Is Agroecology natural? Is natural good?

with the stress on “reasonably”) that the absence of a clear, scientific demonstration is not in itself a good enough reason for rejecting any particular idea. We might argue, after all, that the appeal to science and logic is itself arbitrary – certainly not a bedrock guide to veracity. Maths itself, the great universal arbiter of science, is itself full of untestable assumptions, as was pointed out in the early 20th century (by Kurt Godel).

In the mid 19th century Cardinal Henry Newman argued along comparable lines. He conceded that there may indeed be no logical connection between what is and what ought to be, just as Hume demanded. But, he said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection.  Often we are led from one idea to another not by one single thread of reasoning but by a whole series of smaller arguments or observations that all lead in the same direction and between them are as convincing as we can hope for. He made an analogy with a ship’s hawser. It is compounded only from short lengths of hemp or manila yet they hold the mightiest ships to the quayside even though no single thread runs all the way from the one to the other. There is a rough analogy here with the modern physical concept of non-linearity. By the same token, there may be no unimpeachably logical connection between nature and morality but many different notions and feelings prompt us to suppose that there is – and such feelings should not be ignored.

Feelings indeed, in making moral decisions, are vital. As Hume himself pointed out, “The rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason.” Yet they are none the worse for that for as he also said, “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought to be only the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Putting all this together, we may indeed accept Moore’s condemnation of “the naturalistic fallacy” but what really counts in the end in matters of morality is what we feel to be the case — although we can, of course, and should, use reason to refine our feelings. Thus most of us do feel in our bones that although it is not good simply to do what comes naturally, it is especially bad to do things that seem to us to be unnatural. It is a particularly terrible thing, we feel, for parents to abandon their children – because it “goes against nature”. By the same token, successive popes (in line with statements by St Paul) have condemned both homosexuality and contraception on the grounds that they thwart God’s purpose. This is a dubious argument on several grounds but it shows, nonetheless, that appeals to what is “natural” do in practice play a very large part in practical moral thinking, despite Moore.

But there is also, strange though it may seem, a Darwinian and hence an unimpeachably biological reason for suggesting that nature is intrinsically good. Natural selection, after all, when you strip it to its bones – when you ask what part of the argument is unquestionably true – simply says that some creatures (or genes; it does not affect the argument) survive better than others; and that those that are better able to survive are more likely to produce offspring that those that are less able. Various people including Darwin speculated on the kind of characteristics that would promote survival and some (including pre-Darwinian scientists like the Scot, James Hutton) suggested commonsensically enough that gazelles that were fleet of foot would have a better chance in life than the slow-coaches, so that’s what natural selection should favour. Such arguments envisage that gazelles would constantly be competing with cheetahs or in some parts of their range with wolves – or indeed competing with their fellows to escape from cheetahs and wolves. Darwin himself saw competition as a key driver of natural selection – and this is what sticks in most people’s minds, including most biologists’ minds, when they think of natural selection.

But Darwin himself observed how often we see cooperativeness in nature – and professed to be puzzled by it. Yet if we ask, with a cool head, and without preconception, what is the best, general survival tactic of all we would, I suggest, conclude that it’s cooperativeness. Life as a whole, for all that it struck Tennyson as “red in tooth and claw” is fundamentally cooperative. Cooperativeness trumps competitiveness. Life must have begun as a cooperative between different classes of molecules of separate origins. The organism is a master-class in cooperation. So are ecosystems, taken all in all. So indeed is the universe. If it were not so, everything would fall apart.

All the great religions, at their core, agree that the greatest of all virtues is compassion. Compassion is the core of morality, as the present Dalai Lama constantly emphasizes. Compassion implies true concern for others, whether of the same or other species. This concern comes naturally to us. It is an evolved feature. The biological root of compassion, I suggest, is the desire to cooperate —  a desire favoured by natural selection because it leads to cooperativeness which is the principal survival tactic.

I developed that argument in my latest book, Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice. Many no doubt will say it is naïve but no-one has yet knocked it down and it seems to me to provide a good defence – a biological defence – of the notion that nature is innately good, since nature is cooperative and cooperativeness leads to compassion and compassion is the core of goodness. So the argument vindicates, at least in part, the idea that it ought to be good to emulate nature.

But actually, we can cut through this whole convoluted line of thinking – one that has been going on for thousands of years and can never ultimately be resolved – simply by pointing out that the agroecologist’s appeal to nature has nothing to do with the naturalistic fallacy at all. The naturalistic fallacy is a about morals. Agroecologists do not seek to emulate nature because that is morally good and may ease their passage into Heaven, but because it works. The point is not moral, but practical. The gap between the actual and the moral which some have argued is unbridgeable does not actually need to be bridged. The high-sounding appeal to the naturalistic fallacy is simply not appropriate. I have argued the point here only because clever people have brought it up and stones like this should not be left unturned.

In short: we cannot and obviously should not seek to replicate all that nature does. That would be ridiculous (and of course impossible). But we can identify particular features of ecosystems that seem to be well worth trying to match: their commendable if rarely maximal productivity under all kinds of circumstance; their persistence; and their ability to adapt to changing conditions. These features (whatever the caveats and conditional clauses) seem to be related to their diversity, the synergies born of this diversity, and the generally low input – certainly the freedom from fossil fuels.

So I will continue to argue that farmers should emulate nature – though taking more care to point out that “should” is not meant in the moral sense, and “emulate” does not mean “slavishly mimic”.

Colin Tudge, February 14 2014

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