The good of each thing is based on its nature. Therefore, if we are confused about what is good for man it is because we are unclear about human nature. To understand human nature more clearly it is most useful to compare and contrast man with other natural creatures. Let us first examine the degree to which nature provides everything that animals and plants need for their good.
Nature furnishes plants with all they require for a complete life. It is to nature that the oak tree owes its roots that draw nutrients from the soil, its chlorophyll-bearing leaves that manufacture food, its vascular system that transports nutrients, its acorns that occur at the proper time to continue the species, and every cell, organ, protection and stragegy that works for the good of the oak.
Nature also provides everything necessary for the good of each animal: food, special materials, locomotion, hunting techniques, camouflage, insulation, and communication. Nature provides not only an appropriate food for each animal but also the means of obtaining it, eating and digesting it, and even the instinct to avoid eating harmful things. Ethologist James Gould writes, “Many animals from blue jays to garden slugs come programmed to wait a species-specific length of time after eating a new food to see if they become ill. If they do—even if the sickness arose from a completely independent cause—they will never eat the food again. Even more curious, each species is programmed to identify the forbidden food in the future by its own set of cues. For example, rats will remember the suspect food’s odor“ while quail recall its color. When a building material needed by a species is not available in the environment nature gives the animal’s body the means of producing it. For example, honeybees need a water-proof, malleable substance to shape into cells for storing honey and laying eggs. Nature provides the underside of their abdomens with special wax-producing glands. Similarly, an orb-weaving spider needs a thread thin enough to be invisible to a flying insect until too late and yet strong enough to hold the insect once caught. Nature furnishes the spider with spinnerets that produce a silk with double the tenacity of steel and greater elasticity than nylon. The hunting techniques of different species of spider show nature’s ingenuity in providing a variety of strategies. Not all spiders spin webs to catch their food. Some drop nets over unsuspecting prey, some wait underground behind trap doors to pounce on insects passing by, others jump—sometimes several feet—onto their victim, the wolf spider actively prowls its territory for prey, while the crab spider, able to vary its color according to its background, waits in the center of a flower to ambush insects attracted by the nectar.
The amazing camouflage of many animals is well known. Some insects are perfect mimics of flowers, twigs, lichens, or leaves complete with veins and portions that appear chewed away by insects. One crab spider of Borneo looks exactly like a bird dropping. This appearance not only protects it from predators but allows it to prey on insects that look for nutrients in bird droppings. With similar advantages, the scalare fish of the
Amazon looks like a leaf and even floats along with the current like one.
Where special insulation is needed, nature provides it. The arctic fox, for example, is so well insulated that it would soon become overheated, even in winter, when running or being otherwise active unless it had some way to dissipate the extra body heat thus generated. Its thinly insulated feet and muzzle serve this purpose.
Nature gives each species whatever it needs to communicate with its fellows, whether by visual, auditory, or olfactory signals. And the means are sometimes ingenious. How does a song bird that spots a flying hawk warn the rest of the flock without broadcasting its own location to the predator? Under such circumstances many prey species use a high, thin whistle that has special ventriloqual properties making its location very difficult to determine.
We could continue this catalogue indefinitely, exploring food procurement, digestion, shelter, offensive and defensive weapons, protection against injury and disease, migration, reproduction and care of young. But the point is clear: these and thousands of other easily documented examples prove beyond question the ingenuity and great beneficence of nature.* Thus it is evident from induction that nature provides the good for every species. Therefore, nature must provide for man’s good also. But how can this be since man appears to be the animal least provided for by nature? For instance, the unclothed human body begins to shiver when the surrounding air temperature falls to 84 degrees Farenheidt. Hence some kind of covering is a definite human need but nature does not furnish it. We are not provided with feathers or thick natural fur like other animals. Further, nature does not provide us with an infallible instinct for distinguishing which things are good for us to eat and which are poisonous, as she does with the other animals. And when the earliest human beings had to hunt for their food, nature did not furnish them with instinctive hunting techniques, offensive or defensive weapons, natural armor, or camouflage. Nor does nature give us any fixed, instinctive means of building shelter. Moreover, to hunt and to build, man needs the cooperation of his fellows. This is possible only with some sort of common language. But nature does not implant in us an instinctive signal system as we find in other animals. From this point of view man appears to be the most deprived of animals.
