Legal, moral, and natural courts

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in the highlands of Central Africa.  Some parts of Africa just have perfect temperatures.  Here in the highlands near the Equator, the temperature rarely gets below 50 and rarely above 80.  It’s surely the Eden our species came from.  Plentiful and delicious fruit still appear on the trees every month of the year.

a group of peach growersThe Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands are well known for the archaeological digs which unearthed bones appearing to be human ancestors.  On a visit to the national museum in Addis Ababa, I saw the bones of Lucy—the most famous of all the reputed human ancestors.  This Australopithecus specimen is said to have lived 3.2 million years ago.  She hardly looks different from a monkey and some scientists believe that’s all she ever was.

In these African highlands, from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe, various other skeletons have been found which look more like modern man and less like Lucy.  Two million years ago, according to the fossil record, these folks began to appear in Europe and China.  Other intrepid groups left the Eden of Africa in subsequent years.  One with a big brain and a rugged physique took over vast territories and left his skeleton to be discovered and named in the Neader Thal in Germany.

These Neaderthal are still with those of us who descended from Europeans.  We have about 2-3% Neaderthal genes.  But our genome is mostly dominated by a species which arrived in Europe about 43,000 years ago.  This species underwent some really rough times, including almost being wiped out in the Ice Age.  Only three pockets remained.  One in Ukraine expanded as the last ice sheets retreated and populated all of Northern Europe.

Eventually these fair skinned, light haired and blue eyed folks brought agriculture and destruction of innumerable species to Russia, Scandinavia and Germany.  Meanwhile, their slightly darker cousins did the same across China and, most recently, in the Americas.  With more rudimentary technologies, agriculture was less intrusive and many more species survived in sub-Saharan Africa.

But it was something more basic than technology which enabled man to thoroughly subdue and dominate the world.  Leaving Africa, man brought cooperation to an epitome, working together to defeat all sorts of natural foes, from drought to flood to wild animals.  Men agreed that certain norms, rules or laws were beneficial to their societies.  They instilled these beliefs in their children.  If the rules enabled their society to flourish and outcompete other societies, they continued to be passed down.

The legal, moral and natural courts were all the same in those days.  Societies did not survive when their rules and norms were inconsistent with natural law.  Hundreds of dead and abandoned cities across the Middle East and Central Asia attest to the power of nature to destroy civilizations who do not follow her laws.

Where civilizations came to know and follow more of nature’s laws, societies grew and became more powerful.  They dominated other societies who knew fewer of nature’s laws. Back then, few separated civic, moral and natural laws.  In those days, lawyers’ jobs were to uphold the law, not seek ways to skirt it to benefit their clients.  When one of Shakespeare’s characters seeks to help evil triumph, he says “First we kill the lawyers.”[1]

Social norms, rules and laws were just means of establishing social organization.  They enabled people to cooperate with each other.  Where people follow no rule of law, cooperation, altruism and social organization are limited if not impossible.

The survival of the strongest and most vicious continues until enough of a population agrees to obey a common set of norms, rules and laws.  Then cooperation, altruism and social organization can burgeon.  Unfortunately, as cooperation and social organization become more and more developed, people can congregate in larger and larger numbers.  As towns and then cities are created, the space between human laws and natural laws begins to widen.  Lack of contact with nature results in promulgation of laws in conflict with natural systems.  Humans systems begin to pillage the natural systems on which they depend.

In Africa, huge cities, the tools to create them, and the inevitable divergence from natural laws did not occur until the continent was colonized.  Then the destruction of the magnificent wild species began to follow the same path as in the rest of the world.

Today there are few places in Africa where wild species are free to roam.  Most wild species must be protected by high and electrified fences.  Malawi does still have a few spots where wild species roam freely.  Last weekend we visited Lake Malawi, the deepest lake in Africa and almost the biggest.  Hippos, elephants and crocodiles still traverse the edges of this lake.  Now and then a small child is swallowed by a hippo.

Mostly this happens when people are visiting new resorts placed on the shore in territory which has always belonged to the hippos.  As in most of Africa, the population is booming and grabbing more and more of the wild animals’ territory.  Nothing seems able to counter the inexorable expansion of human population.  Humans seem poised to once again wipe out a continent’s megafauna.

Cooperation and social organization is enabled by the rise of human laws and rules.  Natural laws support cooperation, but social organization which limits cooperation to humans and a few domesticated species now permits the destruction of the diversity and connectivity upon which all of nature is based.

Africa’s natural riches are being depleted and destroyed.  I’ve been watching it happen for almost 30 years.  Most recently the Chinese have taken the forefront in destruction of natural systems as they search for minerals.  They seem to lack any concern for preservation of natural systems.  They destroy entire river valleys seeking a few tons of gold.  The rivers run red after they are finished.  The pollution and extinction of wild species endemic to China is being exported to Africa.

Here in Eden-like Malawi, where wild fruit is available year round and temperatures are just perfect, ecosystem destruction shows no sign of slowing down.  The cooperation of people which creates hospitals and enables more and more to escape disease and death is not accompanied by cooperation with nature.  Human societies have never and can never survive when they ignore natural laws.

We humans judge each other in legal courts.  When those fail, we sometimes judge each other in moral courts.  None of these will matter if we don’t begin to heed the judgement of the court of natural law.  The laws which make natural and human systems survive and thrive are known.  They’ve been elucidated by those who study ecological resilience.[2]

Here in the highlands of Malawi, where man has lived with nature and enjoyed her bounty the longest, destruction of local ecosystems has finally come.  We’re here to teach the laws of ecological resilience.  But most people’s minds are captured by the norms and laws of a social system which has lost touch with natural laws.

Malawi is no different from the rest of the world.  Just more poignant here because the most magnificent species are still able to roam free here and there.  The end has not yet come here.  We can still hope.


[1] Dick the Butcher in ”Henry VI,” Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73.

[2] Join the journey toward ecological resilience through our free online book, available at:



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