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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

What Is Natural, and Is It Better?

Splendid Sea Sunset

The word “natural” is treated in a way peculiar in the extreme. This perhaps reflects our confused ideas about nature, or perhaps darker, more sinister misconceptions are at work.

There is a strange dichotomy between the positive connotation of “natural” in one realm (that encompassing health, food, medicine, environmental management, and the like) and the negative connotation of “natural” in another realm (social and political organization).

If you use the adjective “natural” in conjunction with objects of the first group, eg natural remedies, natural substances, natural environment, it is almost invariably taken as a virtue, a good qualitative appreciation.

If, on the other hand, you use “natural” in discussions of the second group of subjects, for example regarding differences between sexes, sexual orientation or a thorny question such as war, its use is at best controversial, and at worst considered a threat against the march of progress.

In expressions like "natural foods" or "natural medicines", "natural" is taken to mean, among other things, "good" and "not harmful". In the case of remedies or drugs of natural source, the idea is that they shouldn't have the nasty side effects of other drugs.

In fact, there have been cases of harmful side effects of so-called natural and herbal remedies, much the same as the risk exists with all medicines.

And, if you think about it, there's no reason why it should be otherwise. Poisonous mushrooms are natural, and so is snakes' venom.

The idea that substances occcurring naturally should necessarily be good is a fantasy, but a widespread one. “Nature knows best” is the dogmatic slogan in this field of thought.

But, when we discuss sexual roles, the natural, biologically determined forces moulding the behaviours of men and women are treated as demonic entities to be fought tooth and nail. Something similar applies to many explanations of social facts, events and behaviour in terms of nature, including class differences, race differences, sexual orientation, violence, war.

In all these areas “we know better” than nature, we can improve on it, or this is the received wisdom.

We don’t know whether our view of social organization is indeed better than a more natural one. Of course, the dispute is often about what is natural, but frequently that simply shifts the question, because the sort of people who have utopias and are certain about what the best society would be are also people who defy the most compelling scientific data and reject the most overwhelming empirical evidence when these don’t conform with their own pet theories.

I think that both attitudes are wrong, or rather that this dichotomic attitude, which expresses itself in the two faces of the same coin, is wrong. There should not be an a priori value judgement about nature and what is natural, in either direction.

Each situation where we compare something “natural” with something artificial, or created by human individuals and societies, should be considered according to the particular circumstances of the case and judged accordingly.

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