Make your own free website on
The Concept of Naturalness     |     home
        Title Page, Abstract, Acknowledgments           |           Table of Contents                 |              Introduction           |             Literature Review Part A: Cultural Aspects of Naturalness          |               Literature Review Part B: Ecological Aspects of Naturalness        |          Case Study          |             Conclusions and Recommendations          |              References Cited      

          Literature Review Part A: Cultural Aspects of Naturalness       



As one reviews the literature of both ecology and resource management, it seems that the concept of "naturalness" is one which appears in many contexts and forms, and to the frequent extent that the term "natural" arises in the literature, we can infer that there is at least some degree to which ecologists and resource managers operate from a "nature-endorsing" perspective (Soper 1995).  That is, although the term natural may not be explicitly defined, the general concept of differentiating between natural and non-natural states seems to be at least implicitly accepted.  

However, while simple use of the word "natural" might infer some implicit acknowledgment of the term's meaningfulness, explicitly addressing the meaning of naturalness does not always elicit agreement on even this basic level of analysis of the term.

Hepburn (1967) identifies a number of possible meanings for the words "nature" and "natural."  For example, contrasting "natural" events with "supernatural" ones, or designating as "natural" those behaviors or situations which define a "normal," versus aberrant, state.  He also identifies some basic philosophical meanings of naturalness, several of which have particular relevance for understanding how the concept of naturalness may be applied in an ecological or resource management context.

Hepburn begins with the example of "natural" being used to contrast "artificial," and suggests that artificial things are those which have undergone "modification" or "interference" from an "alien causality."  From this perspective, natural things are generally valued more highly than artificial ones.  

page 10

Next, Hepburn points to a slightly different perspective, in which natural things are seen as "mere raw material."  In this case, natural things are again contrasted with those which have been altered, but the resulting artifact is generally valued more highly than the unfinished natural material which required artifice to be complete.

These two perspectives both introduce the idea that conscious alteration or control somehow differentiates natural and artificial things, and this in turn gives rise to two other contrasting perspectives: first, the idea that humans, as capable of creative acts, are agents capable of transforming natural things into artificial things, and are hence partly distinct from nature; and second, the idea that humans, as products of nature, are effectively agents of naturalness, and hence may improve upon natural things but, as part of nature, cannot transform anything to a truly artificial state.  

These contrasting views have resulted in two fundamentally different perspectives on the meaning of naturalness; the first holds that everything, including human works of art, is natural, the second that humanity, or at least the results of its cultural activities, are not (McLaughlin 1993).  

Given that a concept of nature which is all-inclusive becomes "incoherent" (Wright 1992), in that by literally referring to everything, the term is essentially useless in any dialogue, we can think of these opposing perspectives as being "nature-endorsing," endorsing the idea of nature or naturalness as meaningful, versus "nature-skeptical," meaning skeptical of the usefulness of nature or naturalness as categories of being (Soper 1995).

Nature-Skeptical Perspectives

Despite wide usage of the term "natural" in ecological and resource management writings, the importance of concepts of naturalness is by no means a given among all of those involved in natural resource management, nor among those concerned with issues of philosophy, sociology or other aspects of human culture.  The very concept of "nature" is often subject to strong criticism, or outright rejection, from those taking what may be regarded as a "nature-skeptical" attitude (Soper 1995).

page 11

Some, from a strongly nature-skeptical perspective, have dismissed ecological use of the terms "nature" and "natural" as being "not scientific," (Pollowy 1994), "counterfactual" (Shrader-Frechette and McCoy 1995), or merely useful as an academic devise (Rassler 1994).  It has even been suggested that, against the backdrop of human culture, we have reached "the end of nature" (McKibben 1989), and now live within a "noösphere" or "anthroposphere" (Barrett 1981; Vink and Davidson 1983), a kind of humanized domain derived from the natural biosphere.  Taken even further in this vein, some maintain that human domination is what makes a thing or place natural, and that a place or ecosystem is in fact made "more natural" when it is manipulated by humans (Turner 1994).

In an ethical sense, Des Jardins (1993) has suggested that there are three primary approaches to human relations with the environment; these are "teleological," "utilitarian," and "deontological."  In their simplest form these can be differentiated as follows: a teleological approach embraces the idea of nature having purpose, and hence meaning or value, that is inherent; a utilitarian approach embraces the idea of nature as something which can be given meaning, through human efforts to maximize its potentials; a deontological approach, while acknowledging humans as having ethical duties, leaves non-human nature in a kind of non-status, as "mere means," rather than "ends," which retain rights.  Things, then, have no rights, but people who assert ownership of things do.

Within the realm of scientific thought, a teleological perspective is for the most part considered to have been "long ago excommunicated from conventional scientific inquiry" (Ashby 1978), leaving scientists with the utilitarian and deontological perspectives as basis for assessing the relationship between humans and the natural environment.  Following from this philosophical perspective, the proper ecological role of humans may be seen as that of "manipulators" (Scherer 1994), and the relationship between humans and their environment seen as entailing a "wise use" of the rest of nature for human benefit (Freyfogle 1995).  

page 12

Within this tradition, the idea of nature existing independently of human cultural manipulation is seen as an impossibility (Jordan 1992; Turner 1994); all human actions are considered to be "natural processes" (Koromondy 1974), and a belief in nature, short of its domination by human technology, is derided as a belief in "false gods" (Kay 1994).  Allowing "nature" to function without human intervention is dismissed as "dangerous folly," and intensive management of the environment is seen as the "burden" given humans by evolution (Dizard 1994).

A frequent argument made within this vein of thought is that nature, and naturalness, are not real things, but merely concepts.  Specifically, it is suggested that, as a "social construction" (Evernden 1992; Greider and Garkovich 1994; Shrader-Frechette and McCoy 1995), nature is meaningless outside of subjective human analysis; that is, we are "fooled into believing" that landscapes, or nature itself, exist, when they "exist" only as human thoughts (Kuzloski 1995).  This has been described as a "relativistic" perspective, a line of reasoning which holds that, since the concept of naturalness is culturally derived, it is neither universal nor objectively testable (Soulé 1995).  

Thus, even while acknowledging that the concept has played a long-term role in our own culture, it is maintained that our values regarding nature and naturalness, as merely western culturally specific concepts, should not be imposed on other cultures (Gunn 1994), nor treated as more than culturally specific "myths" (Gomez-Pompa and Kaus 1992; Kay 1994).  A common theme in these arguments centers on the notion that recognition of a distinction between humanity and nature is a fairly recent and strictly western cultural development (Rassler 1994; Zentner 1992).  

This relativist perspective concludes that, outside of personal, subjective value judgments, there can be no concrete distinction between natural and artificial environments (Soulé 1995; Worster 1995a).  Given this value-based and ambiguously defined status, it is reasoned that "nature" and "naturalness," are terms not properly usable, especially in the context of scientific discourse (Pollowy 1994).

page 13

In what may be thought of as a more moderate degree of nature-skepticism, others maintain that, whatever might constitute a natural condition, naturalness is largely obscured by many thousands of years of human impact upon our environment (Bradshaw 1994).  Indeed, it has been pointed out by many authors that it is often difficult to distinguish "naturally" created landscapes from those which have been extensively altered by humans (Thornson and Harris 1991), and often those arguing for the preservation of "natural" areas are found pointing, unknowingly, to landscapes which have in fact already been heavily altered from any "pristine" nature (Soper 1995).

From this perspective, it is often asserted that all environments, and thus all of their constituent parts, are in fact artifacts of human actions, either direct or indirect, and that there are therefore no "natural" places or processes left (Gomez-Pompa and Kaus 1992; McKibben 1989).  

Perhaps most extreme, moreover, is the argument that favoring naturally occurring species or biotic communities over humanly created ones is "perversely misanthropic," or prejudiced against the human species (Scherer 1994).  In this view, resource management which favors natural biotic communities, or even belief in the real existence of such natural systems, constitutes a form of racism (Bookchin 1991; Kruckeberg 1996), linked in some minds to Nazi ideology (Clark 1996; Marinelli 1995), and is thus to be condemned on moral grounds.  

Each of these kinds of nature-skeptical or relativist conceptions of naturalness should not be lightly dismissed; they are in fact, in various forms and degrees, widely held and have played a role in shaping both our culture and our approach to science (Merchant 1989; Soper 1995).  Additionally, it has been pointed out that these ideologies play an equally important role indirectly, through the creative tension maintained by their opposition to the nature-endorsing ideologies (McLaughlin 1993; Soper 1995).  

page 14

Nature-Endorsing Perspectives

Ecologically, it is recognized that many divergent opinions of what constitutes something natural exist, and that these opinions are often difficult to reconcile (Johnson and Agee 1988; Maser 1990).  Nevertheless, many scientists see the study of natural areas and their processes as the basis of ecology (Barrett, Van Dyne, and Odum 1976).  Likewise, study of natural areas or natural ecological states are often seen as providing the "reference state" (Pickett and McDonnell 1993; Salwasser et al. 1994) or "baseline" data necessary for experimental studies or for ecologically based management of resources (Hellawell 1991).  

In this sense, natural ecosystems have been "endorsed" to the extent that they are advocated as important "templates" for designing managed environments (Handel, Robinson, and Beattie 1994), and the study of natural systems is in turn seen as a basis for resource management schemes, such as the "New Forestry" approach in the United States (Agee 1993) or the "Close-to-Nature" management approach of Central Europe (McConnell and Diaci 1996).  In particular, the study of natural ecosystems has been advocated as a key to developing a more "sustainable" approach to resource exploitation, not only in forestry (Franklin 1992) but in other fields such as agricultural (Jackson 1991) or livestock grazing (Savory 1988) as well.

A nature-endorsing perspective also allows the maintenance of natural conditions to be seen as a kind of goal in itself, as in the management of nature preserves and wilderness areas (Balser 1981; Cole 1996).  Likewise, the appearance or experience of naturalness may be thus seen as a goal, as in the recreational management of wildland areas (Watson and Niccolucci 1995).

Obviously, despite the ambiguity which "naturalness" carries with it, it is a concept which underlies much ecological discourse.  In an absence of clear definitions, many authors simply use the terms "natural" or  "naturalness"  without attempting to explicitly define them (Apfelbaum and Aranow 1995; Barrett 1981; Graham 1973), while others argue explicitly that naturalness is indeed a scientific concept, and one which can be evaluated in a quantifiable way (Anderson 1991; Bonnicksen and Stone 1985; Van der Maarel 1976).  

page 15

Even many of those who point to the ambiguity of naturalness, or directly discount the meaning of the term often resort to using the terms "nature" and "natural" nonetheless (Agee and Johnson 1988; Williams 1993).  And while some may question the meaning of naturalness, or the ability to actually distinguish natural from unnatural things (Hoerr 1993; Shrader-Frechette and McCoy 1995), it cannot be denied that common usage makes the concept, practically speaking, unavoidable (Soper 1995).

In sum, despite controversy and a wide range of opinions regarding what is meant ecologically by naturalness, the concept is widely referenced, and hence can be seen as being widely, if at times reluctantly, "endorsed."  Especially when we come to speak of managing natural resources, natural areas or natural processes, it seems plain that this concept of naturalness is indeed a key one, and it seems particularly necessary to attempt to clarify what, in fact, we mean when we use the term "natural."  

