This Isn’t What We Need, But Nature Isn’t Asking Us

As Omicron declines around much of the world, scientists are watching a new variant that’s even more contagious. So far, they don’t think it will have much effect on countries like the US that have already passed their Omicron peak. But this development reminded me of a recent book: Rob Dunn’s A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species. From a NY Times review:

Levees surround us. Yes, some hold back rivers that strain against their embankments. But others hold back diseases, which are ready to saturate and overwhelm the fragile walls of antibiotics we’ve erected. And sometimes levees fail. The metaphor extends beyond epidemiology. Nature ceaselessly advances, trespasses, embarrasses our every effort to keep it at bay, and ultimately bursts through. Its rivers will not be contained.

In A Natural History of the Future, the ecologist Rob Dunn sketches an arresting vision of this relentless natural world — a world that is in equal measures creative, unguided and extravagant. Fog a tree with pesticides and watch new beetle species tumble from the canopy by the hundreds, a “riot of unnamed life.” Chlorinate your water and, though you might wipe out most parasites, you’ll soon bedew your shower head with chlorine-resistant mycobacteria. Make a world fit for bedbugs, then try to kill them with chemicals, and you’ll end up — not in a world without bedbugs, but one in which they’ve “evolved resistance to half a dozen different pesticides.”

Life is not a passive force on the planet, and much as we might presume to sit in judgment of Creation — even sorting species by their economic value to us — we live on nature’s terms. The sooner we recognize this, Dunn argues, the better.

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As humans retreat into more and more sanitized spaces, and our homes become spotless, Febrezed bunkers of sterility, we’ll increasingly find that we’ve not only failed to eradicate our microbial opponents, we’ve actually helped create new, more virulent forms of them.

Enter the terrifying “megaplate” experiment, carried out by researchers at Harvard. In it, E. coli is made to grow across what is essentially a giant petri dish, one partitioned into sections laced with increasingly lethal doses of antibiotics. In the final stage of the megaplate, the bacteria meet a concentration of antibiotics many thousands of times higher than that which can kill your garden-variety E. coli. Even so, at the rate of “one mutation per billion divisions,” the bug evolves, casually crossing the entire plate, even the almost impossibly lethal barrier at the end, slipping through the antibiotic revetments as surely as water through a crumbling dike. And in only 10 days.

“I show it in talks,” Dunn writes of a video of the experiment. “It makes people quiet. It is what Kant called the horrifying sublime.”

The experiment can be run again, and again it will take about 10 days. What goes for E. coli scales up to agricultural pests, only temporarily inconvenienced by new pesticides until they evolve around them. While ecology is sometimes regarded as one of the squishier sciences, these kinds of eventualities begin to point to something like a set of laws underlying it all. These laws — though lacking the bedrock status of the laws of physics — can sometimes be nearly as predictive. If we want to know what’s coming, then, we would be well advised to familiarize ourselves with them, Dunn argues. To that end, his book functions as a helpful crash course in ecology and, as the title implies, an augur of sorts.

The law of the niche, for instance, predicts that many hapless species will fail to track their habitats on our warming world and will go extinct (think snails marooned on quickly shrinking islands). Others, however, will be cast about the face of the earth as their climate niche expands, and will flourish. Most concerning, perhaps, Aedes is coming. Just as epidemiologists warned for years that a pandemic was not merely possible but inevitable, ecologists now warn us of the looming mosquito heyday as we warp the climate. Key to this warning is the choice of modal verb: It’s not that these tropical pests “could” establish themselves in much of the Southern United States if we’re not careful, but rather that they “will.” And they will carry with them “some complex mix of the dengue virus and the yellow fever virus, but also the viruses that cause chikungunya, Zika fever and Mayaro.”

While it might not surprise us to read that mosquitoes have a niche that affects their distribution on the planet, it might be more difficult to recognize that we humans do as well. We are animals after all, and can be studied as such by ecologists. Even with the spread of air-conditioning, and all the creature comforts afforded by burning fossil fuels by the gigaton, we still mostly inhabit the same shockingly narrow band of the globe that we have for millennia. But as we push the climate beyond the norms of the past three million years we will hit the hard limits of physiology. And as the familiar rhythms of the seasons grow more syncopated and strange, some swath of our range will be increasingly foreclosed, to God knows what geopolitical effect. Many of us will have to move.

Along this unsettling journey into the future, the mood is leavened here and there by oddities, which Dunn dusts off like the docent of a strange natural history museum. We learn that the Taung child, one of the earliest hominins known to science, was eaten by eagles. We learn that the yeasts that make beer come from the bodies of wasps. That when humans spread out into new landmasses our “face mites diverged.” The impression all this arcana leaves with the reader is that we live in a much weirder, more disorienting world than we tend to appreciate.

We simplify this chaos, this riot of life, at our peril. We hoist plants from their natural context, consign them to vast monocultures, then act surprised when the rest of nature conspires to tear them down. We panic when bees fail to submit to the rote demands of industrial agriculture. But if simplifying nature is the cause of so many modern ills, then Dunn’s policy prescription, conversely, comes down to one simple dictum: Diversify. Diversify the microbes in your intestines, the crops in your fields, the plants in your watershed, the research in your grant proposals. Recruit the forests to filter your water. Let a trillion microbial flowers bloom.

This strategy works because nature is cleverer than us. The science historian George Dyson once described evolution itself as a kind of computational process that solves problems like how to swim, and how to fly. But the new problems we’ve given it to solve are ill considered, and the solutions it produces often undesirable. We dare life to overtop the levees of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics; to overrun the concrete outcrops of cities, insinuate itself in the cracks of human society and pick the locks of our immune system. If we wipe out charismatic megafauna, of the sort that graces the brochures of conservation nonprofits, fine, nature seems to say, a florescence of rats and crows it is. Want to live in modular outcrops of steel, glass and cement, fed by rivers of pavement spanning thousands of miles? Very well, this will be a migration corridor for mice, pigeons and disease. They represent life too, after all, and the planet gives not a whit if it’s inhabited by lions or cockroaches. There are now beetles that consume only grains, mosquitoes that live only in the London metro. “Evolution creates,” Dunn writes, “and acts of creation are never complete.”