What, then, does nature give us? She provides us with the faculty of reason and with a pair of hands so that we may invent, learn, and manufacture for ourselves everything necessary for our good. Without reason, an animal with human form would be pitifully unprovided for. Such an animal would make no sense. Nature, then, does furnish the good for all species but she does this for man in a very different way than for other animals. We are given not the finished products like other animals but only the most necessary tools to do the job ourselves. In other animals nature fixes by rigid instinct and anatomy as much as possible ahead of time for the species, leaving a minimum to the initiative of the individual. In man she does the reverse, fixing as little as possible ahead of time and leaving the maximum to individual initiative. Thus man is the most unfinished of animals.
This conclusion answers one question but raises another. Why should nature deal with the human species in such a round about manner? Even with reason and hands, man still appears deprived and disadvantaged since the goods the other animals achieve easily, perfectly, and with great certainty through instinct and anatomy, these goods man must labor after with much difficulty, and with many errors and imperfections. The first dam a beaver builds is perfect, as is the first web made by an orb-weaving spider. No mistakes, no groping, no flaws. This could never be said of the first man-made shelter or canoe. So has not nature’s measure for man been scant and mean after all? To answer this question we must first recognize that in the hierarchy of natural creatures each level possesses the goods of the level below it in a superior way, and“ a new world of goods unknown and unavailable at the lower level. To illustrate, the higher animals not only possess the goods found in plants (nutrition, growth, and reproduction) but animals enjoy a new world of goods unknown and unavailable to plants; namely, the world of sense perception, instinct, emotion, and movement from place to place. These latter goods define what is characteristic of animal life and by virtue of them animals possess even the vegetative goods more perfectly than plants do. For example, the higher animals find their own food by using their senses and instincts, and they experience pleasure in eating it. This kind of activity is not present in plants. Similarly, the higher animals use sense and instinct to find a mate and again experience sense pleasure during the acts ordered to procreation. And even the power of growth is superior in the animal because it generates not only organs of digestion but also organs which can perceive and others that move the animal about, something completely beyond the plant’s capacity. This same principle holds with respect to man’s relation to the other animals. First we will show how we possess the animal goods in a superior way and then we shall discuss the goods characteristic of man. At first glance it might seem that we do not enjoy all the animal goods in a superior manner since we cannot see as well as the eagle, run as fast as the horse, or fly like the bird. True enough, but when man supplements his unfinished nature with tools and implements of his own making, he is superior to every animal in every category. With the aid of a telescope a human being can see things far beyond the power of eagles or of any other animal. Likewise, man-made instruments can be tuned to exceed in precision and accuracy any animal’s capacity for perceiving sounds, odors, flavors, vibrations, or whatever other qualities they can detect. Man can also transport himself further and faster than any animal: the Apollo spacecraft traveled at more than 17,000 miles per hour and took men to the moon—a velocity and a distance unthinkable for any other animal. And although birds are beautifully designed for flight, each species is limited by the constraints built into its equipment. For example, because of its long, narrow wings, the albatross is perfectly suited for gliding but it cannot fly backwards. The humming bird can fly backwards but its wings are too small to allow it to soar motionless in wind currents. With the use of a hang glider, an airplane, or a helicopter, man can exercise all the possibilities of high speed, gliding, hovering and flying backwards, but with none of the limitations of the birds. The albatross cannot exchange its wings for shorter ones but a man can step out of an airplane and into a helicopter. And even the most versatile flyers among birds are as incapable of deep sea diving as a shark is of flight. A human being, however, has no difficulty working under water with the help of a man-made face mask, a wet suit, and an oxygen tank. In a submarine or bathysphere man can dive even deeper and longer than whales do. Each species of animal does this or that particular activity well but is incapable of, or at least cannot excel at, radically different activities. Man alone can do all things well. Now of course an albatross could also be transported in an airplane or helicopter, but the point is no animal except man could ever invent, build, or fly such machines. Also, though man cannot dive and catch fish with his mouth like the cormorant, he can devise superior means of catching fish, or he can catch the cormorant, put it on a leash and use it for fishing as the Chinese have done for centuries.