Nature and Naturalness
As Underpinnings of Culture

One nature-skeptical argument that has been frequently raised is the belief that certain cultures perceive "nature" far differently than does our western, European-based culture, to the extent that other cultures can be said to simply not share our belief in nature.  This extreme of nature-skepticism would, in effect, suggest that any discussion of naturalness is somewhat pointless.  However, while this argument carries some rhetorical weight, it appears to lack any empirical backing.  

The most-cited examples used to substantiate this claim for a culturally relativist basis of "nature" seem to be cases of contemporary hunting-gathering peoples contrasted with western technological culture--unfortunately, such assertions seem to be based in anecdotal evidence contradicted by anthropological studies (Kellert 1996).

Authors have, for instance, cited anecdotes to support the idea that words such as "wilderness" may have no cognitive equivalent in the languages of some cultures (McLaughlin 1993).  However, research has found that a lack of directly translatable terms

page 16

 does not necessarily mean a lack of equivalent concepts (Burnet and Kang'ethe 1994), and while cultural reactions to the concept of naturalness may vary widely, the concept itself would seem perhaps universal (Kellert 1996).  Put another way, while cultures may outwardly vary greatly they may nonetheless share very similar underlying paradigms, and among these are attitudes toward the nature/humanity relationship (Burnet and Kang'ethe 1992; Kellert 1996).

Contrary to assumptions made by many nature-skeptical critics, research has suggested that the problem of defining the relationship between humans and nature constitutes one of the basic conceptual issues which all cultures address (Kellert 1996; Lease 1995).  Kluckhohn (1964) for example, concluded that "man's relation with nature" was one of five key problems which all groups of people confront, and which in turn guides all "cultural patterning."  Rather than seeing the nature-humanity distinction as a variable construct of only certain cultures, Kluckhohn's observations indicated that the way a particular culture seeks to understand this relationship in turn guides other cultural attitudes--not vice-versa.  

Perhaps most fundamentally, it has also been found that distinguishing the degree of `naturalness' in a given environment is one of the key ways in which people psychologically conceptualize those environments (McAndrew 1993; Wohlwill 1983).  As suggested in Kluckhohn's (1964) work, environmental psychologists have found that, far from being a limited, culturally derived distinction, cognition of the nature-humanity dichotomy is instead a fundamental constituent of consciousness and personality (McAndrew 1993; Wohlwill 1983).  

In fact, it has been suggested that such dichotomies, or "binary opposites," constitute a fundamental way in which humans perceive their environments (Grange 1992; Tuan 1974), and that it is through such conceptual pairings that we are able to carry on the internal "dialectics" necessary for understanding our surroundings (Paterson 1993).

Further investigation has found that the recognition of differences between natural and human-made objects occurs even in young children (Wohlwill 1983), and has found that there is no evidence to support the idea that such fundamental cognitive abilities vary significantly between different cultures (McAndrew 1993; Ulrich 1983; Wilson 1996a).  Although investigators have urged caution

page 17

due to the small number of detailed cross-cultural studies which have been carried out in this area, it is noted that all of the existing empirical literature supports the idea that broad similarities exist in the ways in which people evaluate natural versus human-made environmental attributes (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989).  Differences do exist in how various cultural groups perceive the nature-human relationship, but only as matters of degree, not as a basic difference in cognitive abilities, or even a broad-based difference in preferences (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989; Kellert 1996; McAndrew 1993).

Within-culture studies have indeed shown differences of degree in opinions, relative to a number of attitudinal categories such as interest in direct contact with nature, knowledge of environmental issues, and so forth (Kellert 1996).  However, studies comparing environmental preferences, both within a given culture and between cultures, would even seem in general to indicate that such differences are driven more by economic and educational differences than broader cultural ones (McAndrew 1993).  

Even comparative studies between such diverse groups as urban and rural residents or whites and ethnic minorities (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989; Kellert 1996), Koreans and Americans (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989), Japanese and Americans, Germans and Japanese (Kellert 1996) or Balinese natives and western tourists (McAndrew 1993) found broad levels of similarity.  While attitudinal differences do occur within a given culture, related to factors such as ethnicity, class, or geographic differences, such differences do not reflect differences in basic recognition of the natural/human dichotomy (Kellert 1996).

While these studies cannot be interpreted to mean that the role of culture in shaping attitudes toward nature is unimportant (Kellert 1996; Ulrich 1983), the body of empirical studies indicates that it can at best be said "how much culture plays a role in these matters is an open question" (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989).  

Such broad, cross-culturally related attitudes toward the natural/human-made distinction and aesthetic environmental preferences has led to the hypothesis that such attitudes have a socio-biological or evolutionary basis (Appelton 1975; Orians 1986)

page 18

sometimes described as "biophilia," an inherent affection for the natural world (Orr 1995; Wilson 1984).  In this view, some level of understanding of the nature/human dichotomy, and an appreciation of natural systems and settings, is not only universally found, but biologically and genetically derived (Kellert 1996).  In more general terms, it has also been observed that social behavior among all animals, including humans, can be seen as having developed as biologically based mechanisms for survival, to the point that it may be maintained that "culture is ultimately a product of biology" (Wilson 1996a).

While this apparent universality of concepts of naturalness does not lessen the impact of culture and history upon our conceptions, nor negate the validity of nature-skeptical perspectives, it is an important point of departure for comparing the relatively "endorsing" and "skeptical" influences and perspectives which are explored in the following.

Approaches to Understanding
Concepts of Nature and Naturalness

To some extent, the question of what constitutes a natural place or process can be seen as a scientific problem (Pickett, Kolasa, and Jones 1994; Woodley et al. 1993).  However, the matter is far from simple, and far from simply a matter which can be neatly and logically deduced through scientific methods.  As one author has observed: "We cannot isolate the study of our views of nature into one division called science and into other divisions called literature, the arts, religion, or philosophy, for they all float along together in a common flow of ideas and perceptions" (Worster 1993).  An understanding of how the concept of naturalness is employed in ecosystem or resource management must thus begin with consideration of underlying social and philosophical principles which have in turn shaped our scientific paradigms and perspectives.

Even specifically within an ecological context, Soper (1995) suggests that the term "nature" can be employed in at least three distinct senses: (1) as a "metaphysical concept," a general philosophical usage to indicate the non-human world, (2) as a "realist"

page 19

concept, used to describe the structures and processes which form the basis of study for the natural sciences, and (3) as a "lay" concept, the idea of nature as commonly used to describe a contrast with urban, domesticated, or industrial environments.

Soper points out that these three "ecological discourses of nature" represent very different concepts, and that the differences between them must be considered whenever the term natural is employed (Soper 1995).  To some degree, these distinctions are reflected in the literature related to naturalness; hence, we may in turn consider philosophical, scientific, and social contexts of naturalness.  Nevertheless, it would also seem apparent that the tangled threads of philosophy, science, and culture require that we also see these differing usages as interrelated.  While the focus of this study lies with the scientific-ecological context of naturalness, the mutual influences of these three approaches must nevertheless be directly considered.

One of the complicating aspects of these interrelated approaches to using the concept of naturalness can also be seen in the suggestion that our environment, and our attitudes toward nature, not only are shaped by cultural factors, but are conversely also what shapes culture itself.  In this respect, the influences are seen to run both ways: our view of nature is "a projection of human perceptions of self and society into the cosmos," but ecological changes also lead to our concepts of human society being "undermined and transformed" (Merchant 1989).  

Notions about nature and the actual "nature" of our society, then, can be seen as taking from and contributing to each other, in a kind of feedback-loop.  Given this reflexive quality, our entwined perceptions of nature, society, and their relationship can perhaps only be understood from a vantage based upon cultural and historical context.  

In a general sense, the importance of an historical perspective relates to the idea that our current social norms are the product or sum of the experiences of our society over time (Merchant 1989).  Even in a more specific sense, however, it must be acknowledged that science itself operates within a culturally derived framework in which numerous assumptions and values are embedded (Pickett, Kolasa, and Jones 1994; Worster 1993).  With this in mind, a look at the historical roots of our attitudes toward nature, and its scientific study, seems central to our understanding of how the concept of naturalness may be ecologically employed.

page 20



The Philosophical Roots of Attitudes
Toward Nature and Naturalness

The ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, thought of nature as having "specific implicit purposes" (Sibley 1977), to the extent that they can generally be seen as all acknowledging a principle of telos, of an ultimate goal or meaning inherent in nature (Des Jardins 1993).  Two basic approaches to this concept can be seen: Plato's writings in particular speak of the universe as a living and intelligent entity, (Ebenreck 1991), whereas Aristotle, in a more deterministic manner, placed emphasis on a hierarchy of four inherent "causes" as the basis for understanding what things essentially are (Des Jardins 1993).  The differences between these two approaches were to later become emphasized in the divergent views of organismic versus mechanistic models of nature--originally, however, both saw purpose and meaning as something inherent in all things.  In this world view, nature was "permeated with mind," explaining both the apparent order found in nature, and its dynamic properties (Collingwood 1945).  

Based in this idea of telos, it was thought that to truly understand a natural object it would be necessary to come to an understanding of its ideal function, or potential, as determined by its inherent teleological quality (Des Jardins 1993).  In addition, however, the possible role of humans in altering their world was expressly recognized as well.  Raw nature, or natura, was contrasted with artificially created things, or techne (Merchant 1989; Sibley 1977).  A natural object was thus seen simply as one which existed in a state independent of human craft, although natural things could, by human action or `technique,' be altered or changed.  

page 21


Perhaps the most influential figure of this period was Aristotle, whose ideas of nature and science continue to bear a strong influence today--to the degree that he may be considered "father of the philosophy of science" (Ruse 1988).  According to Aristotle, the physical substance of natural things, their physis, was determined or governed by four kinds of inherent causes: a material cause, a formal cause, an efficient cause, and a final cause (Rosen 1985).  Within this scheme, the "final cause" of a thing was equated with its underlying telos (Rosen 1985).  While this approach entails concepts of intrinsic meaning, the Aristotelian view is also deterministic, especially regarding natural objects, since the ultimate state of any object is predetermined by these inherent causes (Hausman 1975).
Over time, particularly in Europe during the 1500s, the idea of an inherent telos began to lose prominence; however, the determinism which it implied was to remain a powerful underlying concept in both philosophy and science (Hausman 1975).  Whereas Aristotle's determinism was placed within a framework of holism and teleological purpose, a "descriptive-metaphysical" approach to science, the deterministic view which was to later develop would expressly attempt to isolate determinism from this broader framework through a "mathematical-positivistic" approach (Bertalanffy 1975).

This transformation of Aristotle's determinism began about the 5th century BC, when the relationship between telos and physis became somewhat supplanted by a distinction between nomos, laws which could be humanly deduced, and physis, things as they are naturally determined (Soper 1995).  In the pairing of these concepts, an object was seen simply as its physical component, and inherent teleological purpose or goal was replaced by external forces, describable by cosmological or physical laws (Wollheim 1967).  A dualistic view of object and meaning now emerged; rather than a given object inherently having both physical properties and teleological purpose, such an object was seen as having both an inherent physical character and an externally imposed character or meaning.  Nomos, or external laws, took the determining role once held by the internal telos.  

page 22

Philosophically, this concept of nomos was later elaborated through a number of approaches into concepts of "natural law," in which nature was seen as a source for both physical laws and laws of human morality (Wollheim 1967).  More importantly though, in terms of how nature and naturalness themselves are perceived, a consequence of this emerging idea of external nomos was to shift the seat of meaning from an intangible and internal telos to physical laws which could be humanly deduced (Soper 1995).  Because purpose and meaning were thus placed in a domain amenable to human discovery and experimental study, human consciousness--and thus human culture--were able to assume a role distinct from the rest of nature.  

