What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?

Ape_skeletonsby Yohan J. John

I've always had a problem with the word 'nature'. It seems to serve as a label for multiple, mutually inconsistent notions. This in itself is not a reason to dislike a word — we seem to have little problem with most words that have multiple meanings. (Surely “right” as in “right versus wrong”, is easy to separate from “right” as in “right versus left”? Surely it isn't semantic confusion that causes left-handed people and leftists to be accused of being wrong, and even unnatural?) What seems to make the concept of “naturalness” especially problematic is the way it is used to justify particular situations or courses of action.

So what are the multiple senses of the concept of nature? I think we can discern at least three, which can be best described in terms of dichotomies. We have:

  1. Nature versus the Supernatural
  2. Nature versus Nurture
  3. Nature versus Culture

Let's examine them one by one, and then see what they imply for 'human nature'.

1. The Way It Is: Nature versus the Supernatural

One of the earliest notions of 'nature' was as 'character' or 'essence'. The nature of a thing is its way, its tao. The word itself stems ultimately from the Latin word “natus“, which means “born”. Since the late 14th century it has connoted creation — all that has been born — and is therefore synonymous with the universe and everything in it. In other words, it's Mother Nature.

So nature is what science aims to understand. Oddly, it is also a word used to label that understanding itself. To uncover the nature of a thing or a process is to situate it in the web of causality. Understanding an object's nature involves finding out where it comes from, how it is made or formed, and the various properties it exhibits in different circumstances. Understand a natural process involves systematically diminishing its potential to surprise us: even quantum mechanical 'weirdness' obeys laws, albeit probabilistic ones.

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Pages From My Father’s Diary


by Rafiq Kathwari

Nine days in October 1947 that mapped the future of Kashmir

October 23, Thursday

On my walk in the evening, I saw refugees arriving from Muzaffarabad, where it appears some trouble had started and tribesmen had infiltrated into Muzaffarabad. I found lorries arriving in large numbers with Hindu and Sikh refugees.

October 24, Friday

Today is arfa (the day before Eid-ul-Adha), as well as Dussehra (a Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil). Maharaja Hari Singh went in the morning to attend the puja (ritual worship of god in Hinduism).

The ‘Salamati Fauj’ (Peace Brigade) of the National Conference is parading the streets. News about fighting in Muzaffarabad continues. In the evening, just before the radio news, the lights went off. First, we thought that it was only some trouble in the powerhouse, or on some line in the city, but later, we learnt that the staff at the Mohara powerhouse had fled, closing up the station. Grave situation is arising, seemingly.

October 25, Saturday


In the morning went to Eidgah for prayers–a record congregation. After the prayers, a minor scuffle with the National Conference people resulting from a hawker giving offensive slogans about Qaid-e-Azam. Police also arrived on the scene. No light. No radio news. Slept.

October 26, Sunday

I was awakened early by the telephone. The Maharajah, his family all other wazir’s and Rajput families have fled away during the night. Situation must be very grave. Went out to the boulevard. National Conference ‘Salamati Fuaj’ parading the streets: chaos and confusion everywhere. News about insurgents advancing: they have reached Sopore. Sheikh Abdullah has early in the morning flown to Delhi, presumably to sell musalmans of Kashmir and to hatch up an intrigue against Pakistan itself. God help us all. Reportedly, the maharaja called Sheikh Abdullah during the night to transfer power to him. The National Conference volunteers are harassing those who support Pakistan, and for whom conditions appear most apprehensive.

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The Thrill is Gone: Six Months with an Apple Watch

by Carol A Westbrook

I love my Apple Watch…or I used to love it. Now, I'm not so sure.

I was thrilled when I got a new Apple Watch shortly after their initial release by Apple in April of this year, a birthday gift from my husband. I enjoyed the Watch so much so much that I bought him one, too, and have recommended them to all my friends. I loved my new Apple Watch.

But now, I find myself looking at other watches. Sometimes I even wear one of my favorite “traditional” watches. Yes, at times I miss my beautiful, elegant, reliable old timepieces.

Don't get me wrong. I love the way I can use my Watch to check the headlines, get the current temp or weather forecast, check emails and messages, and see if I made my daily activity goal, all with a quick glance and a touch. I can ask Siri a question, find a restaurant with Yelp and get directions on a small map without getting out my phone. Best of all, I loved the way I could “tap” my husband's Apple Watch or send him a quick message. Yes, I love my Apple Watch. Dt2wrr

But… do I really like it?

