Paul Moriarty, “Nature Naturalized:

A Darwinian Defense of the Nature/Culture Distinction”


1.       Two senses of nature/natural

2.       N1: Natural as opposed to supernatural (natural as the non-supernatural) = everything that exists in the physical world and is consistent with the laws of science

          a.       Supernatural: God, immortal soul, miracles, ghosts

          b.       Humans are clearly natural in this sense (at least in part), because our bodies exist in the physical world

          c.       Also, humans as a species evolved by the same biological/scientific laws as every other creature/entity

3.       N2: Natural as opposed to (human) cultural/artificial (natural as the non-cultural) = things not the product of human culture; not (significantly) modified by humans (activity/culture/technology)

          a.       Cultural: Manhattan skyscraper, nuclear wastes

          b.       Natural: Grand canyon; moose droppings


          c.       N2 (non-cultural) comes in degrees: Dairy cows more natural then vacuum cleaners, but less natural than bison

          d.       Humans natural in this sense? Partly yes and partly no

                    i.        Humans as a species originated naturally; not the product of cultural forces

                    ii.       A human person today is a mix of the natural (heart, circulatory systems) and the cultural (influenced by books, T.V., education, how brought up)


4.       Natural (N2) is not necessarily good and non-natural (cultural) not necessarily bad:

          a.       Earthquakes are natural but not necessarily good

          b.       Clothing, eyeglasses, jazz are unnatural (products of human culture) but they are good, not bad

          c.       But clearly one of the reasons environmentalists like Moriarty want to distinguish products of human culture from what is not significantly modified by human culture (N2) is so they can place a special value on the natural (N2)

          d.       Many environmentalists think the natural (non-cultural) is often a value adding property


5.       Philosophical naturalist = one who denies existence of anything supernatural

          a.       No gods, immoral human souls, demons, ghosts, angels, witchcraft, miracles

          b.       Denies the existence of anything unnatural (1)

          c.       Humans are animals whose existence is entirely governed by same (physical) laws which govern the rest of the natural world

          d.       Russell’s philosophical naturalism:

                    i.        “Man is part of nature, not something contrasted with nature. His thoughts and bodily movements follow the same laws that describe the motions of stars and atoms”

6.       Worries about philosophical naturalism

          a.       If this is a reductionist idea that all of reality, including human reality, can be (will be) fully and adequately explained by physical science?

                    i.        This would ignore the social sciences

          b.       Don’t economic and psychological and sociological “laws” govern humans in a way they don’t nonhumans?

                    i.        This is part of the point of the nature/culture distinction; nature is governed by laws of natural science and culture is, in addition, governed (better: explained) by laws of social science


7.       Callicott’s and other’s criticism of nature/culture distinction (N2) (a distinction Moriarty defends)

          a.       If we distinguish nature from the products of human culture, and/or

          b.       If we deny that all human activities, products, and characteristics are natural

          c.       Then

                    i.        We are mistakenly locked into a pre-Darwinian worldview

                              (1)     For Darwin taught us that man is part of nature

                    ii.       We are treating humans as separate from nature

                    iii.      Treating humans as superior to nature

                    iv.      Rejecting philosophical naturalism

                    v.       Contributing to environmental destruction

                              (1)     Important to realize humans part of nature to overcome the tradition which identifies humans as something separate from nature and gives humans dominion over it

                              (2)     We need to see ourselves as thoroughly embedded in nature–a part of nature–not set apart–if we are to solve env. problems (polluted air/water/land affects us too)

                              (3)     It is anthropocentric to separate humans (or human culture) from nature; Doing so says we are special and different from the rest of the world; This view is a primary cause of ecological crisis and we must recognize humans as part of nature to overcome this crisis.

8.       Moriarty (and others) replies to criticism of nature/culture distinction

          a.       Darwin himself accepted a nature/culture distinction (between natural selection and artificial selection)

          b.       Humans are separate in some ways (N2) not in others (N1)

                    i.        Humans evolved from nature like everything else in nature (embraces philosophical naturalism)

                    ii.       But humans activities are culturally informed far beyond anything else in nature; what humans do and are like is importantly a product of culture

          c.       That humans are distinct from nature (N2) in some ways does not make us superior to it

                    i.        Some environmentalists who make this distinction claim nature is superior to humans!

          d.       Philosophical naturalism is perfectly compatible with a nature/culture distinction

          e.       The nature/culture distinction, far from causing environmental problems, is important for environmental protection

                    i.        It helps us identify the things environmentalists want to protect

                              (1)     Environmentalists do place value on the natural (N2)

                    ii.       Moriarty gives examples where denying that human activities are separate from nature has been used to degrade nature

