Denise Hoffman Brandt: On Trees and Beasts, or How Ideas of Nature Shape Our Spaces

“Excerpts from a project on Trees and Beasts”

Denise Hoffman Brandt
© Denise Hoffman

What do we actually mean when we talk about nature? As a professor in a discipline that since the early 1970s has, mostly, claimed to practice “design with nature”—referencing Ian McHarg’s book (1969) of that title—that’s a question I have often asked. With thirty-eight editions in multiple languages his book remains one of the best-selling ever written by a designer, and its title has become an equalizing mantra among landscape architects designing everything from golf courses to eco-parks. McHarg’s mission was to rebut anthropocentric ideas embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition that promoted a rapacious attitude toward earth systems. But he did not reject all anthropocentric Christian ideology; his idea of nature was ordered by the belief that humans’ exceptional capacity to reason made them responsible for the earth. And while that idea of nature can be traced back to Aristotle, whose scala naturae—a universal and absolute hierarchy of all matter from the lowest rocks and worms to humans at the top—it was pulled forward into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas with his Great Chain of Being.

Design with Nature was, admirably, positioned as not designing only for humans; but it was premised on the idea that humans are suited to determine the design of everything. How things would be designed came down to their morality—again, very Christian. To McHarg, a good human was one who worked to sustain existing environmental systems on behalf of other organisms. But not just to be generous, he promoted city-nature dualism by arguing that the not-urban/suburban realm had an “ennobling” value. Humans were made better by the stuff he called nature so it should be preserved. Setting aside his faulty assumption that humans can master dynamic earth systems, I want to point out some of the flaws of that line of thinking in practice.

Stewards belong on cruise ships where they can nurture guests and clean up as per the captain’s orders. Calling ourselves stewards of the earth, we illegitimately situate every other living thing as guests that we are, fundamentally, in charge of. The only difference between a steward who wants to extract wealth from a guest and one who wants to make them comfortable is the inclination of the steward’s moral judgment—or that of the captain, whatever authority is up the political ladder. We have ample evidence of the dicey results of allowing those in power to determine exactly what constitutes ethical behavior. In this case, even the structure of the argument is too loose—allowing for gross slippage. Environmentalists who call on humans to save the earth because they can, do so with the same argument that extractionists use to claim humans deserve to reap earthly bounty. This has proved disastrous: with both sides making the same moral argument in support of different ambitions, human-adaptation to environmental change has been mired in intractable moral arguments.

To get past the impasse, we need to bypass the rationale that humans are fit to arbitrate the earth and define ourselves not as over, but with the rest of our earthly cohort. To illustrate my point, I will return to McHarg: even when a moral environmental ambition is achieved, success is chancy. Human reason is just not all it’s cracked up to be. On projects around greater Baltimore starting in the 1950’s, the office of Wallace and McHarg used “suitability analysis,” a quasi-scientific method of overlaying maps of local or regionally specific environmental conditions to assess opportunities and constraints for different types of land-use. Because the mandate for development was itself never in question, the method was a mechanism to determine what must be city, versus what should be nature. As with many data-driven devices, McHarg’s framing of the problem predicted his solution: some places were better than others.

Referring to himself as the “green-fingered planner” responsible for environmental conservation, McHarg called his partner, David Wallace, making proposals for infrastructures, economic development, and legislative policy, the “brown-fingered planner.” In Design with Nature’s chapter on “A Response to Values” McHarg described his “Plan for the Valleys” commissioned by “a voluntary non-profit citizen group,” of estate-owners. Their former farmland had commodified scenic value that represented their social status. McHarg celebrated the group for preventing a “wallpaper of development [from being] unrolled on the landscape.” As if the choice was either/or. It was not.

David Wallace, wrote later in his book, Urban Planning/My Way (2004) that the larger plan had advocated for

“relatively high densities and … [a] cross-section of ethnic and income groups”

achievable with careful planning of circulation infrastructure and zoning code. And he pointed out that the landscape plan had armed the community with arguments against expanding circulation and septic infrastructure that served what he called: an

“elitist conspiracy among the rich white landowners and the government they controlled to provide de facto segregation.”