As science and philosophy focused more closely on this idea of nomos, perceptions of nature shifted further from that of things with inherent meaning or value.  Natural law became seen, not so much as originating in nature, as being a series of external forces which controlled nature.  Scientists such as Descartes and Newton, and later philosophers such as Berkeley and Kant, would eventually develop this line of reasoning into the concept of nature as both physically and metaphysically devoid of inherent purpose and thus meaning (Hepburn 1967).

Historical Shifts in Cultural Perceptions
of Nature and Naturalness

The roots of a more human-centered, deterministic trend in philosophy and science can be traced in great part to the impact of Aristotle on Western thought (Hull 1974).  Nevertheless, as discussed above, Aristotle also held a teleological perspective, and in truth the view of an organic, intelligent nature persisted well into the 1500s, and was held by such thinkers as Leonardo da Vinci, who felt that it was fundamentally impossible to distinguish between the animate and inanimate (Merchant 1989) and Thomas Aquinas, who attempted to merge Aristotle's teleological approach to nature with Christian theology (Des Jardins 1993; Evernden 1992).  Despite a continued overall belief in an organismic or teleological approach to nature, however, this era also saw a gradual change in the dominant view of nature; nature was still seen as living, and with inherent purpose, but nature was also increasingly seen as passive as well, a trend which appears linked to the development of industrial technology and a concurrently growing emphasis on patriarchy and subjugation of the feminine in both religion and society (Merchant 1989).

page 23

The European view of nature underwent significant change in the late 1500s, with the writings of Copernicus and other scientists who began to see the earth as devoid of intelligence and life (Collingwood 1945).  By the 1600s, this view began to gain dominance in the scientific world.  Whereas earlier philosophers, such as Aristotle, had contended that the inherent telos or "final cause" of an object governed its physical substance or, physis (Harrison 1992), this later view held that only physical matter, or the corporeal qualities of things, were real (Harvey 1989).  Galileo in particular asserted that only physical measurements have meaning, and that qualities such as color and taste would be "annihilated" without a subjective mind to impose them (Evernden 1985).

A similar train of thought was elaborated by Descartes, Newton, and Bacon, all of whom espoused a mechanistic view of an essentially passive natural world (Merchant 1989).  This view of nature caused a fundamental change in the ways humans and nature were seen to interact; while earlier philosophers had turned to nature itself as a source of inspiration, a source of purpose and thus a model for society and its norms, it was now believed that humans should dictate their own norms to nature, changing nature as they saw fit (Evernden 1992).

The divorce between human-imposed purpose and physical objects came to imply that all meaning resided in humans; and therefore, what was not human was, in itself, meaningless.  Descartes went so far as to state that all things not human should be treated as insensible, irrational machines, and even justified vivisection by concluding that animals, lacking human consciousness, could not feel pain (Nash 1989).  The ultimate corollary of this line of thought, separating purpose and meaning from nature, and finding the residence of such meaning and purpose in humans, was that nature, fundamentally meaningless, remains meaningless until it is given purpose by human artifice (Shepard 1982).

page 24

The Influence of Capitalism

A significant part of the shifting view of nature and its relation to humanity came through the development of capitalism.  This trend can be seen as originating in the shift from largely communal ownership of land to private ownership (Jackson 1984), and was also likely fueled in part by the impact of the Reformation, through which it was emphasized, particularly in the work of Martin Luther, that the rest of creation's purpose was to provide for humanity (Hendry 1980).  These social trends, coupled with the belief that nature was inert and driven only by outside forces, served to not only change the philosophical approach toward nature, but toward economics as well.

Especially in the case of Francis Bacon, the view of nature as mechanical and meaning as humanly imposed also included a capitalistic bent, in which nature was seen as a collection of meaningless objects, from which meaningful material wealth could be produced (Merchant 1989; Worster 1993).  Hence, the meaning or purpose of a natural object came to reside in its economic value--and since meaning became a question of economic value, a thing had no meaning until it was incorporated into the social-economic system.  This set the stage for a view of nature as something which had meaning only if it were "owned," by humans, a view which fundamentally denies respect for nature or the possible reality of intrinsic worth (McLaughlin 1993).  Non-human nature is thus left in a kind of non-status, as "mere means," rather than "ends" which retain rights; "things" have no rights, but people who assert ownership of things do (Des Jardins 1993).

The concept of value thus became tied to the concept of private ownership, which in turn was tied to the concept of control (Borgmann 1995; McLaughlin 1993).  An object which was not controlled could not be owned, and an object which could not be owned was without value.  Closing the circle on this train of thought, ownership became a justification for denying rights to natural objects, since all rights instead rested with an object's owner (Nash 1989).  In Neil Evernden's terms, what resulted was an ideology of "resourcism," which "cast all of creation into categories of utility" (Evernden 1985).  Perspectives based in this materialist view may be carried to such extremes that specialized jargon is used to objectify "nature" as much as possible.  For example, one text on wildlife management attempts such objectification by using the phrase "low-cost amino acids" to describe wild animals (Linear 1973).

page 25

This concept of ownership also became closely tied to the idea of human use, since one established ownership by demonstrating control, i.e., by making use of a thing, an animal, or a place.  For example, if an animal were free-roaming, or a piece of land were "unimproved," then a claim for its ownership would seem unsubstantiated.  The concepts of ownership and use became so closely linked that European colonists in the New World were able to justify taking lands from aboriginal peoples based on this linkage between use, control, and ownership; since native people were not "using" the land (meaning obvious large-scale extractive uses), it was reasoned that, despite their simple inhabitation of a place, they had not asserted any rights of ownership in connection with it (Freyfogle 1995).  

This turn in philosophy also developed the religiously based idea that there is "virtue" in the exploitation of nature, and "sin" in allowing natural things to go unused (Worster 1993), thus giving a moral cachet to changing patterns of land ownership, urbanization, and manufacturing.  Indeed, it seems unlikely to be mere coincidence that development of the philosophies of Descartes and Bacon, promoting exploitation and possession as centers of value, was contemporary with Europe's period of aggressive colonialism, when European governments sought in an unprecedented way to take possession of and exploit the lands of other cultures (Gunter 1992).  Denying inherent value in nature or land thus became a rationale for the exploitation of nature, but also for the exploitation of natural resources which might otherwise have seemed to `belong' to another society based simply on their inhabitation of a place.  

In sum, the influence of capitalism may be seen as on the one hand having been nature-endorsing, in that it recognizes nature as "real," but on the other hand, it may also be regarded as nature-skeptical, in that it recognizes no value or meaning in things that are natural other than as a raw material which may be bestowed with meaning by humanity.  In this way, while maintaining a degree of ambiguity in regard to nature, capitalism as a whole helped to promote a largely nature-skeptical attitude and pushed other cultural institutions toward a perspective in which natural things were largely devalued and the reality of a characteristic of naturalness was discounted.

page 26

The Influence of a Mechanistic Model for Science

Equally important to the concept of nature as devoid of meaning and value was the concept of nature as devoid of life and creativity.  Perhaps the most illustrative product of this emerging philosophy toward nature was Decartes' analogy of nature as being like a clock, a kind of grand, lifeless mechanism (Merchant 1989).  The power of this metaphor lay partly in that it portrayed the world as a machine, which could thus be understood through a reductionist study of individual parts.  But even more significantly, it also implied that nature was inert, driven by outside forces, which thus legitimized human manipulation (Evernden 1992).  In this view, nature is merely an abstraction, an object for study, and the objective of science is to model or predict natural processes for their more efficient manipulation (Peters 1991).  

This view also explicitly rejects any notions of nature having either intrinsic meaning or an organismic character.  Descartes specifically voiced the idea that nature was without intelligence, describing the cosmos as a "bête machine," and completely rejected the previously dominant organismic view (Bertalanffy 1975).  This school of thought has been described as being basically deterministic (Augros and Stanciu 1987), relativistic (Worster 1993), and anthropocentric (Sessions 1995).  Perhaps more encompassingly, it can be seen as an approach based in "scientific humanism," in that scientific study is founded in the belief that humans alone can stand in consciousness among an otherwise purely mechanical world (Relph 1981).

The metaphorical implications of a mechanistic approach to nature were certainly important to both science and culture, but the mechanistic approach was far more than mere metaphor.  Given the basic belief in a mechanism-like cosmos, all of our scientific methods became channeled by a belief in the mechanical character of all phenomena, described by Hull (1974) as the assumption that: "All events are explained in terms of antecedent events organized in causal chains and networks, characterizable in terms of universal laws which make no reference to the causal efficaciousness of future events or higher levels of organization."  Entailed in this kind of mechanistic model are two key presuppositions for science: (1) an underlying belief in materialism (Edelglass et al. 1992; Lamont 1990), and (2) an underlying belief in reductionism (Hull 1974; Ruse 1988).

page 27

A mechanistic approach is based in a materialist view of nature, in that its central conceptualization of nature is one of purely physical phenomena, operating mechanically in response to antecedent causal events (Hull 1974).  This materialist perspective, traceable to the work of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others (Evernden 1985), places its emphasis on the concept of nature as simple material objects (Capra 1982) that is, physis, to the exclusion from consideration of all non-corporeal experience (Harvey 1989).  Nature, then, is seen merely as physical matter engaged in motion, stripping away supernatural or teleological explanations of phenomenon in favor of simple causative physical laws (Lamont 1990).  

A materialist approach per se, moreover, finds broad application, partly in the realm of physical and biological science (Sibley 1977), but in the realms of political (Soper 1995) and psychological theory (Capra 1982) as well, and is not in itself equivalent to a mechanistic approach.  A general approach of materialism, for example, is also seen as a constituent of other philosophical approaches, such as "atomism," "naturalism," and "positivism" (Lamont 1990).  In the context of a mechanistic approach to science, materialism's contribution lies more specifically in its close relationship to and combination with the parallel approach of reductionism (Edelglass et al. 1992).

The reductionist approach sits in direct contrast to the approach of holism as promoted by Aristotle's phrase "the whole is more than the sum of the parts" (Bertalanffy 1975).  Instead, the study of nature and natural systems became grounded in the idea that "The whole is nothing but its parts" (Ruse 1988), and that even living creatures should be approached as "machines pure and simple" (Hull 1974).  It is therefore inferred that natural systems can be best understood if they are "de-constructed" into a series of isolated elements (Lease 1995)--here, the materialist view of nature as "mere" physical matter becomes coupled with the idea of systems as "mere" assemblages of simple, linear causality (Bertalanffy 1968).  Following from these twin assumptions as to the "triviality" (Bertalanffy 1968) or simplicity of both the composition and processes of nature, reductionism allows for an approach to natural science based in simplification, modeling, and the validity of generalization (Hull 1974).

page 28

Beginning with Galileo, a basic tenet of mechanistic science has thus been the proposition that, prior to scientific study, a phenomenon should be theoretically isolated from its context and then described and explained in mathematical terms (Heisenberg 1958).  Reductionism, then, involves reduction at two levels; reduction in the sense that phenomena are isolated from their context, and further reduction in that phenomena are reduced, or generalized, to mathematical representations.  To this end, from the mechanistic perspective, the description of nature, once a simple process of observation, came to mean the mathematical description of abstracted or simplified models of nature instead (Heisenberg 1958).

