Human progress can be portrayed as a long, difficult, but highly successful war against nature, which retaliates with some very spectacular counter-attacks to remind us of our technological limits. Whenever I hear the state of nature romanticized, I find myself thinking that the “natural” life of man involves surviving a highly risky birthing process – ideally without killing our mothers on the way out – followed by a fairly short and unhealthy life, conducted primarily during daylight hours, probably not more than a few miles from the place of our birth. Everything we have accomplished – from harnessing fire to splitting the atom, from mapping the Earth’s surface to mapping the genome – has been a triumph over the conditions nature would have imposed on us.
And yet, we should be humble enough to remember that we have not transcended nature. We might be the “paragon of animals,” as Shakespeare sarcastically dubbed us, but animals we remain. Some of our current social discord stems from the progressive effort to stamp out politically inconvenient features of natural law – an effort to transform the human animal into something more agreeable to collective management. This effort can be made appealing to people, particularly young people, by presenting it as a courageous triumph of willpower – of consensus – over biology and tradition. Part of this appeal involves ridiculing traditions as foolish, arbitrary, sinister mechanisms of patriarchal control, or just plain outdated. Maybe these ideals made sense once upon a time, but now they’re dusty relics of a bygone era. Technology and prosperity have freed us to arrange our lives in ways that would have been impractical in the pre-industrial era. Since this is obviously true in some cases – imagine hopping in a time machine and trying to explain telecommuting to even the most enlightened minds of the 18th century! – people are willing to believe it might be true in nearly all cases.
Many of the hottest social flashpoints in this ongoing struggle against natural law concern romance, sexual relationships, and child-rearing. That’s no surprise, since those have been burning issues since the day primitive folk developed the language skills necessary to discuss them. They are matters of very keen interest to the young, who are always interested in hearing that they are not bound by tradition, or at least not hoary …read more