Wild animals are limited to a narrow diet and eat everything raw and without spices. Koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves. During the 1970’s more than l00 wild pandas in China starved to death when one species of bamboo, their only food, bloomed and died. Man, on the other hand, is omnivorous and cooks his food in an unlimited number of ways. The culinary art allows human beings to take more enjoyment in food than is available to any animal. Also, the art of agriculture provides food in more abundance, more variety, and with greater certainty than occurs anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Careful grafting and cross breeding secures for man new and better varieties of fruits and vegetables than are available in the wild. Here nature provides the raw materials which human ingenuity develops and exploits.
Nor do arctic foxes have any advantage over man because of their superb natural insulation, since man can invent an artificial insulating material or he can kill the fox and make its fur into a coat. The difference is the man can take off the coat, move to the tropics if he chooses, and live comfortably. The arctic fox has no such option. The same limitations are found in the natural tools, weapons, and armor of animals. They serve only one specific task and cannot be put aside or changed for others, thus severely restricting the life of the animal to certain set activities. A mole’s short, chunky paw is a superior digging tool but it cannot hold anything. An eagle’s talons are perfect for clutching small animals but are useless for digging. The human hand can perform all the tasks achieved by the restricted tools of animals: it can dig with a hand shovel, stab with a sword, cut down a tree with a saw, and perform thousands of other activities without being restricted to any single one of them. Skin divers employ swim fins to increase the efficiency of their swimming, but they are not forced to go through life wearing the fins which are clumsy for walking and make running impossible. On emerging from the water, the diver can, if he wishes, replace the fins with ice skates, or hiking boots, or a dozen other kinds of specialized footwear. Animals, however, are enslaved to their anatomies. The swift-footed Achilles could put off his fine armor to compete in a foot race. The tortoise enjoys no such luxury.
The same is true for shelter. The bird builds a nest, the fox digs a hole, and the beaver builds a dam. All act by instinct, inflexibly and with predictable means and procedures that are sufficient for their needs. The swallow always makes the same kind of nest. That is all it can build. A man too, according to need and circumstance, can shelter himself in a fox hole, or a lean-to of branches, and can build many kinds of dams. But human beings are not limited by instinct to constructing any particular sort of shelter. Thus human structures embody an enormous variety of styles and materials, and serve an unlimited number of purposes.
As for communication, the signal cries of animals convey but few things such as danger, food, mate. The words of human language can express all of these in a superior way. The sentence, “Look out, something is going to fall on you!” conveys danger much more precisely than a scream would. Experiments show that an untrained chimpanzee can lead other apes to food hidden in a field if it is previously shown the location, but it cannot convey the location by gesture or sound to other apes if not allowed to lead them, a trivial task for any human language.
Again, though the higher animals experience a sensory pleasure in mating, they do not understand what they are doing or why. They make no connection between the activity of mating and the subsequent offspring. Their enjoyment is purely a sensory one. For a husband and wife, however, sexual intercourse is not merely a sensory pleasure; it is a beautiful expression of their love for each other. The married couple also finds in this act the joy and privilege of voluntarily bringing a new life into the world. Such delights are unknown to other animals.
Finally, man makes more use of nature than any other animal. For example, there is no animal that we cannot capture and employ for some human benefit such as food, work, scientific knowledge, protection, entertainment, or companionship. The use other animals make of other species is minimal. Man also uses plants to serve his needs in hundreds of ways, including food, medicine, textiles, and building materials. And man exploits the physical and chemical properties of matter in a way never seen in the rest of the animal kingdom, developing organic chemistry and harnassing water power, electricity, solar power, and atomic energy. In this respect the other animals use only a minute fraction of the environment.
In short, there is no animal good that man does not enjoy more fully, more abundantly, and more perfectly than animals do. In addition to all this there is a further category of goods characteristic of human life, uniquely human goods in which the other animals have no share. It is clear in the foregoing examples that man’s superiority consists in his capacity for reason. But the purpose of reason is not merely to pursue the animal goods in a superior way. Reason has a life of its own and the goods of reason far surpass the animal goods.
First, human beings are able to discover the what and the why of things and to enjoy many kinds of knowledge for their sake. Animals have nothing corresponding to the intellectual life. Their curiosity is limited to the sense order and concerns principally a search for food or other necessities. Man’s desire to understand has given birth to biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy, archaeology, linguistics, and scores of other disciplines which have as their primary goal the satisfaction of the mind.
Second, the goods of reason include the aesthetic life. Animals are oblivious to the beauty found in nature and produce nothing like the works of the fine arts. The splendid leopard is not even aware of its own beauty and grace. Man, on the other hand, delights in all nature’s loveliness and also creates on his own great works of beauty in music, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, and dozens of other arts.