Such modeling was used to guide scientific study in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology--and it was, in fact, very successful, leading to great advances in the range of these sciences and providing society with technological achievements which transformed our world, thus entrenching this view of the world ever deeper within our culture (Hendry 1980; Wright 1992).  

A difficulty which arises, however, in strict adherence to a mechanistic model, lies in the problem that "starting with mechanistic assumptions, we can only find machines" (Evernden 1985).  Thus, the mechanistic view reinforces itself, even when alternative approaches might prove more effective.  This is especially problematic in that the mechanistic approach, a practical method for solving certain problems, such as those of "classical" physics, may easily become expanded in scope, resulting in philosophical stances such as determinism, fatalism, or functionalism being broadly imposed upon the natural and social sciences (Bertalanffy 1968; Lamont 1990).

page 29

This broad acceptance of the mechanistic approach has been such that, while physicists had abandoned the assumption that all of science may be reduced to mechanics by the turn of this century, a strictly mechanical model has continued to hold sway in biological science "even though the premise from which it supposedly follows has been abandoned" (Hull 1974).  As a consequence, many biologists continue to focus on ecological systems as mere collections of "objects," even though a system is more properly defined in terms of the relationships which occur between its specific components (Evernden 1985).

One implication of the mechanistic view is that otherwise distinct "objects" are seen as identical, in that, viewed "objectively," parts which function equivalently are interchangeable (Evernden 1985).  From this perspective, a newly planted field might be seen as interchangeable with a meadow which has been undisturbed since glaciation, or a third-rotation tree plantation might be seen as interchangeable with an ancient old growth forest, since there is no reason to see "natural" systems as different from humanly created ones (Gunn 1991).  In a more subtle sense, ecologists or resource managers may find it convenient to focus on general "ecosystem process" while allowing for compositional changes, even species extinctions, on the premise that even whole species may be fully substitutable (Soulé 1996).  

The larger problem associated with a strictly mechanistic view is that it has been transformed into a paradigm of "mathematical formalism" (Merchant 1989), in which phenomena under study are not only isolated through reductionism, but also abstracted into mathematical constructs.  From a perspective of mathematical formalism, even the otherwise "holistic" view of systems theory can be reduced and abstracted to the degree that whole ecosystems are represented by what are essentially wiring diagrams (Odum, H.T. 1983).  The difficulty lies not in whether such abstract analysis can be useful, but in whether it can be taken as generally sufficient.  In physical systems, which are essentially "closed," such abstractions may work quite well; however, in more complex systems, such as biological ones, this kind of reductionist approach will often result in "an incongruence between model and reality" (Bertalanffy 1968).  However, because of the underlying principles of materialism which also are entailed in the mechanistic approach, it may be assumed that the "reality" of nature lies solely in its physical, mathematically describable properties (Evernden 1985).

page 30

A strict mechanistic approach, then, runs the risk of insulating itself from recognition of its own errors.  In tautological fashion, the mechanistic perspective approaches nature through models based in materialistic and reductionist assumptions, and then discards or "brackets out" whatever fails to concur with the resulting model-output (Harvey 1989).  In this way, the scientific study of nature is depleted, in that "the object of research is no longer nature itself" (Heisenberg 1958), but instead a research bounded by the self-imposed limits of our own models.

In sum, the mechanistic approach to science promotes the idea that nature operates in a passive way, and also promotes the idea that this passive nature is driven by outside forces, interpreted through the concept of "natural laws" (Merchant 1989).  This has served to reinforce beliefs which place the natural world in a status of meaninglessness unless meaning as such is created by human manipulation (McLaughlin 1993; Worster 1993).

The mechanistic approach also specifically has altered the way in which science views the natural world; the observation of natural phenomena is replaced by the testing of hypothetical models, and this metaphorically based approach is often taken in a literal sense to the degree that only the models are believed to be "real" (Capra 1982).  "Natural" things are in this way reduced to abstract models, and this mechanistically derived reductionism allows natural processes and systems to be viewed as essentially meaningless in themselves, with their "meaning" as such resting instead with the overall causal chains of mechanism to which they contribute (Bertalanffy 1968; Hull 1974).  From the mechanistic perspective, then, "natural" objects such as organisms, species, or even whole ecosystems, have no intrinsic meaning or value outside of these greater--and purely abstract--mechanisms of which they conceptually are a part.  As such, there is no reason to view "natural" systems or their components as being in any way different from humanly altered or created ones (Gunn 1991).
Fundamentally, then, a mechanistic-based approach to science devalues natural things, in that nature is seen as passive and inert, and natural things are viewed as having no inherent reality, other than as reduced, idealized descriptions or "kinds" (Kiester 1980).  In this way, the mechanistic paradigm of science can be seen as promoting a basically nature-skeptical perspective, even though the "natural sciences" do, at some level, still focus on the "natural world" as their object of study.

page 31

The Influence of the Judaeo-Christian Traditions

Religion can also be seen as having played a central role in shifting cultural attitudes toward nature, particularly through the spread of Judaeo-Christian beliefs.  The Judaeo-Christian tradition can be seen as departing from the religious traditions of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman theologies, as well as the animism of indigenous European, African, Asian, and American beliefs, in that the idea of a feminine, creative principle inherent in the earth, or personified by goddess figures, became replaced with a male image of God, who created the earth and its life from an otherwise inert void (Merchant 1989).  Although the image of nature as sacred, feminine, creative, and organismic was to persist in European culture well into the 1500s, it became seen as increasingly at odds with not only with a mechanistic model of nature but with Christian theology as well (Merchant 1989).

The influence of Christianity on attitudes toward nature was far deeper than a shift from emphasis on the feminine to the masculine, however.  Lynn White (1967), in an essay titled "The historic roots of our ecological crisis," found the origins of our current separation from nature in basic tenets of Christianity and the biblical Judaeo-Christian tradition.  According to White, it is from this fundamental part of our culture that an antipathy toward nature first emerged, a world view in which humans are seen as "a bit below the angels" but above the rest of creation.  Indeed, certain passages from the bible, such as the injunction to "subdue" the earth, or the granting to humans of "dominion" over all earth's creatures, would seem to point to a clear distinction between humans and the rest of creation (Sibley 1977).  Theologically, this approach toward nature was to be further emphasized during the Reformation, particularly in the writings of Martin Luther who, in one theologian's words "reduced the whole of nature to a repository of goods for the service of man" (Hendry 1980).

page 32

The origin of our rift with nature might thus be seen in the adoption of a religious tradition granting humans a distinct status, and a superior status as "lords over nature."  In this vein of thought, biblical tradition places humanity not only at a higher level in the "chain of being," but also at the center of God's purpose in creation itself (Hendry 1980), illustrated well by the passage: "The heavens are the Lord's heavens, but the earth he has given to the sons of men" (Ps 115:16).  In a more general way, the superiority of humans is indicated by an emphasis on historicity which predominates Judaic faith in general and Old Testament texts in particular.  As one scholar has observed: " . . . in Israel's faith, history is always the primary field of action of God, and his action in nature is secondary and instrumental to it . . . God was known by his mighty acts in the history of his people" (Hendry 1980).
Whereas other religious traditions had placed a powerful emphasis on the cycles of nature, perceiving nature as a source of spiritual values and sacredness (McAndrew 1993; Taylor 1995), the Judaic tradition shifted its emphasis to humanity and to the history of God's intercessions on their behalf.  Instead of God's favor resting with the natural world in general, spiritual power and virtue came to be seen as residing within humanity (Tuan 1974).  Whereas Aristotle was able to say "There are many things much more divine in their nature than man," the Judaeo-Christian tradition placed humanity clearly in a superior role (Hendry 1980).  This superiority is inherent in the roots of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as can be seen in the text of Genesis, when God commands humankind to "Be masters" of the earth (Gen 1:28-30), but is also emphasized throughout the bible, including the New Testament (Hendry 1980).

The second emphasis in Judaeo-Christian tradition which seems to have shaped our attitudes toward nature is the emphasis on God as creator (Worster 1977).  Instead of seeing a creative and fertile nature, creative energy was seen as residing in God, as creator.  This emphasis is fundamental to Judaic and Christian thought, as can be seen in the creation myths of Genesis, in which the original world is described as a formless void before the creative intervention of God (Gen 1:1-25).  Even Thomas Aquinas, whose

page 33


theology held to teleological concepts of nature, made a sharp distinction between God, as natura naturans, the vital creator of nature, and the natural world, as natura naturata, a passive product of divine creation (Hepburn 1967).  Since nature, before God's initiative, was merely a void, Judaism and Christianity place nature in the role of divine artifact.  At its most basic level, the
Judaeo-Christian tradition therefore becomes a denial of inherent purpose or intrinsic value in nature, since the center of purpose or value resides instead with the Creator-God.

As White (1967) and others have noted, these basic principles underlying
Judaeo-Christian beliefs can be seen as having shaped our cultural attitudes toward nature for thousands of years.  Yet these twin concepts of God as creator and humans as superior to the rest of creation were to gain special prominence during the Reformation, and were central to the writings of both Luther and Calvin, perhaps most critically in their emphasis on the principle of logos (Hendry 1980).  Since the Reformation immediately preceded the work of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and others who were to have a tremendous influence on philosophical and scientific attitudes toward nature, it seems pertinent to emphasize this aspect of the Christian perspective.

The concept of logos originates in Greek thought, literally meaning "word" or "language," and was seen by Aristotle and Plato as indicating both language itself and the evaluative process which precedes human language (Praag 1982).  In this vein, logos was also seen as that which allows humans to evaluate physis (Praag 1982). Logos in this sense represents not only the human ability to communicate, but the human ability to establish a relational status with the phenomenal world (Harrison 1992).  In this original context, logos may also be translated as "nature-knowledge" (Masulli 1990), or that which ties humanity to the cosmos, through its ability to recognize, evaluate, and verbalize it relationship with the rest of the natural world--and thus to recognize humanity's place within nature (Harrison 1992; Masulli 1990).

page 34

Within the development of Christian theology during the Reformation, however, logos was to take on a somewhat different meaning; the Christian perspectives of creative power residing solely with God, and of humanity's superiority to nature, were united with the Greek view of logos as indicative of human rationality.  In this fusion of ideas, the meaning of logos came to more generally encompass the idea of "wisdom," specifically the wisdom which directed creative action (Hendry 1980).  In this way, Iogos became tied directly to a kind of centralization of creative power and consciousness in God.
Beginning with the creation myth of Genesis, and continuing through other sections of the Old Testament and the Gospels, this concept of logos was thought of as being biblically associated with the creative power of God which enabled God to produce the world out of nothingness (Hendry 1980).  This emphasis on God as the source of creative power removed creative volition from the realm of nature and placed it instead with God (Worster 1977); in this way, logos began to take on implications formerly attributed to telos.  Within Reformation theology, moreover, this shift in the perceived residence of creative power came to include the creative power of humanity, which was seen as divine logos partially transferred to humanity through God's grace (Hendry 1980).  While Luther emphasized the residence of logos within Christ and Calvin took a more general view of logos revealed through creation, both saw the creative power of the world as something originating in the central logos of God (Hendry 1980).  

