Beleg' ya lam, t'a vonga a yineng' tiga, bassin guiblemdé massem.

If, abused by promising words, the stupid uproots the tree in front of his house, he will have to look for shade farther away.

Yelboundi möré

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Nature and Artifice

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(original in French and in Chinese)

It is traditional in urban societies to see Nature as a lost Paradise. Yet, Nature is indifferent to any kind of ethics or esthetics. Nature thrives to survive and develop wherever it can. In contrast, artefacts wither and decay, they can only survive when maintained and repaired. Domestic plants and animals are unable to spread without a considerable hand from Man. This is not the case with wild plants and animals, which may develop in an uncontrolled way: this happens in islands (Lamma Island in Hong Kong is invaded by climbing weeds) and in continents: Australia does not succeed in keeping the Mediterranean flora at bay. For those who try to fight against these dangerous invasions, a catalog of the most invasive plants is maintained at the  European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization. There exists also invasive animals, usually when they are displaced from their ancestral niche.

The variety of forms in Nature, if one discards those forms that derive from Life, is far from infinite. This variety is created by many rules, tending to perpetuate the general properties of solids — the tetraedron, the cube, the octaedron, the dodecaedron and the icosaedron —, or properties of more intricate structures, where there is a general conservation of form, independently of the scale at which one is studying the object — these objects have been named fractals by Benoît Mandelbrodt. This is why, generally speaking, just isolating a fragment of rock or soil, it is easy to tell whether it has witnessed life: life always appears as the result of some kind of artefact. When analyzing meteorites supposed to come from planet Mars, scientists of the US NASA discovered tubular shapes, and they tried to persuade the world that this was the landmark of life on Mars. It was soon observed however that clays, in the absence of any life form, can not only generate tree like structures, but also tubes and spherules, which, true, may have some resemblance with living entities. However, their regularity, and the limitations in their forms is far from the incredible invention of life forms.

Thus, for the biologist, life is immediately told from non-living nature, because, even in fossilized form, it displays some sort of arbitrariness, some sort of inventive property, that the usual laws of physics would not permit things to reach easily. In contrast, for the layman, at least in to-day's western civilisations, the concept of Nature contains some sort of vitalism: a purely mineral landscape is told to be dead, funebre, without pity; and what is perceived as natural is what is somehow endowed with a spark of life. A drug chemical, produced by engineering, is perceived as artificial, whereas the same chemical, isolated from a plant or an animal would be natural. In contrast, all civilizations rest on an opposite view of Nature. Each have endeavoured to separate Man from Nature, and to characterize its specificity — eventhough, or perhaps because, it is recognized as an animal — by the fact that he dominated nature, and that the rules he created were foreign to the rules of Nature. Even witchcraft, when using natural products, was endowing them with some kind of essence that permitted those who controlled the process to tell the difference between inhuman Nature, and humanity. The practice of ordeal was supposed to be the core illustration of the control of man on nature — at least of those persons who were pure from sins against the normal rules of society, including the appropriate respect to Nature itself. In traditional civilisations, therefore, Nature had to be tamed and controlled by man. It displayed a variety of dangerous properties, and man had to exert his control by appropriate social practices. At the same time however Nature was supposed to be very fragile, and had to be protected from the invasive intrusion of man. These practices, witnessing the positive (and dangerous) character of man-made artefacts, were at the core of society, and paved the relationships between its members. Recently however, with the continuous questioning of the arbitrariness of social rules together with the emphasis placed on the individual ego, the place of Nature in the background ideas of westerners has been reversed. I shall review here some of the important consequences of this displacement.

It is not possible within the scope of this article to discuss the origin of this shift, which reversed the relative positions of nature and artifice, but I shall illustrate how it has dangerously oriented the untold thought in the west, resulting in the most dangerous habits, which are at the root of the spreading of what can be considered dangerous diseases, and dangerous ideas as well.

