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Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication

by on August 28, 2011

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The introduction to Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication edited by Roy Ellen and Katsuyoshi Fukui explores the relationship between culture and nature. Ellen and Fukui address the idea that humankind has evolved by living in and making use of nature and reshaping and assimilating it into culture. The biological success of humans as a species has been accepted to rest upon our abilities to modify nature. They emphasize the idea that people are part of larger systems and that culture in nature, cultural construction of nature, and species co-existence and sustainable development are all part of political programs and management styles. In general, humans have culturally constructed and defined nature through the use of language, and nature is only made meaningful through our perceptions and practical engagement with the environment. This concept can be explained through John Lock’s “blank sheet” philosophy which suggests that children impose a “discriminatory grid,” limited by language to describe their perceptions of nature. In Western thought, no single meaning can be given to nature or culture because the main source of data humans perceive and interact with the environment is the language we use to describe it and the categories we infer from it.

The western notion of nature is most recognized as “what is out there, what is not ourselves, and that which can take care of itself,” i.e. “the other” (pg. 7). Interestingly, the same idea is more or less found throughout varying cultural traditions throughout the world. However, to say that something is uncultured does not necessarily mean that it is natural. Ellen and Fukui argue that nature and culture cannot be sorted out into a single dichotomy, in other words, there is no division between the natural world and the human world. In essence, how society views nature is in part a function of how society has affected nature; nature and the cultural conceptions of nature have evolved together.   Ellen and Fukui also argue “whether something is natural or cultural may depend on the level of abstraction in our arguments, our methodology, or on time phase or context, not on any intrinsic qualities.” For example, a plant or animal (nature) may become food (culture) without any material change ever having taken place, simultaneously making food both cultural and natural.

The argument that Ellen and Fukui are proposing is very similar to the argument Arnold makes in Chapter 2 of his article, “The Problem with Nature.” He introduces the idea of the “environmentalist paradigm” which takes an historical perspective on the relationship between humans and nature. He says that throughout history, people and nature have worked together harmoniously and are “dynamically linked and that history is in some central way connected with this intimate and continuing relationship” (pg.11). Ellen, Fukui, and Arnold all seem to agree that because nature and culture are so intertwined, it is seemingly inappropriate to discuss them as separate topics.

This introduction left me with some questions that I believe would be fun to investigate. Addressing the idea of food, would you consider GMOs to be simultaneously cultural and natural?  What is your relationship with nature and what words would you use to describe it? Going back to the idea that our biological success as a species relies on our abilities to modify nature, do you think there will be a time when we have to do the opposite and must instead measure our success as a species by the extent to which we can form a mutualistic relationship with nature? Do you have any ideas of how we as individuals can start a mutualistic relationship now instead of later?

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12 Comments
  1. Nice job Shane, I think you did a good job capturing all of the arguments and disputes available in the reading for this article. Personally, I was not a big fan of the Ellen/Fukui itself. I enjoyed the discussion on the relationship between culture in nature, but I still feel that these areas of study should be observed not only to expose their relationship together, but to expose the impact they have mutually exclusive. I feel, to truly understand the bond and relationship culture and nature have with each other, one must fully understand the impact each aspect has on a society at whole, and to capture how these things come together to make a relationship and connect to society.

  2. 242colleencarey permalink

    Shane, this blog really cleared that reading up for me; I found it hard and confusing to read. I think you do a wonderful job getting the message you took from the reading across. The flow of your writing also made is easy to read and understand what you were saying. The questions you pose at the end are my favorite. i find them interesting and think they are questions everyone should be thinking about.

  3. janellekramer permalink

    Branching from this reading and our talk today, I am more of the mindset than ever before that nature and culture are inherently one. Why do anthropologists separate people from nature? People are natural, we are a species just like every other living being. We may be too smart for our own good, but it is impossible to separate us from nature. From there we can only conclude that creating cultures is natural. We pick the path of less resistance, based on where we live, to find food and create shelter. Our culture is killing other species, but that doesn’t mean it is not part of nature to do so. However, it is part of human nature to be able to look back on our actions, so maybe it’s part of human nature to be able to reverse our impact on the earth thus far.

