At a recent event I posed the question, “Is the intelligence of nature greater than the intelligence of humans?”

After pondering this question, the audience responded with a mixture of “there is no intelligence in nature,” and “nature is not an entity with a singular intelligence.”

So exactly what is this thing we call nature, and why do we hold it in such high regard?

One of my pet peeves with the food industry has been the association of “all natural” with “good for you.”

Not everything found in nature is good for you. Things like poison ivy, hemlock, chrysanthemums, and rhododendrons are poisonous. Weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and hailstorms can also be massively destructive. Even viruses and diseases can be considered “natural.”

Yes, we all know these things, but there remains a pervasive notion that nature has it right.

Nature didn’t have it right when it came to the woolly mammoth, the dodo bird, or the saber tooth tiger. Nor did it have it right for the Aztecs, Incas, or the Anasazi.

Nature is neither our friend nor our enemy.

If something is considered part of nature, it generally refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. It ranges in scale from the subatomic to the cosmic.

But it’s critical to frame our thinking around the fact that nature is not human-centric. Here’s why that’s important.

Looming Issues Ahead

Over the coming years, technology will begin to open one Pandora’s Box after another. We will find ourselves face-to-face with countless dilemmas as our ability to extend human influence and control stretches far beyond anything possible today.

Here are just a few of the significant challenges that lie ahead:

  • Colonizing other planets – Can the human race possibly survive if all humans only live on one planet? At the same time, do we know enough to recreate “nature” on other planets?
  • Controlling the weather – If we have the ability to put a damper on hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, isn’t that a positive step forward? At the same time, how can we possibly understand the unintended consequences of large-scale human intervention?
  • Artificial womb technology – Some will argue that eliminating human variables from the birthing process will result in superior offspring, but it may also detract from our humanness.
  • Cross-time communication – Will it ever be possible to communicate with people across time? More important than “can we” is the topic of “should we?”
  • Creating new forms of life – If we can create the perfect fish to add to our diet, is that an idea worth pursuing? Or perhaps we could engineer some friendly little creature ideal for cleaning up after people, eliminating menial labor tasks altogether? Where do we draw the line?
  • Terraforming other planets – Creating the oxygen rich environments necessary for plants and animals to thrive on other planets seems like an obvious first step to pre-colonizing a planet, but do we run the risk of making a fatal error and causing an entire planet to turn into the equivalent of a toxic waste dump?
  • Cyborgism – As we more closely align ourselves with the smart tools and devices of the future, at what point does the human-side of the equation begin to lose out and the problems outweigh the benefits?
  • Downloading and preserving human brains – Some scientists have suggested it will soon be possible to download a person’s brain digitally and thereby preserve them in a virtual state indefinitely. If it’s possible, is it desirable, and what are the pitfalls?
  • Bioengineered humans – Will people with 3 legs, 6 fingers, and 4 arms still be considered human?
  • Human cloning – As we gain the ability to preselect human attributes and begin producing super babies, free from disease with superior physical and intellectual characteristics, how will these hybrid people fit in with the rest of society? Are cloned people still real people?

Brent Spiner with and without makeup

Rethinking the Ethics of our Future

Early on in the filming of Star Trek Next Generation, Brent Spiner, the actor who played the sentient android Lieutenant Commander Data was growing tired of applying his makeup every day. So he asked Gene Roddenberry, “Don’t you think that by this time in history, they would’ve figured out how to make skin look like skin?”

Roddenberry replied, “What makes you think that what you have isn’t better than skin?”

Underlying Spiner’s question was the assumption that humans have already achieved the ultimate form.

So should we think about reengineering human skin, or designing bodies that never age, bio-hearts that never fail, or brains that function ten times faster?

Do questions like this begin to raise ethical red flags in your head? That’s precisely the point.

If we continue to use “nature” as our moral compass, we will invariably get it wrong. Nature doesn’t care.

There are no ethics or morality in nature. Morality comes from our values and nature doesn’t concern itself with any human-centered tenets or beliefs.

“If we continue to use ‘nature’ as our moral compass,
we will invariably get it wrong. Nature doesn’t care.” 

Final Thoughts

As we begin to deal with the complex issues ahead, I find my role and duty as a futurist changing. At times I’m looking at the future through the eyes of a philosopher, ethicist, and truth seeker even though “truth” has become such a murky issue in the increasingly squishy fields of science and physics.

Much like Schrodinger’s cat, truth is never there when you need it.

Understanding how the future unfolds will require accounting for difficult decisions along the way. These decisions become key turning points in human history. The ethics and morality of ages past will have little bearing on many issues we face in the future.

That said, I would love to hear your thoughts. Unlike most of the topics I cover, this has been more of a personal rant, so please feel free to help set the record straight.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything


13 Responses to “Nature is Not Human-Centric”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Tim Gieseke</a>

    I would be comfortable to state that the earth is and whatever is, is right. I believe nature did get it right with the woolly mammoth and the other 99+% of forms of life that are no longer on earth. The earth is not static and therefore the right forms of life are not either. This hypothesis may appear more correct if nature's projection is not the relatively awkward forms of life, but its ability to store data to allow life to continue. From virus to humans, life revolves around the capacity to carry and transmit DNA data - everything else is the small stuff. I believe intelligence is the ability to use information in the most productive manner and nature is chock full of information. From the warm rock in the cool stream, to the atmospheric pressure of a coming storm, nature has us beat on the number of data points produced any given moment. The ability to respond to that information within the context of 10 million species and produce/enhance natural capital for the benefit of forms of life, in existence and those to come is a highly intelligence system/entity.
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Bill Shirley</a>

