The Problems with “Natural”

Natural food, natural living, natural behavior, natural sexuality, natural society – everyday, a sizable portion of my typical Facebook feed celebrates the quest for the “natural.”  But what does “natural” even mean?  Natural with respect to what?  Surely, there is some real thing that the word “natural” can point to.  Certainly, there is some value in the term.  But how often are people sure what they mean when they hail the natural? While “natural” does have useful meaning in certain contexts and when used carefully, popular discourse is flooded with blunt and sloppy use of the term, and a deep dive into the general concept of the natural leads to some surprising results and, hopefully, more efficient and useful discourse.

Before even approaching what “natural” might mean, note that the very idea that natural is good and unnatural is bad requires some prior assumptions: 1. That there exists some sort of (good) order or structure or pathway for individuals/humanity/the universe and 2. That this order is violable.  Arguments can indeed be made that there are guiding structures to the universe.  For example, many religions and thinkers have suggested that there does exist some sort of objective moral order to life and the universe.  I do hope there is some sort of transcendent moral structure, and, on my good days, I do believe in one, but proving with certainty that an “objective” ethical law or guide exists is not easy.  Another prime candidate for a natural structure to the world is the laws of physics.  These rules of reality seem to underpin all that we can observe or experience, and proving that we are guided by these laws is much easier than proving things in the moral realm.  The forces and equations of physics appear to be the supreme example of natural law.  However, is this natural order violable?  Science suggests that everything that occurs is governed by the laws of physics, so these laws cannot be used as a basis of what is natural and good in contrast to what is unnatural and bad because we have no choice but to follow them – they are inviolable.  For any ideal to be thought of as a guide or measuring post, it must be possible to deviate from it.

Let’s start examining the concept of nature with perhaps its most obvious meaning: the one that stems from biology, ecology, and the physical world.  The features of the universe (and Earth, specifically) that gave rise to human beings are described as “nature.”  Before all of our agrarian and/or urban developments ran roughshod over the land, Earth had certain features of flora and fauna and climate, and this state of the world and its current remnants today are often called “nature.”  This is what people refer to when they describe a weekend camping trip as “spending a few days in nature.”  This nature – the untamed wilderness, the oceans, the plants and animals local to the area, and the general environment from whence humans originally arose – is often seen as generally good.  Nature is frequently idealized and perhaps longed for, sought as a goal for a future return to the purity of a less tainted past.  Some people categorize human beings – which are animals, after all – as part of nature, whereas others cast humans and their affairs in contrast to the natural world, as something separate from and in relation to nature.

To be sure, nature in this sense has tremendous value.  The majesty of the mountains, the clean air of the forests, and the wide spaces of the golden plains speak to humans deeply – and for good reason.  Their beauty calls to us because they, not concrete jungles, gave birth to us all.  Our bodies evolved to eat the food that we find in the natural world, and our minds evolved not to frantically refresh Facebook for one more quick dopamine boost but to nimbly, carefully, and courageously explore the land.  In certain areas of life, harmony with the environment from which we came is a worthwhile pursuit.  However, worship of nature has led to an absurd strain of thought that only what came before us is good and that humanity’s creations are either entirely or often bad.

To reject things that are manmade because they are not “natural” is a slippery – and dangerous – slope.  Most of the modern medicine we ingest, medicine that saves and improves countless lives, was created or at least harnessed and concentrated in a lab.  The food that we eat today comes not from randomly discovered natural trees or native animal populations but from farms.  Farming, even without the use of chemicals or machines, is, by many sensible definitions, unnatural.  Agriculture is the “artificial” growth of plants and animals, which exist not because they came into being on their own but because we forced them to. Nowhere in the untainted natural world would we see anything remotely resembling the acres-wide fields of potatoes found on modern farms.  The ever-growing population of humans is sustained only by reliance on unnatural, manmade food.  This logic can be stretched to even greater extremes.  What is natural about living under a shingled roof or even one made of mud and straw?  And is it natural to create fabric from cotton or to treat cow skin and wear it around as protection from the elements?  Rigidly clinging to only what nature in its purest form provides would eliminate all of our clothing and all of our shelter save for caves and the shade of trees.

