- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008



Even if it were not for religious dogma which assures us of man’s special place in the universe, few would doubt that mankind is a unique being in the animal kingdom. While we share most biological processes with other animals - we reproduce sexually, and we rely on nutrients, sunlight and water to thrive - there are certain aspects of our nature, namely our capacities for self-awareness and abstract reasoning, which set us apart from the animal kingdom. Some have taken this uniqueness to imply that because mankind possesses superior intelligence, the human race can somehow flout nature’s laws and get away with it. The wise money has it that nature will get the last laugh.

Modern humans, at approximately 50,000 years old if archaeology is to be believed, constitute a remarkably young species. We have only been on the planet for a relatively short period of time. Long before human beings arrived, dinosaurs had ruled for almost 100 million years. The earth itself is more than four billion years old. Yet, despite being new kids on the block many of us feel that we hold the keys to defeating nature.

This may partly stem from the fact that human culture has evolved in complexity over the past few centuries. In most Western societies, the majority of the population no longer lives directly off the land. Most of us don’t grow our own food, dig our own wells or hunt our own game. The average meat-eater has probably never seen an animal slaughtered. To obtain food, we simply go to a grocery store or market and plunk down some cash or a credit card. One of the most basic of biological functions - gathering nourishment - takes place at such an abstract level that we are not conscious of the process of how food got to our plates. We have lost touch with the importance of rain, soil and climate. But these things are of utmost importance to the continuation of the human race.

Growing up on a farm in South Carolina, my brothers and I would get up before dawn and begin the farming chores, hoping to make the most of every daylight hour available before it got too hot to work in the fields at midday. When working on the land, one becomes acutely aware of the seasons, the quality of soil, and the bent of the breeze. One realizes that we live within nature, and that despite our knowledge of certain principles of agriculture or animal husbandry, we are not the creators or the controllers or anything. As good farmers, we learned to read the signs and adapt to nature rather than trying to control it.

Because many of us city folks have access to electricity and we live inside buildings, many of us have even forgotten the difference between day and night. Many people rise well after daylight, and go to sleep well after the sun sets. No longer bound by the availability of sunlight, we feel we can rise when we please and get to bed when it suits us. But in doing so we forget that our biology is best suited for activity during the day and rest during the evening. Were it not so, we would have been blessed with eyes that can see in the dark. Modern research has revealed our circadian rhythms - that is the way that our bodies regulate hormone reproduction - correspond to a 24-hour day. Disrupting these natural patterns has been associated with the onset of depression, bipolar disease and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), among other problems.

Despite evidence to the contrary, in our own minds we have become convinced that we can overcome nature. New Orleans is a perfect example. The wisdom of building a city below sea level is somewhat questionable, but modern engineering makes it possible. Yet nature’s fury has a way of convincing us otherwise. People blame the state of disrepair in the levees for the Hurricane Katrina disaster. However, even if the levees had been fully functioning, the tragedy might have occurred. The lesson of Katrina is simple: if at all possible, don’t build a city below sea level. People might counter that countries like the Netherlands have done so successfully. But the Netherlands itself experienced a cataclysmic flood in 1953 that killed almost 2,000 of its citizens. In response, it built the most complex water management system known to man - a system that is 50 times stronger than New Orleans’ levees. Yet, it has not been fully tested by events - it remains to be seen whether or not a mammoth storm can defeat its defenses.

Just because we live in cities and have made significant scientific advances does not mean that we can just disregard the power of nature. While we may think we’re winning, in the long run we could lose big if we are not careful to observe the signs and act accordingly. Although we may be spiritual beings with lofty aspirations, that does not negate the fact that we are rooted in the natural world and subject to its laws.

Armstrong Williams‘ column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays. “The Armstrong Williams Show” is broadcast on WPGC-AM 1580 in Washington and XM Satellite Power 169.

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