The nature of Mankind

Man is the measure of all things. As soon as it is born — and even earlier — an infant begins to be rooted in a civilisation, which practices a given language, and all kinds of customs. The initial postulate for anybody, therefore, is not to question the origin of this language or these customs, but to adopt them, taking them for granted. For a long time, the main task of society was to persuade into its members that the place where one belongs is the only right place, that which knows how to behave, and how to understand the course of things. Yet, when the child comes to adulthood, it must confront the fact that its society is not the only one existing in the world. Other societies exist, which have other practices, other tongues, other habits, and other views of the world. The deep function of the "initiation" rites — only really understood by a very small minority of those who pass through it — was to make the individual understand and accept that the social practices are artefacts, and that if he or she had been born elsewhere, he or she would behave and believe in a different way. So far, so good. A continent like sub-saharian Africa was thus a true laboratory of social experiments, where all kinds of social structures could be tested, and confronted to hundreds of behaviours and languages. There was however a common feature to these very diverse civilisations, Man, the nature of Mankind was defined by specific social practices. And the purpose of initiation, precisely, was to permit the individual to become a true member of Mankind, precisely by accepting, although and because they are artefacts, the code, language and rules of his or her society. Thus, the definition of humanity is linked to the acceptance of the fact that every individual must have and obey arbitrary rules. Mankind is defined by its social practices, by the fact that they are inherited through language and codes, and belong therefore to a domain which is entirely foreign to Nature.

Of course, this behaviour is spread throughout the world, in the West and in the East, in the North and in the South alike. But, among the different civilisations which inhabit the Earth, some have the pretention to carry some sort of Universal Truth, which they want, therefore, to communicate to the rest of the world, to permit all men to be part of Mankind. It is no place in this article to discuss this observation, and the reasons that are at its root (monotheistic religions and science play there a major role). Suffice it to remark that, in parallel with a variety of reasons justifying the existence of a universal behaviour (which, incidentally, is not the same in all western-type countries: the universalism of communism is clearly distinct from that of the american-type democracy), the humanity of man has shifted from a social definition (what makes me a member of mankind is that I belong to this specific society), to a pervasive "universal" definition, that of the individual, of the ego (what makes me a member of mankind, is just me, an individual with values — in fact, one major value, that measured by the power of venality, what can be bought). This shift in values, from the social to the egotistic values, has happened in a context where the distribution of men throughout the countryside was replaced everywhere by their enormous local concentration, due to rapid urbanisation.

With this background, the very idea of freedom took a strange attire. It regressed to the state which predated the constitution of human societies. Freedom is now very similar to the old "law of the strongest", in a context where the decreasing presence of social rules more and more often creates automatic collective behaviours. This may seem paradoxical, but it is not so: individual automata, that only recognize the automata that are next to themselves, easily exhibit automatic collective behaviours. I remember very well the advertisements that were posted in the Paris subway, when China began to open to the West. These were for blue jeans: and the advertisement, representing oriental people, said, "now that we are free to do what we choose, we shall buy this type of trousers"… Remark that this ad was speaking explicitely about freedom, and about individual behaviour: but its clear outcome was, of course, slavery, and a collective automatic behaviour — the exact opposite of freedom —, since the aim of the profit-maker there, was to have one billion Chinese wearing the same type of trousers! And indeed, when one is nowadays travelling in the World there are hardly any place where one would not see men and women alike, wearing the same ugly type of blue garment, in a sad uniformity, witnessing the reconstitution of slavery in the name of freedom. Interestingly this demonstrates the shift of power from that of a social structure built on centuries of reflections and practices, to that of a few astute profit-makers: the same as for trousers can be said, of course, of cars, TV sets, desperately poor rythms and stereotyped noises, and the like. At this point, it would be interesting to explore the new meanings of what may define humanity. But this is not my purpose here, let us go back to nature and artifice.

Nature and artifice

The preceding paragraph was meant to set the stage. The new concept of Nature that is invading western civilisations has to be placed in this context of fierce urbanisation, of emphasis on the ego, and on the derived collective automatic unconscious behaviour. Towns are full of man-made artefacts, houses, streets, cars, lights… From time to time, a tree, but trimmed into an artificial shape, a garden, imprisoned inside fences, birds, but usually of a very limited set of species. Outside cities, in France, ugly advertisement posters make up the landscape, with the same charmless houses everywhere, and, with the green revolution, immense fields of corn or wheat, extremely uniform, without insects, without poppies, and without Centaurea cyanus. Nature itself looks (and is) artificial. Even on the market place the fruits are calibrated, without much scars or variation in shape. As years pass, the number of types diminishes, to be replaces by standardized fruits from other regions and other climates, the same all the year around. With artificial light, heating or air-conditioning the idea of seasons slowly fades away.

