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Excerpt from Dreams

Merciless Toaster (p. 99)

From chapter "Life Wants to Live"

I’m looking at a website called www.richarddawkins.net (subtitled, presumably with not a smidge of irony, “A Clear-thinking Oasis”—a title made all the more ironic because I’m sure most of the regular posters would insist to their dying gasp that oases cannot think). I’m not sure if me looking at this website means I’m a glutton for punishment, or if it means I’m willing to suffer for my art.

I’m reading an essay by Sam Harris, an ally of Dawkins and a full- blown nature-hater in his own right. The essay is entitled “Mother Nature is Not Our Friend.” It begins, “Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology.

“Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything [sic] that [sic] lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is.The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.”

The whole essay is as shoddy as it is full of nature-hating. I’m not sure, for example, why he couldn’t be bothered to spend a whole thirty seconds doing a Google search to learn that only one of the major mass extinctions was probably caused by an asteroid. I’m also not sure why he didn’t just say that nature is red in tooth and claw, and be done with it.

But the point he raises is part of what has been bothering me about this exploration of mass extinctions.

The premises and other preconditions of any story nearly always determine the direction of that story. They especially determine a story’s morality, and even moreso they determine the moral of the story (which is not the same as the story’s morality). The story of multiple mass extinctions is based on data gathered by scientists using the premises, methods, and tools of science, then turned into stories by these or other scientists using the framework of scientific stories to assign meaning to these data points. I may have found in it a fascinating pattern—that fungi are capable of surviving conditions under which most other species become extinct—but the moral most people will find in this story, driven by those who initiated its telling, is precisely that of the larger scientific, materialist, instrumentalist, mechanistic perspective: that “Nature” is, as Harris says, “indifferent.” If Harris were a clear-enough thinker to have even a little bit of internal consistency, he would say that “Nature” is insensate; indifference implies a capacity to feel. I can reasonably be described as indifferent as to whether the Knicks or the Spurs win tomorrow night. That may also be true for you. But one does not normally describe one’s clothes hamper as “indifferent” to the outcome of tomorrow night’s game.

Harris’s sloppy word usage here is indicative of something far deeper than unclear thinking. His use of the word indifferent wasn’t the only interesting choice of words. Another was his title: “Mother Nature is Not Our Friend.”I am fascinated by the fact that although people like Harris and Dawkins claim to believe that the universe is mechanistic, they often use emotion-packed words like mother and friend and trust and merciless. Their language is quite often hostile, as though they’re describing not a machine, as they pretend, but rather an enemy, or someone who has betrayed them. Think about this in your own life: how often have you said that your clothes hamper is not your friend? How often have you said your toaster is merciless? If you truly believe that something—something—is utterly insensate, you would hardly be likely to describe this thing as a friend or an enemy or as anything other than a thing. I can’t prove this, of course, but it seems very clear to me that the emotions these “clear thinkers” express toward life and toward the natural world are not the sort of neutral feelings one would normally experience and express toward an inanimate object, but rather a hatred toward, and fear of, life and the natural.

The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins (and indeed most people in this culture)—that of believing that the universe is “merciless” or is otherwise insufficient and needs to be significantly manipulated and/or improved in order to make it bearable—is a driving force behind the murder of the planet. It is in utter contrast to the perspectives and motivations of most of the indigenous, who generally perceive the natural world as sufficient, as bountiful, as beautiful, as generous, as provider, as mother, as father, as family. The perspective that underlies civilization is not only murderous, but it is also extraordinarily ungrateful; whether or not you believe the universe is mechanical, it gave you your life, your extraordinary, unique, awe-filled life. Unless your life truly is miserable, to not show gratitude for this gift is to show yourself a spoiled, immature wretch.