Tunguska, or the End of Nature: A Philosophical Dialogue

Tunguska, or the End of Nature: A Philosophical Dialogue

by Michael Hampe, Michael Winkler

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On June 30, 1908, a mysterious explosion erupted in the skies over a vast woodland area of Siberia. Known as the Tunguska Event, it has been a source of wild conjecture over the past century, attributed to causes ranging from meteors to a small black hole to antimatter. In this imaginative book, Michael Hampe sets four fictional men based on real-life scholars—a physicist (Günter Hasinger and Steven Weinberg), a philosopher (Paul Feyerabend), a biologist (Adolf Portmann), and a mathematician (Alfred North Whitehead)—adrift on the open ocean, in a dense fog, to discuss what they think happened. The result is a playful and highly illuminating exploration of the definition of nature, mankind’s role within it, and what its end might be.
Tunguska, Or the End of Nature uses its four-man setup to tackle some of today’s burning issues—such as climate change, environmental destruction, and resource management—from a diverse range of perspectives. With a kind of foreboding, it asks what the world was like, and will be like, without us, whether we are negligible and the universe random, whether nature can truly be explained, whether it is good or evil, or whether nature is simply a thought we think. This is a profoundly unique work, a thrillingly interdisciplinary piece of scholarly literature that probes the mysteries of nature and humans alike. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226174006
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/04/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael Hampe is professor of philosophy in the department of humanities, social, and political sciences at the ETH Zürich. He is the author of many books, including The Perfect Life: Four Meditations on Happiness. Michael Winkler is professor emeritus of German studies at Rice University. He has translated many books, including Uwe Steiner’s Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought, also published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Read an Excerpt

Tunguska, or the End of Nature

A Philosophical Dialogue

By Michael Hampe, Michael Winkler

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17400-6



For a split second, the whale's spume looks like a human figure in an intermediate position, neither lying nor sitting, its arms spread and its head tossed back. One might imagine a man awaking, rising from his bed, about to sit up while stretching his back and neck in the act of coming alive. Any moment now — this sight suggests — one of the extended arms will be bent to guide the awaking man's hand toward his yawning mouth. Or the opposite: an exhausted woman, sitting, drops back onto a soft bed, her arms spread out, falling, as she anticipates lying on soft pillows for a good night's sleep. Or perhaps an athlete leaning forward as he is about to make a backward somersault from a high-diving board will assume this intermediate position for a moment on the way from one element into the other before stretching out completely as he disappears in the pool like an arrow, impressing the judges. But just as a human body falls into dust in the grave, so the whale's waterspout scattered, and so the image of a person half sitting, half lying, atomized into myriads of droplets and fell back into the sea.

The whale submerged into darkness, past kelp plants more than fifty meters long, into subaqueous rocky gorges overgrown with black mussels. At times, huge swarms of herring and mackerel burst out of these gorges toward the sun. They dance in the current like flocks of birds, and when they are chased by dolphins, seals, or other preying animals, they elude their hunters in complicated formations as if they were a single being. On such occasions, some of the hunters themselves become the hunted when, for example, we see an orca and sea lions, which just a moment before had been pursuing a school of herrings, being catapulted out of the water and into the air by their jaws or their gigantic tail fins. Once the orca has the herrings between its jaws, it shakes them the way a dog shakes a rabbit or a cat shakes a mouse to break their bones. Then it bites down on them, and the sea turns red from the blood of its mangled victims. The large blue whales and sperm whales dive right through swarms and bloody struggles of this sort, not bothered by anyone, for there are no harpoons flying here. They move toward darkness until they reach the area where giant octopods are searching for food with their beak-armored mouths, mollusks of an astonishing intelligence, with optic organs that resemble human eyes. (Do they also see like us?)

