We Can’t Blame it on Nature

By Madronna Holden

Updated Oct. 19, 2011

In 1651 Western philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that human life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a “war of every man against every man”.

William Golding popularized this perspective on the awful state of humans in nature in his modern novel, The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys stranded together on an island revert to the savage nature of humans without the constraining hand of civilization.

Though Hobbes thought that we must submit to state authority to rescue ourselves from such terrible natural tendencies, others maintained that our actions, derived from nature, are neither our choice nor our responsibility.

Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger put forth this “nature made me do it” theory in The Imperial Animal.  Their work bolstered the “spreading your genes around” theory—postulating that human social behavior, including colonialism and the oppressive of women by men, can be chalked up to the impulse to insure that as many of our genes as possible have a future.

What I remember most about Robin Fox’s presentation at the New School where he spoke when I was a grad student there was that he entertained no critical perspectives concerning his ideas.  That was hardly surprising, since he entertained no sense that we had any choices for which we might be responsible.

In this sense, Tiger and Fox’s theories had an unsavory kinship to the narrative of Manifest Destiny in which “civilized” folk were constrained by nature to overrun the world. As a pioneer in the Willamette Valley expressed it in her diary, the fact that the Kalapuya were dying as a result of her people’s taking over their land was a fact to be regretted but inevitable–for they were doomed to fade away before a superior race.

On a global scale, Manifest Destiny licensed the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples as being a simple matter of nature at work.  That is the implication of Robert Ardrey’s thesis that men were driven by the Territorial Imperative.

Some sociobiologists also used the “nature made me do it” idea to explain away rape. They postulated that the rapist got more genes to survive. They thereby glibly bypassed the fact that rape is a crime of violence, not sex—and thus not a matter of biology. As those who work with rape victims know all too well, the psychological trauma involved in rape cannot be ignored.

The sociobiologists so focused on their genes also neglected to mention that there are a number of cultures in the world that had no word for rape—since they had no concept of any such act before they encountered conquering and self-termed “civilizations”.  They learned that word as a result of the rape of their women during conquest.  In her article, “Locating the Cannibals”,  Amy Den Ouden observes how sexual violence against indigenous women has classically been used to “valorize” such acts of conquest.

In fact, rape, which on a global scale goes hand in hand with imperialism, is a decidedly unnatural act.  We hardly need remind ourselves that a good percentage of rapists kill their victims.  All in all, the violence of rape makes ludicrous the idea that rapists are driven by any biological impulse to pass on their genes. No  woman physically brutalized and psychologically traumatized is a good candidate for motherhood. And as my student, Amanda MacKenzie, noted, there are those who rape children far too young to conceive–brutal rapes which often leave their victims unable to conceive at all.

In opposition to the violence-based theories of “passing on one’s genes”, the best way to ensure healthy babies is to protect the health and well-being of their mothers. Many anthropologists assert that establishing a context for the care for children is a central reason that bonding and egalitarian relationships developed between human partners.

And with respect to the more than human animals, data is coming in that indicates that so-called “alpha” males actually pass on their genes less than more affable members of animal communities. This has been found in the red deer of Ireland, where the non-combatants breed while others are locking horns; among wolves, in a PBS documentary, in which a mild mannered wolf bred far more often than a dominant one.  Recently, research on baboons in the wild did genetic testing that indicated that male “buddies” of females rather than alpha males were actually far more likely to pass on genetic material.

Further,  culture is a key component to the survival of any humans beyond their deaths and women are unlikely to pass on the cultures of their predators to the children they bear. Indeed, in the human context, we can neither discount nor prioritize biological fathering over social fathering—the passing on of knowledge, experience and tradition.

And perhaps the strongest weight against the theory that men naturally express aggression on behalf of their genes is the fact that so many human societies perceive the natural world as modeling interdependence and cooperation, rather than aggression and competition. For many of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples, for instance, following the “laws of nature’ means acting with cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

This idea is supported by modern psychologists who recently published the results of four experiments addressing the question, “Can Nature make us More Caring”? They found the answer to that question to be an emphatic yes. Their experiments indicated that contact with nature not only makes us kinder and more caring—but more autonomous and impervious to outer-directed goals. Altogether, viewing slides of nature and imagining ourselves in natural landscapes shifts personal aspirations focused on gaining individual wealth and fame to a focus on caring.

And the simple act of having a plant on their desk made experimental subjects more likely to share money given them by the experimenter than those whose desk was empty of greenery.