                              (1)     Cumberland Island example: Support building a road into a wilderness, for the roads are no less natural than the wilderness

                    iii.      He argues that if oil rigs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are part of nature, then we have no reason to worry about saving that wilderness from them

                    iv.      Counter-reply: This is not true;

                              (1)     Though we couldn’t object to them on grounds of being unnatural

                              (2)     We could object to them because they harm other (natural) things we care about (like Caribou and the Native peoples who depend on them)

9.       The person who objects to reliance on the nature/culture distinction is likely to claim that it is not the products of human culture per se that are the problem, but only those products of human culture that are damaging

          a.       We should not object to non-damaging products of culture

          b.       E.g., the cultures of native peoples don’t damage/harm the wilderness or the natural

10.     But even products of culture that are not damaging are justifiably often negatively evaluated simply because they are cultural (not N2)

          a.       At least according to many environmentalists

          b.       Consider a plastic (or genetically-modified and enhanced) tree that performs all the functions that a non-cultural (natural) tree performs

                    i.        Environmentalists want to say that tree lacks the value of naturalness (N2) and in that regard (in many contexts) is a disvalue.

                    ii.       Without relying on the nature/human culture distinction, one loses the ability to use the fact that something is a product of something other than human-culture to place a special value on it and give it special protection

                    iii.      The value of the natural in this sense (N2) is a key environmental value.


11.     A bad argument against N2/culture distinction, against idea that some human activities are non-natural (products of culture)

          a.       Since humans are (i.e., the human species is) natural (not the product of culture), then whatever humans do is natural (not the product of culture)

          b.       A genetic fallacy: Since humans are small whatever humans do is small


12.     Moriarty’s definition of culture: Involving information transmitted non-genetically

          a.       Rolston: “Essence of culture is acquired information transmitted to next generation”

          b.       Bonner: Culture involves the “transfer of information by behavioral means like teaching and learning” rather than transmission of genetic information passed by inheritance of genes”

          c.       Our ability to use spoken and written language to accumulate and pass on information non-genetically has allowed us to create technology, modify our environments, and produce things importantly different from things produced by nature


13.     Moriarty points out that some nonhuman animals have cultures

          a.       Wolves, elephants, monkeys pass on information to offspring non-genetically

          b.       Bonner’s book is about “evolution of culture in animals”

14.     Moriarty defines nature (N2) as “what is not the product of human culture”

          a.       He thinks the amount, kind, and ability to pass on information and use it that humans possess is unique

15.     Makes sense to distinguish nature from human culture and not from lion culture

          a.       On Moriarty’s account, lion culture is still part of nature

16.     Claims this is not important to his argument

          a.       If someone would prefer to define nature (N2) in opposition to all culture (human and nonhuman) he has no objection

17.     But this ignores that N2 does great work that would be lost if N2 excluded animal culture

          a.       Could not identify much of what environmentalists want to protect with the term ‘nature’

                    i.        Beaver dams would not be nature (as opposed to human dams) and we could not protect them by arguing for the importance of protecting nature

          b.       Couldn’t argue that we should preserve nature if the nature involved the cultural behavior of animals (bird nests, wolf hunting, beaver dams, etc.)

          c.       Moriarty needs to stick with idea of nature as “that which is not the product of human culture”

Moriarty on Nature

1.           What are the two senses of ‘natural’ between which Moriarty distinguishes ? Give examples of things not natural in each of these two senses and things natural in each of these two senses.

2.           On Moriarty’s view is lion culture natural in either of these senses? Is human culture natural in either of these senses?

3.           Do these senses of natural allow for degrees, that is, more or less natural? Give examples.

4.           Does Moriarty think humans are natural (in each of these senses)? Why or why not? Do you agree with him on this?

5.           What does Moriarty think about whether what is natural is good or bad? Is everything that is natural good? Is everything that is unnatural (that is cultural) bad, on his view?

6.           What is a “philosophical naturalist.” Does Moriarty embrace this view? Do you? Why or why not?

7.           Does thinking that what humans do is significantly cultural (as opposed to natural in the non-cultural sense-N2), imply that humans are supernatural (that is, transcend nature in this sense–N1)?

8.           Evaluate the following argument from your own and from Moriarty’s perspective: Since Humans are natural, what humans do is also natural.

9.           Explain the argument and reasons for thinking that embracing a nature/culture distinction is environmentally problematic. Do you think it is? What is Moriarty’s view on this?

10.         Explain Moriarty’s definition of “culture.” Do you think nonhuman animals have culture in this sense? Does Moriarty?