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Against Nature

by Jochen Becker

History is written in the blood of its victims. Basically, this already applies to natural history since the beginning of life, “a process in which something that consists of matter takes apart other matter and uses it for self-preservation – if it must, even living matter. Life is the scum of matter” (Quoted in: Dath 2016: 11).

Even with the beginning of prehistory, with the rise of humankind as the dominant life form on Earth, little changed. Even as hunter-gatherers, the talking animal managed to wipe out approximately one hundred of what had been about two hundred large mammal species. (Harari 2015: 96)

But it was not until the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture and animal husbandry, that the dominant animal truly made the world subservient. Humans proceeded to not only exterminate other animal species, but to systematically breed and mutilate them to make them productive and docile (Ibid.: 119-125). Meanwhile, the Neolithic revolution for the first time created the hoardable surplus over subsistence for which new kinds of cruelty were found to be worthwhile: The domination of humans over humans and the war between them. When the first temple scribes began to keep records of these surpluses, history began – that which can be traced by historians through written sources.

Science

But the Enlightenment and the epoch of modernity were supposed to give man the opportunity to break out of the stranglehold of the laws of nature and the struggle for survival. This promise has not been fulfilled to this day. Or as Engels put it:

“Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind … when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the social aspect, in the same way that production in general has done this for men in their aspect as species.1

As the quote suggests, poorly digested findings of modern science have sometimes been used for the exact opposite of the aforementioned purpose. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example, succumbed to a veritable onslaught of misinterpretations and misapplications. At the most basic level, “survival of the fittest” was thus translated as “survival of the strongest” instead of “survival of the best adapted.” At the most far-reaching level, Darwinism has been applied to the phantasic construct of so-called “human races” to justify slaughter, oppression, and enslavement of other humans. Not that slaveholders ever really needed this caricature of evolutionary theory: The Chevalier de Beauvais, for example, also came up with the crackpot idea that “nature […] produced different kinds of human beings, just as it produced different kinds of animals” (cited in Hanke 2017: 60) about half a century before Darwin, although the successful revolution of his and other slaves in Haiti just proved him quite practically wrong. Endowed with the label of scientificity, the liquor of racism was supposed to taste just right. No wonder, then, that the accusation was soon raised that modernity was “really just the other name for the European project of boundless expansion” (Mbembe 2019: 55).

Nevertheless, scientific knowledge and its technical application in industry represent one of the necessary conditions for breaking out of the cruelty of nature, since the “development of productive forces […] is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced”2. Despite all risks, up to the potentially civilization-ending climate change, conjured up by a socially irrationally managed industry, the fruits of this very industry also form the basis for finally ending the destruction. The first fauna that did not collapse on first contact with humans was that of the Galapagos Islands, discovered only in the 19th century. (Harari 2015: 96-98) These did not need to be colonized for the sake of survival, so they could become Ecuador’s national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the same time, every demographic statistic shows that people do not stop reproducing, as if their survival depended on it, until they have access to a certain amount of wealth, contraceptives, and the knowledge of how to use them correctly.

Enlightenment

The second necessary condition for overcoming natural brutality is found in the philosophy of enlightenment. For the fact that technical rationality is insufficient to create a truly human society was to be shown at the latest by the 19th century. Even if it seemed to its contemporaries in the industrial revolution, as “if today the progress of a century equals that of millennia in earlier times” (quoted from: Koselleck 1979: 368), the question of the Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet is still valid, “why the intellectual progress did not always coincide with the social one, the one towards happiness and virtue” (quoted from: Rohbeck 2013: 32-33). Actually, the Enlightenment had set out to do just that. However, Blom (2013) had to introduce the distinction between radical and moderate Enlightenment. Radical Enlightenment thinkers actually sought to be relentlessly critical of all conditions in their society. Although this primarily concerned the prevailing forms of monarchy and religion of the time, they nevertheless didn’t omit atrocities that concerned them less directly, such as the colonial slave economy, and they used encounters with foreign societies to relativize their own norms, such as Christian sexual morality, rather than being amused by foreign customs (Raynal/Diderot 1774). Figureheads of the moderate Enlightenment, on the other hand, were more considerate of circumstances and their entanglements in them. Voltaire, for example, went so far as to forge proto-Enlightenment documents to soften their atheism and the social revolutionary ambitions pegged to it (cf. Blom 2013: 122, 346) and did not shy away from investing his money in the slave trade (Miller 2008: 429), on which he, like the majority of European writers, remained silent (cf. Buck-Morss 2011: 42-58). It is true that Kant never explicitly wrote about slavery either. Nevertheless, since Kant imagined a hierarchy of “races” (Kant 1775), he must be considered an example of how some Enlightenment thinkers provided at least indirect justification for it.