From the start I enjoyed the attention I would get when I raised my wrist to check the time, and the screen would illuminate. Or even better, a call would ring and I would answer it by speaking into my wristwatch, like Dick Tracy used to do in the Sunday comics. Those of us of a certain age dreamed of owning a wrist-radio, but never thought it would happen in our lifetime!

“Wow, ” people would marvel, “is that a new Apple Watch?”

Now that these watches have been around for six months, they are no longer a novelty. The thrill of being a first-adopter has worn off, and my watch no longer gets much attention. As a matter of fact, my entry-level black “sport” Apple Watch ($349.00) looks surprisingly like an inexpensive Black Rebel Swatch ($70.00), as you can see by these pictures, Swatch on the left, Apple Watch on the right. My watch Swatch watch

Sure, I could have gotten a pricier and more stylish Apple Watch, with a stainless case and band, but at $600 to $1000, or even up to $10,000+ it would have been hard to justify. It's not a Rolex, after all.

Of course there are other reasons I'm less than infatuated now. I looked back over the notes I made, to better understand how I felt when I first got the watch. I carefully documented my impressions, including my experiences during the three weeks that it took for me to master it well enough for everyday use.

And therein lies the rub…it took me three weeks to figure it out.

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Targeted Cash Transfers

By Maniza Naqvi Pakistani-Rupee-vs-US-Dollar

We're trying to get the biggest bang for their buck–or rather biggest buck for their bang. Or you can say we're helping them pass the buck? Yes-yes–true–I'm a bit of a smart alec– at Boarding School everyone thought I had the comic's gift. I would agree. Wouldn't you? Doesn't matter what you think as long as the money keeps rolling in.

But seriously, do you think that just before he slits my throat he'll think of this: How I compared his mother to fifteen goats? Is that what you're asking me? Come off it–my friend—- he's going to be angry yes—He's going to wonder why I didn't compare his beloved Ma to fifteen cows—cows fetch 20,000 rupees apiece. Livestock. So get your facts straight—its cows not goats. Each person in these parts who is killed by a drone attack is equivalent to the rupee price of 15 cows. Converted into dollars? At today's rates?—$194—that's about 38 chai lattes or thereabouts at your nearest café in Washington DC——You see if a civilian is killed we pay three hundred thousand rupees. If a cow is killed we pay 20,000 rupees. My wife's outfit yesterday—the one you liked so much—the one you want made for yourself—well that cost me 450,000 rupees—yes—four lakhs. So you see, at 300,000 rupees it's a bargain. And we keep the costs down. We have a budget, a set quota for 2000 civilian deaths. Anything —or rather any more bodies– over this allocated amount, we just categorize them as militants. That way we don't have to pay. You see? Nice huh? Just an accountant's little trick of the trade. But my God! What a headache to get the numbers right on this. Hours—days of negotiations man—We finally gave them a list—how much for what they target—destroy—working age man, woman, pregnant woman, elderly man or woman, child, girl child, boy child, fetus, baby, goat, chicken, cow—concrete house, mud house, number of rooms, vehicle, what kind of vehicle—farm tools—and so on and on. It's a long list. We perfected the system—this cash transfers system—after the big Earthquake. Gave out money for the dead.

And you have no idea what a headache it is—on the other side of this—–these—our people are such cheaters, such brigands such liars….they will inflate their quotas of dead you see—no willingness to stay within the prescribe quotos—no principles at all—no integrity—they'll tell us that so many children have been killed—or so many women—we have no way of verifying how many women were inside those damn mud huts and so we have to rely on their word. Their word!!!! Makes you want emancipation doesn't it? These bloody losers keep them locked up—-we can't even get an honest head count. And after a house is blown up how are we supposed to know how many were in there, right! No sense of setting down a principle based on science or math–just emotions! I tell you literacy my friend is important! Number one priority once we are in the clear.

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Is everything socially constructed?

by Michael Lopresto

Big DipperMany people from all walks of life have been liberated by the phrase “social construction.” Most notably, those with gender identities that don't conform to traditional ideas, and those with behaviours that don't conform to traditional norms and values. In the former case, it's said that gender roles are wholly the product of socialisation, culture and education, whilst the labelling of nonconforming behaviours as “mad” is actually nothing more than the will of those in power trying to control behaviour and punish those they see as a threat to the status quo.