Human creativity was thus seen as functioning through the grace of God, and was further seen as a gift uniquely bestowed upon humans, again emphasizing that, unlike the rest of creation, humans held a special role as potential centers of meaning.  Through this reinforcement of the twin concepts of God as creator and humans as special parts of creation, sixteenth century Christianity thus furthered the view that the world itself lacked any inherent creative principle of telos or intrinsic worth.  Luther went so far as to state that the rest of creation "mourns over itself and is dissatisfied with itself" as it awaits transformation by human work (Hendry 1980).  Building upon these Reformation-era turns in theology, Francis Bacon would later be able to maintain that the human race held dominion over the rest of nature "by divine bequest," a view which would have been branded as heretical just a century or two before (Norton 1987).

page 35

In sum, Christianity, given its theistic basis in the worship of a creator, did not directly impose a belief in the superiority of humanity, nor in a mechanistic view of a passive nature--but through its emphasis on the creative power of God and the transference of that creative power to humans, it did reinforce the shift of teleological purpose from a source internal to things themselves to an external source (Hull 1974).  This philosophical bent can be seen in the later work of mechanists, such as Boyle and Newton who, for example, were quite specific in attributing the relational forces of matter to natural laws imposed by God (Hendry 1980).  In fact, central to the seventeenth century image of the cosmos as a clocklike machine was the idea of God as clock-maker (Merchant 1989).  Others, while not accepting a purely mechanistic view, similarly came to view God as the source of vital energy in an otherwise inert world.  In Leibniz's words: "Primary matter is merely passive . . . [with] inherent law pressed upon it by divine command" (Merchant 1989).

Thus, sixteenth and seventeenth century Christianity, through its emphasis on logos, also reinforced the idea of nomos, or natural law, as the source of qualitative meaning, and simultaneously distanced nature from the possibility of inherent value.  Christianity was therefore able to embrace the idea of an inert world, governed by immutable natural laws, since this still allowed the ultimate power of the cosmos to rest with God.  In this way, Reformation theology was able to in effect lay the ground work for acceptance of the mechanistic model which Descartes, Newton, and others would bring to prominence soon after, and furthered an emphasis on the nature-skeptical perspective.

The Influence of Humanism

In a more general fashion, critics of our current social conception of nature have pointed to humanism as the underlying principle in our beliefs, whether derived through our religious, economic, or scientific and cultural traditions.  Humanism, in itself, is not fundamentally antagonistic toward nature; in fact it would be argued by many self-described humanists that humanism, in its focus on

page 36

human society, instead seeks to place humans in proper relationship with nature (Bookchin 1991).  Stripped to its essentials, humanism has been described as "the simple proposition that the chief end of human life is to work for the happiness of man upon this earth and within the confines of the Nature that is his home" (Lamont 1990).  

Perhaps more pertinently, humanism also places great emphasis on several key points, including the following: (1) a "naturalistic metaphysics" which considers all supernatural forces as "myth" and focuses on a mechanistic explanation for all phenomena, viewing nature as "the totality of being"; (2) an "ultimate faith in man," including the ability of humanity to solve all problems it might face through reason and scientific methods; (3) a rejection of strict determinism, in light of the belief in human potentiality as "masters of their own destiny"; (4) a foundation of ethics in human values and promotion of the well-being of all humans (Lamont 1990).

At heart, then, humanism constitutes a "scientific" and "materialist" perspective, in that the world is seen as composed of inorganic matter which exists "without intervention of either a supernatural power or a life force" (Edwards 1969).  Key to this perspective is faith, not in a supernatural being or in an organismic nature, but instead in "the scientific attitude," which is regarded ultimately as the only, and assuredly successful, solution to all social and environmental problems (Carey 1969).
David Ehrenfeld (1978) has gone so far as to declare humanism "the dominant religion of our time," and although few people specifically identify themselves as "humanists" (Lamont 1990), Ehrenfeld does build a convincing case that many of the ideals of humanism have become pervasive in our culture, even within our religious institutions.  In Ehrenfeld's analysis, humanism per se is not antagonistic toward nature; in fact, the author notes that, taking a "bio-centric" stance, there is much ethical good generally to be derived from a humanistic perspective.  

page 37

However, Ehrenfeld also points out that, by its focus on human values and needs, humanism creates a dichotomy between humanity and its natural environment, ascribing value only in reference to the human realm.  And this leads to our cultural estrangement from natural things; in Ehrenfeld's words, the result of this dichotomy between humanity and the rest of nature is to "arbitrarily separate parts of a highly interrelated and complex system."  Taken to its extreme, this dichotomous perspective results in the view that human culture and natural ecology form two distinct realms; humanity views the bio-ecological realm as an outside observer (Masulli 1990), and, given the humanist's emphasis on the centrality of humanity, from a superior stance.

Even more fundamentally, although humanism is in direct opposition to Christianity, in its explicit rejection of any "supernatural" religious belief, humanism performs the same exorcism of telos which Christianity does, discarding the possibility of intrinsic value or purpose through its adoption of both a purely mechanistic view of the natural world, and an unflagging faith in the potential of human rationality (Ehrenfeld 1978).  In effect, humanism takes the Christian displacement of meaning, from the telos of things-in-themselves to God, one step further, by displacing meaning from God as well.  Instead, the "scientific attitude" (Carey 1969), analogous to the logos of the Reformation theologists, becomes the focus of all meaning.  The consequence of this approach is to reduce nature to a "humanistic abstraction," locating all knowledge within humans, as the sole "subjects" in a world of "objects" (Masulli 1990).  

Further implications of humanism include: emphasis on a mechanistic view of the world, adopting this model as the heart of the key "scientific attitude," thus reinforcing the critical assumptions of that approach (Carey 1969); an overriding faith in human rationality (Lamont 1990), which transforms into a comparable faith in human technology (Ehrenfeld 1978); and a resultant grounding of all ethics in an anthropocentric perspective, furthering the subject-object relationship of humans with nature and the perception of things as devoid of any inherent rights (Nash 1989).

In the view of several social critics, the incorporation of these humanist elements into our overall cultural perspective has resulted in a distinction between the human and natural components of the world which is "resourcist" (Evernden 1985).  That is, it is based on the idea that the natural world simply represents sources of material goods, or undeveloped capital for monetary economics

page 38

 (McLaughlin 1993; Worster 1993).  The fault, however, lies not specifically in the recognition of how natural things enter into human economy, but in the reduction of all values, in totality, to their relation with humans as capital.  While it is certainly possible to think of the "economic" value of natural things as meaning their value as parts of the systems they comprise (Norton 1987), a perspective of humanism instead relates economics strictly in a human-centered way.  

While capitalism itself does provide the initial grounding for such a perspective, it is the coupling of capitalism with humanism which limits economics to human, as opposed to ecological, values, since the relationship between humans and nature is always that of subject and object.  It can even be argued that, by its focus on only human values, humanism is able to bridge the basic differences between capitalism, socialism, and communism, reducing nature, within any of these economic perspectives, to the form of "mere" resources possessing only human-centered value (Ehrenfeld 1978).

Equally disturbing to some is the emphasis placed by humanism on the ultimate power of technology, the belief that all problems have scientific, or technical, solutions (Lamont 1990).  In this vein, humanism returns to the ancient distinction between natura and techne (Merchant 1989), but with the perspective that techne, or human technological methods, constitutes a "second nature" which is more highly evolved than (and hence superior to) raw nature (Bookchin 1991).  What may result is a "fallacy of environmental control" (Relph 1988), or "conspiracy of optimism" (Hirt 1994), in which it is simply assumed that any problem resulting from technology can be eventually resolved through more advanced technology.  

At its most extreme, this aspect of the humanist perspective may amount of a kind of "machine worship" (Ehrenfeld 1978), a blind faith in technology which results in a cycle of human actions which are "ever more potent and destructive" (Relph 1988).  Given the fact that technology and its results are simply artifacts of human endeavor, such "machine worship" may be more properly termed "self-worship" (Evernden 1992).  The final consequence of such an approach is not merely the devaluation of non-human nature, but an inability to study nature--other than through a series of cultural assumptions which ignore all context beyond potential human ends (Relph 1988).

page 39

Much of the literature regarding humanist attitudes toward nature, as detailed above, takes a critical stance, seeing these attitudes as a source of the problematic nature of our relationship with the natural world.  However, since humanists believe that human reason, science, and technology can solve all social and environmental problems which confront our species (Lamont 1990), those who hold humanist beliefs would counter critics such as Ehrenfeld (1978) and Evernden (1985, 1992) with the idea that humanism conversely holds our greatest promise for reconciling the human-nature relationship.  In this view, much of our cultural discordance with nature is traced to a prevailing attitude which is in fact insufficiently humanistic.

From a humanistic perspective, it has been suggested that an apt model for our relationship with nature is that of a gardener to the garden (Jordan 1995).  From this perspective, "stewardship" is the role to which humans should aspire (Brown et al. 1993), and humans should in turn view themselves as "what nature has always been trying to be" (Turner 1994).  In order to improve our relationship with nature, humanists maintain that we must accept our "sovereignty" over it (Pletsch 1995), and embrace the role of "lords of creation" (Kane 1995).  A belief in something distinctively natural, a "nature" with intrinsic values, is seen as a kind of false dualism (Bookchin 1990; Turner 1994).  Technology and culture, it is felt, "only appear " to separate us from the rest of nature (Rassler 1994), while protection from human influences may, far from preserving ecological systems, conversely be seen as a way of destroying them (Jordan 1992).

Humans, then, are seen as inseparable from the rest of nature, and yet have a kind of special status; humans are considered a "subset of nature" (Rassler 1994), or an "ultimate keystone species" (Kay 1994), necessary to the function of natural ecosystems.  A wilderness, from which human control and active manipulation have been excluded, is thus considered "astonishingly unnatural" (Turner 1985), while areas in which ecological systems are manipulated by humans are seen as "even more natural in some senses than an untouched one" (Turner 1994).  

page 40

Alternatively, some humanists, while rejecting such anthropocentrism, nevertheless reject the failure to make any distinction between humans and other animals.  In this view, it is maintained that while we are not "lords over nature," we must nonetheless, while seeking a "complimentary" role with the rest of nature (Bookchin 1991; Dubos 1980), acknowledge human consciousness as a "second nature" more highly evolved than the rest of life (Bookchin 1991).  Since human culture is itself seen as a part of nature, sensitivity and care toward the rest of nature is seen as a moral imperative, yet cultivation, or "invention" of environments is considered a more viable or desirable option than "preservation" (Dubos 1980; Turner 1994).

From these humanistic perspectives, the problems of pollution and environmental degradation are acknowledged, but rather than simply turning away from the technological and cultural patterns which have caused them, a solution is seen to lie in the embracing of "a new and more advanced interface with nature" (Bookchin 1994).  Specific current social or cultural patterns may be seen as negativistic, but humanity itself is seen as inherently inseparable from naturalness.

From this perspective, the distinctions between "natural" and "cultural" things is more or less eliminated, allowing landscape elements described as "natural features" to be inclusive of those "lavishly landscaped," by heavy machinery, or ponds which are fed by mechanical pumps (Apfelbaum and Aranow 1995).  Since humans are recognized as a product of natural evolution, it is also felt that all human technology is equally a product of natural evolution, and that manipulating the rest of nature is in fact the proper ecological role of humans (Scherer 1994).  Not only is human culture included as part of nature, but so are all artifacts of culture, and the use or application of such artifacts (Rassler 1994).  Taken to what may perhaps be seen as an extreme, adherents of this humanist view can claim that "God is the process of increasing technology" (Turner 1994).

