipped up with hydrogenated oils, lard, sugar and preservatives that give it a constantly smooth texture and make it possible to store it in the kitchen cabinet rather than the refrigerator. The existence of this heavily processed food, overloaded with additives and sweeteners, serves both aesthetics and convenience. It does not need refrigeration, keeps for months, is always smooth, easy to spread, and pleasing to present. In the fabulously artificial 1950’s this was the metaphor for post-war optimism that reached into every corner of American life. Even the food we ate had to represent our triumph over all of life’s natural unpleasantness. But was this kind of unnatural selection, this survival of the aesthetically pleasing, this obsession with appearances, a healthy thing?
Now, we know that the word natural does not speak to methods of growing. These days, we have organic produce that supposedly does not use commercial fertilizers and pesticides in its production. We have since learned that in order to be truly organic, it must say 100% certified organic. But to most people organic is a metaphor for “healthy” and in some circles it means “self-righteous”. Natural, though, is more widely mistrusted in supermarkets as it now has been exposed as a fraudulent claim of healthfulness. Organic without the proper qualifiers has also been exposed as a deception. In this highly artificial world, everything is deprived of its explicit, objective meaning in favor of a rapidly evolving cultural relevance, wherein an object holds briefly a transitory value (either positive or negative) in its role as a commodity. Medical science and big business (the technocracy) is largely responsible for this day to day shift in the relative meaning and value of every day objects. One day soy products are cancer fighters, the next day a new study proclaims that the isoflavins in some soy products may result in some form of brain degeneration. More recently, soy has been determined to have estrogenic properties and men should be cautious about over-consumption. The result is a deep unsettling and mistrust of everything in the objective world, even the very natural and seemingly harmless soybean. We don’t know from day to day where we stand in relation to a particular edible, an activity, environment or pattern of consumption. The capitalist/democratic impulse of competing interests has turned choice into a pathology. Mark that soon Consumer Anxiety Disorder will be heralded as the latest disease, with an etiology of unbalanced brain chemistry in the presence of unparalleled consumer options and internet dependency. This will lead to a new line of anti-CAD drugs, which with their characteristically paradoxical side effects, will create yet another trigger for consumer anxiety disorder—or sleeping-walking. It goes on without end. Will soy save me from cancer, or will it rot my brain? Will my driver side airbag keep me safe in a crash or will it suffocate me? Do radio waves from cell phone towers really cause cancer or don’t they? If I get too little sleep will I fail at school? If I get too much sleep will I shave 5 years off the end of my life? This perpetual state of doubt, anxiety and confusion, intentional or not, is proof of our fanatical devotion to technology, and to technology’s whimsical application in the service of commerce. And the deadly combination of confusion and absolute faith makes further manipulation possible. For the “true” answer is out there, surely just a matter of more research dollars. Much like Christian converts, who struggle daily for the assurance that the blood of Jesus has washed away their sins, so the cult of technology wavers from moment to moment between righteousness and sin, joy and weeping, fear and thankfulness, hope and despair. The technocracy is the author and finisher of our faith. We are poised on the precipice waiting to take the ultimate evolutionary leap. The heady flight over the abyss of our own mortality toward a post-natural world.
On the other hand, it could be that our status as living organisms necessitates that our industry also must be considered natural results of evolution’s unconscious choice of consciousness. In this pragmatic view, the skyscraper and the desert butte are natural results of evolutionary process; the city canyons of New York and Tokyo are just another natural pattern echoing the Grand Canyon; the scientific laboratory is as much the seat of creation as the ecosystem. Perhaps more so, as we wait, deceptively poised in evolutionary time, in the front car of creation’s roller coaster, able to detect in our limited perspective only the lightning quick jerk of our own unnatural mechanisms, not the slow, infinitesimal grinding of the glaciers, or the turning of planetary wheels. We are mortal, we are conscious of it, and we cannot wait to see what the next ice age produces. For we will not be around to witness it. We must take the wheel out of nature’s lumbering hands and drive, faster toward the amber palisades of the Kingdom, dreaming the world over again as we ride.