Indeed there's a venerable tradition in philosophy of saying that everything's socially constructed; with Michel Foucault and Judith Butler in the continental tradition, and an anti-metaphysical thread from Kant to the logical positivists to Quine and Goodman in the analytic tradition. Those with an anti-metaphysical bent often thought that philosophers were in a special place to examine and think about the world with their distinctly conceptual resources. The thought was that Plato was wrong to think that nature has joints, and that we can divide the world up in any way we want. We might think about the world as containing tigers or trees, things that form a distinct natural category, but that's actually a fact about our psychology than about how the world is independent of us. The common sense “naïve realism” of Aristotle says that there are things in themselves, and that science uncovers their real essences, but actually this is just a way of conveniently packaging our ideas and experiences. And this anti-metaphysical, anti-essentialist framework was put to good political use as well. Logical positivists such as Carnap and Schlick criticised metaphysical concepts such as wholes-as-distinct-from-parts as being nothing but metaphysical extravagance that couldn't be rigorously explicated, and therefore the very concept that underpinned the Nazi idea that the Volk was some distinct entity from collections of individual German people was complete nonsense.

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Has China Discovered a Better Political System Than Democracy?

Eric Fish in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_1484 Nov. 01 19.28Since the collapse of several authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s—most notably the Soviet Union—conventional wisdom in political science has held that dictatorships inevitably democratize or stagnate. This wisdom has even been applied to China, where the Communist Party (CCP) has presided over 26 years of economic growth since violently suppressing protests at Tiananmen Square. In 2012, the political theorist and Tsinghua University philosophy professor Daniel A. Bell aroused controversy among many China-watchers for challenging this idea. In several op-eds published in prominent Western publications, Bell argued that China’s government, far from being an opaque tyranny, actually presented a “meritocratic” alternative to liberal, multiparty democracy. In a new book titledThe China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Bell expands on that idea.

“I disagree with the view that there’s only one morally legitimate way of selecting leaders: one person, one vote,” Bell said at a recent debate hosted by ChinaFile at Asia Society in New York.

Bell is under no illusion that China has already perfected its political recipe, admitting that the ideal “China model” is still very theoretical. This involves a “vertical democratic meritocracy,” as he puts it, with open democratic elections at the local level, meritocratic assessment (like China’s civil-service exam) to choose top national leaders, and experimentation in the middle. In this system, local leaders—who handle relatively basic issues—are still accountable to voters. But national leaders, who must handle more complex issues and make tough decisions that may not be popular (like enacting serious climate-change measures), can be chosen based on experience and knowledge without American-style political gridlock or susceptibility to populist approval.

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How we became the heaviest drinkers in a century

Chrissie Giles in Mosaic:

ScreenHunter_1483 Nov. 01 19.24Everyone in alcohol research knows the graph. It plots the change in annual consumption of alcohol in the UK, calculated in litres of pure alcohol per person. (None of us drinks pure alcohol, thankfully; one litre of pure alcohol is equivalent to 35 pints of strong beer.) In 1950, Brits drank an average of 3.9 litres per person. Look to the right and at first the line barely rises. Then, in 1960, it begins to creep upward. The climb becomes more steady during the 1970s. The upward trajectory ends in 1980, but that turns out to be temporary. By the late 1990s consumption is rising rapidly again. Come Peak Booze, in 2004, we were drinking 9.5 litres of alcohol per person – the equivalent of more than 100 bottles of wine.

It’s impossible to untangle the forces behind the graph’s every rise and fall, but I’ve talked to researchers who have studied our relationship with alcohol. They told me how everything from recessions to marketing to sexism has shaped the way Brits drink. This is the story of that research, and of what it tells us about the ascent to Peak Booze. In many ways it is not a story about how much we drink, but about who drinks what, and where. It begins well over half a century ago, in the pub.

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The burgeoning worldwide “Philosophy for Children” movement

Laura D'Olimpio at the Australian Broadcast Corporation:

ScreenHunter_1482 Nov. 01 19.17Some people may wonder if young people can do philosophy. In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle writes that the young—and not necessarily the young in age—are not suitable students of ethics and politics because they lack experience and because they tend to follow feelings rather than reason.

Furthermore, in Socrates’ day, there was a concern that teaching the youth critical thinking skills would result in them being less obedient. If we teach students philosophy, will they simply argue for whatever they like, and be able to justify their arguments? Is the study of philosophy corrupting or empowering?