One answer to Condorcet’s question, then, is that large parts of the historical Enlightenment and its successors refused to consistently implement its program. Nevertheless, “The Forgotten Legacy of the Enlightenment” (Blom 2013), the legacy of the “irreconcilable encyclopedists” (Horkheimer/Adorno 2010: 2) needs to be renewed and sharpened. For only (at least) two basic Enlightenment assumptions make it possible to provide rational answers to the questions “What kind of society do we want to live in?” and “How do we achieve this?”, thus also provide the means for the rational control of technical progress. These fundamental assumptions are the claim to truth placed on oneself and others and the universality of humanity. Both have gone out of fashion, quite possibly due to their misuse. Admittedly, the assumption of a kind of universalism in its perversion certainly justified the forcible subjugation of others, due to whose lesser technical development “the one who was superior in civilization therefore had to justify himself to lead them.” (Koselleck 1979: 364) But the true enemies of universalism have always been even more questionable than its false friends. Already the arch-reactionary and counter-Enlightenment philosopher de Maistre and the ‘father of conservatism’ Burke decisively opposed the French Revolution because it referred to “man” in general, and they rightly feared that this would shatter the hierarchies of class, geographical origin, and religion: Legal equality came in 1789 for non-nobles and even Protestants, in 1791 for Muslims and Jews, and from 1792-94 the non-white colonial inhabitants also fought for it in the Haitian Revolution, which was closely allied with the radical currents of the French Revolution (Hanke 2017: 21) Only if all human beings are equal in their fundamental qualities, and therefore norms and rules must refer to them equally, can their mistreatment be denounced.

At the same time, only if there is truth can there be falsehood. Only under the assumption of truth, therefore, can criticism, including of oneself, be exercised. Otherwise, there can only be competition between different positions, which cannot be criticized in terms of their contents.

But never-ending criticism is the necessary corrective to blind social development, especially when purely technical progress creates ever more powerful instruments of power, while lagging social progress can no longer tame them. And also one’s own thinking and acting must be questioned again and again, because, as an heiress of the Enlightenment formulated it in the catastrophe of the ending 19th century: “Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.”3

Against Nature

At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity is in the process of lending itself numerous attributes that it traditionally attributed to gods (cf. Harari 2018). Flight is already mechanically possible, there is medical research on rudiments of eternal (or at least greatly expanded) youth, the world is being recreated, albeit often negatively, in humanity’s own image, and you are probably reading this text on a device that, even without a neural interface (which is also being researched), can provide so much information in so little time that probably no one before has ever come closer to the concept of ‘omniscience’. If mankind does not wipe out its civilization and/or itself together with its natural bases of life before, this development will hardly be stopped, but it will be controllable. Such control is also urgently needed. Because there is not only the question whether the new gods will not be just as stupid, cruel and selfish as those which once sprang from their imagination. There is also the risk that self-deification will be accessible only to a gang of the wealthy and their favorite bootlickers, to rule over the human anthill from Mount Olympus, created by human labor.

From here, the double thrust of the admittedly polemical title “Against Nature” becomes apparent. The first thrust concerns our relationship to the natural environment. The latter should not be romanticized. Nature is just as indifferent to the desires and needs of its creatures as the old gods or the self-sufficient accumulation of capital. In contrast to these, however, humans and other animals cannot live without them. And if you disregard such things as hereditary diseases, volcanic eruptions and shark attacks, it can actually be very beautiful. So it must be preserved in some form. That this form can follow the aeon cycle of self-regulation is unlikely due to the advanced state of human influence and, should humans finally be able to intervene properly, is not necessarily desirable. A new equilibrium that would allow humankind and thus also parts of the animal and plant world to survive would emerge according to human plan and could thus also come closer to the needs of the beings concerned.

Should there ever be something like the ‘reconciliation with nature’ and the non-human animals, this would also be the work of human rationality. In this respect, corresponding projects are (at best) a “reflexive anthropocentrism […] : Only humankind can soften the ‘stony heart of infinity'” (Hoffmann 2019: 445).

