The vast majority of readers of this blog do not live in close proximity to nature but in urbanscapes of steel and concrete, as I do as well. Sure, now and then we go out camping or hike on a forest trail, but isn't that as far as we go? Perhaps we go out because, as Thoreau said, "We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe, to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest." Or perhaps deep down we feel, as John Muir did, that going out is really going in.
Our distant human ancestors lived in intimate contact with plants and animals, but in recent millennia, technologically advancing societies have been erecting barriers between us and nature, hoping to be shielded from its harshness, dangers, and unpredictability. Who among us would wholly dismiss that urge? By any yardstick, this process—which accelerated with the industrial revolution—has come a long way, and it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that a hallmark of our modernity is a near total loss of first-hand biological knowledge and personal experience of nature's beats and rhythms. Our "objective" classroom knowledge now tends to be bookish, theoretical, and detached.
Childhood development was once shaped by the direct experience of plants and animals, their cycle and drama of birth, decay, and death, with folkbiology furnishing the taxonomy, teleology, and the interrelationships of the living world, including the attitude and knowledge needed for survival in a given ecological zone. A great many children now develop amidst apartment blocks, public parks, and city streets, where the context of local ecology, its delicate dependencies, and the sense of its inherent limits is less visible than ever before.
What implication does this have for human cognition, as in how we learn about and relate to the world? Don't we already get socialized into a culture that regards nature as an abstract realm detached from daily life, a kind of pleasure zone we can visit on vacation? Or nature as a mere resource, amenable to manipulation and cost-benefit analysis done from the comfort of our concrete jungles? Yet, understandable as this is, big questions remain: do we know the full cost of this cognitive shift, its weaknesses and blind spots? What's at stake if we don't?
Nick Enfield touches on some of these topics in his review of "The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature" by Scott Atran and Douglas Medin, an alluring interdisciplinary work in anthropology and psychology:
Why is the biological knowledge of traditional societies so remarkable to an educated westerner? The literature is littered with awestruck descriptions of the fieldworker's sense of wonder at what villagers know. Ask a traditional cultivator to name as many tree species as he can, and the list will go on and on and on, literally into the hundreds. And it is more than a mere list of names: he will also have a rich body of knowledge about the functions of different trees, and their ecological interrelations with other plants and animals. One might wonder how they do it, but the real question is: How is it that we can't do it? The average educated westerner knows as much about nature as a Hanunóo tribesman is likely to know about computer software. Atran and Medin's book opens with this unsettling fact. When the authors ask their US university students to name all the trees they know, these young people are at a loss. Here is the response of a Northwestern Honours student: Oak, pine, spruce, ... cherry ... (giggle) evergreen,... Christmas tree, is that a kind of tree? ... God what's the average here? Needless to say, it is not merely an inability to name the trees, but also to say anything sensible about their functions or ecological roles. Compare this to the richly annotated lists of up to 500 species readily elicited from members of the least technologically advanced and least formally educated small-scale traditional cultivator societies.
To get a sense of how and when this poverty of understanding among modern literates has come about, Atran and Medin delve into recent history of the English language. Tracing historical references to trees in the OED, they find that ‘writing about trees is less extensive now than in any other time in the history of the English language'. Their matter-of-fact conclusion about the world of English speakers is a headline with a disturbing ring to it: ‘Cultural support for trees has declined'. The authors show that since the industrial revolution, Anglo intuitions for nature have devolved. Is it a problem? One response is that it simply reflects the lack of relevance of trees in daily life. We understandably don't know much about what we don't need. But perhaps the problem is not that we lack this knowledge, it is that we think we don't need it. Biological illiteracy is more alarming than illiteracy itself. Knowledge of nature is not specific to an invented environment like that of books or cyberspace. While only some of us invented writing and computer programs, none of us invented nature. Nature invented us. And nature will be the agent of our eventual collapse. As the biologist Jared Diamond describes it in his book of that title, a key cause of collapse is lack of awareness that there is a problem at all.