Students, faculty and members of the public attempted to answer the question “What is nature?” as part of a hybrid academic course and public event series put on by the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.
The event sought to present different viewpoints on the topic, with the hope that panel members would spark conversation on pertinent social issues such as climate change, gene editing and the role of humans in the environment.
Victoria Marks, associate dean of academic affairs for the School of the Arts and Architecture, mediated the conversation and began the lecture by saying nature is a moveable idea.
Evan Meyer, the assistant garden director of UCLA’s Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, elaborated on this idea and began his presentation by explaining the dichotomy between the natural world and the “unnatural” cityscape created by humans, which was built using material from the natural world.
Meyer said he thinks humans and nature are intermeshed in ways humans do not understand.
“As a thinking animal and as a cultural animal, we can emerge from (nature) and hopefully define our own relationship with it that will be beneficial to us and everything else around us and on the planet,” Meyer said.
Meyer presented examples of nature reclaiming urban space through weeds and other foliage that manage to persist in concrete environments, adding that this is evidence of a close relationship between humans and the natural world.
“If nature and culture are distinct, they certainly are interacting in a very highly intertwined way,” Meyer said.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, an English professor at Emory University, focused less on nature in the traditional sense and examined social values surrounding human biodiversity.
Garland-Thomson referred to historical examples of people born with congenital disabilities who were valued for their uniqueness. She specifically mentioned Matthias Buchinger, a German man who was born without arms or legs, and was seen as a marvel in his time.
“And (people like Buchinger) were understood again as events that were demonstrating some kind of divine meaning or something worth our contemplation,” Garland-Thomson said.
Garland-Thomson added she fears the rise of gene editing and the possibility that those in power will be able to decide who and what traits get to stay in the human gene pool.
Rebeca Méndez, a UCLA professor of design media arts, presented another answer to the night’s question, focusing on how the definition of nature has changed throughout human history.
“What nature is at any given era, why it is and what it is are variables that are completely dependent on historically shifting relations between humankind and our environment,” Méndez said.
Méndez also added that her career as an artist has helped inform her beliefs about the relationship between humans and the environment.
“I question a lot what art is and the role it has in our times and what being human is,” Méndez said.
Méndez said she has an obligation as a creative person to help humans better understand their places in nature.
“It’s amazing that there’s still so much belief that we can control nature,” Méndez said. “Nature is wild.”
Geneva West, a third-year world arts and culture student who attended the discussion, said she felt the panelists complemented each other’s viewpoints well.
“I think it’s important to confront the things that are difficult to talk about,” West said. “I think a lot of times people in these discussions want to come off as knowledgeable, and even though these people are experts in their field, everyone has their own lack of understanding so it’s nice when other people’s understanding can overlap.”
However, third-year art and anthropology student Emily Yamaguchi said sometimes she felt the interdisciplinary lens of the talk missed important details about the subject.
“There is so much of the discussion that is important and that we are missing,” Yamaguchi said. “Talking about human nature is an important thing that was missed because no one here covers that.”
The next lecture will discuss “What is Creativity?” on Nov. 12 in Kaufman Hall.