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It's Natural!

Posted on 3 September, 2015 at 2:05

It's Natural!

We’ve all heard this excuse, this justification for what might be a little strange to the audience. It’s natural! This neat little phrase makes everything OK. I have heard it used in arguments regarding sexuality, alternative medical treatments, animal rights, cultural tolerance, and so much more. Sometimes, I think the point in question is valid despite the naturality argument, and sometimes I think it is wrong despite naturality. But certainly, it is not whether or not something is natural that makes it morally right or wrong. As I am a huge fan of clear communication, you may have predicted that first, in order to have this discussion, we need to arrive at a definition for “natural”.

I don’t think the term supernatural is used very well. For me, all that is reality is natural, and all that is not reality is unnatural. I arrived at this conclusion by first exploring an area where we use the term “natural” frequently: humans’ impact in nature. For example, we might say that building an amusement park in the Amazon, thereby displacing and killing millions of organisms is unnatural. In fact I have heard almost this exact argument by someone trying to dissuade people from making a big environmental impact. It’s so unnatural for us to be destroying nature! This somehow makes it bad.(?) I will point out that it may indeed be bad, depending on what your priorities are, but I will happily argue that it is not because of how natural it is. I encourage people to employ a stepwise argument in their own minds, a thought experiment of sorts.

Think of the most natural thing you can. For me, off the top of my head, it’s an ant walking through some grass a thousand miles away from human infrastructure. That is so truly natural, yes? I think we are in agreement. Now let’s take a step up from that foundation. How about an ant carrying a blade of grass? That is still very natural, of course. Now think of a mouse stepping on that ant and its grass, killing it. Still natural? Of course! Next, imagine a small, wild cat pouncing on that mouse and using it for sustenance: utterly natural indeed. What if a gorilla, frightened by the cat, stomps on it and kills it? This is natural, of course! What if, as they tend to do, the gorilla uses a stick to fend off the perceived threat of the cat? Does using this tool make it unnatural? What if, as they tend to do, a gorilla threw a rock at the cat to try to kill it or scare it away? Is this within nature’s laws? What if a starving, tribal human fought off the gorilla with a spear to compete for the limited fruit in the area? Natural? What if the spear was a gun? Natural? A hut? A building? A skyscraper? Yes, of course all of these things are natural. Where could you possibly draw the line between unnatural and natural?

There is no way to determine what is natural, unless you use a very specific definition tailored to the situation. But then, you are only adjusting your semantics to state your feelings in a different way. This does not develop the idea of “natural” any further and it does not allow any moral value to be drawn from how “natural” something is. If you say something like a gun is unnatural, then you’d better take away beating-clubs from monkeys, beetle-extracting twigs from crows, and sea sponge armour from dolphins. These are all technologies, all driven by instincts to be safe, fed, and genetically productive.


So argue your heart out for what you think is right (so long as it is thoughtful and informed), and feel free to show open-minded contempt for those who don’t live by your rules, but please don’t do it because of how natural or unnatural something is.

Categories: General, Whitlock's Logs of the Mundane

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