Hoofnagle gets some things right, others wrong on Ecology

8 08 2007

Over on Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle as a rather, shall I say, “interesting” piece up on the interaction between man and nature, and he picks none other than Springfield’s Mr. Burns to show us what our guiding ecological principles should be;

“Oh, so Mother Nature needs a favour? Well, maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys. Nature started the fight for survival and she wants to quit because she’s losing? Well, I say hard cheese!”

[From one of my favorite episodes, “The Old Man and the Lisa“]

Burn’s position is patently short-sighted and foolish (and Hoofnagle admits it’s inclusion is somewhat facetious, but it’s not too far off the mark from what Mark proposes in the rest of his piece. He writes;

Nature is not our friend, nor have we advanced our species by living in harmony with it. We have survived, and tacked decades onto our lives by bending nature to our will. Nature is trying to kill us. All the time. Bacteria, and parasites and viruses oh my, they’re out to get us. We’re not buddy-buddy with nature, we’re in competition with it for our very survival, all the time. Further there is this nonsense that messing with nature is somehow a bad thing, or frequently unsuccessful. This view can only be held by people who seem to have forgotten all the progress we’ve made in the last couple of millennia.

Strong words, indeed. While I’m not one of the Disney-fied, harmonious “Circle of Life” view of nature (hippo carnivory and cannibalism can show us that, at least), this passage is little more than a straw man argument. “Nature” is not out to get us any more than it is helping us; there are no microbes or “poison monkeys” conspiring to do us in. There is competition and cooperation, each individual organism trying to meet its own needs, but there is no great war in nature where one species or “realm” of nature consciously seeks to destroy another (that is, except for humans). Charles Darwin understood the interplay between competition and the “cooperation” that can arise from it in his famous “tangled bank” passage;

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Hoofnagle’s mention of bacteria in solely a bad light is surprising as well; not all bacteria are bad for us. Probiotic bacteria found in our stomachs can be beneficial in binds to sites so that other, harmful bacteria can’t get enough elbow room to get settled in, and it’s been shown that some may even help combat lactose intolerance, diarrhea, and other problems. Even stepping beyond this, the hereditary disease hemochromatosis, where iron is “locked away” in the body, may have even been beneficial to humans, making its hosts less susceptible to certain infections that would end life far earlier than hemochromatosis would.

I’m also a bit disturbed by Hoofnagle’s assertion that “Further there is this nonsense that messing with nature is somehow a bad thing, or frequently unsuccessful. This view can only be held by people who seem to have forgotten all the progress we’ve made in the last couple of millennia.” Our current problems with global climate change and pollution, among other things, show that we’re not too bright when it comes to ecology or our impact. While we might call ourselves a “success” in that we’ve subdued nature successfully, I think it’s downright foolish to use some subjective idea of “progress” as the measuring stick by which to see whether our actions have been “good” or “bad.” Hoofnagle then rattles off a list of “achievements” by which I wouldn’t be here typing this right now; from laying the foundation of a house to squashing a spider that’s crept indoors, humanity is defined by its need to “sanitize” nature in order to be comfortable.

In one sense, Hoofnagle is right; disease, parasites, predators, drought, famine, etc. have largely been eliminated in the Western World (although this doesn’t mean that they’re not still problems for the majority of the planet’s inhabitants), and doing so has allowed us to live the “comfy” lives that those lucky enough to be born in the right place in the right time to the right parents enjoy. Still, as I’ve just mentioned, much of the world does cope with all the “war machinations” of nature, and even moreso did our ancestors. Nature was never out to kill us; it was simply the situation we found ourselves in, and one way or another nature was suppressed so that we could live. So far, things have been going alright from the perspective of geological time. We’ve come very far very quickly, but I’m rather dubious as to the future. Sometimes I feel that we feel that we’re smarter than we actually are, that our growth has been too exponential, and sooner or later (be it a meteorite, a disease, climate change, or even all of those plus others) things aren’t going to be going so smoothly for us.

Hoofnagle closes with these sentiments;

One does not commune with an uncaring monster. You don’t live in harmony with that which tries to kill you, at best you strive for detentes. Outright war isn’t good, a victory in a war might just be ashes in our mouth. We need her to survive, we need her to be healthy, but we should never trust her, or let down our guard. Nature is out to get us, we survive by constantly waging our battles with her, and winning. Not being the type that thinks this planet belongs to us, or that we are particularly relevant in the grand scheme of things, there’s a good chance she might win the war. I’d like to avoid that if at all possible.

