From If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways:
The “Balance of Nature”
Daniel. A few years ago a reader wrote to me to express his surprise
at what seemed to him all the dumb questions being asked on my
Web site. For him, everything I was saying seemed quite simple:
Anything we humans do that disturbs the balance of Nature must
be eliminated from our way of life.
Daniel. What does this “uh-huh” mean? Are you agreeing with him?
Elaine [disconcerted]. Well, yes, I guess so. In a general way.
Daniel. In a general way. In other words, stated in a general way,
what Daniel Quinn is saying is that anything we humans do that
disturbs the balance of Nature must be eliminated from our way
Elaine. I take it you don’t agree.
Daniel. Agreement isn’t the point. The two of you share a frame of
reference, and that’s what we have to examine. To put it another
way, the Martian anthropologist asks himself, “What’s behind this
statement? What’s in their minds that leads them to say this? What
are they thinking?” Or, to put it an even better way, “What does this
statement reveal about their vision of the way world works?”
Daniel. You’re frustrated.
Elaine. Yes, I guess so. I came here thinking I had a pretty good
grasp of your vision of the way the world works. . . What’s the
Daniel. Anything we humans do that disturbs the balance of Nature
must be eliminated from our way of life.
Elaine. It seems to me a statement that a great many people would
Daniel. You’re probably right. That’s what we’re looking at: the
frame of reference that a great many people—possibly even a
majority of people—share. That’s the anthropologist’s task. . . At
one time I was thinking of writing a book called If They Give You
Lined Paper, Write Sideways.
Daniel. If you were to pass around a sheet of lined paper with this
statement on it, most people would probably write on the next line,
“Yes, that’s right.” I turn the paper sideways and write something
else on it.
Elaine. What would you write on it?
Daniel [shaking his head]. The lines on the lined paper represent
assumptions or, you might say, the received wisdom of our culture.
Consider this statement: Anything we humans do that disturbs the
balance of Nature must be eliminated from our way of life. What
assumption does that embody?
Elaine. Disturbing the balance of Nature is . . . harmful.
Daniel. To what?
Elaine. To . . . the stability of the world. To life.
Daniel. In other words, disturbing the balance of Nature disturbs
the balance of Nature.
Elaine [laughs]. Yes, I guess so.
Daniel. But in any case, it’s bad.
Daniel. All right. This is the activity of the Martian anthropologist—
or perhaps you could say the method of the Martian anthropologist
—to pull away, to pull back and look at the whole.
Daniel. Pull back four hundred million years and look at the life
of the world as it was then. Do you have any kind of picture of it?
Elaine. Not an educated one. I’m not even sure . . . Let’s just say
I’m not sure where things stood.
Daniel. Well, briefly, land plants began to appear about 400 million
years ago, presumably spreading from lowland swamps. These were
followed onto the land by arthropods and other invertebrate groups,
and land vertebrates evolved from freshwater fish some forty
million years later.
Daniel. Now repeat after me: Anything that disturbs the balance of
Nature is bad.
Elaine, perplexed, says nothing.
Daniel. The appearance of plants on the land disturbed the balance
Elaine. Yes, I guess so.
Daniel. You guess so? Obviously it did. If it hadn’t, all life would
still be in the sea. True?
Daniel. Disturbance of the “balance of nature” is the driving force of
evolution. It is what makes evolution occur. If Nature, as it’s called,
had ever achieved perfect balance, then evolution would have come
to a halt. Mammals were an unimportant class living in the shadows
during the dinosaur age. The end of that age opened the way for
mammalian development, including the evolution of primates. Now,
again, repeat after me: Anything that disturbs the balance of Nature
Elaine. I can’t, of course. Now.
Daniel. So what’s your answer this reader’s statement? Anything we
humans do that disturbs the balance of Nature must be eliminated
from our way of life.
Elaine. It makes no sense.
Daniel. It makes no sense because it’s based on a false assumption,
that Nature was balanced till we came along to unbalance it. In
order to assent to the policy recommended by this reader, we’d
have to deny reality, start talking nonsense.
Elaine. I think I’m beginning to get it. . . What it means to think like
a Martian anthropologist.