You all know of the great ancient civilisations, such as the Mayan or the Cambodian, that fell into ruin and were reclaimed by the jungle. You probably also know Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias, about an empire fallen into ruin and reclaimed by the desert.
Our own civilisation is also being reclaimed by Nature, but in subtle ways that are seldom recognised except in such sayings as “the rat race” or “the law of the jungle”. “It’s a jungle out there”, we say about the workaday world, and there is more truth in this than you might imagine.
There’s a certain irony in all this — perhaps enantiodromia in action; that is to say, reversal of fortune or reversal at the extremity, for having set out to “conquer” and master, or domesticate and civilise Nature by methods rational and brutal and violent, we have despite ourselves ended up being invaded and overcome by Nature once again. The more we attempt to impose our rule upon Nature and govern it and “civilise” it, the more feral we become ourselves, and the more we succumb to the so-called “law of the jungle”.
I was reminded of that this early morning upon reading an article posted on the CBC website: “What election rules?” Nature “red in tooth and claw”, of predator and prey, of “the struggle for survival” and “the survival of the fittest” has become incorporated into the very structure of contemporary civilisation and culture, only we don’t recognise these matters as being symptomatic of our being overwhelmed by Nature just as much as the ancient civilisations were reclaimed by the jungle or the desert.
We are not becoming “natural” so much as “feral”, however. Our Mr. Hyde is overtaking our Dr. Jekyll, as it were. Robert Louis Stevenson’s simian “Mr. Hyde” predates by almost a century our own “discovery” that the human is nothing but “a naked ape” (or, as Nietzsche wryly remarked earlier “more ape than any ape”), and with “the death of God”, “Nature” and Nature’s law became our model of what we should become.
But to tell someone that something they did was “only natural” is now to say that they weren’t responsible for it, and that they aren’t accountable or answerable for it. But to suggest as much is to provide licence for impulsiveness, licentiousness, and libertinism — free rein to the lizard brain.
This is, in fact, plainly evident in our contemporary politics and economics, where “the natural order of things” has become the rationalisation for all kinds of incivility, exploitation, rapine, and predation because “it’s only natural”. Politics has become absolutely feral while capitalism has become utterly predatory.
It was probably none of the intention of evolutionary biologists or physics to provide a rationale for our re-invasion by Nature in those terms. It was perhaps an example of “perverse outcome” or “unintended consequence” that they provided a rationale for a “natural” irresponsibility and licence to Mr. Hyde. That’s the consequence of a totally lop-sided understanding of evolution and the wish to eliminate “subjective values” and internal factors from evolutionary theory and scientific description. And to that extent, science bears a great deal of responsibility for our re-invasion by Nature and the return of the law of the jungle and the rat race. But, it is certainly ironic that a form of consciousness that set out to “master Nature” has ended up succumbing to it once again. That’s “enantiodromia“.
Ironies abound indeed at our “end of history”.