The subjects so effected by contact with the natural world were a random group of US citizens, aged 19 to 54, numbering between one hundred and twelve subjects in the first experiment to seventy-five in the last  one.  They were women and men, Caucasian, African-American, Asian American, and Latinos or Latinas. Most of them spoke English as their first language, but a few didn’t.

One of the experimenters postulated that because we became human in communal cultures, exposure to the natural world re-stimulates our communal and sharing attributes.

I find this a hopeful point indeed.  And good support for protecting greenery in our modern cities. We are  thereby fostering not only the health, well-being, and relaxation of the members of our communities, as previous experiments have indicated—but improving the likelihood we will both make authentic personal decisions and enact care for others.


And here is an excellent discussion of the UN campaign to end violence against women.

The Dangers of False Reverence: Destroying What We Think We Love

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.21.2012

In Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water and the Future of the West, Charles Wilkinson notes two ideologies that resulted in the destruction of the salmon runs that once yielded 42 million pounds annually on the Columbia River alone.

The first is the sense of dominance that saw the land only as a resource for human exploitation. But the other is perhaps not so obvious.  It is a reverence for that which it destroys.

We don’t have to imagine the destructiveness of the first attitude:  we have history to inform us of it.  This attitude created a free for all in the Pacific Northwest in which, as Wilkinson puts it, the “fish hardly had a chance”.  This was expressed in the waste in the taking of salmon in the late 1800s, as in the case of the trap on Puget Sound that wiped out an entire run of sockeye salmon when tens of thousands of fish wedged themselves into that trap and suffocated before they could be released.

Wilkinson also notes that some pioneers, by contrast, held the salmon in reverence. But it was a strange reverence, an idealization that never really saw the salmon for what they were– or as anything that incited human responsibility. In their awe for the overwhelming abundance of the salmon runs, pioneers never saw their limits.  Unlike the indigenous system which set up seasonal harvest limits orchestrated by religious leaders, pioneer harvesters depleted that which they never thought would end.

Partly this was because they had no historical experience with the runs—but the destructiveness of their actions was also mingled with their idealization of Western lands as something larger than life.

I spoke with those who logged the old growth forests they found on arriving in Western Washington in the late 1800s– who had experienced the grace and power of those forests as they took them down with crosscut saws, leaving stumps twenty feet high– since mills couldn’t handle logs over five feet in diameter. As they grappled with those great trees body to body, they did not stop to think that the forest that defined their lives would ever be gone.

In their minds, the hugeness of the land bestowed it with a sense of eternity—a sense that it would endure no matter how humans behaved toward it.

After he had been a logger, one man I interviewed served as a fire lookout, living alone in a cabin on Mt. Rainier. In those days the animals were not afraid of humans–and just watching from his mountaintop as various animals came by, day after day, he felt a reverence for the natural world that was no longer entangled in struggling with something larger than life.

That was when he looked around and saw the old forests were going.   He was in a state of shock as a result.

When I interviewed him he was in his nineties and had spent several years tracking the changing weather patterns resulting from those missing trees.  He filled his notebooks, day after day, with his record of the lost forest, as if his faithfulness could redeem his former carelessness.

He wanted most of all for our generation to understand the mistakes made by his.

The pioneer west is not alone in expressing the dangers of such a reverence toward an idealized part of nature. The Ganges River in India is both one of the most revered and one of the most polluted rivers in the world.  In effect, this river is loved to death, as its idealization licenses some to overlook the fact that it has any limits—any needs of its own which might depend on human responsibility towards it.

The good news is that while political will in India has not taken up the cause of cleaning the sacred Ganges, this project has recently united Muslims and Hindus.

The idealization of women expresses a parallel dynamic of failed or too idealized reverence.  At the beginning of an abusive relationship, a man classically expresses intense reverence for the object of his desire.  Indeed, in modern Western culture, many relationships are characterized by a “romantic fallacy”—an idealized projection on the other that prevents each from seeing who they really are.

The romantic fallacy is exceedingly dangerous to the object of its projection.  For the Ganges, the salmon, the trees, the idealized woman, the object of such reverence loses subjective identity—the right to act on their own and have their  needs honored.  As Jean Kilbourne points out in her analysis of the idealized woman in modern advertising, that ideal portrays the woman as a kind of corpse.  The airbrushed presentations of her face are like mummified parodies of real life. Such an objectification of anything, she observes, is the first step toward licensing violence toward it.

