Thursday, 23 May 2013


What does it mean to say something is natural? Does it mean hills and valleys, wildflowers and singing birds? Are GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) natural? If not, what about seedless fruits? Is contraception unnatural? If yes, what about 'natural' preventative measures?

I see more and more people across a wide range of fields advocating 'natural' products, processes and attitudes as being better than 'artificial' ones, ranging from the peddlers of alternative medicines to anti-industrialists, and from the anti-GMO movement to the controversy over how long to breast-feed for. At base, though we're talking about a lot of different movements, some more rational than others, these views all have in common the idea that 'natural' means 'good' or 'better'. Let's call this view 'naturalism'.

I find naturalism utterly abhorrent, a preposterous distortion of language, culture, and in most cases also science and truth. I'm only going to focus on the part of the problem - language - that I'm qualified to talk about, though necessarily I'll touch on the others as I go.

So what does 'natural' mean? Presumably, it means 'like nature' or 'nature-like'. But what is nature like, besides immensely varied? It's true that from a distance, nature generally seems tranquil, harmonious and beautiful, but I doubt a vole in the claws of a hawk feels that way - and I doubt you'd feel that way with your skin covered in smallpox blisters.

Of course, the problem isn't really what we call 'natural'; it's what we call, either directly or by implication, 'unnatural'. Personally, I think there's no good way of making this distinction (or rather, no useful way of doing so), but even if there is, I don't think 'natural' comes out of it meaning 'better'.

What we really mean when we say something is 'unnatural', of course, is that it goes against (its) nature. Now, the only way to go against nature is by choice - by free will (I'm taking this as a matter of definition - the only other ways a thing can behave are randomly or causally determined, and both of these are fundamentally natural). So if a thing is to be considered unnatural, it must be a product of choice rather than causal law or randomness.

I don't think this is out of touch with how we normally use the term. The things we regard as most 'artificial' - meaning 'unnatural, but not necessarily in a way we hate' - are those which require the most complicated decision-making; the development of modern technologies that take a huge number of detailed individual choices to invent and assemble.

But all the best features of human society are the products of choice. The poetry of Keats, the music of Bach, the philosophy of Leibniz, the physics of Einstein, the biology of Watson and Crick, and so on. Our greatest achievements and inventions are, in this sense, unnatural - flying to the moon, eradicating smallpox, training to the point of running the 100m in nine and a half seconds.

And it's worse than that, too, if we look at what elements of humanity we consider natural. What is human nature? We invoke human nature when bemoaning the selfish, the greedy, the cruel, the small-minded, the hateful, the tribal. When we speak of human nature, we speak of the caveman, the atavistic savage. Or we speak of some of the worst people in our society as 'unable to restrain their base natures', from paedophiles and psychopaths to 'testosterone-addled' bankers.

So if 'natural' is good, human beings are trapped coming and going. Either we behave unnaturally (and thus, according to naturalism, badly) or we give in to our base and horrible natures. We are doomed to evil either way.

This is why I find naturalism so abhorrent. It repudiates or denies all human goodness. Look at the great moral values of human society - justice, mercy, democracy, art and so on. I can think of only two which appear in nature: innovation and compassion, and the innovation of nature is in its arms race; its compassion is purely tribal.

I'm not, by the way, claiming that we shouldn't be more environmentally conscious and conscientious in our actions, particularly at the level of national and international policy. I just don't think that branding 'unnatural' or 'artificial' as 'evil' is a good idea - if nothing else, saving nature from our own worst excesses is going to require huge artificial processes.

And there's a clue here. It's in our interests to treat the environment well because 'nature' is simply the combination of us and our environment. We are part of nature. After all, it's perfectly plausible to argue that free (or at least rational) choice is part of our nature, and if we do this, then our choices are part of nature too.

Nature, like us, can be staggeringly cruel and merciless. It can be destructive and murderous. It knows no fairness, only the rule of might - the strong and the lucky survive, the rest live in fear until they die. Very few human deeds equal the horror of those species of parasite wasp that lay their eggs inside still-living beetles so their young can eat their way out. Few if any human deeds equal the scale of death from smallpox.

Our civilisation, with all its triumphs and terrors, is natural, or at least a mirror to nature. My point is not that we should not worry about morals, or that we should not be ecologically responsible. My point is only that the natural-unnatural distinction is arbitrary, at best unnecessary and at worst pernicious and nihilistic about human culture.

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