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Many people consider nature to be whatever it is they see through the window of an automobile while passing through rural areas. Looking out they see fields, forests, birds, and perhaps a mammal such as a deer. This common view of nature as whatever the individual happens to see of the world is without critical awareness. It can be considered a form of naive realism that believes that what one sees is what one gets. However, questions about the accuracy of this picture of “reality” have been with us since the beginning of Western philosophy and continue to be raised in modern studies by sociologists.
The philosophic question “what is real?” is an issue because some human experiences are of things that appear to be real, but when examined are found to be only appearances or illusions. All humans have experienced appearances, perhaps as mirages or startling shadows. Distinguishing appearances from reality is a central question in metaphysics. Until the advent of the Copernican Revolution in astronomy, the general belief was that the solar system was geocentric: The sun moved and the earth was stationary. Certainly for an observer on earth the sun does appear to move every day of the year. However, this is now known to be an appearance, and reality is just the opposite. The discovery required major adjustments in thinking about the nature of the universe. It required, as Francis Bacon urged in his writings, a reorganization of knowledge.
The picture of “reality” that people carry in their heads is not just a response to a nature that is out there, but also an artificial construction in the human mind. Animals may be part of nature, but the names by which they are known are a human social construct. Interestingly, the first words used by babies are nouns for naming things, but this is a social act because the names are those given by the language of the society.
The knowledge of the names of the animals is not just that of an isolated person, because humans are by nature social. People may choose at some time to live isolated from human contact; they may die alone; but no human has ever been born alone. Children acquire a language that is filled with deep structures and images that carry the thinking and feelings of many people over generations. The deep structures will include ideas and feelings about nature.
Sociological theories of the “social construction of reality” say that the way in which humans act is a product of their life experiences. In other words, the perceptions of reality that people have are colored by their beliefs and backgrounds. Thus, the attitudes that someone would have about being lost in the deep forests of Canada would be different if that person had grown up on a farm in a rural area as opposed to having been reared in an apartment in New York City. The attitudes of people from rural areas on guns and hunting will differ from those who are from urban areas. The former may have eaten at times thanks to the game they shot and killed. The urbanite may never have handled a gun, and may have usually been fed from local grocery stores or restaurants where the prepared meat or fish is not recognizable as the animals they once were.
An example of the social construction of nature is in the attitudes that Americans have had toward wolves. These attitudes were shaped by European stories of the “big bad wolf,” which have often been viewed as true depictions of reality, even though the origins of the story and the intentions of the storytellers may have been very different. In the American West wolves were hunted to extinction because of hostile attitudes shaped more by these images and attitudes than by reality. This occurred despite scientific studies showing that wolves do not live up to their bad reputations. The Thomas Theorem applies because in this case wolves are perceived as bad so their consequences were real.
The social construction of nature also affects scientists. While expected to have clear pictures of reality, studies of their theories have shown that since at least the pre-Socratic teachings of Heraclites of Ephesus, scientists have used images or metaphors to interpret their finding. These models of reality have on a number of occasions created enormous mischief.
Many students of the history of science believe that the Darwinian image of life as a struggle for survival was an interpretation of nature that reflected the savage manner in which society in England at the time operated. If life had been organized in another way, the theory of the mechanisms of nature would have been illustrated differently, and therefore the theory would also have been different.
The pictures of nature that humans carry in their heads are in part an eisegesis of nature. That is, part of human understanding of nature is “read into” nature from the social perspective of the viewer of nature.
- Klaus Elder, Social Construction of Nature: A Sociology of Ecological Enlightenment (SAGE Publications, 1996);
- Roy Ellen et al., eds., Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication (Berg Publishers, 1996);
- Rik Scarce, Fishy Business: Salmon, Biology and the Social Construction of Nature (Temple University Press, 1999);
- G. Simmons, Interpreting Nature: Cultural Constructions of the Environment (Routledge, 1993);
- Philip E. Steinberg, Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge University Press, 2001).