The second thrust is against the nebulous reflections on what is commonly called ‘human nature’, which are usually used to legitimize one’ s particular agenda. In evolutionary terms, humanity has spent far too little time beyond its hunter-gatherer origins to have been shaped in its ‘nature’ other than by its prehistory (cf. Harari 2015: 11-98). Accordingly, it would be in accordance with our ‘nature’ to move through the wilderness in small groups, to live quite well with a minimum of work and hierarchy for most of the year, but to starve regularly in winter, exterminating all big game as the ‘terror of ecosystems’ and occasionally killing the old, the sick and children in times of shortage for the greater good of the small group. So the idea of a ‘life in accordance with nature’ sounds rather dubious. Moreover, this privilege is likely to be enjoyed only by a select few. Because the hunger of 7.7 billion mouths (tendency rising) could not be satisfied by a few collected berries and hunted bears. A ‘natural life’ would therefore, like every primitivism, amount to an auto-genocide of unimaginable extent.

Man has thus thoroughly outgrown his original ‘nature’ without finding a new one. But if there is a human nature which goes beyond a manageable package of basic drives, needs and abilities, then this is the change of himself and the environment. This change would only have to be shaped positively.

Literature

Bannerjee, N. / Song, L. / Hasemyer, D. (2015a): “Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago”, in: Inside Climate News, September 16th 2015 (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/15092015/Exxons-own-research-confirmed-fossil-fuels-role-in-global-warming

Bannerjee, N. / Song, L. / Hasemyer, D. (2015b): “Exxon Believed Deep Dive Into Climate Research Would Protect Its Business”, in: Inside Climate News, September 17th 2015 (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/16092015/exxon-believed-deep-dive-into-climate-research-would-protect-its-business)

Blom, P. (2013): Böse Philosophen. Ein Salon in Paris und das vergessene Erbe der Aufklärung, München

Buck-Morss, S. (2011): Hegel und Haiti. Für eine neue Universalgeschichte, Berlin 2011

Burke, E. (1790): “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, in: Ders.: The Works of The Right and Honourable Edmund Burke in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3, London 1887

Dath, D. (2016): Maschinenwinter. Wissen, Technik, Sozialismus. Eine Streitschrift, Frankfurt a.M.

de Maistre, J. (1796): Considerations on France, Lyon 1880 (http://maistre.uni.cx/considerations_on_france.html) 

Engels, F. (1886): “Dialektik der Natur”, in: Marx, K. / Ders.: Werke (MEW), Bd. 20, Berlin (Ost) 1975, 305-570 (https://marxwirklichstudieren.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/mew_band20.pdf) 

Hamzelou, J. (2017): “A cure for ageing is near but you probably can‘t afford it”, in: New Scientist, 4 January 2017 (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331072-200-a-cure-for-ageing-is-near-but-you-probably-cant-afford-it/) 

Hanke, P. (2017): Revolution in Haiti, vom Sklavenaufstand zur Unabhängigkeit, Köln

Harari, Y.N. (2015): Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit, München

Harari, Y.N. (2018): Homo Deus. Eine Geschichte von Morgen, München

Hoffman, A. (2019): “Adorno und die Tiere”, in: Klein, R. / Kreuzer, J. / Müller-Dohm, S. (2019): Adorno Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung, Stuttgart, 444-453

Horkheimer, M. / Adorno, T.W. (2010): Dialektik de Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt a.M. 2010 (https://symboleigenschoepfung.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/adorno-horkheimer-dialektik-d-aufklaerung.pdf) 

Kant, I. (1775): “Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen”, in: Ders. Akademie Ausgabe II: Vorkritische Schriften II. 1757-1777, Berlin 1905, 427-444  (https://korpora.zim.uni-duisburg-essen.de/Kant/aa02/429.html) 

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Marx, K. /Engels, F. (1846): “Die deutsche Ideologie. Kritik der neuesten deutschen Philosophie in ihren Repräsentanten Feuerbach, B. Bauer und Stirner und des deutschen Sozialismus in seinen verschiedenen Propheten”, in: Dies.: Werke (MEW), Bd. 3, Berlin (Ost) 1969, 5-530 (http://www.mlwerke.de/me/me03/me03_009.htm) 

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Rohbeck, J. (2013): “Zukunft der Geschichte. Geschichtsphilosophie und Zukunftsethik”, in: Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Sonderband 31, Berlin

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