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Are we losing touch with nature? How could we, when we and everything we create, are part of nature?

With so much of life based on electronic representations of reality, humans risk losing touch with nature, says University of Washington psychologist Peter Kahn.

From web cams that offer views of wildlife to virtual tours of the Grand Canyon to robotic pets, modern technology increasingly is encroaching into human connections with the natural world. Kahn and his colleagues believe this intrusion may emerge as one of the central psychological problems of our times.

It's true that the environment that we live in now, the “manmade” environment, is different than the environment we used to live in, the “natural” environment. But if we are part of nature, then it seems to be a mistake to chalk these differences up to human meddling. If nature meddles with nature, it's all natural. As a scientific naturalist who believes that humans are part of an evolutionary chain, it's hard to define the difference between natural and artificial. If beaver dams are natural why isn't the Hoover Dam?

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Lord Winston of Imperial College, London, said recently that he believes pig organs will be available for human transplant within ten years. Porcine valves are already widely used for human heart patients, but this kind of experimentation often provokes revulsion and ethical outrage, despite its potential to save lives. Why?

The argument made by those who oppose interspecies transplant is that humans are sacred and that we ought not play God. Further, genetic experimentation is dangerous because gene modifications could have unintended consequences. And for many of us who do not oppose stem-cell research or other research avenues, porcine organs just seems revolting.

And there may be another motivation for opposing research into life-extending therapies. Religions serve their interests when they oppose medical research, because they prevent progress that has the potential to increase lifespan. If medical science can provide immortality, that’s one less perk of signing up for a religion that promises eternal bliss and salvation.

If human beings are chemical concoctions lacking free will then the ethical objections to interspecies transplant and genetic modification melt away, except to the extent that these practices harm either our survival prospects or harm ideas which promote survival.

Of course, if all of the ideas that compose our intuitive ethic arose through evolutionary processes, it could be argued that revulsion with mixing our genetic material with that of animals must confer an evolutionary benefit.

The trick in tackling controversial ethical propositions using an evolutionary ethic is sometimes teasing out which aspects of the intuition, or socially or biologically conditioned ethical feeling, actually produce the survival benefit, and which aspects are mere side effects. Evolutionary biologists who believe that all traits produce survival benefits are “adaptationist,” but the non-adapationists have strong arguments; so many human behaviors seem like they are just side-effects.

Why do men wear neckties? I cannot imagine even the beginnings of a theory to explain how this behavior confers some evolutionary advantage over wearing some other attire or wearing no neckwear at all. Wearing neckties must be a behavioral consequence of some other general behaviors and preferences which increase our chances for survival. The necktie-wearing behavior is just a side effect.

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Those of us least inclined to anthrocentrism might even grant that other mammals with big brains possess self-awareness too. But bacteria don’t have brains, and neither do vegetables, so those forms of life, most of us believe, don’t percieve themselves and the world the way we do. They are basically glorified chemical reactions, that don’t have a sense of“self.” We don’t think twice about a salad’s feelings, but can’t bear the thought of hurting a human baby.

This division in how we think of lifeforms is very useful to humans -- it’s not at all helpful to feel sorry for lettuce, because we need to eat. Sympathizing with a vegetable does no good because the machinery in our brain that is designed to create feelings of sympathy is there to help us get along with pets and people, not peppers.

But the division between thinking and non-thinking organisms is somewhat arbitrary. Where is line that divides the aware from the vegetative? Those who accept evolutionary theory understand that all of life is part of a grand continuum. As Daniel Dennett said, there is no reason to believe that humans are the only lifeforms with “magic stuff” in their brains. We evolved from the lower apes, and the evolutionary chain stretches back to one-celled organisms.

Scientists have discovered that bacteria can think ahead.

Bacteria may be humble single-celled creatures, but they're sophisticated enough to anticipate regular events, such as the arrival of day, thanks to their internal circadian clocks. A new study shows that they can also anticipate and prepare for sporadic events, as long as the events are reliably preceded by a signal

Maybe what they do is not “thinking” as we experience it, but it accomplishes the same ends. Our brains process information and make decisions based on anticipation. Bacteria don’t have brains, but they make decisions based on anticipation.

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