Life on a Little Known Planet
Animal Societies from the Bee to the Gorilla
Animals in Splendour
The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees
Man and Monkey
How much do we depend upon Nature? The question is neither absurd nor rhetorical, and it includes many of our fundamental dilemmas. At one level it is easy to answer that without animal and plant life there would be no food, so of course we are absolutely dependent upon them. But the animals and plants that we raise for food can be said to be only marginally part of Nature. A battery of hens or a field of wheat is almost as “artificial” as a moon satellite, which is more at the mercy of “the elements” than they are.
Of nature in the raw most of us see, at most, carefully chosen samples and would not really relish much more. Yet many of us have a strong feeling that we need at least some contact with trees and animals, open air and sea. Is this a hangover from the time not very long ago when agriculture and fishing were nearer to Nature? Does it represent for man a truly fundamental need? The form and motions of an animal or of a tree seem to have a particular rhythm and authenticity, if it may be so described, which is not supplied by any of the works of man. This may be called sentimental naturalism, but it is undoubtedly a genuine mode of thinking, deeply ingrained in many people. For some of us life would be much poorer without some contact with nature.
But it would be hard to maintain that such contact is essential to human life. Indeed, it is not really clear whether it is desired by the majority. One question is whether without it people are left with some deficiency of “vision” and understanding of the world, which can be supplied by imaginative architecture and town planning. But before we reach the stage of planning an environment of concrete for ourselves, it would be wise to look back and repeat the question, “How much do we depend upon nature?” The superficial answer seems to be “very little,” because most of us see so little of it. But this may be largely because we don’t know where to look, or what for. We move in our cars along the roads, and fail to realize that much the greater part of the earth and sea is covered with countless billions of plants and animals. We hear a lot about the dangers of pollution, but the prospect of the elimination of all life except ourselves and our domestic plants and animals is ridiculous. Beneath one square meter of sea surface there may be eight billion diatoms (green protozoans). The Gulf of Maine contains as much as four million tons of minute copepod crustaceans (which are perhaps the most numerous of all animals of a grade above protozoans). An acre of pasture contains more than a billion insects (mainly little spring-tails). One soon gets numbed by numbers and there is no guarantee that pollution will not kill billions too, but the point is…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.