The Villagers chose to honor McHarg’s idea of nature because it was a means to their end: sustaining the status quo of their status. That environmental neoliberalism persists in the dreams of Silicon Valley elites buying up California farmland to build themselves “utopian” enclaves and landscape architect-led ecological restoration megaprojects funded by consortia promoting economic development as the answer to environmental devastation. They too use the same dicey logic: they assert that technology-derived tactics for doing good for the environment must, perforce, be correct and morally just. Even wilderness has become embroiled in corporate genetic technologies offering a pretense of recovery for lost species in lieu of living with what we have got. We do not need to rewild other species: we need to rescale ourselves. Landscape architects’ complaisance with such scenarios is at the root of their loss-of-voice in environmental discourses.

Nature is not really the stuff outside; it is in our heads, and our ideas of nature change over time. If we want to change our environmental future, we will have to change our minds first, and we could start by rethinking human exceptionalism. A little over a year ago I stood atop a scarp formed by one of the four extinct volcanoes making up Isla San Cristóbal overlooking the bay where the Beagle had landed in 1835—with Charles Darwin (1809-1882) on it. That’s a punny but apt metaphor. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was like the moonwalk: humanity’s understanding of its place in earth’s systems—an idea of nature—has never been the same since. His argument was grounded in Galapagos finches, whose beak-form variations were distinctive to each remote island, indicating that populations had evolved adaptive traits based on food-type availability. He recognized that fat, tough beaks cracked seeds, skinny, pointy beaks snaffled beetles out of tree bark or sucked in nectar. Darwin could not pin down the exact mechanism of natural selection, but he understood that living organisms adapt, and that random variability within a species influences population-change over time through evolution.

Darwin’s ideas were reinterpreted—as in hijacked—right from the start by a lot of go-betweens claiming to defend them. Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) combination of his own ambitions for human progress with the theory of natural selection became a dominant social idea of nature. Spencer, who came up with the term “survival of the fittest,” rationalized it as a path toward betterment by way of unregulated social and economic competition. Darwin only reluctantly adopted the term in a late edition of Origin. Natural selection was a random process; reducing it to an individual and social existential battle for dominance was contradictory to his intent. Having stirred up the zeitgeist with On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin must have felt he had some further explaining to do. Twelve years later in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), he suggested that mental traits could be passed on to offspring and thus were at play within natural selection. It was an idea that would bite him and the rest of us in the backside after others—including a cousin of his—developed the theory of eugenics from it.

Darwin’s theories were reshaped into a rationale sustaining the political status quo. Thomas Henry Huxley—often called Darwin’s bulldog for his supposed defense of him—provided the first graphical representation of human progress as a species in Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863). Its frontispiece depicted skeletons in profile, as if walking from left to right. Against a blank background the species unfold, increasing in stature, to make clear that those bodies behind us were not as noble as the ones we have now. But that was never Darwin’s intent: to reiterate, his 1871 book was titled Descent of Man. In that same volume he affirmed his idea that biological inclusivity is natural: “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.”

It was an affirmation that all hominids are made of the same stuff and therefore have the same core potential. And to hedge against those who would revive ridicule that he lowered humans to the level of apes he added “…the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” He was threading a conceptual needle, but he affirmed no difference among humans in the context of contemporary theorists, like Louise Agassiz of Harvard University, who denied that evolution was real but argued that human types identified as races were actually different species with distinct, inherent intellectual and physical abilities. Darwin was not exempt from biases common in his place and time, but we often forget that natural selection was an explanation for diversity that affirmed its benefits.

