Personal Perspectives

The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration. I have no other wish than to mingle more closely with Nature and I aspire to no other destiny than to work and live in harmony with her laws.

– Claude Monet [1]

Nature is my god. To me, Nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.

– Mikhael Gorbachev[2]

Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.

– Albert Schweitzer [3]

All religions have their stories. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus – they all have their stories. All political ideologies have their hallowed texts. I have my story. It is the story of life on this planet and of the human place in nature. It comes to us from the natural sciences.

The more I learn about life on Earth, through personal observations and from science, the more I learn, the greater is my sense of wonder, and the more profound my sense of respect – indeed feeling of reverence – for nature and for the creative processes that gave rise to the living world.

I am thinking not only of the natural environment, with all its mindboggling diversity and beauty, but also of the amazing and extremely complicated processes that go on inside my own body, and that have kept it going for more than ninety-seven years.

The natural sciences have provided us with a reasonable understanding of the physiological and ecological processes on which all life depends; and Darwinian theory and modern genetics have provided an explanation of biological evolution. However, I am among those who, while accepting the role of natural and sexual selection in evolution, do not rule out the possibility that there is some other force influencing the selection of genes in the evolutionary process. In my view, for instance, natural and sexual selection do not adequately explain the eyespots on the peacock’s tail, or the sand circles created by male white-spotted puffer fish; and it is hard to see how natural selection in the evolutionary environment could have given rise to some of the mental attributes of Homo sapiens.

Some scientists tell us that life is ultimately explainable in terms of the laws of physics. These laws will lead, willy-nilly, to the creation of life on suitable planets. I am not competent to pass judgement on this hypothesis. But let us suppose it is correct, then we are still left with the question ‘Where did the laws of physics come from?’ – just as those who believe in God must ask ‘Who, or what, created God?

And indeed, what a wondrous set of laws − laws that have led to the eventual coming into being – starting from the primordial mass of matter and energy – of the vast array of living organisms that make up our biosphere today, as well as the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven.

Science has not, of course, explained how it all came about in the first place. It has not told us how atoms and the elementary particles of which they are made, as well as magnetism, gravity and the laws of nature came into being. True, scientists postulate a big bang, but this does not explain how the big bang came about, nor the origin of all the matter and energy that the big ban dispersed to form the universe.

Thus, science still leaves an unexplained mystery – the mystery of the origin of the natural phenomena and laws that gave rise to the living world. The mystery of existence. I believe it will always remain a mystery.

While science tells us about the evolution of life on Earth and about the ecological and physiological processes that keep us alive; it tells us nothing about morality. It does not tell us whether it is right or wrong to cause pain or distress needlessly in humans or other animals. It does not tell us whether it matters if humankind trashes the living systems that gave rise to it and on which it depends, or if our species comes to an early end as a consequence of its own activities and arrogance.

As I see it, we have a choice. We can seek to live in harmony with nature, or we can look on nature with disdain, and set out to exploit and conquer it. For me, there is no doubt whatsoever. My understanding of the story of life and of our biological origins leads me to choose the first of these pathways. I believe it is not only wise, in terms of my survival and wellbeing, but also morally right to strive to live in harmony with nature. I see this as of supreme importance. It is what matters most.

I consider it morally wrong, the height of disrespect and arrogance, to desecrate the living systems of our beautiful planet. I have no sympathy with the notion, dating back to the so-called Enlightenment, that we should aim to conquer nature – to conquer the living system that gave rise to us, of which we are a part, and on which we are totally dependent.

With regard to our behaviour towards other human recipients of the gift of life, again it seems to me that we have a choice. We can choose to do all we can to help them make the most of this gift, and to enjoy themselves; or we can exploit and harm them. Once more, there is no doubt whatsoever. My understanding of how we all come to be here leads me to feel morally committed to do everything I can to help others to enjoy life.

So, striving to achieve harmony with nature, and with other humans as part of nature, has top place in my hierarchy of values. I am not saying I have lived up to these ideals; but I wish that I had.

I should also say that, apart from the sense of wonder and joy that I get from observing and learning about life on Earth, experiencing nature also has meaning for me that can best be described as transcendental, or spiritual. When I am alone in the natural environment, I sometimes suddenly feel not only a deep sense of awe, and reverence, but also an apparent awareness of another dimension of reality – hard to describe, but very real. The feeling is heartening, strengthening, calming, comforting and inspiring. This happens especially when I am in the bush, but increasingly I experience it in other situations, like in the room in which I now live.

What is the explanation of these experiences? I don’t know, but they are an important part of my life experience. I suppose many, if not most, people have them from time to time. Jane Goodall, for example, says:

‘All the time I was getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result, closer to myself and more in tune with the spiritual power that I felt all around. For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature there is really little need to say more; for those who have not, no words of mine can ever describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly and all unexpected’.

The story of life reminds me that I am not only a product, but also an intrinsic part, of nature – even if an infinitesimally small part. I am as much a part of nature as are the sulphur-crested cockatoos in the garden and the wallabies on the farm. I find myself feeling at one with the living world. It is a good feeling. It gives me peace of mind.


[2] “Nature Is my God” – interview with Fred Matser in Resurgence No. 184 (September-October 1997).pp14-15.