Again, this is a rather weak argument based upon the anthropomorphization of some amorphous “Mother Nature” which seeks to make life hard for us. It’s true that in order to spread across the globe as we have, the suppression of nature has been required, but there have always been trade-offs. Sure, you can eradicate certain pests or disease-vectors, but you’re going to have to inhale plenty of harmful fumes that’ll end up contributing to your death too, just a bit later. Sure, industrialization and the invention of the automobile has opened up untold wonders for us, but that isn’t going to mean much if climate change and disease radically change the planet, perhaps even causing a much higher death rate. I don’t believe in any notion of “progress” that does not have some sort of consequence somewhere, and while we have never lived in “harmony with nature,” being overly abusive to Hoofnagle’s “uncaring monster” isn’t going to get us very far either.

[Hat-tip to Pondering Pikaia for the story]


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4 responses

8 08 2007
MarkH

Wow Brian, I get an idiocy tag?

You’ve taken this essay too seriously. We evilutionist darwinist materialist sciencey types do not really believe that we are fighting with some earth-gaia deity.

I was responding to a kind of hippy view that nature is great and we can commune and harmonize with it. Taking the anthropomorphic beast by the horns I was trying to show that such a view of nature was seriously naive. If mother nature is a mother, she’s Tony Soprano’s mom, not June Cleaver.

Finally, I specifically addressed that being abusive or disrespectful of nature is not the point of the argument. As someone who fights the denialists of global warming and actually care about real environmentalism, this seems a bit unfair. Call me an idiot of you like, but don’t say it’s because I don’t appreciate the real problems humanity faces.

8 08 2007
laelaps

Mark,

Thank you for responding. Yes, I did add on an “idiocy” tag, but not because I feel that you are an idiot. I try to follow the idea Bob Bakker once proposed in The Dinosaur Heresies to be kind to colleagues, but ruthless with theories. I don’t think you’re an idiot and I appreciate the work you’ve done on your blog combating global warming denialists and the like, but in this case I feel that the view of nature you present in your post is a bit off the mark. I added the “idiocy” tag because the subject matter was dealing with two subjects that I get frustrated over just as you did; the view of nature as a monster that needs to be suppressed, and the view that nature is in harmony and intrinsically “good.”

Given some of your reactions in the comment section of your blog, I can see that your intention was a bit different from what came out in the initial post, but I still think think that at you present “nature red in tooth and claw” as a reaction to hippies, and I agree that we’ve never been “in harmony with nature.” Still, you can say that I’ve taken what you wrote too seriously, but the rhetoric and tone of the article seem to give an impression that you’ve now said you did not intend. If the initial post resembled your later comments on the thread, rather than (to borrow from the Simpsons again) Troy McClure saying “If it had the chance a cow would eat you and everyone you care about,” I probably wouldn’t have had the impetus to write what I did.

In any case, I don’t think you’re an idiot Mark, even though I disagree with what you said (or at least with the way you said it).

8 08 2007
MarkH

It was half and half. Clearly, anything in agreement with a villain like Burns has to be read as facetious, I was surprised when Ted took that seriously as well. I thought the last paragraph cleared up that my description of nature as an opponent doesn’t mean we ever want to win, or should be careless with our power over it. The main objective was to show that if we’re going to anthropomorphize mother nature, she doesn’t come out as some nice little lady, and our history is of trying to put her in the nursing home.

8 08 2007
laelaps

Mark,

Thank you again for your reply. I did mention that you used the Burns phrase facetiously, and if it was there in and of itself I probably would have thought it entirely a joke. Like I mentioned, I just found that it resonated with the overall sentiment of the rest of the article (I don’t actually think that you’re drawing your policy from Simpsons episodes).

I guess it was the issue of anthropomorphizing nature that threw me off the most; we shouldn’t have to. I don’t feel nature is really good or evil, it merely is, and even if we did conjure up a Mother Nature I don’t think “she” would be either entirely malignant or benign. The way nature works defies this sort of categorization, I think.

In any case, I do understand your sentiments (and like I said I think your comments in the ensuing thread make it clear), I just think that they may have gotten lost in the post itself, especially since I’m not a regular reader (and so it was a bit out of context). If nothing else the post was thought-provoking, and again I appreciate you taking the time to stop by and comment.

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