Another illustration of human evolutionary ascent was drawn four years before McHarg’s book—maybe as a subtle encouragement not to end the lineage with nuclear testing. Titled “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” and also known as “The March of Progress,” in the Early Man volume of the Life Nature Library, the graphic revealed recently discovered primate and hominid species dating back 22 million years. It’s another parade of human relatives, but to reinforce that we had fleshed out our understanding of our forebears, the bodies were fleshed-out too. As in Huxley’s version, development progressed from heavily slumped primate to muscular, erect hominid, but mental stature was newly implied with reference to tool-use: early-predecessors carried rocks, and the penultimate figure holds a spear. The final figure’s lack of a weapon might have indicated humanity’s new-found moral elevation, but the sunset-tinted background reminded me of Agent Orange—a devastating weapon being deployed by the US at that time in the Vietnam War to not just burn humans alive but to make sure those that survived had no home or food to return to. So much for stewardship.

By emphasizing a lineage and not a family tree, representations of the “Ascent of Man” assimilated Darwin’s theory into the same old, same old hierarchy with humans at the top. But instead of affirmation by a metaphysical God, our position was now substantiated by science. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once called the image a “straitjacket of linear advance” that should more accurately be described as “a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction.” But Gould stopped short of calling out the hypocrisy of lauding an abstract continuum of human progress as a species while denying social equity among humans. And that might have had something to do with Gould’s recapitulation of the same-old, same-old belief that nature is nasty and brutal that had for centuries been used to validate inequitable policies as naturally competitive.

In Animals and Why They Matter (1998) Mary Midgley articulated the issue:

“There exists, I believe, an impression that … cut-throat competition between species is the law of evolution. This is false and the reading of such pop-gun fantasies into evolutionary theory is a serious error. … People supposed that all they had to do to increase resources was to destroy their competitors – insect pests, rodents and others – and walk away with the proceeds. Had competition really been the basic law of life, they ought to have been right. But they weren’t. Things have therefore gone badly wrong.”

Positivist materialist philosophers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett popularized the idea that at the first sign of any scarcity, all living things are—like Malthusian robots—genetically programmed to compete with each other for what is left. They leveraged Darwin’s theory to normalize behaviors that Dawkins himself has referred to as “selfish,” justifying them as natural law. But that perspective not only overlooks all the cooperative behaviors normative among beasts of all kinds—including humans—it obscures the value of emotional agency in favor of elevating technological capacities for domination using weapons like Agent Orange. The tragedy is that Darwin’s idea was “dangerous” (Dennett’s claim) not because it suggested there was nothing special about living organisms—that living things will just do their selfish thing. It was dangerous because he affirmed there was something special about all types of beings; and a lot people—those comfortable at the top of political hierarchies—don’t want to live in that kind of nature.

There are other ways to think. And I am going to conclude by making a case for why we should reconsider envisioning ourselves as stewards designing for dependents and instead start to seek terms of parity. But to do that I have to clarify a point about how we think of our own capacity to reason. Early 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, put his spin on human exceptionalism with the idea of the beast-machine: nonhuman bodies are animated by machine-like processes, whereas humans’ bodies are like machines, but their minds enable them to be conscious of reality and that makes them exceptional. Collaterally, his theory created the mind-body problem, a dualism debated for centuries—usually with arguments that attempt to resolve it. Dawkins and Dennett’s materialist rationale ala Darwin was one of those efforts. Their theories resolved it by eliminating the human mind as the means by which we know reality. To a strict materialist, thoughts are the electrochemical products of human brains—without human-like neurological systems, other beasts have none.

In “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel (1974) disputed such theories with his title question. Asserting that “I assume we believe that all bats have experience,” he called attention to common acceptance that non-human vertebrates have capacity to sense themselves in their context, to know reality through subjective experience. His point was that “to form a conception of what it is like to be a bat … one must take up the bat’s point of view.” Citing bat’s sensing with sonar—an incomprehensible-to-humans mind-body sensation—he argued that we should take up the “challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method – an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination.” In other words, we cannot know what it is like to be a bat based on how we know ourselves—we cannot see them through the lenses we use to construct our idea of the world—of nature. But we can look for ways to know their ideas of nature.

