[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Human Nature': My World, and Welcome to It
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'Human Nature': My World, and Welcome to It
New York Times Book Review, 4.7.4
By MICHAEL RUSE
A Blueprint for Managing the Earth -- by People, for People.
By James Trefil.
249 pp. Times Books/ Henry Holt & Company. $26.
About a year ago, some aged English relatives of mine
joined like-minded citizens, taking off their clothes and
lying down in a farmer's field to spell out NO GM FOODS. I
do not know if they caught a chill but they certainly
caught attention. The next morning, in Florida, as I surfed
the Net to read the headlines, there they were. Beaming up
at me, as one might say.
This is an emotive issue. Heaven help the British
supermarket that is caught with anything that smacks of
such Doctor Frankenstein-type entities. And do not bother
to point out that genetically modified foods require less
artificial fertilizer or pesticide. They are just not
''natural,'' and that is an end to things. These and like
issues are the topics of James Trefil, a George Mason
University physics professor, in his new book, ''Human
Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth -- by People,
for People.'' He is concerned about the state of the earth
and the denizens thereof. Are we heading for -- are we
already in -- a crisis of ecology, resources, climate,
population and more? Is this something we have recently
brought upon ourselves? Is this something about which we
must do something, assuming that it is not already too
late? And if we are to do something, what is the right
approach? Should we be pushing some kind of
return-to-nature strategy, or does the key lie in
Trefil takes a pretty robust attitude to questions like
these. The leading philosopher of ecology, Holmes Rolston,
tells of a campsite he likes to visit, up in the mountains
around his home in Colorado. The signs on the trail into it
used to read: ''Please do not pick the plants. Leave them
for others to enjoy.'' Now they read, ''Let the plants
live.'' For many, to use a hackneyed phrase, there has been
something of a paradigm shift in our thinking about nature,
a change reflected in these two messages. It used to be
that we thought of nature with respect to our human needs
and interests. Now we think, or should think, of nature
with respect to its own needs and interests.
Trefil will have none of this. His repeated, bottom-line
philosophy is: the global ecosystem should be managed for
the benefit, broadly conceived, of human beings. Forget
about plant rights. If we like them, they are flowers and
we keep them. If we don't like them, they are weeds and we
chuck them out. And so it should be.
Trefil combines with this philosophy an assertive attitude
to the problems and challenges of ecology. He tells us that
in the 1970's he did the back-to-the-land thing, building
his own house on an abandoned farm and growing his own
vegetables and so forth. The experience seems to have
inoculated him against the joys of the outside world. The
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has long argued for
something he calls ''biophilia.'' He thinks we humans have
evolved in such a way that we need nature, spiritually as
well as physically. A world of plastic would, quite
literally, be deadly. This is one of the main reasons that
Wilson is an ardent defender of the wilderness in North
America and the rain forests in South America. For him,
plant rights and human rights are ultimately one and the
same. Trefil thinks that is all pretty silly. He hates rain
forests, finding them hot and sweaty. And if cutting down a
few of the trees kills off several species of beetle, it
doesn't bother him.
Trefil has an optimistic view of the power of technology.
Wilson, again, makes a pragmatic plea. Many new medicines,
of value to humans, have come from plants, especially those
in the tropics. We simply cannot afford to destroy one
species after another. As we do so, we almost certainly are
destroying one potentially valuable drug after another.
Trefil has little time for this. Modern pharmaceutical
technology has reached the stage where scientists can
design their own drugs as needed. It is all a question of
the shapes of molecules, and we know now how to shape
molecules with the kind of skill Michelangelo showed with a
piece of marble. Rain forests are a luxury, not a
Given the fact that I have the leftish inclinations of most
academics, I ought to dislike this book intensely. Trefil
tells us proudly that some of his friends and others who
fed him information specifically asked not to be mentioned
in the acknowledgments. In fact, I enjoyed ''Human
Nature.'' Trefil knows how to tell a good tale, with just
the right amount of science and a nice use of anecdote.
There is nothing pompous or preachy about this book, and on
these sorts of topics that is uncommon and refreshing.
Moreover, Trefil is right when he tells us that instead of
whining about technology and modern society, we should do
more to guide and influence them. The secret is not to give
up on the use of electricity but to find ways of producing
it that are not so environmentally harmful.
However, his discussion of issues like G.M. foods is often
so quick and unreflective as to be nearly useless. Granted,
Europeans are not always entirely rational about these
issues. But the way forward is not simply to say that, but
to ask what can be done. Is it just a matter of distrust of
new technology, or is it something deeper? Is it, to go all
the way, a manifestation of a deep-seated anti-Americanism,
which can be solved only in a much broader context --
political and other relationships across the Atlantic?
Also, even for a reader with sympathy for Trefil's
human-oriented approach, some attempt is needed to justify
the stance. Why focus just on the benefit of humans and not
of other organisms? Is there nothing to be said about
benefits for the apes? And if for chimpanzees, then why not
for warthogs -- and so forth? Or conversely, why for all
humans? Why not just for Americans or just for Floridians?
Personally, I have a much closer relationship with my
ferrets than with the citizens of Outer Mongolia. Why
should my actions benefit Outer Mongolians rather than my
ferrets? I am not saying they should not. I am saying that
in a book-length discussion, especially for the general
reader, some attention should have been paid to these
questions. Hence, while this is not as offensive a book as
the author rather hopes, it is not as thoughtful a book
either -- but worth reading nevertheless.
Michael Ruse is a philosopher at Florida State University.
His most recent book is ''Darwin and Design: Does Evolution
Have a Purpose?''
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