Those who idealize another cast see them in terms of their own needs—and thus are all too liable to exact of them the kind of sacrifice Trask exacts of the indigenous elder who befriends him in Don Berry’s historical novel Trask, situated on the Oregon Coast.  In this novel, the pioneer protagonist kills the elder in the midst of his attempt to initiate himself in a spirit quest like that of traditional indigenous peoples.  In a profound metaphor for real history, the pioneer is literally out of his mind as he commits this murder, unaware that establishing his own “spiritual” connection to the land costs the life of another.  In his trance, he carries the dead body of the elder through the landscape in his personal search for a spiritual home.

The ambivalence of this murderous reverence—in which the land and its people become a sacrifice on the altar of human need– is expressed in this quote from the novel:

“Taking possession of the land is the first and final grasping of a man … toward immortality…As a child clutches blindly at his mother’s breast, so a man will strain to the land without understanding…

The thing that possesses a man to open a land is simple lust…A molding and carving and forging takes place between [man and land].. bitterly, happily, angrily, exultantly…  And in time there is no …clear edge of difference where … the land ends and the man begins.”

As this quote expresses, there is a profound human need to belong to something larger than oneself—something that begins before an individual’s birth and continues after death.  But such belonging cannot be had by seizing it:  “possession” and “land lust” are the contrary to belonging established in the mutual inter-working of the land and its human residents over time.

Moreover, we can never see a land so entwined in our own need for what it really is.  Idealization of the land, that is, inhibits true intimacy with it.

By contrast, indigenous reverence for their land rests on intimacy with it—on gratitude and humility for the daily gift of life the land provides. It is characterized by the reciprocity between a people and a land that is not larger than life, that is, but bound up in life itself.

In its link to daily life, such reverence motivates care for the land and for all life that shares it. This reverence is illustrated in the words of native naturalist Linda Hogan in Dwellings: “What does god look like? These fish, this water, this land.”

In such recognition of the divine in creation, there is quietude and fullness, as expressed by Rebecca Adamson, Founder of the First Nations Development Institute: “God is in the space and silence. That is where it is sacred. You look up on a starry night and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.”

In her interview in  YES magazine (summer 2009), Adamson indicates an essential difference between opening to the silence of the divine in the stance above and the idealization in the pioneer perspective.  The indigenous perspective is based on fullness and gratefulness;  the pioneer perspective, like that of modern capitalism in general, is based on hunger and need:  on a “self-fulfilling scarcity”.

In the indigenous case, humans adapt to the fullness of natural life, in the pioneer case,  the land becomes a projection of human need.

Thus the latter sees the land as that which might redeem humans from their hunger for  belonging and security–even if they have to destroy it in order to possess it.

Taking Back the Power to Nurture

In the November/December 2008 issue of the Women’s Health Activist Anabella Aspiras relates her personal experience of the rape of a close friend, who kept her assault a secret as Aspiras watched her sink into a deep depression, dropping out of her social circle and then out of school.

Only when Aspiras went to her missing friend’s house and demanded to know what had happened did she learn her friend had been raped. She also learned that her friend’s parents counseled their daughter not to report the rape, since they felt the criminal justice system would only traumatize their daughter further. Aspiras writes that as a result of being raped, the friend she “knew and loved in high school is gone”.  She concludes, “Until survivors of rape have reason to be confident in the criminal justice system, rape will continue to be under reported and women’s lives, like hers, will be lost.”

Over the years, I have heard far too many stories from my students about the assaults they experienced simply because they were women–and about which they had previously told no one.  A work-study student in a program at the University of Oregon, a Native American grandmother was assaulted by a man offering to help her carry a heavy piece of furniture into her new apartment in broad daylight in Eugene, Oregon.  Though she showered again and again, she could not get the smell of this man off her.

Another student was pulled into the bushes from a bike path and only managed to save her life as her assailant choked her by telling him to ease up, since she liked to move during sex.  She had to rasp out the lie again and again before she was able to get away.

One might hardly guess that another of my students who came to class as a well dressed professional had also come close to dying– at the hands of her raging ex-husband.  Luckily she managed to escape and take her children with her after he pulled out his hunting rifle and threatened to shoot them all.

The under reporting of such assaults on women in the military is a finding in the recent Congressional hearings. For the 2688 reported assaults in the military in 2007, there were four times as many that went unreported.  As Penny Coleman, widow of a veteran-victim of PTSD observes in her essay on sexual assault in the military, more than a third of women who seek VA care for mental health issues after returning from Afghanistan or Iraq, do so because of trauma created by a sexual assault.

Coleman is especially concerned with supporting assault survivors who choose not to seek medical or psychological help within the military system-for understandable reasons. A recent student of mine was seriously injured by her serviceman-husband.  She appealed to her husband’s military commander, only to have him cross-examine her as to what she had done to incite the assault and urge her to work harder to please the abuser. There is a happy ending to this story stemming from this woman’s self-assertion. She managed to leave the marriage that confined her on base with her dangerous husband.   Later she re-married another serviceman who treats her with equanimity and she considers her current marriage a true partnership.