I do not think it is coincidence that Nagel was writing after a lot of psychologists—aware of Jane Goodall’s findings at Gombe—revived the practice of testing primate-capacities to learn language by adopting infant-chimps into their homes and treating them like human children. William Furness, after adopting primates and moving their mouths to try to get them to talk in 1916, despaired of primate-consciousness. The mid-twentieth century psychologist and eugenicist Robert Yerkes took up raising chimps and founded the Yale University Laboratories of Primate Biology, to prove his belief that “the great apes have plenty to talk about.” Once he realized chimp-anatomy prevented them from talking like humans, he suggested American sign language (ASL). In 1967, psychologist R. Allen Gardner and ethologist Beatrix Gardner published their findings for “Project Washoe” indicating that the female chimp was, to a degree, effectively conversational. She could exchange words with her human social group and could string more than one word together to convey more explicit meaning.

The Gardners’ stated objective was “to learn how much chimps are like humans,” although they did make some effort to recreate a chimp-like tight social cohort for her by hiring a lot of graduate students to care for her and teach her ASL. When they wanted to replicate their findings with other chimps, Washoe was sent to the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma along with one PhD candidate, Roger Fouts, who was finishing his dissertation. She was lucky to have the continuity; other chimp-research subjects went from yards and caretakers to cages. In the context of sending chimps into space to test conditions for humans and infecting them with diseases before injecting them with trial vaccines, treating primates like kids—juvenile humans—doesn’t sound so bad. But all of those endeavors were backed by the same flawed idea of nature: being human was the only way of being that mattered.

Proof-of-human-ness was proof of value. Given that many people (including me) struggle to learn another human language, the chimps’ having learned a language on the other side of the species-barrier is extremely impressive. But what is more impressive is that in order to do that, the chimps had to rebuild their whole understanding of reality: what it is to be like a chimp. We generally fail to recognize that how we understand them is always in terms of how we understand us and the earth as we experience it. Assuming our consciousness of what is real, and how we know it, applies to every being, we design every other thing’s world to our specifications—even when we are trying to act on their behalf.

In The Moral Lives of Animals (2011) Dale Peterson recounted two tales of lying chimps raised in human families and treated like human children; one of them was Washoe. By two-years-old—still in the Gardner’s yard in Reno—she could “brush her teeth, linger over and comment on the pictures in a book or magazine, use a toilet, sew random stitches with needle and thread, loosen screws with a screwdriver” and more. She could also be duplicitous. Feigning interest in a location distant enough from a hotly desired can of soda, Washoe duped Fouts into checking to see what she was looking at. She then raced to claim her prize and escaped to drink it. Fouts, was astonished by “a level of planning and deception beyond anything I thought her capable of.” His expectations were surpassed by Washoe’s human-style planning intelligence: she conceived of an indirect means to an end.

He was equally taken aback by her “deception.” Morality is a social code of behavior, and deceit is never morally neutral in human society. Washoe’s transgression fell into a couple of stereotypical beastly types. Did Fouts imagine Washoe to be a noble savage above the petty immorality of a soda-scam? I doubt it. He seemed amazed that she acted-on her animal nature to impulsively, intelligently, and courageously, albeit immorally by human standards, fulfill her desire. But who is to say what is moral or immoral in a chimp’s understanding of reality—especially a chimp struggling to assimilate into the behavioral regime of another species?

In Peterson’s second account, Fouts’ was working with another young female chimp in Oklahoma, “Lucy.” She had an impressive vocabulary in sign language and an occasional incapacity to get to the toilet on time. When Fouts confronted her with evidence of a lapse on the carpet, Lucy sinned by omission: she pretended not to know what he was talking about. When he persisted, she named others as the culprit. Lucy finally admitted what Fouts saw as the truth: “LUCY DIRTY DIRTY. SORRY LUCY.” But among Lucy’s species, going to the bathroom on the ground and not in a toilet is not a behavioral aberration. For the ape to identify the “accident” as “DIRTY” signified that she had been coerced into at least acknowledging, if not actually feeling, the moral emotion of disgust, followed by another moral emotion, remorse. Lucy felt “SORRY.”