Nature, then, is seen as both identical with, and subordinate to, human culture.  In this respect, humanism is perhaps the most nature-skeptical of the cultural trends so far discussed.  Adoption of this perspective has been widespread, influencing even groups such as The Nature Conservancy, which recently adopted the perspective that preservation of nature requires biological theory to be matched with human economics.  

page 41

"It's not good enough anymore to fence nature away from people," one proponent of such a view states, concluding that there is no contradiction between calling an area a nature reserve and intensively managing it for economic production (Weisman 1993).  What is advocated, instead of simple attempts at preservation, is a balance between exploitation and preservation, in which human wants are balanced by the inherent capacities of natural systems to function (Bormann et al. 1994).

This vision of naturalness is thus one of pastoralism, or husbandry by humans over the rest of nature (Weisman 1993).  Such a perspective seeks to combine basic values of "stewardship" and "dominionship" (Grizzle 1994), centering on a belief that human membership in biotic communities provides inherently for human control of those communities.  From this perspective, even "wilderness" is seen as necessarily a product of human manipulation (Gomez-Pompa and Kaus 1992), and "natural" ecological conditions, while sometimes excluding more modern or intrusive technologies, are seen to include human management by definition (Bonnicksen and Stone 1985; Wagner and Kay 1993).

Modernism and Postmodernism

Although it would be difficult to typify any single one of these past historical trends or movements as currently dominant in our culture, they plainly have all influenced one another, and in some sense their amalgamation could be thought of as representative of contemporary thought.  In this respect, two other movements are often used to describe this blend of at times disparate thought: modernism and postmodernism.

The term "modernism" is most often used to describe a general train of thought in philosophy, the humanities, and science, which has held sway in western culture for about 200 years (Cascardi 1990; Dunning 1995), with its foundations in a combination of

page 42

Reformation theology, the Newtonian/Cartesian approach to science, and the emergence of capitalism, industrialism, and free-market economies (Dunning 1995; Merchant 1994).  Modernism can be seen as constituting both a scientific paradigm and a social paradigm (Capra 1994), and whether applied to physics, ecology, architecture, or art, places a strong emphasis on elements of rationalism, secularism, and a linearly mechanistic view of cosmology (Bohm 1994; Dunning 1995).  A central concept of modernism is that everything comprising the physical world is controlled by physical and natural laws which function in a discernibly ordered fashion, amenable to human discovery (Borgmann 1995; McLaughlin 1993).

Because modernism assumes a rationalist approach to the world, it represents a belief that both society and environment can be transformed, and improved, through rational investigations of the objective world, and the discernment of those natural laws which underlie the structures of the corporeal world (Bohm 1994; Fuller 1990).  In a broad sense, then, modernism encompasses many of the philosophical elements of the mechanist and humanist movements discussed previously.  For the most part, this philosophical approach is seen to have dominated the natural and social sciences of recent decades (Fuller 1990).

Postmodernism represents a departure from modernism and, as the name suggests, is seen by many as a successor to modernism as a social and scientific paradigm, although it is perhaps better thought of as emerging rather than currently dominant (Bohm 1994).  Postmodernism rejects many elements of modernism, including the concept of general laws (Held 1995), thus rejecting as well the "easy answers offered by classical science" (Dunning 1995).  Instead, postmodernism embraces as central concepts those scientific perspectives based in relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory (Bohm 1994; Merchant 1994), and those social perspectives based in relativism, anti-realism, irrationality, and deconstructionism (Dunning 1995; Worster 1995b).  Deconstructionism in particular directly opposes the basic assumptions of modernism, rejecting the ideas that the world exists objectively outside of human consciousness and that rational human investigations can uncover generalized truths or laws (Zimmerman 1996).

page 43

Whereas modernism finds no value or meaning in the natural world outside of human consciousness, postmodernism finds no meaning in human values outside of human consciousness (Zimmerman 1996).  The difference is important philosophically, but in practical application it may have the same effect; an anthropocentric relativism that leaves natural things with only a relative worth, making them indistinguishable from those which are manipulated or unnatural (Soulé 1995; Worster 1995b).

Comparisons between the modernist and postmodernist movements in this light has led to the observation that both philosophies devalue the non-human world: modernism by standardizing and idealizing things, postmodernism by removing things from their context and acknowledging only superficial meaning (Relph 1996).  As one critic notes, whereas modernism alienates human consciousness from its subjects, postmodernism instead fragments those subjects (Easthope 1990), by depriving them of context or value.

In this analysis, although they are somewhat opposed, modernism and postmodernism have a common element in that both describe dysfunctional relationship between humans and the natural world, modernism by reducing nature to a passive, mechanical realm which contrasts the intelligence of human consciousness (Bohm 1994; Merchant 1994), and postmodernism by reducing nature to a valueless relativism (Soulé 1995) or mere "spectacle" with no distinctive meaning or character (Shepard 1995).

However, while some critics view both modernism and postmodernism as being antagonistic toward the idea of value in natural things (Soulé 1995), others tend to see postmodernism as being somewhat more endorsing of the natural world, since the postmodernist view abandons many of the divisions which modernism creates between the human and non-human realms (Merchant 1994; Zimmerman 1996).  

In this view, the relativism of postmodernism does not necessarily negate natural values, but instead places them on the same level as rational, objective measurement (Bohm 1994); while modernism relegates meaning to human consciousness alone, and thus devalues the natural world, postmodernism holds out at least the prospect of a relationship between humanity and nature which is based in equivalency (Merchant 1994), although that equivalency is arguable itself based in chaos.  In this sense, postmodernism might be seen, in some conceptions, as being more or less nature-endorsing in comparison to modernism, although this is not by any means universally true, and represents an inconsistency with other aspects of postmodernism (Soper 1995).

page 44

In sum, modernism and postmodernism represent two contemporary movements, or paradigmatic trends in thought, which combine elements of the capitalist, mechanist, and humanist trends discussed previously.  In general, both exhibit strong nature-skeptical elements; although they in many ways represent opposite philosophies, they are both far-removed from teleological or broadly nature-endorsing approaches.  

Postmodernism introduces a basic philosophy of relativism which eliminates some of the ideological barriers erected between humanity and nature by modernism, but rather than returning nature to a status of meaningfulness, it reduces both humanity and nature in terms of value.  Both approaches, in this sense, can be seen as adhering to a "desacralization of nature" (Cascardi 1990).  Therefore, while postmodernism may someday emerge to replace, rather than merely challenge, key aspects of modernist thought which has been central to our social and scientific institutions, it seems unlikely to herald any significant shift in attitudes toward nature and the value of naturalness.

Complex and Contradictory Interpretations
of These Historical Influences

There are, of course, many possible interpretations of this historical heritage regarding our views toward nature and naturalness.  On the one hand, it has been suggested that the basic trend of Western thought can be seen as one of increasing degrees of humanism and anthropocentrism (Ehrenfeld 1978), increasing materialism (Worster 1993), and an increasing trend toward viewing nature as inert or passive (Merchant 1989).  On the other hand, it has also been suggested that our history portrays an ethical progression, or evolution, in which our concepts of ethics and rights have expanded over time, to include non-human life (Nash 1989), or that there has been progression along a spectrum from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism in environmental thought (Eckersley 1992).  Obviously, the situation is more muddled than any one such interpretation would indicate.

page 45

Perhaps more convincing is the argument that these historical trends cannot be viewed as a strictly linear process of either growing alienation from, or communion with, nature (Glacken 1966).  Just as the terminology used to describe our attitudes toward nature reveals great complexity of perspective, so too does a look toward our historical roots.  Taken as a whole, these historic trends in philosophical and social attitudes do seem useful in the attempt to understand our contemporary views, but it is perhaps too complex a history for any simple progression to emerge.

For instance, although the argument has been made that the Judaeo-Christian tradition has tended to alienate us from nature (White 1967), the whole of this tradition, and the Bible in particular, are far more ambivalent than it might first seem.  Indeed, while Lynn White's "classic" essay is often cited, it was not the first time someone had pointed this critique toward Christianity, and others had previously attempted to refute such a view as simplistic in its interpretation (Glacken 1966).  

Although few would absolutely reject White's thesis, it has also been forcibly argued that Christianity has also done much to promote the notion of stewardship, or responsible care of the earth (Nash 1991; Santmire 1970).  For example, it has been pointed out that an American tradition of love for nature has its roots deep in Calvinist Protestantism--with Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, and William O. Douglas all having been reared in devout families or even by minister fathers (Worster 1993).  

Turning to the bible itself, verses indicating a superiority for humanity are seemingly countered by other passages.  For example, the destruction of the Tower of Babel can easily be seen as a cautionary tale in regard to humans over-reaching in their quest for technology and power over nature (Sibley 1977).  Similarly, while the book of Genesis is often referred to as a portion of the bible promoting human "dominion" over the earth, it can also be recognized that the moral lesson in the story of the "fall" and eviction from Eden was that "the serpent was lying when he said ye shall be as gods" (Ehrenfeld 1978).  

page 46

Indeed, Chapter 9 of Genesis, which contains the often-quoted passage regarding humans as "lords" over the earth, also indicates that God's favor is not merely bestowed on the human species.  Following the flood, God tells Noah: "I establish my Covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and also with every living creature to be found with you, birds, cattle and every wild beast with you; everything that came out of the ark, everything that lives on the earth" (Gen. 9:8-11).  In this and other passages, God would seem to be a bit more biocentric than anthropocentric, despite the human hubris which seems to find its justification elsewhere.

In short, taken with a broader view, the legacy of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is in reality quite ambivalent, although individuals certainly may choose to emphasize particular biblical passages or theological interpretations to suit their own stance toward nature.

Likewise, although the Newtonian/Cartesian world view has had a strong influence on our culture, they nonetheless did not simply displace all alternative views.  Over time, there have been many movements or voices, such as the "organismic view" of nature espoused by Leonardo da Vinci (Merchant 1989), the teleological leanings of Whitehead (1969) and the theistic beliefs of Einstein (Clark 1971) to counter the mechanistic, materialistic view.  Indeed, cycles of opinion seem to have occurred, with a more holistic, or organismic view espoused variously by the "Cambridge Neo-Platonists" and Vitalists (Merchant 1989), the Romanticists (Harrison 1992), the Transcendentalists (Worster 1993), the Phenomenologists (Evernden 1985), and the distinctly American preservationist and land ethic movements, typified by John Muir and Aldo Leopold (Worster 1993).

The passive view of nature developed by the fifteenth through seventeenth century philosophers also can be seen as having been later somewhat contradicted, especially in the biological sciences of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  While Darwin's evolutionary theory may to a degree be seen as an extension of the mechanistic paradigm (Fowles and Horvat 1979), it also

page 47

in particular can be seen as having restored a more dynamic view of nature (McIntosh 1985; Worster 1993).  Darwinism was in turn a strong influence upon other biologists, reviving and reinforcing the idea of a dynamic nature.  Ernst Haekel, for example, who coined the term "ecology" in 1866, referred directly to Darwin's theory and the "complex interrelations" of nature in defining ecology as a field of study (McIntosh 1985).  

