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Nature Favors the Strong: A Celebration of the Artificial

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Every day, I leave work at around 4:30 to get my snack. I don’t get fruit, hells no. I get Hariboro gummy bears (a mockery of one of God’s creations) and I get Coke, flavored with thoroughly fake vanilla. I go back to work and sit in front of a computer, doing things that society pretends are completely essential, and if I remember, I pump myself full of a synthetic insulin compound to take care of all those fake-ass carbohydrates I’ve consumed.

I am a profoundly unnatural human being.

Let’s take some more examples. I live in a basement apartment where I don’t really get any sun, and where the air is strictly conditioned. Every day I squeeze into a metal tube and spend forty-five minutes reading a book from long before I was born. I only want meat if someone else kills it for me, and I’m not into raw. I’m also not that interested in well-done, like I’m eating a cow that fell into a volcano… nope, medium-rare, cooked to perfection, like they taught us in medieval France. And just to be clear, I don’t mind fruit from time to time, but it’s gotta be the right piece, carefully selected, first by the farmer and then by my own strict (though undeveloped) sense of judgment. If a caveman ate a plum from my shopping cart, he probably wouldn’t recognize it as bounty of the earth.

I gave up on a “natural course” long ago, maybe back when I was born and had to be cut out of my mother and infused with antibiotics. When people advocate a return to nature, I wonder what they mean by that; the only real meaning I can discern for “natural” is untreated and untouched, taken from some unknown region of Appalachian country, still fully populated by those effects of competitive wildness: colonies of protozoa, bird footprints, and worms that found this feast before I did.

Is this what these people mean? I’ve always had some issues with this question. What really separates a “natural” ingredient from an “artificial” one? It seems that there’s such a distinction, because Sunny Delight has to list both on their label, whereas Tropicana gets to claim one to exclusivity. Yet, if chemical compounds aren’t derived from nature, and from the possibilities proffered by the Earth and its elements, where are we getting them? Is a VERY intelligent scientist using his powers of transubstantiation to manifest these chemicals? If bisexuality and aspartame are aberrations from some profound earthly order, is the human mind, with all its strange ideas and paradoxical self-awareness, such an aberration as well? I’m still a little lost in the space between “natural” and “artificial,” but the rest of the world is ready to accept such a distinction, so I’ll buy into it for the moment.

I’m not the only one living a profoundly unnatural lifestyle, but sometimes I feel I’m the only one living up to it. The state of nature justifies the economic principles of the wealthy and the lifestyle decisions of the bohemian – it’s the first line of defense for our desires as artists, acolytes, and legislators. It’s worth paying for (particularly in the form of expensive-ass fruit and nut bars) and it’s a fair reason to give up everything you have and turn to asceticism. The lonely land of nakedness and hunger is the closest we can get to our masturbating monkey ancestors, after all.

I don’t buy into it, and there’s a specific reason for that. Read this closely, and advance your argument in opposition, but do so with care — we all choose our own worlds, and when we choose the Gods of those worlds, we need to know what they stand for. I live in a world where Nature – at least in her most commonly invoked manifestations – stands for something I’m no longer willing to stand behind.

My problem: Nature is discriminatory (forgive the personification, but it’s going to continue; and forgive the use of the feminine pronoun, it’s just for convention’s sake). Nature has set some strict, ugly standards that stand in the way of agency. Hierarchy and chaos are her signature, and it wasn’t until the human race learned its form of defiance that something could slip through her granite fingers.

She’s very hierarchical, and has a proven bias in favor of the strong over the weak. This leads to a frequent snowballing of forces within her domain, as poor, unarmed gazelle are bullied and devoured by families of lions, who are then allowed to sleep for twenty hours every day. Dolphins have found some fascinating ways of defending their collectives from sharks, but this usually means abandoning one or two of their loved ones to the bloody waters and sharp teeth of the predator; when has nature favored a dolphin in a fight and given it an opportunity to try shark meat? What penguin chick has ever been given the freedom and agency to defy the polar bear, or to make a pact with one?

For this reason, a “laissez-faire” economy (the end goal of neo-liberal economics) will never successfully uphold the purely human, purely unnatural virtues of freedom, agency and equality. Nature favors the strong, the subversive tactic of motivated manipulation, and the inertia of self-interest. She will always give precedence to the large company, the multi-national corporation, whose finances and connections can strong arm competitors and the public. Nature doesn’t care about our self-determination or our emotional well-being.