    • Janelle,
      I honestly can understand how anthropologists can categorize the human-nature relationship both inherently one or as separate entities. For the purpose of discussion, I would have to disagree with your post. Nature and culture may be living simultaneously together, but they are separate entities. Also, although humans may be extremely intelligent, this intelligence is useless against the powerful wonders of nature. A great example to aid in illustrating the nature of this relationship is the movie, Brokeback Mountain. Societies are living within the natural world adhering to its’ elements in order to insure their survival. The sheepherders had to closely follow the winter weather patterns, as the weather has the capability of terminating the herd, and threatening the lives of the herders. This illustrates that humans are living in nature; Nature can exist without humans, but humans cannot exist without nature. They are separate entities interacting, for the time being, with each other.

  4. Megan Powell permalink

    I think Janelle’s comment just above has some valid points that I personally agree with: that humans ARE unquestionably a part of nature (this seems obvious to me regardless of our attempts to distance ourselves physically and/or conceptually from nature) and culture is therefore also a part of nature. This idea is supported in the Ellen/Fukui article in their assertion of the inextricable dynamic between culture and nature. I do find it fascinating that people seem to see nature as something so separate from themselves – and I suppose I can see why when we’ve built towering skyscrapers and filled entire landscapes with concrete — “nature” can seem pretty far away.
    The thing that I get hung up on more than anything else, and that I especially noticed in our discussion on Monday in class, is that in order to continue to have a productive discourse on these topics, the relatively ambiguous words need to be specifically defined. I’m realizing though that the a major problem in this seemingly simple task of defining these terms is that the concepts seem to change between person to person. The subjectivity of the words “culture” and “nature” make it difficult to discuss their relationship let alone discerning each concept’s actual meaning. Also, one could hypothetically tailor their definitions of these terms to their own end goal and in turn seeming to make a point but maybe not being as objective as is needed to really get to the basis of what is being discussed. I feel that this is a bit of what was done in the Ellen/Fukui article, but I am unsure how anyone could be truly objective as we are inherently subjective and therefore biased.

  5. I really like your perspective on this subject Shane. To add I want to quote something mentioned in the Forsyth reading. Marcuse said in ‘One Dimensional Man’, “Science, by virtue of its own methods and concepts, has projected and promoted a universe in which the domination of nature has remained linked to the domination of man..” (Forsyth 6). What this means to me is that we have a direct link in which we rely on one another to either thrive or fall short. Having said this, I do not believe that we share an equal link. We bring forth more change to nature for our own benefit than nature receives from us. We should be able to provide an equal number of “services” for nature as it does for us.

  6. Frederick Reisen permalink

    I can’t help but get frustrated with endless talks on what nature or culture means. I think what may be more important than finding ways to describe how we have affected nature or how nature shapes us is to simply find a sustainable way to live. I just can’t help but think that most of the writings on the blurry line between human or culture and nature stems from the fact we know we are having a large impact. Unfortunately at present our science tells us that our impact is negative and now we are scrambling around trying to ask “wait what? when did all this incredible human ingenuity turn against us”? To find that exact point or even the gist of that idea i a task that has spawned many sciences in its wake. However I believe if we found way to reduce our impact the efforts to find the line between culture and nature would could move to the back burner, and with the redundant difficulties that seem to always arise maybe that isn’t such a bad idea.

  7. “do you think there will be a time when we have to do the opposite and must instead measure our success as a species by the extent to which we can form a mutualistic relationship with nature?” —
    I think we do this every day. People consume milk, eggs, and meat. We raise cattle, fish, and farm all to sustain life. Does a fish have a purpose in life other than to eat swim and reproduce? Why not let it eat, swim, reproduce then eat it? Then it serves more of a utilitarian idea.
    “For example, a plant or animal (nature) may become food (culture) without any material change ever having taken place, simultaneously making food both cultural and natural.”
    Would we consider death a material change? Not to be rude but if we consume something, we kill it; plants or animals. I would think that it is a large change. Even if we do eat something alive, our body kills it eventually. This death does help us live thou, just a thought.