Even those scientists specifically embracing the mechanistic model of nature often found themselves employing concepts which at least partly contradicted the idea of a clocklike cosmos.  For example, Newton, while contributing significantly to a mechanistic model for physics, attributed the final causes of motion to God, and even expressed the belief that a vital life principle pervaded all animals, plants, and even mineral matter (Merchant 1989).  Indeed, Newton, Boyle, Kepler, and other leaders of the "scientific revolution" were regarded as deeply religious, and can scarcely be seen to have adopted a strictly mechanical, human-centered view of reality (Hendry 1980).

More recently, Tansley, in developing the concept of the ecosystem, and Lindeman, in developing the concept of trophic-dynamics, applied an intentionally physicalistic-mechanistic approach toward biology, yet relied heavily nonetheless on the idea of nature as being inherently dynamic in their work (Golley 1993).  Tansley, despite an avowed opposition to a literally organismic approach to biology, also coined the terms "autogenic" and "allogenic" to distinguish processes internal to natural systems from those imposed by outside forces (McIntosh 1985).  Despite his basically mechanistic and anti-organismic approach, Tansley seemed compelled to thus acknowledge an inherent organization or "goal-directedness" in biological systems (Bertalanffy 1975).

As another example, while some see Clements as having been somewhat discredited as an ecologist by his belief in nature constituting a supraorganism, Clements specifically used a Cartesian approach in developing the concept of succession, a concept which could in turn be seen as a key contribution in focusing the discipline of ecological study on an analysis of causal mechanisms

page 48

(McIntosh 1985).  And while few today pursue literally the idea of nature as a "complex organism," it remains a position followed, at least in analogical terms, by some of today's noted ecologists (Odum 1989; Odum, H.T. 1983; Wilson 1984), even as they employ study methods which are at least partly mechanistic in their approach, such as systems analysis (McIntosh 1985) and taxonomics (Smith 1977).

In fact, it has been argued that although the idea of teleology is for the most part overtly rejected in the field of science, biologists commonly employ language which does nonetheless infer teleological purpose; for example, in discussions of the ecological "role" of organisms, or in the use of terms such as "selection," "adaptation," "competition," or "resistance" (Hull 1974; Ruse 1988).  Likewise, the language of general system theory, with its notions of feedback loops, cybernetics, and autopoiesis, can be seen as a restatement of earlier notions of teleology (Bertalanffy 1975; Hull 1974; Jantsch 1981) despite the highly abstract and mechanistic approach it can take in analysis of biological systems (Basar 1976; Odum, H.T. 1983).  

In sum, it seems obvious that although modern ecologists continue to stress mechanistic explanations for biological processes, they can hardly be seen to, as a whole, adhere strictly to a view of nature as passive and inert, nor to a literally organismic view.  Perspectives which seem antagonistic often nevertheless seem to at some point merge.  Even as the history of thought regarding nature lacks a decisively clear pattern or direction in its progression, the trains of thought which comprise that history are themselves seldom as clearly divided as they might first appear.

Overall Trends in Western Science and Culture

The concepts of a mechanistic, materialist approach to nature obviously were to have far-reaching implications and effects for science, and ecological science in particular.  However, it is also worth noting that much of the impact of the mechanistic sixteenth and seventeenth century philosophers and scientists was also felt in the social and political realms (Evernden 1992; Wright 1992).  Using Descartes as an example, while he is often thought of as having pursued science in a purely empirical, dispassionate manner,

page 49

his writings occasionally display a frankly emotional tenor, in which he argues that the goal of his approach to science is, in his words, "to make ourselves masters and possessors of nature" (Gunter 1992).  Plainly, this implies that Descartes' goal was not only to improve upon scientific methods, but also to culturally redefine the role of nature, and our own role as humans, too.  

Merchant (1989) suggests that the development of a mechanistic cosmology remade the human relationship to nature as one based upon two basic constituents: the human attainment of power over nature, and the imposition of order upon nature by manipulative technology.  Such an emphasis on power and control was perhaps intended to apply not only to nature, but to our own social interactions as well.  In fact, it has been suggested that broad political motives, rather than narrower scientific ones, were largely responsible for development of the seventeenth century European philosophies: on the part of Descartes and Hobbes, to promote a secular and individualistic society, and on the part of Newton and Bacon, to promote the then newly emerging market economies and attendant concepts of private property rights (Wright 1992).  Whereas the notion of land-as-property had originated in concepts of communal ownership, the then-emerging approach to economics shifted emphasis to private ownership.  In this way, the transformation of how we viewed nature also transformed our concepts of both economics and community (Jackson 1984).

Even more generally, the world view based in a humanistic and mechanistic model of nature and an emphasis on power and control became a model to guide the development of technology, industry, and government (Merchant 1989).  In this light, we can see that these emerging philosophies shaped not only the sciences which relate to natural systems, but also more generally our perceptions of our own cultural systems as well.  While a blend of nature-endorsing and nature-skeptical aspects continued to permeate our culture at various levels, it seems plain that there was nonetheless an overall trend of increasing skepticism regarding the value and meaning of nature.

page 50

In sum, this gradual cultural shift was toward a philosophy which excluded actual experience from reality, "transforming" all observable phenomena into an abstract, mathematical form (Harvey 1989).  The natural world, previously viewed as organismic, imbued with telos, or meaning, became thought of instead as a collection of natural resources (Harrison 1992), things subject to human control for human benefit (McLaughlin 1993).  Nature, as such, was seen to consist only of mathematical abstractions, without meaning, unless such meaning was conferred by humans or human consciousness (Evernden 1985).  As a consequence, this now meaningless, passive nature, through objectification, was stripped of any moral or ethical standing.  In essence, any human action toward the environment could be justified (Nash 1989).  Perhaps most importantly, science, including the biological disciplines, adopted a framework which entailed an essentially mechanistic, reductionist approach to its objects of study (Pickett, Kolasa, and Jones 1994; Worster 1993), a philosophical turn which has shaped scientific thought for centuries.  


Common usage of the terms of nature and naturalness, like other components of language, can be seen as being culturally derived (Hoerr 1993).  Such an observation, however, is actually a simplification--the issue inherently possesses far more diversity of opinion than this might first seem to imply.  As discussed previously, views of what constitutes nature seem to vary over a broad spectrum, not simply between cultures, but within our culture, and even within the cultural subset of experts in ecology and biological science.  Rather than seeing the question of naturalness as one which varies from culture to culture, it is necessary to recognize the great variety of opinions which exist both between and within different cultures; a variety which in turn arises from a long history of contrasting values and beliefs.

page 51

On the one hand, some hold that the idea of nature is simply all-inclusive (Eckersley 1992), or that, from a strictly utilitarian or materialist view, nature is nothing more than a warehouse of undeveloped capital, a "meaningless complex of facts" (Whitehead 1969).  At the other extreme might be the view that the earth is a kind of supraorganism of "pulsating energy" (Cohen 1988), the "total planetary being" of "Gaia" (Lovelock 1988).  Within this range of opinions and beliefs, however, rests some relatively definable social norms, and it is arguably these norms which will drive political, economic, and social policies regarding nature (Brennan 1988; Sibley 1977).

Ideologies: The Range of Contemporary
Perspectives on Nature

As one reviews the literature critiquing various approaches to the issue of what constitutes nature or the quality of naturalness, it becomes apparent that a range of many different perspectives have been variously identified.  In attempting to define and categorize these varying perspectives, it is useful to consider them as constituting specific ideologies (McLaughlin 1993; Soper 1995).

In the literature regarding resource management, advocated ideologies can range from what may be termed "resourcism" (Rassler 1994) and "humanism" (Bookchin 1990) to "New Age" perspectives of Goddess or Gaia worship (Allen 1994; Soulé 1995) and "Deep Ecology" (Devall and Sessions 1985).  Even within the biological sciences, extremely divergent ideologies based in mechanistic (Peters 1991), stochastic (Botkin 1990), systemic-holistic (Naveh and Lieberman 1984), or phenomenological (Ulanowicz 1986) models of nature all have adherents.

Some authors have responded to this range of opinion by attempting to develop relatively complex typologies to describe the range encompassed by these varying perspectives (Caro, Pelkey, and Grigione 1994; Kellert 1996; Reiger 1993).  Alternatively, others have seen this range as essentially forming a simple two-fold (Hoerr 1993) or three-fold division of ideologies (Des Jardins 1993; Sheldrake 1990).

page 52

In many cases, authors have tried to explain the ambiguous quality of naturalness by describing dichotomies between opposing perspectives; for example, dominionship versus stewardship (Grizzle 1994), pluralism versus relativism (Evernden 1985), holism versus reductionism (Reiger 1993), biocentrism versus anthropocentrism (Hampicke 1994), or anthropocentrism versus misanthropism (Scherer 1994).  

Given the complexity and ambiguity of their subject, however, these pairs seldom seem to describe true opposites.  For instance, an opposition to anthropocentrism is not necessarily misanthropic, although such a dichotomy is sometimes inferred (Bookchin 1991).  Likewise, different authors may variously link two or more of these perspectives in complex, perhaps contradictory ways; for example, while "humanism" is often linked ideologically with "capitalism" or "materialism," (Worster 1993), it may conversely be closely linked with both "anarchism" and "environmentalism" (Bookchin 1990; Watson 1995).  

Plainly, the complex perspectives which people hold on the issue of naturalness cannot be simply delineated.  Even the more common ideological labels, such as "humanism," are actually umbrella terms for a host of partially related perspectives.  This lack of firm distinction is perhaps best reflected in a review of the literature that finds these ideological categories are more often used to "label" a viewpoint which is opposed rather than one which is advocated.  In essence, it seems that those advocating a particular point of view see their own position as complex and flexible, while characterizing the view points they oppose as simplistic and rigid.

Such ideological categories, then, may be somewhat useful descriptively, but they can seldom truly capture the sum of any particular school of thought.  And, it has been argued, if such attempts at dichotomous labeling are not entirely accurate, then our use of them in developing perceptions of our environment may lead to an incomplete or "fractured" understanding (Seamon 1993).

Perspectives on nature, then, may be conveniently discussed in terms of specific ideologies, such as "humanism," but it must be kept in mind that these ideologies, while often contrary to one another, do not form truly "opposite camps," nor discrete categories (Soper 1995).  Instead, the combined efforts of various persons to define such binary pairs has resulted in an array of ideological categories, each of which entails varying differences in perspective.  In this context, ideologies regarding nature and naturalness can perhaps best be thought of as "clusters of convictions about the structure of non-human nature, its significance, and its value" (McLaughlin 1993), rather than absolutely distinct and opposing views.

page 53

A survey of these basic ideologies or perspectives, therefore, must be made with the understanding that, although helpful in framing discussion (by narrowing the potentially infinite variety of personal perspectives), they can only serve as a fairly crude measure of the parameters of how nature and naturalness are culturally assessed.  As Kellert (1996) notes, "These terms are just labels of convenience… not terminological straightjackets."  This reservation notwithstanding, these " ideologies" or "labels" are perhaps the only way we can coherently approach this diversely perceived subject.