Peterson questioned whether Lucy regretted the transgressive act or the deception and offered: “We often use deceit to cover some other moral failure, but one distinctive thing about human lying is that we understand that the lie itself is wrong.” That rose-colored view of humanity overlooked the dodginess of human behaviors and the ambivalence of human moral judgment. Lying is common and often accompanied by defensive righteousness. And judgements of the kind and degree of falsehood are far from universal in practice. Washoe’s deception was mild: more along the lines of entrapment—she only implied that there was something worth checking out, she never stated it. Emmanuel Kant was notable for arguing that coercion was morally worse than lying. And while that has long been debated, it is safe to say that both are of a kind in terms of being unethical. Humans enact coercive control on each other all the time—threats, bribes, flattery etc.—with varying degrees of criminality. And we often use it on animals without thinking twice. I will coax my cat from under the bed with a treat so I can plunge him into his cat-carrier for a trip. It is a short-term coercive offence. But living in a human family in accord with their moral code distorted Washoe’s and Lucy’s lives into a product of coercion.

Despite some recognition of their conscious awareness, both chimps suffered immersion in alien landscapes that demanded alien behavioral patterns, altering their conscious-being. Lucy’s and Washoe’s caretakers convinced them that altering their beings to become like humans was the way they had to be. And it was a profound coercion, a far more substantive degree of dishonesty than Washoe’s taking advantage of her caretakers’ gullibility and failure to secure the soda, or Lucy’s lies to avoid humiliation or punishment. That flawed approach is best understood in light of Allan Gardner’s statement to Roger Fouts before he hired him: “Science doesn’t need philosophy, … If you are influenced by them it will show that you weren’t worth anything to begin with.” (From the Friends of Washoe website.) Nagel’s suggestion that we recognize others’ subjective conscious experiences as real stands in stark contrast to the premise that Washoe and Lucy could be close-to-human—as if that would make them somehow better.

Our admiration for how marvelously human-like some nonhumans are—from dogs that collaborate with us in games or hunting, to apes that can make paintings—is a commendation of their high capacity for assimilation. Respect is given in exchange for an animal giving up its other ways to be in order to be like us; or at the very least to be like a pet, fitting its ways into our ways. Those that don’t fit are, like enemy-competitors, destroyed or evicted from our realm. If we look hard at how we design our world, even when we imagine we are designing with nature, it is not really that much different from the toy-strewn chimp-play areas in those psychologists’ backyards; or worse, the cages and glassed-in rooms of primate research centers. We design for us, and any attempt to design with the rest of our earthly cohort is on our terms.

Perhaps mindful of Nagel’s idea, psychologists and primatologists have changed their ways: most research undertaken into the evolution of language today is carried out in the species’ habitat—constricted as it may be by expanded urbanization—and the objective is to work towards understanding nonhuman communications and lifeways. Landscape architects would be well-served by doing something similar. At some point we will have to admit that nature, as we know it, is a bunch of bad ideas perpetuated to sustain the status quo at the expense of communities both human and nonhuman that are made subjects of the dominant—as in policy-making—social group.

Disciplinary pedagogy is generally light on philosophy but still burdened with neoliberal morality. That will have to change if new ideas of nature are to be gleaned from the diversity of living things. Landscape architects would benefit from taking up Nagel’s challenge. They could start by framing conceptual tools that are ontological, that respect a fundamental collaborative status of being as opposed to just taking charge, either as stewards or by setting all living things against each other in some false survivalist narrative. Likewise, epistemological approaches must be developed that encompass the diversity of all earthly umwelts—all ideas of nature—within design thinking.

*Denise Hoffman Brandt earned her educational credentials at the University of Pennsylvania in art history, continuing painting at Pratt Institute and concluding with studying landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to holding a professorship at the City College of New York, she was an adjunct and visiting professor at Columbia University and Pratt Institute. She was also a project manager at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and a senior landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, before establishing her own practice Hoffman Brandt Projects, where among other topics, she engages in activist design for crisis situations and critical mapping, say uranium activities across the US or gun cartridge distribution found after the 2015 Baltimore protests. 

Denise is currently working on a book, on Trees and Beasts, excerpts from which are presented above. You can also find out more in the Landezine conversation, available here.

Published on July 2, 2024

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