Philosophy for Children (P4C) is a program that takes philosophy out of the academy and into the classrooms of primary and high schools. P4C started at Montclair State University, New Jersey in the 1970s, when Matthew Lipman and Ann Sharp decided that a pragmatic approach to doing philosophy was needed. Their vision was to train children to think critically, creatively and collaboratively so that they would be better democratic citizens.

Influenced by the pragmatism of the philosopher John Dewey, Lipman applied the term ‘community of inquiry’ to the pedagogy that is central to conducting philosophical dialogue with children.

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Former Greece finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is setting up a Europe-wide movement to democratise the EU

Jon Stone in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_1481 Nov. 01 18.54Greece’s former finance minister is in the process of setting up a pan-European movement to reform the EU’s institutions, he has revealed.

Yanis Varoufakis said his experience in Eurogroup meetings had left him with the conclusion that the EU was not democratic.

“What is going on in Greece is simply a reflection – an echo – of a far deeper crisis throughout the eurozone, which cannot be solved at any national or member-state level,” told the Open Democracy website.

“The obvious conclusion one must draw from this is that either you argue for a dissolution of the monetary union, and then you can talk about national politics again quite sensibly. Or you should be talking about a pan-European movement for change throughout the eurozone.”

Mr Varoufakis, who is an economist, said the new movement would have “one very simple, but radical, idea: to democratise Europe”.

“A pan-European movement is the only solution. It sounds utopian, but this idea cemented in my mind in August when I started travelling across Europe, and realised that there was a great deal of hunger and thirst everywhere I went for such an idea.”

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Sunday Poem

After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

by Robert Frost

Everything Is Erotic Therefore Everything Is Exhausting

Johanna Hedva in Two Serious Ladies:

Everything Is Erotic Therefore Everything Is Exhausting is an attempt to catalog everything erotic in the world. It was composed in a participatory performance, and will never be complete. Begun in 2010, the text was originally 100 entries, handwritten one entry per page, by the artist. During performances, participants are invited to take away pages. In return, they had to offer their own entries by speaking into the ear of the artist. The artist serves as scribe and devoted keeper of the text. The following text comprises the complete encyclopedia to date, as it’s been written by the artist and participants.


The act of, the sound of, spanking.

After something exhausting.

All of your lover at once.


Ankles, when they peek out.

Ants on cake.

Any kind of slow dripping, like water from a faucet and honey from a spoon.

Anything wrapped in plastic wrap, and then unwrapping it.

The appearance of blood on something clean.

The arch of a slender foot.

The young arms of lean black men.

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Product Placement: Selling the grasp for what isn’t there

Lewis H. Lapham in Lapham's Quarterly:

Fashion lives only in a perpetual round of giddy innovation and restless vanity…it is haughty, trifling, affected, servile, despotic, mean and ambitious, precise and fantastical, all in a breath.

—William Hazlitt

BonesAlone on the shore of Walden Pond, safely removed from the threat of crowdsourced infection, Henry David Thoreau in 1854 holds to the view that men and women in fancy dress are “sailing under false colors,” with the result “that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched, clothes than to have a sound conscience. It would be easier for [most people] to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon.” Thoreau’s Puritan antecedents didn’t countenance the flying of false flags. They took offense at the sight of “people of mean condition” (i.e., anybody valued at a net worth of less than two hundred British pounds) dressed in a manner above their station “by the wearing of gold or silver lace or buttons, or points at their knees, [or] to walk in great boots.” The effrontery was punished with severe fines, as were the ambitions of servant girls seen wearing “silk or tiffany hoods or scarves, which though allowable to persons of greater estates, or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intolerable.”

The judgment was uncharitable. Also hypocritical and ungrateful. The inspectors of souls in the Massachusetts wilderness depended for their existence on the market in London for luxurious bodily adornment, the shining city on the hill beholden for its daily bread to temptations of the flesh and the work of the devil. In the 1950s the teaching at Yale didn’t dwell on the point. Little time was left for class discussion of the Pilgrim colony as a financial speculation floated by venture capitalists intent on extracting a shameless profit from the wholesale slaughter of beavers. Beaver pelts sold in Jacobean England at the prices paid to rent nine acres of farmland. The fashionable nobility delighted in velvet and lace, but most extravagantly in the splendid magnificence of the mousquetaire, a beaver hat low-crowned and wide-brimmed, banded in silk, mounted with ostrich feathers. Prince Charles bought forty-three such hats in 1624, the year before he became king, his expenditure on clothing at one point equivalent to the cost of building and outfitting a pair of ships six times the size of the Mayflower.

More here.