It's Syllabus Time
October 19, 2011 8:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm designing a university course on the grand ol' theme of humanity's place in nature. What are some readings on this topic, from any discipline, that have fascinated/moved/influenced you?

The course is called Human Nature, and it's in the philosophy department, but I've got the blessing of the chair not to tell the usual story (i.e. "Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau: are we essentially naughty or nice?").

Instead, I'm treating it as an interdisciplinary humanities course, essentially "Human(ity's Place in Nonhuman) Nature." The main question I want to explore is about the relationship between our post-Darwinian conception of ourselves as One More Animal, and our conduct toward nonhuman nature.

So: what writing on the theme of our relationship with nonhuman nature has been memorable to you? It can be expository/argumentative (e.g. E.O. Wilson), or more contemplative (e.g. Annie Dillard). I am cool with any medium (chapters and essays in any genre, poetry, even films--I may show Grizzly Man, for example). I'm just trying to get ideas of things it'd be fun to teach. Thanks!
posted by Beardman to Religion & Philosophy (42 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: P.S. The course is lower-level and will have no prerequisites; most of the students will have just high school and a smattering of random intro-level classes.
posted by Beardman at 8:25 AM on October 19, 2011

Peter Singer.
posted by box at 8:26 AM on October 19, 2011

Collapse, by Diamond?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:28 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might take a peek in this book, which was the text used when I took a similar class (in the psych dept) with the author as prof.
posted by illenion at 8:39 AM on October 19, 2011

Grizzly Man is a fantastic idea.

I like Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, which meditates at times on humans connection to remote and unforgiving places. It shouldn't be difficult to pull out a useful section or two.

If I were teaching a humanities course on our relationship with non-human nature, I'd probably want to spend some (well a lot) of my time with Moby-Dick, but I can easily see why someone wouldn't.

And I say this as someone who finds Rousseau maddening -- even if you're veering from the usual story, you may want to pay him a visit along your route anyway.
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:42 AM on October 19, 2011

Wendell Berry poetry
posted by maggieb at 8:43 AM on October 19, 2011

and John Muir
posted by maggieb at 8:43 AM on October 19, 2011

Oooo, throw some anthropology stuff in there. Off the top of my head: Mismatch: Why Our World No Longer Fits Our Bodies. This book sort of forces you to challenge your assumptions about how modern humans live and whether it's 'right' for us, biologically speaking, and talks some about the relationship between culture and biology (which is a super interesting topic).
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:44 AM on October 19, 2011

Noel Castree's Nature
posted by thewestinggame at 8:44 AM on October 19, 2011

Sounds like a good excuse to read Ishmael. (Although practically every college student already has.)
posted by General Malaise at 8:47 AM on October 19, 2011


Possibly some of the passages in Paradise Lost where Adam and Eve are tending the garden before the Fall--lots of stuff about how they're supposed to relate to nature and to God, which is interesting partly because this is what Milton considered to be an ideal state.

Wordsworth's "The Tables Turned," which includes the famous "One impulse from a vernal wood/May teach you more of man,/Of moral evil and of good,/Than all the sages can."

Also maybe an excerpt from Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H. Canto 56 reads "Who trusted God was love indeed/And love Creation's final law?/Though nature, red in tooth and claw/With ravine, shriek'd against his creed?"

For these two, it's important to note that Wordsworth was writing at the height of the English Romantic movement, whereas Tennyson was writing a generation later just before Darwin published The Origin of Species.

For more recent stuff, Wendell Berry springs to mind.

(And on preview, I like the Moby Dick suggestion, though it would be hard to do it justice without devoting a lot of class time to it.)
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 8:50 AM on October 19, 2011

John McPhee's Control of Nature, for sure.
posted by rtha at 9:01 AM on October 19, 2011

Well, Frankenstein and Silent Spring are certainly toward the darker end of this discussion.
posted by jph at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2011

This is kind of old, but growing up I loved Kon-Tiki, a great adventure story about six Norwegian explorers adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a raft.

I believe there are two good anthologies of nature writing from Norton and Oxford--have you considered using them?

Otherwise, I like Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Lyanda Lynn Haupt's Crow Planet, and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

Loren Eisely(The Immense Journey) and Annie Dillard(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) are also classics.

And don't forget Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which was really seminal in a lot of ways.
posted by tully_monster at 9:04 AM on October 19, 2011

This may be too far of a reach, but if you wanted something from the angle of humans making money & how that affects all of nature, there's Paul Hawkins' The Ecology of Commerce.
posted by yoga at 9:06 AM on October 19, 2011

I've always enjoyed The History of Walking

Two enduringly fascinating concepts -- sources for neither.

