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Man and Nature

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UGFN1000 In Dialogue with Nature

Man and Nature- A dialogue among scientists through the ages

Notations: (I: Myself, J: Joseph Needham, C: Rachel Carson N: Issac Newton)


Welcome to the seminar ‘Man and nature’. I am honoured today with Mr.

Needham, Mr. Newton and Ms. Carson. J&C&N: I: Our pleasure.

The relationship between man and nature is one of the most vital relations

human is currently handling. Humanity’s progresses are largely dependent on the resources our mother nature offers us. From ancient times, nature is human’s best friend and greatest foe. Human is suffering from natural disaster. Meanwhile, many of our daily essentials, such as water and food, are obtained from the nature. In my view, the relationship between man and nature has evolved from ages to ages. To examine the relation, I believe we should first inspect on the advancement of human understanding towards nature. The explanation towards natural phenomena starts from supernatural power. At ancient times, human understanding towards nature was limited, thus resulted in belief of deity. Ancient Greeks used different deity to explain astronomy and natural phenomenon, for instance, Zeus is the God of thunder, Apollo is the God of sun and light, while Poseidon is the God of ocean. Also, different Heroes and Heroine are involved in respective horoscopes. Greeks were not alone. Various primordial civilizations also reflected their incapability of understanding nature in creating deity and idols.


It is indeed true. As a sinologist, I take the Chinese civilization as an example.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas1 is an early classic dated around 4th century B.C.


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in China, which recorded many myths and it reflects that supernatural power was common in explaining unknown or unexplained natural phenomena. (“The classic of Mountain and sea”) I would consider the Ancient Greeks four elements doctrine, proposed by Aristotle, be the first milestone in human understanding towards nature. It is the first systematic approach to understand nature without accusing any deity involvement, involving any religious thoughts, or holding any primitive thoughts. (Needham Par.37) I would consider this as a turning point in history, which mythic had fell apart in human understanding towards nature. The human understanding about the nature afterwards started to base on a more scientific ground, and reflect the truth better. Which the Chinese developed Yin-Yang and five elements theories (Needham Par.30), while western built up a logical-based structure which explained the nature (Needham Par.38), until Mr. Newton redefines force and motion in his ‘The Principia’. These theories had reduced humans’ fear and worship towards the nature as the behaviour of nature was less uncertain. N: Mr. Needham, I concur to your view that the four elements doctrine expelled

the mythic factors, but the human understanding towards nature is heavily influenced, if not dictated by theological believes for a much longer time afterwards. During my time in Europe, Catholicism was still playing a dominant role in education and scientific researches. Many ideas were not allowed to publicize if the church believed it was wrong. Take an example, the Heliocentrism proposed by Copernicus and Galileo, were at first rejected by Catholic believers, using the bible as one of the major reference book. I am lucky to have a chance to observe the world around 300 years after my death by attending the seminar and reviewed on the history of scientific development. I do agree that the four elements doctrine plays a crucial role in human understanding of nature. They had laid the solid foundation in my research towards the nature. Indeed, I have seen further by standing on the shoulders of giant.2 But I am not boasting, when I look back history in the annals of history, I am proud to say my work is a breakthrough in finding the fundamental rules of nature, thus enhancing knowledge towards it.

If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants. – A quote of Issac Newton

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Mr. Newton, I must admit that your theories did change the understanding

towards mathematics, astronomy and physics a lot. Yet, the scope of nature is not limited to these aspects. Nature includes phenomena of physical world, and it also includes different forms of life in Earth. (“Nature”) In my view, our understanding towards Nature, especially ecology-wise, is still tip of the iceberg. After the scientific revolution, sciences had replaced God as the new almighty. People believed in the power of sciences, and thought that they learnt everything about nature. However, it is not true. A great proportion of our nature, plants and animals, has yet to be discover, not to mention fully explored. Despite of that, scientists were over-confident about their knowledge, especially in Chemistry. They indulged in inventing numerous Chemicals, in order to “protect” human from harm and gain benefits. Take an example, the attempt to kill sage by spraying in U.S in 1950s had caused disaster to various other plants, and results in enormous detrimental effects in wildlife. (Carson Par.14) Humans are too ignorant about the ecological effects of certain actions, and they made actions without considering the resulting consequences thoroughly. I: Ms.Carson has a great point here. There are still many for human, for us, to

learn about nature. The example Ms. Carson gave is a direct reflection of majority of human’s attitude in the relationship between nature and us. From ancient times, the majority of human had been self-oriented, and often times treated themselves a higher class than other species, and they ought to rule the world and beat the nature. The superiority of human can reflected on several cultures and religions. For Christians, the bible states that God had assigned Dominion Mandate to humans. Humans have the authority to rule over all living things and the nature. (“Genesis 1:26–28”). In Greek’s myth, Prometheus stole reason from Athena, stole fire from the gates of Hephaestus, and became human’s own protector to give human an edge over all other species, and thus become the ruler in nature. Even for Buddhism, which arguably a religion promoting love to all, states that in Desire realm3,(“Desire realm”) being a human is better than being an animal. All of the



