What Is Natural?
So many people seem to assume that something labeled “natural” must always be better than something artificial, especially when it comes to food and medicine. However, we should know that this is not always true. Floods, lightning, blizzards, rattlesnakes, and smallpox are all natural. Boats, lightning rods, combustion-heated homes, antivenin, and vaccines are not – or are they? What does it even mean to be natural?
Natural is a very relative term. Left to their own devices, dirt, air, and water just make mud. It takes the intervention of living cells to build ferns, trees, spiders, and sparrows out of them. Yet, life is considered no more artificial than non-living matter. Honey is considered natural, but nectar doesn’t turn into honey on its own. Bees collect it in their stomachs, spit it up, evaporate the water, and store it in wax cells. Humans come along later and remove the wax. Honey doesn’t naturally come in squeezable bottles! Is anything in the process to make honey really any less of an artificial process than the way that humans use corn to make high-fructose corn syrup?
Tools are generally considered artificial, but isn’t it natural for humans to make and use tools? All people groups use some tools and would not likely survive long without them. Some animals even use tools. Orangutans use twigs to pick seeds out of pods and dolphins use sponges to protect their beaks when sifting through sand.
Homes are generally considered artificial, but isn’t it natural to build shelter? Animals build burrows, nests, or hives of wax or paper. Humans use wood, metal, and drywall. What’s the difference?
Is agriculture natural? Left to themselves, edible plants do not grow all together in one accessible place, but as with tool-making and home-making, humans naturally use their ingenuity to harness nature to make their lives easier. The same could be said about breeding strains of plants or animals to have desirable traits. There is nothing unnatural about pollination or mating; humans just tilt the scales of these natural processes to benefit themselves.
The same could be said about genetically-modified organisms. There is nothing unnatural about DNA expression – DNA is a naturally-occurring compound – humans just select for the genes they want. Creating pest-resistant crops through genetic manipulation is just using nature to fight nature.
Even when humans create brand-new compounds that have never before existed, all they are doing is rearranging the elements nature has provided them into new configurations. According to mainstream thinking, there was a time billions of years ago that free oxygen was new on Earth; it was a waste product of photosynthesis toxic to most life at the time.
Even when humans do create brand-new elements (like plutonium), all they are doing is moving pre-existing protons and neutrons around. If one day humans create new forms of matter, such as gluon balls or strange matter, all they will be doing is reconfiguring the pre-existing quantum fields that underlie all of reality. Natural is relative.
Is death natural? Everything dies, but generally not without a fight. It is only natural to avoid natural death. Neither humans nor reindeer willingly surrender to the wolves – even though predation is one of the most natural things there is. Humans will go to especially extreme lengths to avoid death, including feeding tubes, artificial hearts, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, radiation, and lots of surgery – but are any of these procedures unnatural? Isn’t it only natural to want to escape death by making an artificial heart out of natural substances by artificial means? Can it be natural to be unnatural? What does “natural” even mean in this context?
Is homosexuality natural? One could certainly make a legitimate case that it is an artificial perversion of natural reproductive behavior, but one could also make the case that it is a natural strategy to curb overpopulation occasionally practiced across the animal kingdom. Can it be natural to be unnatural? One could also make the case that homosexuality is a disorder like Alzheimer’s, and no one ever suggests that Alzheimer’s is unnatural.
Is abortion natural? One could certainly make a legitimate case that it is an artificial perversion of natural reproductive behavior, but one could also make the case that it is a natural strategy to curb overpopulation. Tasmanian devil mothers have been known to eat their excess children and some sharks eat their siblings while still in the womb. Can it be natural to be unnatural?
Is warfare natural? One could certainly make a legitimate case that it goes against the natural drive to cooperate with members of the same species in order to better compete with rival species, but one could also argue that it is only natural to want to defend one’s kin. Chimpanzees fight all the time. Ants are among the most brutal to their own kind. Can it be natural to be unnatural?
People generally understand that words such as tall, fast, hot, and important refer to relative values. What is rarer are those who understand that words such as authority, miraculous, and natural are. They think someone is either in charge or not. They think an event is either a miracle or not. They think something is either natural or not.
Natural is a very relative term.
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My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.