The widespread incidence of the assault of women soldiers by fellow servicemen is a situation of which the military has evidently been cognizant for some time. Stationed near Detroit during the Detroit riots some decades ago, another of my students relates she was confined to base along with the other servicewomen in the area to avoid being raped by the Guardsman called up to put down the riots.

Sexual assault is not only a continuation of historical experience– it is also a multi-generational affair.  One of the saddest experiences of my teaching career occurred when the daughter of one of my students was raped. This woman and her husband had adopted five children, including this one.  One of their adopted babies came to them emotionally damaged, and they arranged their schedules so that they could hold her constantly for several months until she finally stopped crying.

But this mother did not have a similar cure for the violation of her raped daughter.  She stood by her as she went to court to prosecute the assault, but during the process this even-tempered and generous woman formerly so full of humor almost went crazy with grief.

Any one of these attacks on women is enough to illustrate what should be common knowledge:  rape is a crime of violence, not sex-and certainly not a part of human nature. There are cultures in which there is no word for rape– since such an action is literally unthinkable.  But sexual assault is a common occurrence in cultures that emphasize the value of domination. In such cultures, the links between power and nurturance are broken, so that those who nurture others have little power or status. And those with power use it without any sense of service or care.

The severance of nurturance from power is tragically expressed in the attack on the physical center of women’s ability to nurture life.

In patriarchal societies, the severance of nurturance from power may be quite intentional, as illustrated by Hitler’s censorship team. As they publicly smashed Kathe Kollwitz’s famous sculpture The Tower of Mothers, depicting a group of mothers protectively circling their children, they proclaimed, “The state keeps children safe, not mothers!”

The experience of the mother in my class and the parents of Aspiras’ friends directly experienced their inability to protect their children.

When nurturance and power are severed in a society, the voices of those who speak for future generations are no longer central to the sphere of political power, as they are in the Iroquois council of women who approve or disapprove all political decisions according to their effects on future generations. Instead, a society which severs nurturance from power puts “women and children last”, as Ruth Sidel’s book analyzing the modern western condition puts it.

In such a society, it is easy to confuse the fact that nurturance is disempowered with the idea that there is something in the nature of nurturance (as expressed in biological motherhood, for instance) that causes women’s oppression.  Expressing this confusion, certain feminists of the sixties declared that they must break with the biology of their own bodies–and it’s mothering capacities– in order to assume equal social power alongside men. This thinking was illustrated by Shilamuth Firestone, who reasoned that only the erasure of biological motherhood would allow women to share equality with men. Only when humans had the technology to fully dominate their biological nature, she insisted, would women be liberated.

There is little that can so well alienate women from our bodies as the experience– or potential experience– of sexual assault.  But to reject our biological nature only amplifies the denigration of our bodies that sexual assault expresses.  Further, Firestone’s cure of dominating nature only gives us more of the cultural value that underlines rape in the first place.  As ecofeminist Val Plumwood has eloquently detailed, one cannot express domination as a positive  value with respect to the natural world and expect that value to vanish as we relate to one another.

Fortunately, there is an alternative that connect nurturance and power, as in the case of the Iroquois.  Linked with the precautionary principle-or fore-caring for future generations– such guardianship, in essence, consists of choosing something you love and protecting it.

It involves, that is, taking back the power to nurture.

The Raging Grannies and the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers are more nurturers to be reckoned with. They have seeded groups working for social and environmental justice worldwide. Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, the chair of the Grandmothers, begins her public talks with a moving statement asserting the value of every woman in her audience. She goes on to insist that such valuable women can never accept a situation in which they are abused.

We need, Grandma Aggie also says, to return women, with their nurturant impulses in full play, to power. Not incidentally, she and the other grandmothers see the earth as female: as the violated mother whose power we must once again honor so that she, in turn, may nurture us all in the cycle of life. Notably, this earth-nurturer is no weakling.  If we misuse her water, for instance, Grandma Aggie says, she will take it back. This is her explanation for the global droughts she has seen in her travels with the other Grandmothers.

The Grandmothers know all too well the pervasive modern story that disempowers nurturers–and they are not buying it.  They have dedicated themselves to living out another story, in which women, joined together, honor the power that resides in nurturing the children of the future and the earth we share.

In this story, women are both fully empowered and nurturing. And those who use their power to nurture others are our true heroes-whether they be men or women.

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