Cultured Animals: The Separation of Man from Nature
Early man, living in a close relationship of interdependence with his environment, existed in an ecosystem of plants and animals interacting with the climate and geography in which man was simply another piece of the puzzle. As man developed physically and mentally (in the evolutionary sense), man became increasingly able to manipulate his environment for his benefit. The invention of agriculture and language placed man decidedly above any other living organism because it made way for a highly complex stratified society and with it culture. The advent of culture, which can be defined as “the accumulated habits, attitudes, and beliefs of a group of people that define for them their general behavior and way of life” and the knowledge and practices that create and continue that way of life, separated man from other animals as the only one to create and pass on culture. The superiority of man, both in relation to other cultures and in relation to animals, is determined by the richness and complexity of his culture, which encourages man to augment his culture through continued technological innovation. Once man possessed a growing body of technology, information, and practices that could be passed on to future generations, man’s culture deepened the apparent gap between man and nature.
Culture as unique to humans came about with the invention of agriculture and settled societies (though, arguably, a limited amount of culture was beginning to develop in the late hunter-gatherer societies). Though other animals appear to have social hierarchies and pass on a minimal amount of knowledge to their young, no animal has been able to build on past generations accomplishments to form a cultural heritage extends across multiple generations. Our distant relative the chimp is the closest of any other animal to possessing culture. In his chapter entitled “The Dominance of Culture,” Ehrlich describes the political clashes that occurred between the top three males in a breeding colony at the Arnhem Zoo, which involved extensive plotting to the extent that two of the males (Nikkie and Yeroen) assassinated the usurper of the dominant status (Luit). The level of communication is also high between chimps, but they lack the self-awareness that allows for the accumulation of communicable knowledge and beliefs that make up culture. Man’s self-awareness of his distinction from other animals allows him to view animals as more like trees than himself, and thus more like a commodity than a cohabiter of his territory.
While culture separates man from all other animals, it also distances man from his role in his ecosystem. As societies formed, social stratification within a community was accompanied by the ranking of all things, with man at the top and inanimate objects at the bottom. Man’s ability to view himself as distinct from and superior to all other living and nonliving things allowed him to dominate and manipulate his surroundings, which in turn led to the technological advances that confer upon man increased control over the natural world. In his supremacy, man looks upon the natural world as containing the tools he needs to improve his way of life and to increase his dominance. In the time of hunter-gatherers, animals were looked on as a food source (though they were less commonly consumed than plants due to the energy required to hunt) and a potential threat. The process of domestication and the harnessing of animal labor for farming and transportation required man’s self-image to place humans outside of, or at least at the top of, the food chain. Similarly, man’s perception of a tree had to shift from a possible food or fuel source to a basic material that could be processed and used to build complex shelters. Man’s ability to step outside of the food chain and process his surroundings as potential materials is based in the view of man as a cultured animal, and therefore unlike (and better than) all other life.
Culture also leads to the advancement of humans through technology because culture is the means for passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. Language and stories, which are a major component of culture, communicate customs, morals, and social mores to children and preserve them in a form that is easily transferred between people. In the same way, culture preserves knowledge and the valuation of technological progress between generations. The relationship between technology and culture is not as direct as the relationship between culture and customs because culture only preserves the knowledge that is used to build technological inventions and not the physical embodiments of the knowledge. For example, the wheel is not part of culture, but the use of the wheel in transportation that began with the chariot and now exists as automobiles is undeniably a part of human culture.
Man’s disconnect with the natural world is not solely the result of culture and man’s subsequent distinction from other living things. Technology in general, and agriculture in particular, allowed man the leisure that was necessary for the formation of cultural components like art and religion. Thus, technology became valued for its contributions to supporting the advancement of culture as the means to increased leisure. As a byproduct of new technological advancement, man is increasingly separated from nature through the process of production. As Ehrlich writes in “From Seeds to Civilizations,” farming freed many people from the task of gathering food from the environment, which created a distance between the production of food and the product itself for those who did not participate in farming. Today, the link between the basic natural resources we use and the products we make has been stretched to the point where the materials cannot be detected in the finished product without reading the list of ingredients. Our technology, both as a byproduct of and the creator of culture, has in turn magnified the gap between humans and their environment.
The potential consequences of man’s separation from nature can be illustrated by the downfall of the civilization at Easter Island. As Ponting describes in A Green History of the World, the failure of the islanders to recognize the stress they were placing on the environment due to “the increasing numbers and cultural ambitions of the islanders” led to the exhaustion of what limited resources that were available to them. In the case of Easter Island, massive deforestation upset the balance of the island; this deforestation was primarily the result of the unrealistic cultural practice of erecting monuments in competition with other villages that accompanied the first settlers of the island. Our cultural emphasis on technology and constant growth economics has been a driving force of environmental destruction as well. As Southwick warns us, “the finite blanket of life that covers this planed… is becoming torn and shredded in thousands of places.” If man continues to think of himself as separate from nature, we may reach a point where Southwick’s blanket cannot be repaired.
Man first began to differentiate between himself and his environment when he recognized in himself the ability to build upon what other humans before him had accomplished. Man began the process of building a system of knowledge, beliefs, and customs that are shared among each member of a community, thus forming culture. The creation and inheritance of culture is unique to humans and sets them apart from their environment in such a way as to allow humans to view nature as a resource that is there for the taking. Culture in turn began to value technological advancements, which continued the forward momentum of human innovation and the related environmental destruction. Today, the products of a technology driven culture allow us to survive comfortably in ‘unnatural’ settings and to extract more product from less resources, which masks the strain we are placing on our environment. The consequence of our technological advancement is the separation of our actions from their results; we no longer equate flipping the light switch with the process of mining coal and burning it to generate the electricity we just used. Until man reconnects with nature, the human race will continue to strain the capacity of the Earth and may someday reach a breaking point.
Ehrlich, Paul R., in "Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect" Island Press, 2000, pp. 203-252.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991.
Southwick, Charles H., "Historical Aspects of Environmental Destruction," Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 127-141.
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