Dunn’s account leaves an overwhelming impression of fecundity, growth, adaptation. But this isn’t a naïvely rosy vision of the future like some contrarian tracts on the resilience of nature in the Anthropocene. From a human perspective this will be an impoverished world, and many of Dunn’s warnings are concrete and sobering. . . .  The rivers are rising.

The Original Sin

These are the opening and closing paragraphs of a review in The New York Review of Books (the review is “Uncanny Planet” by Mark O’Connor; the book is Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade by Nathaniel Rich):

In the opening lines of the Bible, having brought forth the world and everything in it, God makes his inaugural address to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful, and multiply,” he tells them, “and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” God’s first, foundational decree explicitly casts the relationship between humanity and nature as one of separation and control. The whole sorry business with the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the banishment doesn’t come about for another two chapters, but if you were in the mood for a little heretical revisionism you might argue, just for fun, that the true original sin can be located not in man’s first disobedience, but in God’s first command.

The attitude toward nature that He defines and sanctifies with those words is, after all, precisely the attitude that led human beings to exploit nature so ruthlessly, and for so long, that the planet is now in danger of becoming unlivable for vast numbers of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. Our adherence to this view of the world and our place within it, in other words, has amounted to its own kind of Fall. . . .

[The first line of Stewart Brand’s original Whole Earth Catalog — “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it” —] recalls Francis Bacon’s characterization of his scientific work, and by implication that of the scientific method itself, as rescuing humanity from its fallen state. Bacon saw science and technology as the means by which we could reclaim our former oneness with the divine. The “true ends of knowledge,” he wrote, were in

a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation.

The path of knowledge that led us out of Eden will, if we follow it long enough, eventually lead us back. . . . 

Though Rich’s book is hardly what you’d call a polemic, the stories in it gather toward an argument, which could be seen as a less nakedly utopian version of Bacon’s aims. There are over 7.5 billion of us on a rapidly warming planet; the seas are rising, the forests are burning, and every year hundreds of species go the way of the passenger pigeon. There is no reversing the Fall. There is no going back to whatever might be meant by “nature.” We must become “as gods,” not in order to return to a state of prelapsarian wholeness, but to move forward to some kind of livable future.

Spinoza Made a Difference

Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish philosopher who famously referred to reality as either God or nature. Scholars have been arguing about what he meant ever since, but whatever he meant helped get him “excommunicated or expelled from the people of Israel” in 1656. In 2012, a rabbi declined to remove the ban, citing Spinoza’s “preposterous ideas, where he was tearing apart the very fundamentals of our religion”.

From Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée (Spinoza wrote in Latin but couldn’t be left out of the book):

Christians had never taken much interest in atheism: the Bible dismissed it as the delirium of “fools”… After Spinoza, Christians would find themselves doing battle not only with heresy and heathenism, but also with sheer unbelief. Atheism was still a dangerous word, however, and it was sometimes replaced by a new coinage: deism, which implied rejecting revelation, ritual and tradition, while retaining a residual belief in an impersonal divine power, perhaps on the lines of Spinoza’s “God or nature”.

Ordinary Christians were alarmed: “at this day Atheism is slily [i.e. “slyly”] called Deism by those that are indeed Atheists”, as an English pamphleteer observed in 1695: “they would disguise it by a false Name, and thereby hid the Heinousness of it”. By that time, a clandestine network of atheistic and deistic pamphleteers was operating across northern Europe, building on Protestant contempt for Catholic superstition and extending it to religion as a whole. They used the arguments of various “new philosophers” — principally Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes and Spinoza — to attack beliefs in miracles, apparitions and omens, and derided the doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in consecrated bread and wine.

As far as they were concerned, everything in the physical world was governed by universal laws of nature, and the Bible was no holier than any other book. “Such is human malice and stupidity” — to quote a notorious  pamphlet called the Traité des trois imposteurs — that men choose to pass their lives in duping each other and worshiping a book handed down from an ignorant nation”. Manuscript copies of the Traité circulated in Latin and French in the 1690s, promoting the idea that religion is a fraud perpetrated by “the three imposters — Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. The pamphlet grew larger and bolder as time went by, and when it was printed at the Hague in 1719, it was bound with other works under a title that was not much less provocative: La Vie et l’Esprit de Spinoza….

[Sophia, Electress of Hanover, who almost became Queen of England] spent several years mingling with scholars in Heidelberg… Above all, she became an admirer of Spinoza: she described his Tractatus as “extraordinary and entirely reasonable” and supported a plan to offer him a professorship. She was appalled when he died shortly afterwards, suspecting that he had been murdered by partisans of “faith without reason”, and reflecting that “most of the human race … lives on lies”. 

Unquote.

If you’d like to know more about Spinoza’s philosophy, including his critique of religion and the Bible, as well as his liberalism and secularism, give his Theological-Political Treatise a try. When it was published, it was denounced as “godless,” “full of abominations,” “a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself”. Stephen Nadler’s A Book Forged In Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is another option. If anyone was ever born before his time, it was Baruch Spinoza.

Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

Water, Water Everywhere? A Highly Surprising Graphic

If all the water in the world were collected and put next to the planet Earth, it would look like this:

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After seeing this, it seems much more plausible that all our water came from comets and asteroids. It also makes our planet’s water seem even more precious.

There’s more here at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.