John P Herron, Andrew G Kirk, ed. Human/Nature: Biology, Culture, and Environmental History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. xiv + 148 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-1916-6.
Reviewed by Charles Mitchell (American Studies, Elmira College)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2001)
The Nature of the Beast
The Nature of the Beast
This collection of essays was born at the New Mexico Environmental Symposium held in Albuquerque in April 1996. A group of senior and junior scholars convened to discuss the ways in which concepts of human nature "shape our understandings of environmental issues and direct our environmental politics" (p. 1). The symposium culminated in the presentation of formal papers, eight of which are included in this volume. For those readers who find this context vaguely familiar: stop scratching your heads. References to William Cronon's edited collection, Uncommon Ground, are abundant throughout this more recent volume, and the organizational structure of the New Mexico Environmental Symposium, as well as its subject, seem to be consciously patterned on the seminar at University of California, Irvine, that produced Cronon's book.
The collection is divided into two parts. In Part I, "Biology and Culture," Dan Flores, Virginia Scharff, Vera Norwood, and Max Oelschlaeger "focus their discussions on issues of evolution, biological determinism, and the cultural construction of nature" (p. 9). In Part II, "Human/Nature Stories," William deBuys, John Herron, Paul Hirt, and Andrew Kirk "illustrate how assumptions of human nature manifest themselves in American culture in general and the politics of environmentalism in particular" (p. 77). One of the strengths of such a symposium-generated volume is the opportunity it provides for a sustained exchange of ideas. Participants might more fully reflect that exchange--the give and take, the point-counterpoint, the disagreements--in the published proceedings. In this case, the opportunity for an intense exchange of views is never quite realized. While there are several references to disagreements among the participants and the "argumentative" quality of some of the essays, evidence of such ferment is fleeting.
The editors strategically place Dan Flores' "Nature's Children" first, offering this "meditation on sociobiology" as the "most iconoclastic and thought-provoking essay" in the collection because of its conclusion that we are "biologically determined to a degree that is uncomfortable for many to accept" (9). Yet, while Flores' essay is certainly thought-provoking, it provokes little in the way of direct comment in the essays that follow. I suspect this is because his argument is far more subtle than the editors' brief summary allows. His call for a reconsideration of sociobiology follows his conclusion that "environmental history . . . is going to have to investigate humanness at a deeper level even than culture or materialist economics to understand some of the reasons our species interacts with the world around us the way we do" (p. 19). His reading of sociobiology is rooted in Reform Darwinism rather than its evil cousin Social Darwinism, the latter of which serves as a straw man in several of the other contributors' references to sociobiology. Flores' claim is simple: we need to take biology (and psychology) seriously not because they are rigidly deterministic but because we need to be fully aware of what we are up against when we are working to change human behavior. To assume that the causes of the "human assault on the world"--that is, the environmental crisis in all its manifestations--is a result simply of acculturation and socialization gone wrong is to oversimplify both the problem and what is necessary to address it. In the course of his essay, Flores rather neatly (and respectfully) debunks much of the romanticizing mythology that still surrounds discussions of Native American attitudes toward nature, the supposed ecological purity of paleolithic and hunter-gatherer societies, and the utopian nostalgia of Deep Ecology. The challenge he offers, that environmental historians approach biological human history not as evidence for the futility of culture but as "an opportunity to let our genes in on the recognized dangers-and the wondrous potential-of being animal," seems more rhetorical than argumentative (p. 26). It is a well-wrought plea for balance between a rigid biological determinism on the one hand and a just as rigid cultural and social determinism on the other. Who could argue with that?
Well, certainly not the other contributors to this volume. The essays that follow, rather than taking up Flores' challenge directly, are content to give their own spin to the pendulum: this looks like culture at work, this one appears to be biology, and that one, well, the jury is still out. Ultimately, the concept of "human nature" proves to be just as slippery to this group of scholars as "nature" proved to be to those assembled by Cronon, and perhaps that is the point. Still, too much time is spent reinventing the wheel ("Look: another culturally constructed idea about nature!!"), and too little time is devoted to exploring the specific issues identified in the volume's introduction (the way our understanding of environmental issues and environmental politics are shaped by our ideas about human nature). One of the premises of this collection is that our ability to address important environmental issues--climate change, environmental justice, extinction-depends upon a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of human nature. In the end, these essays do not bring us much closer to that worthy goal.
What Human/Nature does do is to present several pithy illustrations of thoughtful environmental historians at work. In addition to Flores' delightful meditation, I look forward to incorporating Vera Norwood's "Constructing Gender and Nature" into my next Nature and Culture class. Norwood reads John Burroughs' and Florence Merriam's observations of birds as a case study in the way human ideas about gender shape so called "objective" field observations of natural creatures in their natural habitat. Merriam's observations focus on female birds, cooperative behavior, and parenting responsibilities; Burroughs concentrates on male birds and the value of aggression. Taken together, these virtual contemporaries concisely--perhaps too concisely--reflect the very different masculine and feminine traditions of nature study in the late 19th century. Paul Hirt's "Dupes, Conspirators, Truth Seekers, and Other Breeds" is an imaginative reading of the types of human animal that populate selected environmental histories, including Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood and Nancy Langston's Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares. Though far from exhaustive, Hirt's essay models an exercise in historiographical taxonomy that all teachers of environmental history ought to practice with their students.
Human/Nature is neither more nor less than the sum of its parts. While most of the essays stand as valuable contributions in their own right, as a collection they do not quite accomplish the goal of furthering our understanding of "the complicated social, cultural, political, and historical implications of the idea of human nature" (p. 3).
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Charles Mitchell. Review of Herron, John P; Kirk, Andrew G, ed., Human/Nature: Biology, Culture, and Environmental History.
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