We hear it again and again.
“You shouldn’t take painkillers; they’re not natural.”
“You shouldn’t eat food with preservatives; it’s not natural.”
“We should label genetically modified organisms; they’re not natural.”
“People shouldn’t change their sex; it’s not natural.”
We have this idea in our society that some things are natural, and that makes them wholesome and safe and good, and other things are “unnatural,” and that makes them dangerous and suspicious and sometimes even evil. Particularly after the natural-products boom that coincided with the environmental movement of the 1990s, “unnatural” and “artificial” became the adjectives du jour for the sorts of things that were lauded as “scientifically derived” and “industrially perfected” in earlier decades. Where items from diet pills to clothing fabric once advertised themselves as the results of years of scientific expertise at work, we now see products advertising raw cotton and açaí extracts, as though being closer to “the source” made things more effective.
At the core of this pervasive dichotomy is an intriguing dualism whose ramifications extend deep into the public discourse.
When a human turns a forest into a clearing and changes the flow of a river, the environment has been rendered “unnatural.” When a family of beavers does it, nature is hard at work.
When a fungus synthesizes a compound that blocks cell division and treats cancer, a natural wonder is unearthed. When chemists start making the same compound, it’s a Big Pharma conspiracy.
When a damselfish changes its testes for ovaries, it is population dynamics at work. When a person has surgery to change their genitalia, it’s an abomination.
When a womb discharges a fertilized egg on its own, it’s a non-event. When a person chooses for that to happen, it’s a capital crime.
“Unnatural” means when humans do it.
The entire concept of natural versus unnatural in our language hinges on the dualistic notion that humans are a distinct class of being, totally separate from mere animals and plants, our every aspect and action on a higher plane of existence. Nature is out there, and we are here. We are not part of nature; we barely even inhabit it. The things we create are “unnatural”; the things we do are “unnatural”; the places we live are “unnatural”; even the way we select our sex partners is “unnatural.” And depending on whom one asks, that makes one set of those things unequivocally bad, or the other.
But we are not so different.
We build, just as beavers and termites and weaverbirdsbuild. We love, rather as bonobos and jacanas love. We use pharmaceuticals, just as macaws and chimpanzees use pharmaceuticals. We bathe, just as macaques and elephantsbathe. We make, just as crows make. We bleed, just as everything bleeds. We create, just as microbes create.
In an unbroken line from us to the very beginnings of life, we are but one twig on boundless fractal complexity, and the branches further removed from us show us nothing if they do not show us this. We are neither the pinnacle of creation nor some separate, promethean intruder. We are one among Darwin’s endless forms most beautiful, an expression of nature like any other, unlike any other. If there is any difference between us and the “natural” creatures of the world, it is a difference of degree, not kind. It is this distinction that gives creationists nightmares, and which makes them so desperately desirous of their particular delusion being true.
For if humans are not by their nature outside nature, that would make our activities natural. That would make our creativity natural. That would make our drive to make things, build things, understand things natural. That would make our drive to change things…natural.
That would render “natural” the fact that we are no longer required to freeze to death when the ambient temperature is -40 °C. That would render “natural” the fact that we are no longer doomed to a painful death by asphyxiation when tuberculosis sets upon us. That would render “natural” that a great deal of carbonaceous algal remnants from the Jurassic period are currently transmogrified into Tupperware containers. That would render “natural” the capacity to preserve food for weeks or more past its “natural” expiration date. That would render “natural” the fact that the time required to get from point A to point B now takes into account the energy contained in alkanes. That would render “natural” the manner in which we have so thoroughly disconnected sex from fertility, and made either possible without the other. That would render “natural” that people whose genders do not match their anatomy are no longer trapped within that discrepancy, and have recourse to treatments that can remedy it.
That would render “natural” the infinity of ways in which humankind—glorious, metacognitive humankind—has devised so that the fates and facts to which we were once condemned are distant memories.