1) The concepts of 'wilderness' in Europe and Western America. In the American West, wilderness is considered as largely untouched land. In Europe -- due to space constraints -- wilderness is land that is stewarded by and for people.

2) In Western art, there is often the theme of man's domination of nature -- man as prime subject and animals as minor-coinhabitants.

In Chinese art, historically, the people were dominated by the natural setting, thus the arching mountains that take up much of the canvass and man as a small junk painted near the horizon.

Both examples that constructs of and relationships to 'nature' are artificial.
posted by nickrussell at 9:07 AM on October 19, 2011

Might want to slip the Total Perspective Vortex in there somewhere to cleanse the palate, as it were.
posted by stevis23 at 9:07 AM on October 19, 2011

Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.
posted by mareli at 9:09 AM on October 19, 2011

Into The Wild
posted by mkultra at 9:12 AM on October 19, 2011

I like a lot of the literature suggestions, by the way, especially Paradise Lost. Maybe Walden is too obvious, but a lot of the American transcendentalists just aren't taught anymore and probably should be. Whitman, of course. For modernists, Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Anecdote of the Jar" might be good choices.

In October and November, my thoughts usually turn to the Great War and its poets, and so I recommend Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches" and "Returning, we hear the larks" both of which seem rather poignantly about how war alienates man from nature.
posted by tully_monster at 9:18 AM on October 19, 2011

oops, I didn't see mkultra's posting of Walden above, and my comment not meant as a criticism--just a comment on how the great and most obvious works are no longer taught.
posted by tully_monster at 9:19 AM on October 19, 2011

Nature Cure by Richard Mabey
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
"The Forest Path to the Spring" by Malcolm Lowry (short essay, collected in Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place)
The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis

[and, a wildly eccentric choice, The Peregrine by J.A. Baker]
posted by hydatius at 9:28 AM on October 19, 2011

I second Frankenstein. This allows you to show movies (since you are not dealing with a well-read crowd) such as Blowup, Bladerunner, The Conversation -- all of which are about the limits of our ability to control technology (which is often the subtext of conversations about man vs. nature).
posted by johngumbo at 9:31 AM on October 19, 2011

> "a lot of the American transcendentalists just aren't taught anymore and probably should be."

Maybe so, but please no Emerson: "This is the prose of a crazy person."
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:47 AM on October 19, 2011

I read "The Forest People" in a similar class, which is a British anthropologist observing an African indigenous society. Interesting both to see a different society interacting with nature in a very different way, and because of the inevitability of observer's bias in it, which I think is a bit easier to see (at least for undergrads) when the book is a little older and the author's worldview not quite so present to the current students.

Anyway, I absolutely loved this book, and then every now and then it'd pull me up short and I'd say, "Wait -- I don't think they think that. I think he thinks they think that ...." Which was good for me as a credulous undergrad!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:54 AM on October 19, 2011

Two works that I think are really interesting approaches to whether humanity should concern itself with being a steward of nature, apart from it and minimizing animal suffering, or simply another animal in the continuuum of the food-chain who, as part of the cycle of carnivory, is morally justified in consuming flesh of other creatures in order to sustain itself. Not coincidentally, both of these works couch those questions in the context of colonialism, which I would argue has most of the same moral decisions as vegetarianism-versus-carnivory: to what degree can we justify our power to brutalize the weaker, simply because we, like, really really want to?

Disgrace, a fairly relentless novel by J.M. Coetzee. At certain points, the protagonist sees himself as acting out his animal nature (thereby justifying his actions to himself) by shirking certain social guidelines agreed upon by the humans who surround him. At other points, he feels impotent rage at being on the receiving end of an alien clan's similarly blithe exercise of will. Coetzee never explicitly calls this flip between dominance and subjugation "karma", but there's a bit of that word implied in a non-supernatural way, I think; the protagonists' changing-fortune situations are placed side-by-side as a way of highlighting: "Look, a lack of regulation on the dominator does not exactly a pleasant planet make."

At the end of the book, the protagonist volunteers at an animal shelter where part of his job is unsentimentally killing unwanted animals, raising questions of whether civilized humanity's capability for dispassion is in fact a necessary part of acting compassionately toward the weak. Throughout, the narrative voice is amazingly unjudgemental (which I found gave the book a sickeningly inexorable tone as it related the cruelties in the narrative), but I think that neutrality would provide a fantastic jumping-off point for class discussion.

Ravenous, far from the disturbing trauma of Coetzee, is a superbly cheesy, beautifully-shot horror/pseudo-Western movie directed by Antonia Bird. Cheerfully gory and atmospheric with enough Hollywood-style "THE KILLER IS INSIDE THE HOUSE" to provide a bit more emotional distance from horror than Coetzee does.

