May 05, 2003

Natural and Artificial

The Natural and The Artificial

Herbert Simon makes a distinction between the Natural and the Artificial that I have found useful over the years. To first cut, the Natural is everything that can be separated from human intentionality and the Artificial is that which reflects human intentionality. In more detail:

  • Artificial things are synthesized by humans

  • Artificial things may imitate appearances of natural things

  • Artificial things can be characterized in terms of functions, goals, adaptation

  • Artificial things are often discussed, particularly when they are being designed, in terms of imperatives as well as descriptives

  • Natural things are everything that is leftover

    Over the last several decades the Artificial has encroached steadily on the Natural. It is sometimes stated that there are no ecosystems on Earth that are untouched by Human influence (indeed to the extent that those systems have plants that have physiological response to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, this statement must be true). But untouched does not imply that the systems themselves are now artificial; the details of their function may be changed, but it is still independent of human intentionality. That distinction and argument is fairly straight forward in the Arctic, but what about in Manhattan?

    As I have thought about the urban environmental systems, I have begun to question the usefulness of Simon's distinction in such highly engineered environments. I can not quite convince myself that the Natural has been completely swamped (after all the winds still obey the laws of fluid dynamics), but at some level it seems that the distinction has been thoroughly blurred.

    Consider the trophic structure of a city. To what extent does it reflect human intentionality? The biodiversity is extremely low with a small number of very hearty species dominating the biomass. Those hearty species depend in large part on human refuse for their food. Thus we might argue that while very large parts of the urban ecosystem imitate the appearance of natural ecosystems (albeit sick ones perhaps), they are in fact synthesized by humans. The ecosystem of a city is in large part the a by product of the rest of the city's designed elements. The trophic structure of the NYC subway is an unintended consequence of the need to move a remarkably large number of people around a very small and congested environment; it trophic structure in that environment natural or artificial? In terms of imperatives, we try to destroy it constantly.

    There has been a lot of discussion about whether humans are parts of the natural system. To my mind that is a question that does not have a useful answer. Humans are clearly a part of the singular Earth system, but we are a special part. We have intentionality that is of particular importance to us. So where there was a time during which humans might consider themselves apart from nature, we are now increasingly intertwined with nature despite (or perhaps because) of our efforts to isolate ourselves from the vagaries of Earth's natural systems.

    Wrapping up, I think that it is important that we carry the notion of a distinction between that which reflects human intentionality and that which is independent of it, but that we also recognize that that distinction maybe coming increasingly difficult to discern. This blurring increases the importance of developing decision-making processes that recognize the potential for far reaching human impacts on Earth's functioning.