To take a different tack, if humans came from the earth and evolved via natural processes as an extension of the natural animals that preceded us, then why are our creations, unlike those of our forebears, deemed unnatural?  If humans, which are simply a type of animal that has developed some unique skills, are considered natural, then there is no reason not to consider our creations and behaviors to be natural as well.  No one claims that the dams of the beavers or the nests of the eagles are unnatural, even though, just as when we build apartment buildings, they are clearly repurposing the materials around them and transforming them for their own purposes, discarding the “natural purposes” of the materials in the process.  Surely, humanity with all its cognitive and scientific power is capable of transmuting its surroundings in a far more powerful way than any of our more primitive ancestors, and certainly humanity is capable of altering its behavior and expanding its cultural horizons far more than any other creature, but there is no logical reason to assume that everything non-humans do is natural but that the things we do today are not when all of Earth’s creatures and behaviors arose from the same “natural” process of evolution and growth over time.  If humans were created by the natural world, molded out of natural materials through natural processes, then surely humans themselves are natural, and if humans themselves are natural, then how can something unnatural come from us?  If the Earth of the past was completely natural, how could the first unnatural thing come into being?  Just as the cliché but important philosophical question asks how Something could ever come from Nothing, I ask how something unnatural could ever arise from the natural.

A common target of pro-nature advocates is (manmade) chemicals, so much so that the word “chemical” itself has become a pejorative term, and practically a four-letter one.  On this view, naturally occurring substances are good, and everything created or even influenced by man is bad and is labeled a “chemical.”  To say nothing of the thousands of manmade substances that improve our lives every day, this distinction begins to unravel once one realizes that every substance on Earth, including those that make up our very bodies, is a chemical made from the same elements as all of the rest.  The air in our atmosphere, pure oxygen, our brains, skin, hormones, maple trees and plastic are all chemicals.  The scientific discipline of chemistry deals not just with manmade “chemicals” but also with all known and possible matter in the universe, all of which is composed of different combinations of the same couple hundred elements of the period table.  Just because a substance does not “naturally” occur on Earth does not mean that it does not naturally occur elsewhere in the universe, and it certainly does not mean that it is bad. It is true that some manmade chemicals have proven to be harmful (an example being the nearly indestructible and frightening polymers used in the creation of Teflon), but it is equally true that we can create new substances that are enormously beneficial. And an argument from the other side: plenty of naturally occurring substances are literally deadly. The venom of the black mamba is not manmade. Neither is cyanide. Pro-marijuana advocates love to brag about how their drug of choice is natural and “just a plant,” but so are horrendously addictive opium, the coca leaf, which contains cocaine, and alcohol, which kills more people every year than all other drugs combined and features the most medically dangerous withdrawal of any drug (including heroin.)

A final illustrative case study: in most competitive sports, performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are banned.  One reason for this is concern over health.  However, the use of many PEDs under a doctor’s supervision is relatively safe.  Moreover, if safety were our chief goal, then most of the sports that inspire athletes to take PEDs in the first place should be banned, because the sports themselves are usually hazardous or harmful and sometimes much more dangerous than medically-supervised PED use.  The main reason why PEDs are banned is because they are seen as unnatural.  However, much of an athlete’s life could be, from a certain logic, labeled as unnatural.  Dietary supplements, altitude tents, compression socks and other recovery devices would all be unfathomably alien to more “natural” people from thousands or even a hundred years ago.  If a strength athlete’s nightly dinner consists of two heaping plates of pure high-grade ground beef and lean chicken rather than a more balanced diet, he or she is deviating sharply from the supposedly more natural behavior of his ancestors.  Even endurance and strength training, which, believe it or not, was commonly seen just a hundred years ago as a sign of weakness and perhaps detrimental to race performance, is designed precisely to push the body to do what it cannot “normally” do.  What exactly is natural about running 100 miles per week with a heart rate monitor and a calendar of scientifically designed lactate threshold workouts or lifting weights for four hours per day, logging each set rep into a spreadsheet of rigorously analyzed data?  I do not argue for or against the acceptance and normalization of PEDs, but much of modern athletics is quite unnatural by many standards, and clearly there is no objective boundary between natural efforts to improve performance and unnatural “cheating.”