The basic premise is that some American army-soldiers-cum-pioneers are stationed in the frozen wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains. These few men (with, incidentally, only one conspicuously-silent woman character in a film directed by a woman, which can also make this hella fertile ground for talking about feminism) in an isolated outpost of civilization, discover they can gain superhuman vitality by eating other humans.

The implication of the film is that: Yes, of course Civilization consumes weaker creatures to grow "greater"; that far from needing a Lord-Of-The-Flies-type scenario to bring out the most savage desire to dominate and destroy in amoral consumption, our entire species' history is based on the idea that wanton carnivory is simply what all Great Men and Aspiring Great Men do. That's one of the things I love about this film; cannibalism here is not portrayed as losing one's humanity, but gaining it; predation is the very foundation of our whole species' ascendance over the lesser creatures, and also Evil As Hell.

Other things I love about the film include Robert Carlyle's gleeful scenery-chewing, Jeffrey Jones doing his loveably bumbling schtick, and David Arquette appearing to only exist in the movie in order to make stoners feel better about the fact that they are HIGH AS HELL while watching it. Oh, and the Albarn/Nyman soundtrack, which is fucking INCREDIBLE

And hey, as a final third option, I myself would probably teach Cormac MacCarthy's Blood Meridian, since I can't help but read Holden as a parable of humanity's place in the natural world. As I see the novel, we are encouraged to think Judge Holden as the most Human of all the characters -- this hulking hairless white philosopher, far removed from the largely reactive and emotion-driven responses of the other characters, the least animalistic of all the men, the one with the answers to all problems.

Holden asserts that social bonds have no place in raising a proper child. Holden approaches art in the same way that he approaches killing: the imposition of systemic and artificial order so that the natural chaos of the world can be done away with. He draws nature and then destroys it, letting an intelligence-mediated representation of a thing replace the thing itself. Holden dances, and he will never stop dancing, for he is rising, he is the triumphant dominator; Holden is humanity separated wholly from nonhuman nature, and Holden thinks that's just fucking swell.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:58 AM on October 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, I don't know if this would fit your course or not, but given the huge influence of the Bible on Western man's view of nature -- Ellen Davis writes pretty extensively on ecology in the Bible; she's a leading light in the more recent move to read the Bible in an "environmentalist" light (with an emphasis on "stewardship" of the earth). She's also a crackerjack Biblical scholar. Here's one book, but you can find some shorter articles without much trouble.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:58 AM on October 19, 2011

The course is called Human Nature, and it's in the philosophy department [...] I'm treating it as an interdisciplinary humanities course, essentially "Human(ity's Place in Nonhuman) Nature."

This sounds like a straight-up human geography course. Check out Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, which is not a religious text but a look at how people began to conceive of "the world" and what our place is in it.
posted by psoas at 9:59 AM on October 19, 2011

Definitely Temple Grandin, the woman who uses her unique perspective as a person with autism to reform cattle slaughter. Very interesting stuff.
posted by amtho at 10:04 AM on October 19, 2011

Check out Timothy Morton's Ecology without Nature:
In Ecology without Nature, Timothy Morton argues that the chief stumbling block to environmental thinking is the image of nature itself. Ecological writers propose a new worldview, but their very zeal to preserve the natural world leads them away from the "nature" they revere. The problem is a symptom of the ecological catastrophe in which we are living. Morton sets out a seeming paradox: to have a properly ecological view, we must relinquish the idea of nature once and for all.

Ecology without Nature investigates our ecological assumptions in a way that is provocative and deeply engaging. Ranging widely in eighteenth-century through contemporary philosophy, culture, and history, he explores the value of art in imagining environmental projects for the future. Morton develops a fresh vocabulary for reading "environmentality" in artistic form as well as content, and traces the contexts of ecological constructs through the history of capitalism. From John Clare to John Cage, from Kierkegaard to Kristeva, from The Lord of the Rings to electronic life forms, Ecology without Nature widens our view of ecological criticism, and deepens our understanding of ecology itself. Instead of trying to use an idea of nature to heal what society has damaged, Morton sets out a radical new form of ecological criticism: "dark ecology."
It's fun, exciting, kind of cutting-edge, and deals exactly with your topic!

The "prequel" The Ecological Thought is also great:
In this passionate, lucid, and surprising book, Timothy Morton argues that all forms of life are connected in a vast, entangling mesh. This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement, Morton contends, nor does “Nature” exist as an entity separate from the uglier or more synthetic elements of life. Realizing this interconnectedness is what Morton calls the ecological thought.