Suddenly Nature, that human societies had to tame, protect and fear, or at least to put at bay, because it contained all the obscure forces that man could not easily dominate, becomes a fine memory, for which we have nostalgy. In a society where everybody does (or tries to do) what pleases him, without restriction, and, now, with the full support of new laws, Nature is just a memory. And instead of perceiving the immensity of our ignorance and the religious awe we used to experience in former societies, Nature has regressed to some kind of play which we watch, in zoos, or on the TV screen. What is natural is what does not surprise us, what is familiar to us: the animal substances and colours, the plants, then, but only indirectly, microbes: hygiene is very recent. We miss Nature, we are no longer afraid of it. And, true, there are now no parts of the world where we have not an easy access, except perhaps the coldest places. Even the Sahara, with its magics, is every year defaced but the incredibly ugly practice of car and motocycle races, which will leave repulsive scars there for centuries, and even millenia. Vandals were not soldiers, they simply were tourists. Human societies used to share the world with the forces which were controlled by rites and practices, and those of nature, awsome and fragile, and placing Man in its tiny place in the Universe. Now the almighty infantile ego has entirely reshaped the world at its ignorant image. Let us consider a few examples of the consequences of this recent attitude of western societies.

A few examples

In the recent years many diseases have been (re) emerging in spite (or because) of the power of Man on Nature. As a case in point, the AIDS epidemics is very much linked to the lack of understanding (even fear would have provided better insights) of man-derived substances, blood in particular. Clearly AIDS is a very poorly contagious disease. It is a disease that should never have spread like it did. It is a disease which illustrates in its utmost consequences the outcome of the desintegration of social ties, and of their replacement by the infantile rule of the ego. Clearly, social practices involving blood, either directly (transfusions, needles, scarifications, any kind of physical violence) or indirectly (associated diseases) spread the virus like fire in a dry grassland. As a matter of fact, the origin of the disease points simply to practices of butchery involving the preparation for eating of monkeys or apes. The blood of infected animals contaminated butchers, probably in Central Africa, and subsequently the disease spread from person-to-person contacts. It is likely that the disease was present in human populations for a long time. But the strength of the social structures was such that it remained strongly compartmentalized and only very few people were affected. From Africa the virus went to the Americas, where the absence of social structures — or, rather, the prevalence of a social structure favoring the individual behaviour over any kind of social constraint — made it spread throughout the world. In Africa, because the contact with Western cultures together with uncontrolled urbanization destroyed the barriers that existed to its propagation, the virus began to invade populations which, not so long ago, had been immune to its danger.

One may consider that this example is an extreme case, and that it is irrelevant with what we shall presently be facing. The reason why I chose this illustration is precisely because I think that, in fact, the AIDS case is one of the first plagues that we shall live with, because we have both destroyed the elaborate social structures meant to organize the behaviour of human populations, and have replaced their needed artificial essence, by an unsaid concept of Nature, which contains very dangerous prospects. The cult of the ego, imbedded in the emphasis of immediate pleasure, goes well with the childish idea of a return to the state of Nature.

The fight between the universally spread ego against the public good is what we shall witness in the next few years. And this will have dramatic consequences. This should be obvious for moral reasons (this can be understood provided one has moral values, different from the universal venal value of everything, with the new God, "money for my pleasure"), but I am afraid that the very idea of the need for a moral behaviour is almost obsolete in the West. The "politically correct" word "ethical" is precisely used because the world "moral", is now perceived as almost obscene… Let us take an example which will soon be the matter of a public debate (many other similar examples could be chosen). The life expectancy of human beings is on the rise almost everywhere. This has the consequence that the number of aging people with a variety of sicknesses increases at a fast pace. Among the diseases, which, technically, may be cured, many would require the exchange of sick organs (kidneys, liver, heart) with new ones. Until now, the new ones come from young deceased people, usually killed in car accidents (the cynical might see there a reason not to fight too strongly against the heavy toll paid to these dangerous machines). But, of course, the needed number of fresh organs is not reached, and it would be useful to have other means to get usable organs. Xenotransplantation (i.e. the use for humans of organs from animals) is an interesting alternative, but graft rejection is extremely strong in this case. This is why scientists proposed to "humanize" animals (pigs or monkeys), by obtaining transgenic animals which would have histocompatibility markers (the surface antigens of the epithelium of the organs to be transplanted) identical to that of humans. The incentive to produce these animals is directly driven by the interest of individual patients. Of course, there is also a very big incentive in terms of venal value (for the companies producing the animals, and for the surgeons practicizing the graft). This is why not much thought has been given to a major problem created by such a practice, if it existed.