Another conception of natural comes from the theory that there is a natural, right way for humans to be and behave and that there is an unnatural, wrong way and that we should strive to be in touch with the former and act accordingly.  There is little agreement on what this natural state of being is or from what source we draw our model of natural and right behavior. On one side, there are religious paradigms.  These frameworks typically argue for the existence of a natural and good state of being, one where we are right with God and/or the flow of the universe, but assert that individuals and society as a whole have strayed from that state and that we must rely on ancient books and practices to correct ourselves.  Dissecting all of these different religious approaches is beyond the scope of this essay, but the brutal truth is that many of these various religious claims 1. are unfalsifiable and 2. contradict each other in important ways.  Therefore, there is no real evidence or reason to believe in the objective truth of one religious framework over another.  Some of these teachings can bring great benefits, and there certainly is truth to be found in many religious doctrines.  These truths can be experienced through a combination of logic, intuition, and personal experience.  By no means do I completely condemn religion.  However, logically, there is no reliable reason to fully hang one’s hat on any one of these traditions.  In their millennia-old ideas and documents, we cannot expect to find a fully formed understanding of who we are and who we should be, much less one that people will readily agree upon and understand from the use of the word “natural.”

The other camp posits that human nature is determined not by God but by evolution.  Evolutionary biologists put forth a picture of man as animal that has been molded to behave and act in certain ways over millions of years of natural selection. While there is undoubtedly some veracity to this claim, the evolutionary biology of humans is poorly understood.  When it comes to several of the most important questions we might hope to answer through an evolutionary lens, scholars hardly agree. For example, who doesn’t want to figure out whether humans are naturally monogamous, as so many of us seem called to be, or are programmed to mate with as many fellow apes as possible like the animals we are?  Who hasn’t felt that tension, culturally and/or internally?  Unfortunately, evolutionary and anthropological evidence cannot answer this question.  As Yuval Noah Harari admits in his celebrated 2011 book Sapiens, we just don’t know how primitive humans behaved sexually or which sexual ideals evolutionary forces have guided us toward. And this is just one of many questions left unanswered by the study of evolution.

Even if we could come to an agreement on some religiously or evolutionarily/scientifically informed definition of what is natural, there is an unassailable problem: we spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to avoid many of the behaviors that come naturally to us.  This claim is muddied by the fact that religion often argues that humanity’s natural state is one of goodness and enlightenment but that here on this plane, in this world, almost every human being is mired in bad or evil habit and thought.  According to this concept, if “natural” is defined as what happens easily and what normally occurs, then in this world, being “bad” is often what is natural.  According to Christianity, perhaps in the Garden of Eden, humanity was naturally good, but Now, we are unavoidably bad.  Whether humanity is naturally bad or is simply bad at present due to having fallen into a dark state, the result is the same: we are currently bad.  Most other religions have an analogous claim: that there is something deeply wrong with humanity or, at the very least, with how we typically perceive and act and therefore we need the help of God and/or special religious and spiritual wisdom in order to transcend our typical, unenlightened/depraved/evil ways.  Whether the claim is that humanity is inherently damaged or that we are confused by great ignorance, the conclusion remains that we must strive to go against the norm, against the grain, against our darker impulses – against what by all accounts is “natural” – in order to find goodness and success.  The point is even more obvious regarding the evolutionary perspective, which is not bound to provide a framework for how humans can be good and coldly explains many humanity’s most objectionable features.  Therefore, on either the religious or evolutionary model, every day we are expending tremendous effort to go against our common or “natural” base impulses and behave differently and better.   After all, if the natural is defined as what comes easily, what is normal, what is habitual or what comes without outside interference, then what could be more natural than violence?  What could be more natural than dishonesty? Perhaps peace and honesty are also “natural,” maybe even as natural as their dark counterparts, but both logic and evidence suggest that violence and dishonesty have been a part of human behavior for as long as we can imagine.  And yet eliminating or at least reducing violence and dishonesty and other pervasive harmful behaviors and attitudes remains one of the foremost goals of individuals and overall culture alike.