  8. amygraceaustin permalink

    I really like Fred’s blunt comment about how he “can’t help but get frustrated with endless talks on what nature or culture means”. I think this rings true for me as I re-read this article later in the semester. What really strikes me now is how culturally constructed Ellen and Fukui’s analysis really is. The way they discuss the nature/culture continuum is precisely from a Western cultural standpoint and bias. This history they recount of this debate is one heavily characterized by white, male thinkers. While experiences of international field work have probably shaped these ways of thinking, there is no way of escaping the fact that their most empirical discussion on the meaning of nature is shaped by their cultural values.

    As I am taking a course this semester on physical anthropology this semester I am learning more and more about how closely intertwined we as a species have always been with nature. Trying to separate those two, and extrapolating meaning from it, only creates headache. Instead we should learn how to live within the environment that we have shaped. Centuries of harm against the environment cannot be reversed so we need to learn to adapt to the changes we have created just like our ancestors adapted to vastly changing environments.

  9. The introduction of Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication edited by Roy Ellen and Katsuyoshi Fukui, describes the relationship between nature and culture cross-culturally. They present various anthropological positions to aid in exemplifying this relationship, but carefully note that, “there is no particular consensus as to what firm conclusions might be drawn from all this”(5). Many argue that nature and culture are derived from highly conceptualized human perceptions. Because mankind generates these concepts, it is critical to measure the cognitive propensities in which are contributing to the generation of the concept of nature. This is known as “The Thinginess of Nature” and, “refers to the human propensity to identify things (natural kinds), which, when inventoried and aggregated through resemblance, are seen as a part of a whole we call nature”(6). This is extremely interesting as it is now used as a primary source when analyzing culture-nature interactions. Humans around the world make up an array of cultures, in which may have different cognitive processes that perceive natural environments differently. This could b directly contributed to the way in which a culture interacts with their environment, altering their perceptions of the “natural ways” of the earth. An example used in the article was animals. “One and the same person can think with animals in different and conflicting ways,” due to cultural contradictions regarding the consumptions and production of animals (9). Fukui and Ellen state that even science is unable to untangle this relationship.
    These concepts bring up a very interesting discussion. If humans conceptualize nature, to what extent is human-error playing a role? Could humans be missing an essential component when categorizing nature? Based on the possibility of human error, in regards to your question Shane, I don’t think there can ever be a mutualistic relationship. Mutual is defined as, “having the same specified relationship to each other.” Human perceptions of nature will never be able to be measured to natural perceptions of nature, making their relationship with one another different.

  10. Looking back on this article now, nearing the end of the semester, I was fascinated by Shane’s question: “What is your relationship with nature and what words would you use to describe it?” The reason this question interests me so much is because until now, I don’t think I had fully realized how much my answer has probably changed from what it might have been in August. I imagine I would have said something about belonging in nature as a product of nature without considering the vast amounts of reading I would encounter in later months. Now I can consider this question anew. My relationship with nature is that I am part of it, I am the result of it and I have impacted it as well. Nature would not be the same without me here, I have personally changed aspects of my environment. I remember Shane saying in class one day that everything in the world is natural, even those objects that we claim are ‘artificial’ because they came from something natural on this planet at one time or another. Nature is a tough concept to understand and my views on my role within nature will probably always be changing.

  11. shanewyenn permalink

    Thank you everyone for your awesome comments! On the same page as Megan Smith, my perceived relationship with the environment has changed greatly since the beginning of the semester. When I first signed up for the class, I thought the focus was going to be about how people impact the environment, and not at all about people’s relationship with nature. I guess its because I, like many of my generation, have grown up with guilt about our carbon footprint and various global warming doomsday scenarios that I failed to realize that my impact with the environment is not my only relationship with nature. I now know it is much more than that. To be honest, I still do not have a grasp on what that relationship is because I’m still not even quite sure what “nature” means, but regardless, I can say wholeheartedly that I am part of nature and nature is part of me.

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