In three concise chapters, Morton investigates the profound philosophical, political, and aesthetic implications of the fact that all life forms are interconnected. As a work of environmental philosophy and theory, The Ecological Thought explores an emerging awareness of ecological reality in an age of global warming. Using Darwin and contemporary discoveries in life sciences as root texts, Morton describes a mesh of deeply interconnected life forms—intimate, strange, and lacking fixed identity.
posted by mbrock at 10:13 AM on October 19, 2011

Also, I think it would foster fascinating discussion to paid Ovid's Metamorphoses (often the transmutation of humans INTO nature! but ending with this kind of weird question of immortality) with something like, "The World Without Us." How enduring are our contributions? How important is immortality if we're just another creature that will go extinct? What effect could this have on the human psyche? Will we all just become nihilists or will the endurance of human belief in our various mythologies carry us through - and if so, for how long?
posted by jph at 10:28 AM on October 19, 2011

(Ehh, sorry, those Morton books might not be great choices for an intro-level class.)
posted by mbrock at 10:36 AM on October 19, 2011

It's pretty essential that you include William Cronon's "The Trouble With Wilderness." It's a short read, and whether you agree with it or not, it drives right to the heart of late 20th century environmentalism. Pair it with Leopold's "Thinking Like a Mountain."
posted by one_bean at 11:22 AM on October 19, 2011

It would also definitely be fun to do some readings on Rewilding.
posted by one_bean at 11:23 AM on October 19, 2011

I would suggest Cronon and Leopold as well. A Sand County Almanac readings tend to go over well with biology majors, who tend to not be well read.

And for goodness sake, make sure you use the word ecology correctly--it is the branch of biology that deals with the relationships between organisms and between organisms and their environment. It is not environmentalism.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:38 AM on October 19, 2011

John Paul II's Centesimus Annus has some excellent, intro-level paragraphs (e.g., 36-39) touching on human ecology/Christian anthropology that would make a nice, very brief complement to any of the more "post-Darwinian" sources you allude to. (So does Benedict's Caritas in Veritate, a little more recent. See especially paragraphs 49-51, especially 51.)

Probably the best summary of both encyclicals is contained in the Pope's message for the World Day of Peace, 2010. If you don't use the paragraphs above, I would use this as a short reading assignment.

Benedict XVI recently gave an explanation for the Church's recent preoccupation with the environment in an address to the German Parliament last month, which I think you can use as a theme or topic in your course: a rational environmentalism (not just "the Earth is like our Mother, man") can be a bulwark against logical positivism, an attempt to use the material as a bridge to something beyond (or is it? hopefully someone in your class figures it out . . . ). He said:
[W]e must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this. But how are we to do this? How do we find our way out into the wide world, into the big picture? How can reason rediscover its true greatness, without being sidetracked into irrationality? How can nature reassert itself in its true depth, with all its demands, with all its directives? I would like to recall one of the developments in recent political history, hoping that I will neither be misunderstood, nor provoke too many one-sided polemics. I would say that the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s, while it has not exactly flung open the windows, nevertheless was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives. In saying this, I am clearly not promoting any particular political party – nothing could be further from my mind. If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture. Allow me to dwell a little longer on this point. The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a further point that is still largely disregarded, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.
It was perhaps ironic that many Greens boycotted the address.

Anyway . . . you lucky bastard. Sounds like a cool class.
posted by resurrexit at 11:44 AM on October 19, 2011

Gary Snyder! Specifically an essay or two from The Practice of The Wild.
posted by brackish.line at 12:50 PM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Deep Ecology
Deep ecology's core principle is the belief that, like humanity, the living environment as a whole has the same right to live and flourish. Deep ecology describes itself as "deep" because it persists in asking deeper questions concerning "why" and "how" and thus is concerned with the fundamental philosophical questions about the impacts of human life as one part of the ecosphere, rather than with a narrow view of ecology as a branch of biological science, and aims to avoid merely anthropocentric environmentalism, which is concerned with conservation of the environment only for exploitation by and for humans purposes, which excludes the fundamental philosophy of deep ecology. Deep ecology seeks a more holistic view of the world humans live in and seeks to apply to life the understanding that separate parts of the ecosystem (including humans) function as a whole.
posted by the fish at 2:37 PM on October 19, 2011

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous. It's basically Husserl + Merleau-Ponty + watered down cultural anthropology & ecology, aimed at a popular audience. Very smoothly written and definitely worth excerpting a chapter or two.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:50 PM on October 19, 2011

Emerson "Nature" and Thoreau "Wild Apples" and "Walking".

Also, let us know what you end up picking -- I want to read all. of. them.
posted by delight at 11:21 PM on October 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! I will be pouring through these suggestions for the next few weeks. Much appreciated.
posted by Beardman at 5:00 PM on October 22, 2011

I am surprised no-one has mentioned Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons, which very nicely outlines the micro and macro level conflict about economic benefit and environmental degradation.
posted by biffa at 3:57 PM on October 25, 2011

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