Why then do people so often assume that what is natural is good and what is good, natural if so many natural things are clearly to be avoided?  They do it because there is comfort in trusting that what is natural or fundamental is good, so people pick and choose what counts as natural and what does not in order to justify that belief.  The kindness of a pure-hearted child is seen as natural and good, while the cruelty of a twisted juvenile bully is labeled bad and aberrant.  I certainly agree that there is something good about the kind child and something bad about the mean one, but there is no reason to assume the sadism of the bully is necessarily any less “natural” than is the sweet affection of the cherub.  In fact, both the religious and evolutionary approaches to natural human behavior would, in their own ways, affirm that this harmful behavior is common and in some sense natural, and yet we almost all agree that cruel behavior should be stopped.

In summary, most of the big picture senses of the word “natural” are highly problematic.  The harmony of trees enriching the air and the beauty of Mt. Everest and the triumphs of thriving ecology should be celebrated, but there is no reason to believe that a world less tainted by humans is overall safer or better than the one we currently occupy.  In fact, there is plenty of reason to doubt that that the natural world, with all of its brutal carnivorous destruction, hurricanes, and catastrophic ice ages, was all that hospitable before we came along.  If we can achieve the daunting but perfectly manageable task of reining in fossil fuel use as well as improve our ethics toward animals, Earth’s future can be far brighter than its past.  Morally, neither religion nor science can point to a clear and objective prior state or pre-existing template of behaviors, ideas and attitudes that we could label as “natural” and use as a benchmark for our performance as people.  The “appeal to nature” fallacy clearly deserves its reputation as such given that murder, deadly snake venom, cancer, rampaging typhoons, various addictive drugs, and even death itself are all in their own ways quite obviously natural.

The word natural is sometimes used to describe things that are indeed very good.  Are organic foods free of pesticides and preservatives often healthier for us?  Absolutely.  In this sense, “natural” is a useful term.  When people say that a gifted, resonant soprano is a natural or that a baseball player’s lightning-fast swing is natural, they describe something true and good.  However, in all three of these examples, the term is being used not in a general way to point to some sort of transcendent ideal of the natural but in a specific context to describe that a specific behavior is in harmony with the goal of the pursuit at hand.  In all of these cases, the word natural is actually referring to some sense of efficiency.  Organic food is in harmony with our body not because “chemical” free food is bad a priori but because in many cases, organic sustenance is more efficient fuel for us than processed junk food.  The singer and the slugger are natural in the sense that they have an intuitive understanding or fortuitous physiology that leads to an easy and efficient achievement of their respective goals.  In many areas of life, harmony and efficiency are indeed good, and perhaps the natural and pleasing vocal stylings of your favorite singer are evidence of some sort of divine harmony, but to assume that humanity’s interference with the traditional ways of living is usually wrong is a tremendous and obvious mistake, as is to assume that there ever was some sort of pure state of nature that served us well.  In a sense, humanity’s journey from ape to whatever we are Now is defined by its deviation from what was once natural.  We are defined not by physical strength (as we are comparatively extremely weak in the animal world) but by our intellectual and cultural growth.  The use of tools, the harnessing of fire, and our manipulation of the world around us, all of which could easily be deemed unnatural, are what brought us to the richness of life in the present day.  Complex language could be deemed freakish in light of the simple grunts and hand gestures that guided our communication in the past.  However, these radical leaps forward, these jolting disharmonies with what came before, have led not only to great progress but also to our greatest joy, creation, and love.  Sloppy use of the word natural is hardly society’s greatest problem.  But what we value matters, and, given that our use of language is perhaps our most important and powerful feature as humans, the way we express what we value matters, too.  Whether the topic is what foods we should eat or how we should behave, simplifying things into categories of natural and unnatural is usually inaccurate and rarely useful.  Seeing past these ideas enables us to focus on more helpful questions, such as what is efficient and what is positive and what is actually best for us, and the answers to these questions may or may not fall in line with what has historically been thought of as natural.  We should respect the natural world, and we should respect the order of the universe, but not blindly.  Only by matching our reverence for the harmonies of the natural world of the past and present with equal courage to break tradition and mold our surroundings for the better can we walk forward to our brightest possible future.

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