Below the territory of the large cuttlefish begins the zone of eternal night. Anyone diving deeper than a thousand meters, deeper than the whales, comes upon a habitat no longer penetrated by sunlight. But creatures live even there. In 1960, Jacques Picard observed a deep-sea fish from his submarine Trieste at a depth of 10,916 meters. The living beings of this underworld lay their eggs in higher regions of the water, which are still suffused with light. When the larvae have hatched and have turned into fish, it will be years before some of them have migrated to the world of their parents and have adjusted to the great pressure in the deep seas. There are reports that deep-sea fish swim toward the surface two days before the full moon rises. Occasionally they will end up in the fishermen's nets or in the stomachs of codfish that are well aware of the underworld denizens' ascent before the full moon. When the fishermen heave their nets up and filet their catch of cod, they may find amazing creatures from the deep sea that look strange and partly transparent, with glassy, dangerously sharp teeth and outsized unseeing eyes, such as the whip angler that is roaming through the dark with a kind of lantern. This lamp hangs from a device growing on top of the fish's perfectly round head, something like a rod that, for a good reason, is called an "angle." It is the light emanating from this lantern that attracts its prey, which it catches with the sharp teeth of its mouth opening above a protruding chin.

Deep-sea fish are fragile because there is little calcium to be found in those depths. When they first see the light of the upper world, calcium is still available to them. But on their migration into the ocean darkness, it becomes ever more scarce. They remind us of Homer's bloodthirsty soul- shadows in Hades, which terrify the living. These creatures are horrific predators, while at the same time fragile as porcelain under their skin and slender muscles. As they migrate from their place of birth to their lifeworld, their eyes grow larger and larger so that they can still see something in the ever diminishing light until, on their arrival in the deep, they no longer need them and become nearly or totally blind. The specter-like leftvents also have lamps on the tentacles above their huge blind eyes. "Although their eyes have atrophied," we read, "all deep-sea fish possess light-generating organs. ... Naturally occurring energy (ATP, adenosine triphosphate) combines with luciferin, a light-producing substance in bioluminescent organisms, and oxidizes with the addition of oxygen. In some light-producing organs this light can be turned off by throttling the supply of oxygen." Some of these blind yet illuminated hunters even have a plasmatic mirror behind the lamp, which they use to disperse their light. When prey with better eyesight come near to the hunter's mouth in the cone of the dispersed light, the hunter pulls its lamp in closer, holds it over its mouth, and opens the gills behind its maw, thereby causing a draft above its throat that pulls the prey down into its stomach.

This kind of hunting at a depth of thousands of meters has been practiced for millions of years and still continues, while up above, where dolphins are jumping, the four-hundred-meter-long ship Norach moves on through the gray, calm, nebulous sea, laden with sixteen thousand refrigerated containers. From the perspective of an albatross sailing in the air high above, these containers look like piles of coffins, yet they are actually much larger. Each container can hold a freight of twenty-five thousand kilograms. Assuming that the average corpse weighs sixty kilos, 6,666,666 corpses could be accommodated aboard the Norach. Or if each of the sixteen thousand icy boxes housed a group of living people, they would add up to a floating city with a population of a hundred sixty thousand.

