When it comes to the natural world, few people give where credit is due. It is a tendency for humans to think of themselves as the center of the universe. For centuries humankind believed that the entire universe, the sun and the stars, revolved around the Earth. Copernicus, the 16th and 17th century astronomer, set the world on fire when he proved that the earth was but a small cog in the wheel of the solar system, dutifully circling our star, the sun, once every 365 days. Western religious leaders were aghast and tried to have his works go unrecognized by civilization. Some time later it was proven that the sun was a very small cog indeed in the wheel of a much greater galaxy, and this galaxy, the Milky Way, stood not alone, but one of many galaxies in the much, much larger universe.
Centuries later Charles Darwin in writing Origin of Species really upset the human ego applecart when he put forth the theory of evolution. This theory, still debated today by some theologians and scientists, took man off of the throne as king of the earth. It equated him to the rest of the natural world, simply by stating that humans were related to a whole host of species that preceded Homo Sapiens. Although there are still some people that believe the world is flat, and that man did not evolve from the animal kingdom, most people agree that the position man holds in the natural world is not as superior as we once thought.
Not surprisingly, we still credit ourselves with much in terms of “inventions” and new ideas that have existed quietly in the natural world for millions of years. This point of view is dangerous, especially when in our present times when much of the natural world is being lost; lost forever.
Without the natural world man would be hard pressed to improve his own circumstances. All of our ideas, technologies, and theories are based upon concepts that already exist in the natural world. Simply put, said the great thinker Loren Eisely, man invents very little, he merely discover what already exists.
There are countless examples of the natural world coming to the rescue of the human condition. Many scientists turn to the natural world when looking for disease prevention and cures. The reason for this is very simple. The natural world has had millions and millions of years to experiment with nearly every possible combination of chemicals, compounds, and elements. Both the plant and animal kingdom have undergone countless changes to adapt to the earths constantly changing environment. Many naturalists, philosophers, and some scientists, believe the world to be of a reciprocal order. That is, for every condition, disease, and situation there is a natural antidote.
Alexander Fleming, due to careless laboratory practices, discovered that bread mold could combat certain bacteria. This lead to the formulation of penicillin, a drug that gave man hope of surviving serious and often fatal ailments that were frequently transmitted over large segments of the population by human to human contact. Penicillin led the way for research that would lead to the formulation of many other antibiotics that would prove effective against illness born from bacteria.
Scientific researchers have recently learned that there is a gene that keeps most mammals from growing new teeth. By studying sharks and their rows and rows of replacement teeth we have unlocked the potential to grow new teeth when they are damaged or loss. This has been successfully done with laboratory mice.
Recently medical researchers have been studying spider venom as an antidote for the terrible effects of Alzheimer’s disease. It is thought that spider venom, collected from particular spider species found in the far western United States, neutralizes chemicals released at the onset of Alzheimer’s that blocks or destroy healthy brain cell activity. If this theory proves correct, scientists may be able to copy or clone the venom and use it as an Alzheimer’s treatment.
While we are on the topic of spiders, spider web strands have been determined to be six times the strength of steel and amazingly light weight while keeping great flexibility. This is a very enticing combination of properties that could revolutionize building materials. Researchers hope to copy spider silk by learning the manipulate or copy the correct level of spider proteins to nucleate and form a fiber similar to that used in spider webs. The possible uses for such a material are nearly endless.
Man has a history of learning from nature and there are a multitude of examples of humans copying nature for the betterment of their world. By observing impoundments made by beavers, man was able to understand the value of water storage, later proving essential to civilization in hydroelectric production, water supply, and recreational use.
Human flight via airplanes seems commonplace today. For centuries humans watched animals and plants fly and glide around without effort. Human flight was made possible by great discoverers like Leonardo Da Vinci and the Wright brothers who admired and studied birds and other flying life to get an understanding of the principles and physics of flight, eventually allowing the invention of the airplane.
By studying whale tubercles on the fins of this large aquatic mammal we have learned how drag may be significantly reduced on human machines like airplane wings and wind turbine propellers, possibly making these as much as 32 % more efficient.
Another simple example of man copying nature is Velcro, first “invented” in 1952 by studying the hook and fastener system employed by plants like burdock and cocklebur. These plants developed these mechanisms over millenniums, as a way of broadcasting seeds over long distances.
It is impossible to predict what secrets the natural world holds for us to discover; efficient nuclear fusion for energy production, improvements to our ways of storing electricity, even something as inconceivable as time travel. The possibilities are beyond our imagination.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of plant and animal species, many of which have not yet been identified by humans, are being lost for eternity each year, most with the destruction of unique natural habitats. Rain forests are an example of a unique natural habitat that are being severely threatened by irresponsible human activity. Each of these species that is threatened is a specific product of millions of years of evolution. Each of these species holds a unique relationship with the natural world that no other species holds. Each of these species is one of a kind, and once lost cannot be replaced. And each of these species may provide humans with an opportunity to save thousands of lives, improve the human world, or even provide us with an understanding that will bring peace to our planet. The loss of this many unique organisms through human carelessness and neglect equates to the beginning of a new dark age for modern science. The human, the great adaptor, could lose the information base from which great discoveries would come.
All of this is not to say that man does not hold a very special place in the world. We have the ability to both reason and manipulate. Too long we have been manipulating first and reasoning second. Humans have the ability of understanding the interrelationships of all organisms and elements on our planet. This can only be accomplished if a reasonable number of pieces to the jigsaw puzzle known as the natural world are available to put together so that we can see and navigate the ultimate design. It is within our grasp to act as excellent stewards of this planet while, at the same time, improving the human condition.
There is no doubt that humans are a dominating force on this Earth. As I write this we are frantically spending much of our time trying to undo what should not have been done. In our haste we have forgotten the lesson the Copernicus taught the human world centuries ago; that humans are not the center of the universe. It would be better if we spend our time, energies, and the great human resources of reason and manipulation to understand the natural world. And the natural world, in turn, will help us to better understand ourselves.
Originally written in July 1991, updated in 2009.