We see a hint of the original state of humankind in human cultures that have survived in less developed regions of the world where individuals have lived with a deep attachment to community life and to nature.
In developed societies in the Western world, we have gradually grown accustomed to conquering nature for our own purposes. In a very real sense, science has contributed significantly in helping us to achieve this reality. This can be clearly seen in medical science where beneficial therapeutic technologies enable us to lessen the effects of disease and extend lifespans. However, modern economies also utilise science to pursue a technocratic and consumerist mentality that destroys nature. There is a big difference between enhancing nature and radically damaging nature to suit our own purposes or designs.
An excessive focus on ourselves damages our relationships with the natural world that sustains us. This tendency is ubiquitous in the Western world where the tension between individualism and the common good is often blurred. A clear battle line is not easy to discern but it likely falls somewhere between our view of the consistency of nature that we discover and the technical limits of what is possible to change. Core issues include the existence of human nature, the purpose of the natural world or the meaning of the universe itself. The sciences contribute significantly to debates.
For over a century, Darwin’s theory of evolution has become the accepted canon in academic research, in educational programmes and in popular culture. To the modern mind, the evolution of species makes sense notwithstanding the considerable evidence in favour of the theory. The transformation of species has been going on within the overall context of the natural world since the origin of life occurred from non-life not long after the earth itself was formed about 4.5 billion years ago.
Evolution is widely considered to be non-teleological, meaning that as far as we can scientifically determine, it occurs without any directional goal except for the need to survive and reproduce. Yet, the only story that the scientific study of evolution reveals is the causal story of how a species first appeared and how through reproduction and adaptation, it successfully managed to overcome the struggle to survive or not.
Another aspect of evolutionary research is the relatedness of all species. For instance, the traits that allow us to distinguish humans as humans may be found to some degree in other species. The likelihood of this occurring is increased when closely related species are studied. While it is accepted that humans differ from other species in terms of cognition and that this difference manifests itself in terms of language, behaviour, consciousness or culture, it is not always accepted that humans are fundamentally different from any other species. From this evolutionary viewpoint, it is inferred that human nature cannot be about an unchanging essence, so we are free to study individual variation, diversity and complexity as a bridge to altering human nature in whatever way we desire. In other words, there can be no absolute knowledge of what human nature really is.
Anyone who has taken the time to self-reflect or enjoyed the company of people from diverse cultures or comprehended the implications of an integral ecology must question the validity of such conclusions. Indeed, it is likely that any scientifically minded person could see that such conclusions go well beyond what is scientifically warranted. This is the nub of the problem. The science only ever takes us so far. It is never as complete as we need it to be in order to address deeper questions of meaning.
Nevertheless, modern biology sheds new light on our concept of human nature and personhood. In this sense, the philosophical concept of an unchanging essence, known as essentialism, is no longer the only tool for understanding human nature nor does it provide the most comprehensive approach for understanding human nature. Biology has helped us to understand that nature is not simply one thing. Rather, it is dynamic and oriented towards the flourishing of life.
A larger claim that we can make is that the cosmos is rationally ordered. Without such order, the scientific study of the natural world would not even be possible. It is also clear that humans have a natural place in the story of life on earth and are also the most complex of all known species. This confers a definite role for humans in nature. However, understanding our role is not limited to collecting observations and measurements about our species. The fact that we can scientifically study our species tells us something about our capacity for curiosity and self-reflection. Even a small amount of self-reflection gives us an insight into our natural limitations. It also allows us to accept that there is much more to the human condition than what can be discovered by using technical measurements.
From conception, the human person emerges from the dynamic interaction of nature and environment. From the first moment of our individual existence as a fertilised egg, we are in relationship to everything else. Genetically speaking, we are also equipped to respond to the environment that surrounds us. As we grow and change, we sense the world through a complex web of relationships just as we are equipped to respond to the world through this interconnected web. This concept of personhood comes much closer to capturing the reality of our existence as opposed to the concept of the individual human as some sort of entirely separate entity. The umbilical cord that connected us to our mothers and to all of reality never entirely disappears. Following birth, we remain connected to a larger reality that grounds our being.
For many of us, one aspect of our personal lives includes an appreciation for the beauty of nature. This is something shared by diverse cultures around the globe and is evident in all the world’s religions. Within this spiritual framework for understanding nature, it is always possible to revisit and review our desires so that we can respond sensitively to what the earth needs from us.
Our wellbeing depends on a level of meaning beyond what science alone can offer us and well beyond isolationist ideologies that seek to overemphasise human individualism. We did not evolve in isolation from the natural world. To fully appreciate nature, we must also re-discover nature within ourselves. In this way, we come to appreciate that species evolution is not so much about a changing essence but is instead about the presence of the ongoing regeneration of life within a magnificent, ordered but often mysterious cosmos.
It is challenging to achieve this relational perspective in modern economies that focus on magnifying human wants well beyond the essential. What is needed is a more self-contained approach to daily life. Such an approach would emphasise a benevolent view of the natural world, the integral nature of reality, an understanding of ecology and a perspective on human nature that emphasises the need for self-control.
A remarkable gift of Catholicism is its ability to incorporate whatever is true in the world’s philosophies, spiritualities and religions. Pope Francis notes the sense of combining ancestral wisdom with the best of our modern technical knowledge in order to protect threatened natural habitats where indigenous people have learned their own unique ways of living. Simply put, the Church seeks to bring any and all available goodness to fulfilment in the light of the Gospel. Divine love is always at the heart of life. In this sense, Church tradition responds in new ways to the mysterious wisdom that God shares with us.
In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation ‘Querida Amazonia’, Pope Francis quotes the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes who wrote: ‘The world is suffering from its feet being turned into rubber, its legs into leather, its body into cloth and its head into steel… The world is suffering from its trees being turned into rifles, its ploughshares into tanks, as the image of the sower scattering seed yields to the tank with its flamethrower, which sows only deserts. Only poetry, with its humble voice, will be able to save this world.’
In his famous ecological encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminds us that ‘our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is’. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis also references the work of Pope Benedict who urged us to realize that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”.
Even though we have often used science to conquer nature, it is also true that science can help us to better understand and heal the natural world. It can also help us to experience a sense of wonder and awe as we continue to explore God’s creation. It is no accident that modern science has its origins in the Christian world.
The Catechism tells us: ‘Even before revealing himself to man in words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos — which both the child and the scientist discover — from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator, for the author of beauty created them’.
Nature is not just a source of beauty; it is also a message to humankind. Made in the image of God, we seek and love what is true and good. Though we can ignore the message of God to pursue our own way, our salvation is freely available to us. In Christ, we are restored to our original purpose. Part of our original purpose is to live in harmony with all that God has given to us. Rather than divorcing nature to become anything we want to be, this is something truly transformative that we can achieve with God’s grace. It is this beautiful truth that changes everything.