And in the same vein, nature has demonstrated a notable bias in favor of the strong over the smart. Until the human parasite took over the natural environment, there was little place for the big-brained chimpanzee, except high in the trees, safe from poisonous fangs and sharp teeth. It was a desperate, fortunate moment when rationality took over the climate of scarcity and struggle. We need to be thanking our ancestors, who invented fire, astrology, and the Age of Enlightenment.

After all, nature denied us so much. Under her rule, creatures who preferred the company of the same sex are denied the ability to have children, and it’s a wonder that this disposition has lingered within her realm as long as it has. Now we’ve finally transcended our biological need to rape and devour, our fear of scarcity and starvation. Our sick can finally live long, healthy lives, and our sciences can finally work in tandem with the elements to create new opportunities. And most importantly, our food finally tastes good.

Donna Haraway was right — we are all cyborgs. Our strangest inventions aren’t iPods or Ugg Boots – they’re the more fundamental features of our basic humanity: morals, institutions, cooperatives, altruism, history, and freedom. Every day, we buy into these virtues, these purely human, purely artificial dreams and desires, and yet, we try to justify them by the words of God and Mother Nature. And we fight to preserve some sort of “state of nature,” a natural order of foods and competition and sexuality, as if we’re nostalgic for our slavery and uncertainty.

But what did Mother Nature ever do for us, except give us a body and a hope for something different? It wasn’t nature that got us here. It was all us.

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  • Dr Dreadful

    Many really good points made here: thanks for the link. I guess I didn’t see it before because I mostly look at the Politics section… my bad.

    The argument can be (and often has been) made that humans no longer live in nature because we have the ability to modify and control it to our own ends until it’s unrecognizable.

  • http://benefitofthedoubt.miksimum.com/ Jesse

    Haha, thanks for swingin’ by, Doc. I don’t know why I felt the need to plug my goofy Nature rant in another thread. At any rate, I appreciate your checking it out.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Well, it illustrates a relevant point. For instance:

    A: Homosexuality is unnatural!
    B: And the toasted bologna sandwich you’re eating isn’t?

  • Nancy

    ROTFLOL-! this is a great article, funny yet makes a lot of good points. Well written, too. I thoroughly enjoyed it; it provides lots of (unnatural) food for thought. Thanks!

  • http://www.amazon.com/Deathbird-Stories-Harlan-Ellison/dp/0440117372 Cindy D

    Nature shmature. Who needs it?

    What kind of system would pick the survival of a WWF wrestler over that of, say, Stephen Hawkings?

    Your use of the phrase neo-liberal economics makes me feel less alone in the world.

    This was a delightful read, peppered with artificially flavored tidbits to ponder, written in a refreshing style. Thank you for the link.

    “…we all choose our own worlds, and when we choose the Gods of those worlds, we need to know what they stand for…”

    If you haven’t already read it, I think you might like Harlan Ellison’s, Deathbird Stories. The quote I took from your article could be a subtitle for this compelling collection of short stories.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Better yet, read Ellison’s novella “Deathbird,” in which Ellison proposes that Eden’s Serpent was the victim of bad press,among other things.

    By the way, I actually enjoyed this piece. Good work, the caliber of which I’d like to see more in these pages.

  • http://benefitofthedoubt.miksimum.com/ Jesse

    All I’ve read by Harlan Ellison was I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which was gruesome, but definitely powerful. One of the more convincing, more terrifying accounts of posthumanism that I’ve read.

    I’ll definitely check these other ones out. From what I’ve read, Deathbird Chronicles sounds Neil Gaimanish with a darker spin. The Deathbird novel actually sounds like an idea I tossed around in my head for a while, and tried to write as a short story toward the end of college. It’s tough to hack a good biblical reconstruction, so I’d like to check out Ellison’s.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

  • duane

    Nice article, Jesse. A couple of things:

    Although the elements that compose various chemicals are indeed of Nature (synthesized in stars), many chemicals (about 70,000 of them) are not. The very intelligent scientists have figured out ways to make truly artificial chemicals. So Nature is thrown a curve ball, but she learns quickly in her role of overseer as those manmade chemicals interact with the otherwise natural environment, such as our bodies, and the oceans, and the atmosphere, and trees, and fruitbats.

    I’m all for humans having dominion over Nature. Great things will come to future generations (if we can get over all the infighting). I think people who want to go back to “simpler times” know not what they ask.