These container ships crisscross the oceans of the world, from time to time leaving the high seas and proceeding up rivers to cities, as they do, for example, on the Huangpu from the delta of the mighty Chang Jiang (Yangtze) to Shanghai. There they unload their boxes and take on new cargo — filled with humanity's garbage: tons after tons of tires, T-shirts, ball bearings, neckties, garden hoses, underwear, and motorbikes. They are laden with romance novels, keyboards, knives, printers, headache pills, rifles, desk chairs, clothes dryers, and television sets; filled to the top with tightly packed cartons of vacuum cleaners, cellular phones, dildos, stereo sets, cameras, light bulbs, wrist watches, plastic dolls, glass beads, cooking pots, shotgun shells, attaché cases, and lipsticks stamped "Swiss made," or "made in China," or "made in Germany," or "made in Taiwan," or "made in Britain," or "made in Japan"; sacks filled with soy flower from Brazil, coffee beans from Africa, wheat from the United States; steel sheets from India; boxes with sheep's wool from Australia or bananas from Brazil. In the commercial centers of the world, the circulation of these commodities and the money transfers that set them in motion — fast, uninterrupted movements of the universal medium of exchange — are strictly supervised. Unlike water, steaming and then returning as rain, money increases on its various courses through the electronic data flow, miraculously, of itself, as if from nowhere, like the ever-reproducing vermin (evil causa sui) that Beelzebub keeps watch over. And high above in glass-framed offices with a view across smoky cities along meandering rivers, men in dark suits lounge in leather armchairs, swirling old brandy in crystal snifters while checking the latest balance sheets. Above their red and blue neckties, their mouths not only emit the usual lies but keep talking about "creativity," "competition," or "progress" and producing such aphorisms as "only the hardest-working will survive." At regular intervals, these priests of money recite psalms of the market religion. Referring to the major scourge of all other living beings, they call humans "the most successful animal." "We," by which they now mean themselves, the scourge of this scourge, "are the most successful of this most successful species. This obligates us to be tough, to make ruthlessness our highest duty. Only cruelty leads to success." On and on they talk like this, caught in a lifelong cycle of childish games of competition, armed to the teeth with contracts and insurance clauses, while crows, laughing, fly circles around their towers. Ants emerge from the bushes beside the silvery glistening portals of corporate headquarters and climb the walls of the gleaming money phalluses all the way to the penthouse roof gardens to cut the leaves of evergreen shrubs so as to build their own hill, and these little crawlers will survive long after the towers have long ceased to be habitable (like wolves, which return to the forest after the minefields have been cleared). At the buffet, young women in short black dresses gaze into the sunset and at the ships moving up and down the river, while the men affirm mutual support for their future strategy. They raise their glasses to each other.

The veins of the world into which the ships enter as they leave the high seas on their way to the cities with the gigantic towers of steel and glass are, as it were, huge conveyor belts that carry humanity's stuff to its destinations. And one of these rivers is the Yenisei into which the Tunguska empties near Turuchansk, a little south of the Polar Circle. Yet a container ship looks strange when it is afloat on a river, this expanse of water that is protected by land. Anyone who takes a rest in front of a country house, perhaps near Stade, half lying, half sitting in a garden chair among apple trees, and gazes into the distance will quite possibly be able to observe such a monster pushing its way into his field of vision. Because this steel giant's cargo is not known, it makes a majestic impression as it, slowly and without a sound, shambles through a countryside of mixed fruit trees and meadows on its way to Hamburg. Just as it sometimes happens that a whale gets confused in the saltwater near Amsterdam and ends up in the Rhine, astounding the people of Cologne as an alien aquatic giant, so spectators will be amazed at the steely water creatures that push like movable towns past cows and villages through the countryside along the Elbe and the Nord-Ostsee-Canal, steadily, slowly, not of the world in which we get to see them.

But do not humans also live in their cities like strangers among the other species, secured in stone containers on this curious blue-and-white ball of a ship, enveloped by the atmosphere that hovers round the planet like fog? Does not the matter of which humans consist during their brief lifetimes constantly circulate inside the remarkably thin crust of a globe with an interior made up of a glowing liquid mass, revolving like the water in the oceans' currents and whirlpools? (Soon after the containers have been unloaded, a lot of the plastic ends up in these whirlpools where it is ground down into ever smaller little balls and is eaten by the fish who mistake it for plankton. In addition, many of the rubber things among the cargo — car tires, drive belts, sealing rings, and the ribbing of washing machines and vacuum cleaners — will, soon after they have been used, slowly sink into the morass at the bottom of the ocean along the rims of continental shelves.) Between the seas and the sky, however, there is the circulation of water, constantly cleansing itself and leaving anything coarse and rotten, including salt, behind as it rises in the form of mist and drops down again as rain onto land and sea. (Did this process give rise to our notion that humans, likewise, would be circulating between heaven and earth as souls, would be born again after death?) Some of them are still moving around in their stone containers, eating, breathing, congesting, copulating, and, on summer nights, begetting more of their kind. Others are lying below the ground, cool and rigid, often in wooden boxes, soundlessly disintegrating into their composite parts, from which the offspring of those arise who are watering their graves with green sprinkling cans. Matter here is occasionally creating long chains of proteins that at times even shape themselves into spermatozoa and ovaries that, combined with water, fats, and other matter, become fetuses again and grow into moving and, occasionally, thinking persons. These, in turn, come to the end of their reflections, forget everything (or perhaps they don't), and succumb to rigor mortis, fall apart, get eaten by worms, and once again show up in the food of procreating couples. In this way, matter is circulating in senseless and insane cycles on land and in the water.

