In the midst of all the gender and sexual and political fights of our day one tactic I see on all sides that’s infuriates me is the reference to Nature to justify one’s position about how we humans should conduct ourselves.
Nature is everything and nothing. Nature is contradiction, beauty, pain, and chaos. I could even say “Nature” as such doesn’t exist since the concept of the “natural world” is itself a human construct from a very specific time and place. (I realize the concept of Nature is itself flawed but that would take us too far afield to explore that…if you’re interested on that concept this is a good resource.)
On the other hand (or claw or maybe paw) Sex at Dawn argues that humans are more like bonobos than apes in their sexuality, though are might be better stated as “should be” there. Humans should be more bonobo-like rather than ape-like, at leaset according to the authors. One of the clear intended implications of the argument is a strong advocacy in the present for polyamory over monogamy (more bonobo-like in sexual expression as opposed to ape-like).
If however you believe monogamy is the right human ethical approach to sex than you cite swans, eagles, and beavers among others as validation. (No inappropriate beaver pun intended.)
Darwin’s Rainbow studies the phenomena of same sex mating, as well sex switching from male to female (and vice versa) within a species itself. The author Joan Roughgarden is herself a transgendered woman and the book explicitly states that the text is both a scientific proposition and advocacy for a specific human political outlook based on her biological argument. Namely that homosexuality, bisexuality, polysexuality, and transgenderism are all expressions in nature and therefore their expression in human society is more in alignment with true nature.
Tennyson famously stated that nature was “red in tooth and claw”. That was later seen as an excessively “masculinist” read of nature. So instead Lynn Margulis brought forward the value of symbiosis, cooperation, and mutual relationality in Nature bringing a so-called “feminine” value to biology.
All of the above are right. The problem is none are more right than any other ontologically. Each simply cites different evidence among the self-contradictory menagerie that is Nature.
Basically any and all human political and social views can be found to have their analogue (and hence simplistic justification) in nature. Hell Nazis evoked wolves to justify predatory behavior. The Nazis also promoted strong animal care and proto-organic and environmental concerns as they were deeply related to Hitler’s ideology of blood and soil and Darwinian struggle.
Feminist scholars waged a long campaign to remove the language of rape from discussions of the (non-human) animal kingdom. They did so for the perfectly valid reason to block attempts to “naturalize” (and thereby legitimize) rape among humans by citing existence of such behavior in the animal world. To talk about consent in the animal world is very complex but nevertheless it's very difficult not to call certain behaviors of certain animal species rape.
Corporations have often employed the imagery of bees and ants for their social intelligence but also presumably for their non-reproductive neutered quality. “Drones”, “worker bees”, and “hive minds” reflect extreme social hierarchy complete with monarchs (“queen bees”) sitting atop, which is clearly aligned to the business structure of multinational conglomerates.
To cite one set of factors in Nature as justification for one’s view is of course to screen out all the other contradictory information in Nature. Lobsters express strong hierarchies sure, plenty of other animal species do not. So why is the lobster example more pertinent to humans than the contrary?
Otherwise Nature becomes simply the screen upon which we project our human worldviews.
There’s no evidence in Nature to weigh which pieces of evidence in Nature are more or less valuable to human discernment. There’s no philosophical data in Nature itself to ground how Nature should or can legitimately be cited by humans as justification or support for our own arguments.
Or more simply:
Is is not ought.
Now this is not to say that Nature may not provide creative inspiration or clues to us humans as to how best to develop ourselves and live in proper relationship to our environment. Biomimicry is a great example of this trend.
What I’m saying is that you can’t simply cite “Nature shows us X” and therefore make it a normative statement. Because for any X you can find in nature (e.g. same sex mating) you can also find it’s opposite (only opposite sex mating in other species). And vice versa. On its face this self-contradictory multiple nature of Nature (or Natures) really doesn’t serve as any kind of clear guidance for humans on ethical, social, political, or often even on ecological issues.
Arguably this entire project of citing Nature as justification for human norms has its ancient roots in animistic magical human consciousness. Think of all the traditions of say martial arts or yoga with various postures or movements being named after various animals. Consider also traditions of naming clans after specific animals like Bear Clan, Raven Clan, etc. Ultimately there is a deeply valid point at the heart of these arguments: namely that humans are Nature. We are animals. At it’s best it’s an attempt to ground our often dissociative human culture in our biological, animalistic roots. Too often however it’s a simplistic exercise in ideology.
But on some level we have to accept that we humans are conscious animals. Humans are animals of the noosphere. Humans have created history, art, law, politics, economics, architecture, media, etc. Ethical, political, sexual questions for humans need to be answered both with reference to our animal and biological roots but also our specifically human history. That requires the study of anthropology, culture, linguistics, and philosophy among others.
Figuring out how we balance individual rights and collective responsibilities, how we promote freedom of expression and social cohesion these are extremely challenging questions. They are very thorny problems. In this quest for a set of workable answers to those problems we can learn potentially everything and simultaneously nothing from Nature.