The problems has something to do with our present day perception of Nature. Monkeys and even pigs are mammals very similar to human beings. This is why their organs would easily exchange with ours. This is why the proposed practice seems so natural, and therefore so compelling. Well, this is precisely the reason why such a practice, perhaps useful from the point of view of the ego of an individual patient, would be extremely dangerous for the society as a whole. Mammals harbour a variety of viruses in their cells. These viruses, in the same way as the viruses causing many of the children diseases, usually cause a mild form of infection for the animal. They are adapted, attenuated in their normal hosts. In contrast, when shifted from their hosts to humans, the probability that they give rise to highly infectious agents, or virus with cryptic properties, such as those of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), is high. Having patients carrying organs with retroviruses for several years would increase immensely this risk, and promote recombination between the animal viruses and normal host retroviruses. This would create a new experimental field for pathogens to invade humans. If the reader is not convinced of this danger, and thinks about the obvious benefit, in terms of life span, for the person undergoing graft surgery, he or she should wonder whether there are indications that the risk exists. I have described the likely origin of the AIDS virus in the butchering of monkeys or apes. Do we have indications that butchering cattle may be a source of diseases? The answer is positive, unfortunately. But goverments are quite reluctant to pursue studies which would reveal this fact, for many reasons, including the question about the ways governments would have to regulate slaughtering and butchering practices, first by protecting the workers, and second by analyzing the consequences of meat production. Clearly direct contact with fresh blood is dangerous, and the danger decreases when one shifts from man to animals which are less and less similar to man, being the highest with monkeys, but certainly high enough with cattle.

A rational behaviour would be, therefore, to take care of the possibly dangerous properties of Nature in an inverse proportion with the kinship which associates us to the species considered. Plants would be less critically dangerous than animals (although the existence of poisons demonstrates that co-evolution between plants and herbivorous animals has sometimes favoured those plants which were able to put herbivores at bay, whether by emitting repulsive molecules, synthesizing poisons, or making acute thorns). In this respect, it appears clearly that the fear of Genetically modified Plants (at least when they do not carry animal genes) is practically irrelevant. This is particularly true, when one observes that the techniques of gene therapy, or xenotransplantation are perceived as positive progresses: there is an inverse apparent relationship between the reality of a danger and the human perception of it. And this inverse relationship parallels the human perception of the degree of familiarity with the Nature present in the object.


It is probably too early to account for what is happening in our contemporary societies, but one may wonder whether the deep semantic shift from the main idea that what is specifically human is what is artificial — i.e. the customs and practices of human societies are made to displace man from is natural background, giving him its intrinsic value — towards the idea that any individual kind of behaviour can be accepted as natural, was not the main cause of the disappearance of the strong barriers which took viruses such as HIV at bay. Indeed the emphasis in present day western civilizations on Nature, with its correlate "nature is what I wish", is a strong regression of the slow progresses which made societies evolve since human societies began to exist.

The nature of freedom is different whether it is considered from the point of view of the individual (this is typical of the american concept of freedom), or whether it is considered from the point of view of society. The origin of the concept of democracy, democracy of the City, born in Greece, is very different from the democracy of the individual, the dangerous model which is now invading the world, even in its most remote places. The resulting wrong assignement of the place of Nature with respect to Mankind will have dramatic consequences. Unfortunately, eventhough this is quite visible, nobody can have enough persuasive power to change the course of History, and a new Humanity will only emerge after terrible events have occurred.