During the billions of years that matter has been circulating like this, the cycles of life have been delayed and slowed down several times; once they had nearly been stopped, but they were never permanently interrupted. (Should that not finally occur?) Fossil evidence shows that life, after its origin in water, had been almost extinguished at least five times. Nearly 251 million years ago, 95 percent of all species died out due to a climate increase. Sixty-five million years ago, the impact of a comet or asteroid and strong volcanism caused a mass extermination of life. Today, humans have become a part of nature all over the planet, though not as harmless passengers like the equally ubiquitous crows and foxes, but as what formerly were (and still today are) volcanoes and meteors. Now they are the ever-present natural catastrophe on the planet, the first ones who know that they are exactly that. It is estimated that, during the coming thirty years, they will have brought about the extinction of one quarter of all land-based mammal species still living today and that, in the past fifty years, their commercial fishing fleets have caught 90 percent of all large fish then swimming in the seas and oceans. Archaeological discoveries indicate that human activities along the shores of the oceans since the year 1000 CE have depleted 90 percent of important marine species and 65 percent of sea grass and wetland habitat. Humans, or what is happening with their help (is it anybody's fault?), are, on account of the explosive charges detonating every day, the permanent impact of comets. They are, due to millions of exhaust pipes, the permanent eruption of volcanoes; they are the maw of tyrannosaurus rex, multiplied a billion times (is that a matter of morality?). On 3.8 million hooks cast every night, they pull in a daily catch of millions of fish; with millions upon millions of knives, they cut up thousands of tons of birds, hogs, and cows in slaughterhouses every day. They are the streptococci that have become self-conscious, the planetary plague that, except viruses, has infected every other species, including their own. Would hyenas or sharks act differently if they were self-conscious (perhaps they are!), if they had intelligence (they could have that too) and technology? Would they not hunt everything they could digest, increase steadily, inhabit the land and the air in numberless variants, and continue killing? At this point, the friends of sharks are likely to protest, saying that humans have by now severely reduced this species of fish. And, given the ability, what would sharks do to us? Where have self-consciousness and freedom taken us, these qualities of which we humans are so proud, our supposedly (what a word!) "Alleinstellungsmerkmal," the characteristic that makes us unique? Have they reduced suffering? Where is the proof of this? Would self-conscious and free sharks be responsible for their prey? Moreover, would they have wronged those whom they hunt? Humans are the smartest of hunters, and there are very, very many of them; they are locusts like those who will devour each other after they have killed off most anything else, if a virus does not exterminate them first (would that be good?), which would free the other species on Earth of their plague from which there is no protection any longer, not even in the depths of the oceans. Who is the plaintiff here? Is nature suing humanity? Are they really two different things? Or is nature against itself for having brought about human beings? There are human beings — many, as a matter of fact. But is there such a thing as Nature?


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Table of Contents

Contents Water First Dialogue Earth Second Dialogue Fire Third Dialogue Air Fourth Dialogue Quinta Essentia Shared Aspects of Naturalness: An Essay in Natural Philosophy Epilogue Notes Selected Bibliography Text Credit

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