Third among the goods of reason is the life of choice and true self determination. Animals are not held responsible for their actions since they are ruled by instinct. Human beings, however, deliberately choose friends, a spouse, a career, a way of life. Through the decisions we all make every day we complete ourselves in acquiring various habits, skills, and attitudes.
Happiness, or man’s highest good, must consist in these goods of reason. Animals may experience sensory satisfaction or emotional contentment but they do not attain happiness since they do not share in the goods of reason and they possess even the animal goods in an inferior way. Since man enjoys the animal goods in a superior manner plus a whole world of goods animals do not share in at all, it is evident that in our regard nature has not been miserly but munificent.
The indeterminacy in human nature, then, is not a defect but the necessary condition for a superior life. Nature leaves to us the responsibility and the dignity of completing ourselves. It must not be thought, however, that everything in man is indeterminate. For even in the most conventional and artificial aspects of human life, nature provides an indispensable foundation on which we must build to finish ourselves. Language, music, and beauty will serve to illustrate this point.
One finds an incredible diversity among the estimated 6800 languages now spoken in the world. Yet despite all the differences, the need for language is natural. Every tribe and nation known to history has had some kind of language to request and communicate information, to give commands or ask for favors, in a word, to enable the speaker to express his or her mind. Furthermore, the faculties by which we speak and comprehend speech are natural. The amazing diversity of languages arises from the same natural organs in every culture: the tongue, lips, teeth, vocal chords, and mind of the speaker produce speech; and the ears, auditory nerves, brain, and mind of the listener receive it. What is more, all the spoken sounds of the world’s languages are reducible to approximately fifty phonemes that can be produced by the human organs of speech. Studies show that infants in all cultures can discriminate the whole human phoneme repertoire, but learn gradually to concentate on the sounds of whatever language they hear around them and eventually forget the others.
Music is another domain thought to be entirely conventional. The love of music, however, is universal. Every culture has produced and taken natural pleasure in some sort of music, if only vocal song. By 10,000 B.C. artisans discovered how to make flutes from hollow bones. The earliest written music dates from 2,500 B.C. Further, the musical scale is founded on natural consonances. Certain pairs of notes sound pleasing when played together: the octave (C and the next higher C), the fifth (C and G), and the fourth (C and F). Even the standards of beauty* are not entirely conventional. Recent studies indicate that “even different racial groups show substantial agreement in their attractiveness judgments.”
One meticulously controlled series of perception experiments with babies established that they distinguish between beautiful and unattractive faces.This is a clear sign of the naturalness of our judgments about what is beautiful. Other research has even isolated various elements that comprise facial beauty. Thus, despite our indeterminacy, in every domain nature provides something fixed in us, without which we could not begin. Man is unfinished but not deprived of the essentials needed to complete himself. It remains now to examine in more detail how we ought to complete ourselves.
l. James L. Gould, Ethology: Mechanisms and Evolution of Behavior“ (New York: Norton, l982), p.264.
2. Larry S. Underwood, “Outfoxing the Arctic Cold”, Natural History“ 92 (December l983): 46.
3. Allen, Thomas B. The Marvels of Animal Behavior. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, l972.
4. Laurence Irving, “Adaptations to the Cold”, Scientific American“ 214 (January l966): 96.
5. Emil W. Menzel, “Spontaneous Invention of Ladders in a Group of Young Chimpanzees”,
Folia Primatologica 17“ (1972): 87-106.
6. Elizabeth Bates, Barbara O’Connell, and Cecilia Shore, “Language and Communication in Infancy,” in
Handbook of Infant Development, ed. Joy Doniger Osofsky (New York: Wiley, l987), pp.
7. James Jeans, Science and Music“ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), p. 164.
8. Judith H. Langlois, Lori A. Roggman, Rita J. Casey, Jean M. Ritter, Loretta A. Rieser-Danner, and Vivian Y. Jenkins, “Infant Preferences for Attractive Faces: Rudiments of a Stereotype?,”
Developmental Psychology“ 23 (May 1987): 363.
10. Michael R.Cunningham, “Measuring the Physical in Physical Attractiveness: Quasi-Experiments on the Sociobiology of Female Facial Beauty.” Journal of Personality and Social Development“ 50 (May 1986): 925-935.