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examples show that the idea of human superiority over other species, and arguably their superiority over nature, is deep rooted in our ancestors’ mind. J: Mr. Yam, I am afraid that I hold a distinct view. I would like to share my

opinion based on the ancient Chinese’s view. There were mainly three different views on human-nature relationship, which includes Xunzi’s philosophy of controlling the nature,4 Taoist view of no intervention on nature5. However, the dominant one is holding communion with nature.6 (“Chinese’ conception of nature”) One of the followers in the view is Zhuangzi once said “I am co-exist with nature, and united with everything.” 7 Moreover, in Confucianism, Confucius also holds the view “We need to fully understand nature, and become part of it.”8 It reflected majority of ancient Chinese did not treat themselves over nature, but treated nature as a companion. Although In Buddhism, in Desire realm, being a human is better than being an animal, but it is in the sense of the journey towards ‘Heaven’. Buddhism states that life is equal and against killing living things or ruining the nature. All in all, I would call the relationship between ancient Chinese and nature a co-operative, interdependence one. N: I am not a sinologist, thus I do not know much about Chinese’s view. But I

think the western science emphasis on seeking truth. And by seeking truth, we aim at unveiling the fundamental rules of nature in a systematic approach, but not only the pattern. From Plato’s allegory of the Cave, to Galileo’s attempt to overthrow Aristotle’s theorem on falling objects, we aim to explore the general rules of nature. Take an analogy, our relations with nature are like adventurers and undiscovered land. J: That is one of the biggest differences between western and Chinese’s view.

Chinese attempts to find out the apparent, behavioural pattern of the nature, while western science attempts to find the fundamental rule. An illustration would be the phenomenon of rainbow. Chinese science would treat rainbow as a consequence of

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荀子《天論》:天行有常;天人相分;制天命而用之 道家自然無為思想。 6 天人合一 7 天地與我並生,萬物與我為一。 8 能盡物之性,則可以贊天地之化育;可以贊天地之化育,則可以與天地參矣

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sunshine after rainstorm. But western science would like to further investigate on why rainbow appeared in that specific situation. The lack of sounded logical reasoning to link up scientific evidences results in the superficiality and absence of unity in Chinese science, as stated by my colleague Nathan Sivin (Sivin Par.9-12, 15-17). It also results in a common Chinese belief that nature has its own ‘mind’ and the reasoning of the ‘mind’ is un-explorable.9 This helps in escalating the disparity between Chinese and western’s relation with nature. C: In my opinion, the western scientific views not only results in the ‘adventurers

and undiscovered land’ relation as Mr. Newton mentioned, it also had contributed to the unbalanced relation between man and nature in the 20th century, which is similar to ‘master and slave’ relation. A common belief in western scientific views is truth is found in infinitely great or infinitely small. (Poincare Par.10) And this belief had heavily influenced the biology and physics exploration at my time, causing reductionism. Take an example, the activity of a living cell or an ecosystem, is explained by being reduced to its parts. (“Humans & Nature”) I regard reductionism had caused man to over-simplified the complexity of eco-chain. They can observe the smallest details, but are ignorant how these smallest details would affect the big picture. Just take the example of the herbicides sprayed in agricultural areas in U.S. at my time. Agricultural workers saw what these herbicides do to eliminate weeds, but failed to see the loss of beautiful scenery and tourist good, its effect on other plants, or further, its effect on the ecosystem. (Carson Par.17-23) Man thought that they may intervene and control the nature (by eliminating those unwanted species) according to their own will, just like a self-oriented master may do anything he pleases to the slave. However, they failed to notice that altering nature artificially may result in sufferings of our own in the very end. I: Indeed, in the modern world, many countries, especially developing ones, put

emphasis on economic development over environmental protection. They neglect the environmental consequences of their actions.



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There was a film called ‘Avatar’, which the theme was about man’s expansion towards planet Pandora, and how their arrogance and pursuit of wealth caused them ignorance about the beauty and mysteries of nature, in which Pandora’s original inhabitants (which was considered primitive by humans) have a greater understanding. The film is a portrait of the reality, where economic development is often put in prior to environmental conservation. There are many mysteries in the nature we yet to discover, and the ‘master and slave’ relations between is certainly not ideal in helping us to unveil the mask. We humans ought to reorient ourselves and try to maintain a healthier relationship. Thank you all for attending this seminar. J&N&C: Our pleasure.

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Work Cited: 1. “The Classic of Mountain and Sea” Wikipedia. 2002. Wikimedia Foundation. 25 Apr 2014 . 2. “Nature” Wikipedia. 2002. Wikimedia Foundation. 25 Apr 2014 . 3. “Desire realm” Wikipedia. 2002. Wikimedia Foundation. 25 Apr 2014 . 4. “Chinese’ conception of nature” CUHK. 25 Apr 2014 5. Peter G. Brown & Geoffrey Garver, Humans & Nature: The Right Relationship 6. 7. Bible Rachel Carson, Silent Spring: 40th Anniversary Edition. 1962. Rpt. in In Dialogue with Nature: Textbook for General Education Foundation Programme. 2nd ed. Hong Kong: Office of University General Education, 2012. 143-158. 8. Henri Poincare, The Value of Science: Essential Writings of Henri Poincare. Modern Library, 2001. Rpt. in In Dialogue with Nature: Textbook for General Education Foundation Programme. 2nd ed. Hong Kong: Office of University General Education, 2012. 161-178. 9. Joseph Needham and Colin A. Ronan, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China: An Abridgement of Joseph Needham’s Original Text, Vol.1 Cambridge University Press, 1978. Rpt. in In Dialogue with Nature: Textbook for General Education Foundation Programme. 2nd ed. Hong Kong: Office of University General Education, 2012. 195-218. 10. Nathan Sivin, Chinese Science. 1982. Rpt. in In Dialogue with Nature: Textbook for General Education Foundation Programme. 2nd ed. Hong Kong: Office of University General Education, 2012. 219-243.

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