And if it is “unnatural,” or in any way “wrong,” for us to defy the causality that makes a child the “natural” outcome of sexual intercourse, then it is equally unnatural for us to survive malaria, or have fresh tomatoes in winter, or lift things with levers and pulleys. And if it is “unnatural,” or in any way “wrong,” for someone whose basic identity is at odds with their biology to bring the latter into accordance with the former, then it is just as unnatural that people can tell us so from the opposite end of the globe in a matter of seconds, and we can hear them.
And it is equally unnatural for us to gain knowledge from anything other than firsthand experience.
That is our nature: invention, ingenuity, and change.
That is our nature, and there is only nature. There is one world, our world, and the forces that make it work. We have only spent the last several million years learning to manipulate those forces in ever more sophisticated ways.
That is our nature: technology.
It is our nature to defy nature.
Most of the items listed at the top are choices we can make in this society, my only issue is the labeling GMOs part. Of course they should be labeled, so people can have the choice to consume them, or not to.
“You shouldn’t take painkillers; they’re not natural.” –but you can choose to, or not to, use painkillers, or alternate therapies.
“You shouldn’t use plastic; it’s not natural.” –there are choices here too. Glass, plant fibers, clay pottery etc.
“You shouldn’t eat food with preservatives; it’s not natural.”–highly dependent on the type of preservative as to whether or not it is natural ie salt, lemon juice, vinegar. Also, one can choose only fresh/frozen. Also generally labelled as many chemical preservatives trigger health issues.
“We should label genetically modified organisms; they’re not natural.” –If labeled one can make the choice. If unlabeled the choice is removed. Many GMOs also trigger health issues, yet remain unlabelled. (GM soy vs unmodified soy)
“People shouldn’t change their sex; it’s not natural.” –again a (difficult) choice
“You shouldn’t let your daughter get an abortion; it’s not natural.” –Her choice.
GMOs are, in principle, no different from the other foods we eat, which in most cases have no resemblance to their “original,” “natural” forms, even raw foods like tomatoes and corn. Where they present health concerns, such as unusual allergies, those specific health concerns can be noted specifically on a given product, without the implication that there is anything meaningfully different about engineered GMOS and the “bred GMOs” we've been eating for generations.
At any rate, my point has little to do with whether a given one of those behaviors is a choice. It is that the “natural” versus “unnatural” distinction is an incoherent basis for making that choice.
Your commentary is appreciated.
Cross pollenation to breed new strains of plants is hugely different from gene manipulation. Cross pollenation never produced a variety that killed natural pollenators as honeybees, and other insects, as well as render the soil useless. There is “unnatural” and there is “poisonous.” Monoculture of GM crops is damaging. Fuedal farming systems are proven the highest (calorie) yeild, with the healthiest soil ecology. They are labour intensive systems, in a world where people prefer to not labour for what is taken for granted, as labour is, bby and large, looked down on as a lesser means of employ.
Regardless, one should be able to choose more natural cross pollenation, to gene manipulation in the food one consumes.
Disclaimer: I come from a long line of food producers. Some 4 centuries on this continent, and another recorded 6 centuries in England. Ever eaten a yellow plum? That was developed (through pollenation, and grafting) by my great uncle 😉
You are correct that the business practices surrounding GMOs are deeply problematic, and if I were to agree that labeling them as such made sense (I don't), it'd be for that reason. The passive industrial warfare, rather than simple competition, in which Monsanto-using farmers are effectively engaging is quite disturbing, and not something that should be easily permitted.
That being said, it'd be JUST as problematic if Petri dishes were not involved, so it's not GM qua GM that's the problem. Especially since we've been GMing our Os for several thousand years now, by a much slower process. Label that a particular product contains “Monsanto terminator genes” or “endogenous pesticides” or whatever as needed, and legislate that anything with a terminator gene is not legal to plant or sell as seed if it doesn't also not produce pollen, and make use of this new information about soil and pollinator damage in the approval process for new crops, but do not set up a system in which people are encouraged to think of what amounts to a new method of selective breeding as something substantially different from what they've always been eating.
Or that makes use of this arbitrary, incoherent notion of “natural” versus “unnatural.”