Second Nature

In my previous post I stated that we want to control and improve on nature, and that technology is what we use to achieve our goals. In other words, technology is in the process of becoming second nature, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.  What proof of this do I have? Well, even the briefest survey of some of our activities over the past 30 millenia or so should make it reasonably clear. And I should note that I am not saying that we will succeed in controlling nature, but that’s demonstrably what we’ve always tried to do and that‘s what we’re going to keep on trying to do in increasingly sophisticated ways. And even when we don’t succeed in control, we mitigate the effects of nature by building defenses against it.

Agriculture is arguably our greatest achievement in the manipulation and control of nature. Vast areas of the earth’s surface are now cultivated by us, shaped, irrigated, ploughed, fertilized, and required to produce crops of our determining.  We describe our livestock (our cows, pigs, sheep, and chicken) as breeds, not species, for they have been systematically and persistently “improved” by us to be as productive as possible. They would never survive in the wild but their numbers remain in strong supply despite our slaughtering of tens, even hundreds, of millions of them every year.  Our fruits and vegetables are mostly clones. As Michael Pollan eloquently describes in “Botany of Desire” apples grown from seeds are never the same as their parent. It is our influence that creates the Granny Smith, the Fuji, the Golden Delicious. We are now able to engineer grain seeds that will produce pest resistant crops whose own seeds will be infertile. Seeds that cannot reproduce are, in at least one important respect, no longer living things. We have turned life into product.

This same mindset is now pervading other areas of cultivation, like “sustainable” or “responsible” logging. Of course it is admirable that when we cut down a tree we plant another one in its place, preferably one that we have chosen for its fast growth and high quality timber characteristics. But this too turns trees into things.  Before long there will be no more forests. We will have replaced them with high yield tree fields.

If farms are our outside factories, then gardens are our outside galleries. Or maybe museums are a better analogy. For our gardens are not, as I’ve written elsewhere, a celebration of nature.  They’re a celebration of technology, of our (as yet incomplete) control of nature. Whenever we colonize a new, wild place we bring with us our domesticated plants and animals.

There is much to say on this subject, perhaps too much. We have said nothing of our cities (yet), or of our other engineering feats whose common purpose is to lay a human interface on the planet.  Everywhere we look, and in many places that we don’t, there is abundant proof of our domestication of the wild. So I will close by mentioning a recent article in Nature magazine about mosquitoes. According to this article, the earth would get along just fine without them. Sure, there would be local ecosystems that might collapse, but who cares about ecosystems that depend on mosquitoes for their survival? And there, only marginally concealed, was a hint of the future.  Even scientists hate mosquitoes. As soon as we can send them to extinction, we will. And the earth will be a better place.