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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Is Mother Nature really a bitch?

Writing in The Scientist, Lee Silver, a molecular biology and public policy prof, argues that Mother Nature is a bitch and assails leftist eco-freaks who think otherwise. Writing about the strangler fig, a rainforest tree recycler, he writes,
The strangler fig is not the exception but, rather, the rule of the jungle. Nearly every tree is weighed down by vines of different kinds that grow to enormous sizes. Old vines are themselves encrusted with other vines (which are themselves encrusted in moss and fungus). Leaves are eaten by caterpillars or destroyed by leaf-cutting ants. External termite nests, some larger than a person, hang from most older trees, themselves dotted with holes drilled by birds to eat insects living within. Heavily weighted and weakened branches struggle for survival, but eventually lose and break off.

Now, his account of the plant-eat-plant world of the rainforest is absorbing and well-written. But his point of view is ridiculous. All trees die some way, some day. No tree is conscious of its impending fate. So why is Mother Nature a bitch? Why is the strangler fig evidence of nature's malignity? Multitudes of life forms feast on the decomposing trees killed by the strangler. Should they not live? Would the biosphere have a higher, more secure biomass if they didn't? Not likely.

The reality is that death is not only built into the processes of nature but is a necessary part of its self-renewal. Perhaps a necessary part of maintaining a high biomass (high weight of life forms compared to non-living material). We humans quite properly see death as a threat to our consciousness and our relationships, but that's us, seeing life and death as it relates to us. If we can't see death as a necessary and normal part of the recycling of non-sentient or non-intelligent nature, we risk developing some really distorted views of nature. For example, seeing routine recycling or error checking as evidence of "bitchiness."

Silver has a better argument when he talks about the barrenness of the Sahara desert, which was once verdant. There, Mother Nature is definitely being a BITCH. It's one thing for her to insist that every man has his hour and every dog his day and every tomcat his nine lives - and then the vaudeville hook at last. After all, there are other men, dogs, and tomcats waiting in the wings.

What's the alternative? If life forms had been immortal, the trilobites would still be here and we wouldn't. But to suppress life over large areas like the Sahara - now that's bitchy, I agree.

Silver also advances the suggestion that a green Sahara might have been the biblical Garden of Eden. About that, I say only this: Everyone seems to be in the religion business these days, but the sale of dog collars remains static. His main target is actually not the usual one, Christians, but people who accept the Gaia hypothesis, thus thinking the planet is bet seen as a coherent multi-organism system, rather than a Darwinian competition of all against all.

For some reason, Silver implies that most people who think that there is purpose behind nature would oppose greening up the Sahara. (" ... how does an emotional attachment to the spirit of Mother Nature color one's views concerning the morality of using biotechnology to genetically alter plants and animals for the benefit of humankind, or the biosphere itself?")

The fact is, we humans don't know how to green up the Sahara.

Actually, we would do it in a flash if we could. The big problem would be settling all the fights over land claims. It would be the wild East instead of the wild West.

As is typical for Darwinists, Silver sneaks design into his argument without admitting it: Arguing that nature shows no overarching guidance or purpose, he writes,

In fact, the natural world hews closer than any modern democracy to Adam Smith's laissez-faire model of human economic activity. Nature has no central authority of any kind to which species are beholden. Organisms don't abide by any rules of competition, and no safety net exists for losers. Through rational analysis alone, anyone able to accept the idea that a complex and "vibrant" economy can evolve in the absence of a unified spirit should also be willing to accept the idea that complex ecosystems can evolve in the absence of any overarching multi-organismal spirit of any kind.

In other words, if you think free markets can work, you should think that nature can work without guidance, now or ever, from an overarching spirit.

But wait a minute! Adam Smith was writing about the "invisible hand" of capitalism - the idea that markets, left alone by government, can regulate themselves. Yes they can - in a setting where force, fraud, waste, and disorganization have been banished. But how can these elements be banished?

Adam Smith's invisible hand was really a large number of visible hands: the hands of managers, bookkeepers, police constables, inventory clerks, security staff, and bailiffs, among others - of all who prevent the destruction of markets by force, fraud, and waste, and disorganization. And behind all those hands were, and are today, thinking minds.

In reality, Smith was arguing against politically motived government interference that often destabilizes a system that would right itself quickly if left to the variety of human intelligences that constantly organize and reorganize it. That is actually far more like an "overarching multi-organismal spirit," though most of us would be content to call it merely a consensus for the common good.

No, it's no use looking to Adam Smith to escape design.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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