    We have, to some extent, “transcended our biological need to rape and devour.” I think it’s more accurate to say that we have learned to control or redirect many of our impulses. But this is not tantamount to conquering Nature. Our higher brain functions, which we have used to discover ethics and cooperation and technology are products of Nature (unless you believe in Creationism of something equivalent). So, it’s really not quite on the mark to say “Nature shmature” (#5). We strive to control or, at least, take advantage of Nature, but we will always be “of Nature” (unless you believe in God or something).

  • http://www.amazon.com/Deathbird-Stories-Harlan-Ellison/dp/0440117372 Cindy D

    What I hate about nature is what nature has created. There are no words more meaningful to me than those of Sartre, in his dialogue from NO Exit, “Hell is other people.”

    If I believed in a God, then I suppose that is what I would hate that God for, His creations.

    What is most interesting to me about your post, is that where I normally feel obliged in most forums to hide my atheism. I, instead, feel embarrassed at my deep-seated wish for a God.

  • duane

    Yes, Cindy, but all in all, “God” has created a beautiful universe. We have evolved to find beauty in certain aspects of our world. We are all capable of sensing beauty and wonder in one way or another. Aesthetics. Very mysterious.

    Your wish for a true and actual God is extremely common. I think even a lot of professed believers are in that position. There are a lot of unhappy and/or unfulfilled people out there battling out the day to day. They are wishing for something. Maybe they’re wishing for the wrong things.

  • http://benefitofthedoubt.miksimum.com/ Jesse

    Cindy, I can understand both your desire for God and your revulsion at that desire.

    If it was suddenly proven to me that there is a conscious (semi-personified) mind at work directing the universe, and I had the right to pass moral judgment, I don’t know what judgment I would render. At the very least, I’d need an account of all the weird and ugly shit that the world seems to spit out as it rolls along.

    Oxford: What if God is just a dude?

    However, a conscious creator/director of the universe never made much sense to me. If there was an absolute authority on right and wrong, then I don’t know why they would allow “wrong” to have such a big place in the global equation.

    I have faith that there’s a “higher power,” but it’s not God. That word is a disservice, a crude anthropomorphization. Whatever principles of order are out there governing the universe, they’re not normative or goal-oriented. Morals are beautiful and powerful things, but they’re man-made, the product of reason and intuition, like a great work of art. Our values start with our grandparents and end with our grandchildren… any appeal to divine justification is a form of hubris.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on faith in the world of reason. It’s rare I get to hear such candid accounts.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Deathbird-Stories-Harlan-Ellison/dp/0440117372 Cindy D

    I’d like to read what is at your link Jesse. But, it doesn’t seem to work.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    I’ve fixed Jesse’s link so it works now.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    er, except the NYT requires registration. Grrr!

  • Dr Dreadful

    Chris:

    Try this.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Deathbird-Stories-Harlan-Ellison/dp/0440117372 Cindy D

    Christopher Rose, Thank you! The linked worked. (Sort of like the sun worked this morning. Technologically savvy people inspire awe in me.)

    Jesse, I loved “The Garden”. Charon as the subway conductor. A little apple makes a difference in the Big Apple. Let me know if you have any more stories. Have you published that one?

    If God is a guy running a simulation program what happens if he has a computer glitch?

    Duane, Oddly, in my first post I edited out a comment that didn’t seem to fit. It was about loving the beauty of nature. And I agree with you wholeheartedly. There is profound beauty in nature and in man’s creations and achievements as well. I am drawn to mystery and beauty. These things redeem both nature and man for me.

  • http://benefitofthedoubt.miksimum.com/ Jesse

    Cindy, thanks for the feedback. That story was “published” in my college’s literary magazine, and it won a prize, but that doesn’t count for much, since it was only a campus-wide thing (and probably only 10% of campus ever took an interest in it).

    There are a few other stories on the writing section of my website (writing.miksimum.com), and I’ve actually written 15 or 20 others, but they’re all lingering on my hard drive as I look for literary magazines that will publish them. It’s a much harder job than I expected.

    My e-mail address is on the website above; feel free to get in touch directly if you’ve got more interest in reading/writing/whatevs. Thanks again for the commentary!

  • Marvin R. Wright

    now this is sick! Nature is correct! and you sorry folks need help ok? get normal! the weak need to get stronger! that’s why Nature culls the weak- it leads to extinction! you fools! and the strong go into the future. get REAL!!

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