    Two thoughts come to mind relative to the interaction of humans and nature: 1) In nature, there are no rewards or punishments, only consequences. 2) All misery and unhappiness is caused by denying or arguing with reality. Nature controls reality.
  3. Christina

    Hallo Everybody Nature always wins against people. It returns to balance. Humans appear to be slow learners. Not a single action reaction is without purpose. Humanity can only survive within the framework of natural law. The nature is inherent in the design humans are trying to understand.
  4. <a href='http://www.samsondesign' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jeff Samson</a>

    TOM, In terms of science humans are a result of natural events that can be accidental. Some may result from a level of intentional actions as with humans or other organisms that evolved by adopting slightly more enduring genetics. Though this can be argued to be the result of chance we as humans seem determined to take charge of our own destiny. Nature in our current stage of advancement has become a reference point because that is what we know. We also know that nature is not kind but as our only continual reference it is like home, mom and apple pie. We refer and return to her for R&R and wisdom because nothing else can sum up the same body of references, yet. It appears that the future of what we will refer to as Nature will be the same though evolved. It will continue to be what we accept as the way of life or rules of life because Nature is really our natural history. The references may change greatly if we become androids of self creation but any intelligence will likely continue to seek out a historic reference.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Jeff, Very well said. Much like fish have a poor understanding of the water the live in, we also have a poor understanding of the "nature" we're immersed in. Thomas Frey
  5. Gavin

    People just want the right to make their own mistakes without having others force their will upon them. While I like technology I am beginning to wonder how far and in what way I want it to effect me. Do I really want computer type abilities? Will I feel less human and more machine if I go too far? One thing I am certain about regarding food, I would much prefer to eat a chicken that was allowed space and a more "natural" life than have to eat a battery caged chicken. This isn't rationale since studies show that both types of chickens will have similar life stress, one a man-made stress (little room) and the other stress from nature (more sickness, predators, temperature changes). So it must be my guilt about eating them, I want them to have a better life even if that life is less comfortable. I would rather they had a more natural life than a more comfortable enriched cage. Am I just confused or is this logical and kind?
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Gavin, Thanks for your comments. We're starting to see a growing sense of paranoia surrounding our escalating tech fears. And these fears are not ungrounded with daily news stories about data breaches and hacking scandals. Tech companies are generally not equipped to wrangle with the far reaching implications of the tech they're unleashing. It often requires things like social impact studies, analytical ethics audits, and philosophical foundation work to really forecast long range scenarios. It will get more confusing before it gets better. Thomas Frey
  6. Blake Walter

    One of my personal pet peeves is the division between humans and nature as if humans are not part of nature. People will point to a termite mound as an example of something that is natural and a skyscraper as something that is not natural. Given that both were constructed by colonies of organisms acting in complex ways with each other and their surrounding environment, I have trouble seeing the difference. Can humans impact their surrounding environment at a much greater magnitude than termites? Yes. In and of itself, though, that magnitude of impact does not, to my mind, render our actions as "unnatural". Argue about whether our actions as humans are moral or immoral, or whether our actions are wise or unwise, or whether our actions are sustainable or unsustainable. But unless we're actually breaking the laws of physics in a way that is supernatural, it seems to me that what we're doing is as much a part of nature as the weather. Our moral compass should perhaps in part be tied to our ability to accurately foresee the long-term consequences of our actions.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Blake, Glad you added this. At the same time, just because humans are part of nature doesn't mean everything we do is "right." Yes, humans have the ability to impact things far more than other aspects of nature. Not sure there is actually such a thing as the "laws of physics," but even seemingly minor changes can have long range implications. There is tons of grey area between whats morally right and wrong here. Thomas Frey
  7. ronald holmes

    hi tom, I enjoy when you indulge in free form thought...rant. my concerns runneth over. indeed "the laws of physics" are far from sacrosanct. our Achilles heel, the rote ed system based on the 17th century Prussian army, is anathema. the scientific method has no grail about it. congress made a law for funding exa-flop computing...blah, blah recently, the our subconscious/consciousness was proven to be composed of microtubes lining every cell; recording via quantum math all of our thoughts; living to manifest in recordable vibration in MHz frequencies. they also combine in with nature to provide a possible inter-everything greater consciousness which is integral to the structure of the universe; and both, supports physics and spiritual models of this is not my point. Mr. Frey, you have broached much thought.....the answers are considered but flawed in their total individuality and diversity. we must attempt to heal the schism betwixt divided erudition and everyman. they think fishing is picking up the exposed fish in the sand without noticing the huge rumble on the horizon.
  8. Lara Gale

    A friend shared your 'nature as a moral compass' quote on Facebook and I thought the point was that something else is a better moral compass. I said, 'Your operating system doesn't care, either, but try writing an application that does anything on it if you don't know how it works.' He posted this link to clarify. I still think it's a good analogy, though. If we respect the structure of the system, we can build with it without getting the blue screen of death. Given that we're part of it, we should respect our own internal feedback loops as sensors. When we ignore our own well being and create systems that produce disease and human suffering, without acknowledging that we are experiencing negative feedback, we make it much more difficult to adjust systems based on any ballast accessible to human sensibilities.
  9. Simon

    "Not sure there is actually such a thing as the 'laws of physics...'”? Along with "...the increasingly squishy fields of science and physics." Whoops. Did I just tumble down a rabbit hole?!?

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