Paradoxes About Intruding on Nature

Tibor R. Machan

Movies made for young people in recent years tend to share a strong moralistic message: “We human beings are the scourge of the universe!” The 1993 Steven Spielberg blockbuster, Jurassic Park, was no exception. Although Michael Crichton, author of the book on which the movie was based, ended his life as a strong skeptic about global warming alarmism and its message of bottomless human guilt, for Steven Spielberg the movie was just another morality tale. And what was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) but another case of finger-wagging at ordinary people for being so heartless and cruel as to want to study the creature from outer space rather than, well, cuddle it with no questions asked?

Midway through Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s character, a mathematician, delivers the movie’s moral message, just in case the action didn’t manage to convey it. Any interference with the course of nature by human agency is going to harm all concerned, so stop it, stupid! (How is it, by the way, that human nature isn’t part of nature? Last I looked, we were smack in the middle of it all, governed by the laws of nature to boot!) Thus, when a wealthy Scot sets up the awesome park near Costa Rica featuring cloned prehistoric dinosaurs, all hell breaks loose. Never mind that there is really no reason this should have occurred, other than the idiocy and recklessness of one employee who seems to have been allowed to control the entire park without the slightest supervision. The lesson that we should have been given is: Don’t allow loose cannons into your operations—they will muck things up.

Why is the intended message a silly one, despite so many environmentalists mouthing it regularly? Indeed, quite a few of them join in efforts to save endangered species, ones that by the laws of nature, it would appear, are headed for extinction. For instance, the Discovery Channel has reported that “a species of birds able to fly immediately after hatching from eggs buried beneath the tropical sand has just been given its own private beach in eastern Indonesia. . . . Maleos—chicken-sized birds with black helmet-like foreheads—number from 5,000 to 10,000 in the wild and can only be found on Sulawesi island. They rely on sun-baked sands or volcanically heated soil to incubate their eggs.” If human intrusion into the order of nature is always harmful, it’s hard to know what to make of this story.

Far from being antithetical to nature, human beings are of course part of nature. What they can and will do in nature’s arena can be evaluated; some of it will be beneficial, some harmful. Human beings interfere with nature by means of, say, antibiotics, analgesics, and transplant operations—that interference is neither all good nor all bad. Each case must be evaluated on its own terms. Interference alone isn’t the issue—after all, animals “interfere” with the way nature would otherwise unfold every time they devour one another, build a dam, pollinate, or reproduce.

Consider the quite recent discovery that if enough specimens of a parasite that has been killing aquatic life in the Great Lakes can be sterilized by human beings—namely, by injection with certain chemicals—the parasite will eventually be eradicated, permitting the rest of the life inthe lakes to flourish anew.Or consider such “interferences” as anaesthetics or artificial limbs.Human interference with nature is often benign and should be encouraged.

No doubt human behavior is different from that of other living creatures; humans have the unique attribute of free will and can thus act rightly and wrongly, though with no guarantee that mistakes, even big ones, won’t be made. (Oddly, many of the scientists who worry most about our interfering in nature seem to think we do not have free will at all!) Thus, for us it takes more than mere instincts to conduct ourselves successfully. But that is itself a fact of our nature and hence part of nature, no matter how loudly environmentalists may claim otherwise. The idea that human beings are some sort of oddity or rogue influence in nature is wholly arbitrary and ignores the existence of enormous diversity throughout nature quite apart from us.

It concerns me that so many adults—especially the ones who control major cultural influences like blockbuster movies young people devour—keep trying to tell our children to distrust our only real source of hope for the future, namely, sound human judgment. By preaching the doctrine of the innate evil of human nature acting against the peaceful, benign nature of everything else, the media encourages a pernicious lack of self-confidence, a sense of hopelessness, an attitude that either we ourselves forego a decent and exciting life or we pursue it at the expense of nature’s great harmony. This message is wrong. In the media and elsewhere, we could use some moderation about both the supposedly negative consequences of human interference in nature and the naïve idea that nature is always kind and gentle.

Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University


Movies made for young people in recent years tend to share a strong moralistic message: “We human beings are the scourge of the universe!” The 1993 Steven Spielberg blockbuster, Jurassic Park, was no exception. Although Michael Crichton, author of the book on which the movie was based, ended his life as a strong skeptic about …

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