Table 1 lists a number of ideologies or ideological "labels" cited in the literature by various authors attempting to summarize prevailing values or attitudes toward nature.  What is striking about this list is not simply its diversity, but also the degree of ambiguity which exists even here, in attempts to simplify and clarify approaches to nature and naturalness.  It should also be noted that this listing is not meant to be complete, but rather to be representative of the diversity of terms and viewpoints represented by the literature.

page 54

Table 1.  Ideological categories used to describe various perspectives on nature and the relationship between humans and nature

Ideological Category


Foreman 1996
Abram 1994; Manes 1994; Taylor 1995
Brennan 1988; Hampicke 1994; Norton 1995
Shepard 1982;Wilson 1984
Caro, Pelkey, and Grigione 1994
Brennan 1988; Hampicke 1994; Sterba 1995
Orr 1995; Wilson 1984
Orr 1995
Eckersley 1992; Gomez-Pompa and Kaus 1992; Worster 1993
Carlassare 1994; Soulé 1995
Grizzle 1994; Steverson 1995
Foreman 1996
Cultural Materialist
Worster 1993
Hayles 1995; Lease 199
Deep Ecological
Devall and Sessions 1985; Naess 1989
Augros and Stanciu 1987
Grizzle 1994; Kellert 1995
Evernden 1992; Shepard 1982; Whitehead 1969
d'Eaubonne 1994; Slicer 1995; Soper 1995
Brennan 1988
Eckersley 1992; Sessions 1992; Slicer 1995
Sobel 1995
Buttimer 1976; Wright 1992
Environmental Humility
Relph 1981
Evernden 1985; Grizzle 1994; Wilson 1996b
Carlassare 1994
Ethical Extensionism
Des Jardins 1993
Wilson 1996b
Caro, Pelkey, and Grigione 1994; Reiger 1993
Maltzahn 1994; Worster 1993
Reiger 1993; Sheldrake 1990
Bookchin 1990; Brennan 1988; Ehrenfeld 1978
Reiger 1993; Norton 1995
Ehrenfeld 1993
Reiger 1993; Westra 1994
Brennan 1988; Des Jardins 1993
Gray 1985; Whitehead 1969; Worster 1993
Sheldrake 1990; Shepard 1982; Whitehead 1969
Bonnicksen 1995; Scherer 1994
Naive Anthropocentrism
Relph 1981

page 55


Table 1--Continued

Ideological Category

Des Jardins 1993; Merchant 1989; Steverson 1995
Evernden 1985; Maltzahn 1994; Seamon 1993
Evernden 1985; Shepard 1982; Sterba 1995
Leiss 1994; Shepard 1995; Wright 1992
Dizard 1994; Meine 1992; Turner 1994
Edelglass et al. 1992; Hull 1974; Reiger 1993
Augros and Stanciu 1987; Collingwood 1945; Wright 1992
Evernden 1985; Grumbine 1994
Brennan 1988; Kellert 1995
Scientific Humanism
Relph 1981
Scientific Materialism
Sibley 1977; Whitehead 1963
Scientific Totalitarianism
Relph 1981
Thiele 1995
Grizzle 1994; Merchant 1989; Santmire 1970
Evernden 1985; Soper 1995
Clapham 1981; Edelglass et al. 1992
Technological Pessimism
Portugali 1994
Collingwood 1945; Des Jardins 1993; Harrison 1992
Reiger 1993; Worster 1993; Wright 1992
Hull 1974; Merchant 1989; Sheldrake 1990

As table 1 illustrates, both individuals and various groups or schools of thought represent a very wide range of perspectives.  In fact, the most defensible stance might be to observe that this broad range constitutes a continuum of "coexisting constructions" (Soulé 1995).  Indeed, current conceptualization of nature and our relationship with it is considered to be as varied as any other aspect of human belief or culture (Soper 1995; Wohlwill 1983), and it is perhaps more reasonable to understand that each person holds a unique individual perspective on this concern.  

In this regard, the philosopher Arne Naess, while advocating a broadly defined "deep ecology" perspective on the nature/humanity relationship, goes so far as to suggest that each individual person must develop his or her own personal philosophy toward nature, and while lecturing and writing extensively on his own proposed ethical system, he insists that he is merely advocating general aspects of that system for others to consider, not an ideological system for others to merely adopt (Naess 1989).

Generalizing the Broad Range
of Ideological Perspectives

McLaughlin (1993) proposes that two general conceptual approaches may be taken regarding the nature-humanity relationship.  In the first, there is the belief that nature "is all that is," and that humans, and all human actions, are therefore natural.  To deny this is in effect to deny humans the reality which we ascribe to our world.  In the second approach, there is a belief that there is, at least to some degree, a distinction to be made between humanity and nature.  And as McLaughlin notes, some concept of natural things as "other" from humanity is implicit in any recognition of those things; otherwise, we would be unable to identify ourselves as "self," or anything else as distinct from self.

page 56

Although these two conceptual approaches to the meaning of nature and naturalness seem to be directly opposed, McLaughlin's conclusion is that some balance between the two is necessary to accept.  In his words, both of these approaches are so linked to our everyday perception of the world that to deny their joint relevance would be "denial of an essential element of being human" (McLaughlin 1993).  McLaughlin thus suggests that individuals construct their own personal ideological approaches to nature and naturalness as some varying combination of these two approaches, and that acknowledging both approaches as complimentary offers a basis of commonality among these otherwise divergent trains of thought (McLaughlin 1995).  

As discussed previously, Soper (1995) takes an approach similar to McLaughlin, in defining two "arguments" or approaches to naturalness, which she describes as "nature-endorsing" and "nature-skeptical."  Like McLaughlin, Soper sees the key to understanding nature as acknowledging a "tension" between these two somewhat opposite, yet also somewhat complimentary points of view.  From this tension, a wide-ranging "plurality of values" results (Soper 1995), which in turn can be seen as generating the variety of political ideologies discussed above.  

Taken together, the insights provided by McLaughlin and Soper offer a way of grouping--although not in a rigid way--the many diverse and often conflicting perspectives on nature and naturalness described previously.  Although specific ideological labels may be useful for understanding the stance regarding nature taken by particular individuals or groups, it is perhaps more useful to view such ideological positions as all constituting attempts to reconcile these two complimentary and yet contrasting underlying approaches.

page 57

Contemporary Normative Attitudes

While McLaughlin and Soper's dichotomies offer a basic way of classifying the broad range of ideologies associated with the human-nature relationship, an open question remains as to whether or not some normative approach to defining the natural/human relationship is feasible.  In response to this question, Kellert (1995, 1996) developed a typology of nine "basic values" associated with people's attitudes toward nature.  Unlike the theoretical categories developed by McLaughlin and Soper, Kellert's nine categories were developed for an applied approach, as a practical means of classifying, and quantitatively describing, people's values of wildlife and nature.  This work involved a large-scale sampling effort, including a series of
one-hour interviews with over 3,000 individuals (Kellert 1996).

Kellert `s aim was to develop a "taxonomy of basic values" as a way of measuring attitudes; his research showed that while learning, culture, experience, and demographics all influenced people's opinions, it appeared that certain values were basically universal (Kellert 1996).  Specifically, Kellert found that the nine categories he constructed represented values found in all study subjects, although the degree to which they were held or the form of expression they took varied.  In brief, Kellert's categories are listed and described in table 2.

Table 2.  Kellert's typological categories describing attitudes toward nature

Category Name
Category Description
Practical and material exploitation of nature.
Direct experience and exploration of nature.
Study of structures, functions, relationships in nature.
Physical appeal and beauty in nature.
Use of nature for language and thought.
Emotional attachment to humanized or anthropomorphic nature.
Reverence and ethical concern for nature.
Mastery and control of nature.
Fear, aversion, alienation toward nature.
   Source: Kellert 1996

page 58

Kellert's findings for attitudes held by the American public confirm the complex and often contradictory mix of opinions regarding nature and naturalness.  In general, humanistic, utilitarian, moralistic, and negativistic values were dominate.  A strong affection for other animals seemed widespread, but such feelings appeared to center on "humanized" nature, such as pets and large mammals, rather than non-human animals in general.  Moreover, this affection for certain animals was also matched with negativistic attitudes toward other creatures, such as insects, bats, and so forth.  

Likewise, a prevalent attitude of expressing moral concern over the treatment of nature was matched with a strong expression of utilitarian values, supporting the exploitation of nature.  Much as a tension between nature-endorsing and nature-skeptical attitudes is seen to underlie the variety of ideological positions toward nature (Soper 1995), a similar kind of tension seems to describe our culturally normative attitude regarding nature.

In displaying mean rating scores assigned to each of the study's typological categories, Kellert (1995) also looks at how these ratings vary from the overall mean by participant age groups.  Analysis showed that respondents under the age of 35 showed a strong tendency to yield lower response scores in the Utilitarian, Dominionistic, and Negativistic categories than the group as a whole, while those participants above age 35 tended to give answers favoring these values.  Correspondingly, those respondents under age 35 tended to yield much higher ratings in the Naturalistic and Ecologistic values than those over age 35.

However, the group of respondents under age 35 also showed a higher tendency to view nature in humanistic terms than the above-35 age group.  In fact, the group under age 25 held by far the most strongly humanistic views of any age group.  Confoundingly, then, we might deduce that while younger adults recognize the inherent values of nature more strongly than their older counterparts, they are also more entrenched in a human-centered or humanized view of life.  Plainly, these conflicting values may become all the more sharply contrasting as the population ages in years to come.  Perhaps representing a source of these conflicting values, it was also noted that only moderate levels of interest are expressed in the values of direct experience of nature or study of its ecological and scientific values (Kellert 1995, 1996).

page 59

The underlying tension between conflicting values which seems to mark this normative attitude toward nature can also be seen as a deep-seated one.  For example, another study, of university students, found that even when efforts at instilling a nature-endorsing "biocorrect" ethics were carefully built into curriculum materials, changes in attitude were fairly small and slow to occur (Caro, Pelkey, and Grigione 1994).  

In a similar vein, a study of German students found that when a conscious effort was made at increasing student exposure to environmental issues through curriculum changes, this actually resulted in growing negativistic feelings toward the environment (Sobel 1995).  Apparently, such education simply reinforced feelings of hopelessness and disempowerment in regard to human-caused environmental degradation; it was concluded that a lack of direct experience with nature, coupled with a litany of environmental problems, resulted in a greater feeling of alienation and fear (Sobel 1995).  Increasing the students' awareness of environmental issues merely aggravated the conflict between their opposing yet deeply held values.

As to how trends may be developing in our current society, Nabhan (1995) found in a survey of Anglo, Mexican, and Native American populations that most school-age children, from each of these groups, had only limited exposure to even urban-natural settings, and that the majority of their exposure to plants and animals came quite indirectly--from watching television.

Additionally, it has been noted that a growing percentage of children are growing up and living out their lives in an urban setting; it is estimated that 38% of the world's children born in the next decade will be born and live their lives within cities of at least 1 million people, suggesting that future generations will be ever-more urban and hence ever-more divorced from the direct experience of wild nature (Nabhan 1995).  If, as some authors have suggested, an affinity for nature is a prerequisite for ethical or sustainable behavior toward it (Kellert and Bormann 1991), then the collective results of these studies would seem to indicate a trend toward

page 60

increasing conflict between the opposing nature-endorsing and nature-skeptical components of our social norms.  As one author suggests: "nature will become increasingly abstract, even to those purporting to work on its behalf" (Orr 1989).

As we, as a society, come to regard natural places and things in an ever-increasingly abstract, idealized fashion, we also seems likely to hold ever-more closely to an essentially nature-skeptical attitude, at least in terms of regarding "natural" things as fully real.  While an underlying affection for animals and other aesthetic components of nature may prevent a fully nature-skeptical attitude from becoming fully prevalent or dominate, that "endorsing" affection may very well become focused, not on untrammeled, uncultured kinds of natural objects, but upon humanized, anthropically-designed images of natural objects instead.

page 61