March 29, 2011

A Moment for Misanthropy

Justin Katz

It's the kind of commentary that's probably best let to drift out to the sea of forgotten column inches, but the following general observation from Mark Patinkin has been bugging me:

By contrast, little has been shown of the areas where the tsunami washed over natural areas. That’s because nature is designed to mostly absorb such a disaster. It’s a reminder that a natural catastrophe like this doesn’t destroy the landscape, it just destroys the unnatural things man adds to it. On one hand, human creations represent the highest form of evolution, but on the other, lowly animals in the tsunami zone have no doubt by now gone back to their burrows and lives.

If not treated as a throwaway line, Patinkin's misanthropy in the face of human suffering is quite astonishing and makes me sincerely concerned for his mental state. And it's absurd on its face. A wall of water sweeping across the land uproots countless plants and drowns countless animals. Those animals that return to the landscape, having survived, are wholly reliant on the continued existence of their food source and shelter.

To the extent that natural things bounce back more quickly — and the dinosaurs and shifting habitats prove there to be an "if" involved — it's because the line of their success is drawn at survival. Mankind strives for a bit more.

Patinkin presents human beings as interlopers in an otherwise Edenic nature, but the truth is somewhat starker. In nature, species that cannot survive in a region will not be there to perish when the region does what it periodically does — whether drought or tsunami — because they will have left or died off long ago. In that sense, I suppose, they are "designed" for the circumstances of their environment. Indeed, I'd agree that an active verb like "design" is wholly appropriate.

Human beings, by contrast, are designed to learn from and adapt to our environment. That which we build may not be "great achievements" if the requirement is that they be indestructible, but the defining quality of homo sapiens is that we not only retain the knowledge to rebuild, but we also have the capacity to improve that which we, ourselves, design.