Saturday, June 9, 2012

Does “Natural” Always Mean Right?

Or, Does Nature Really Know Best?

People rationalize, excuse, and justify all kinds of actions based on how seemingly “natural” it is or not. As society uses the term, this implies that any failure and especially refusal to follow certain “natural” impulses or doing “unnatural” things is weird, stupid, disgraceful, or even outright evil.  True, these impulses may be natural in origin, no doubt the product of the reptilian-side of the brain that they are. Even so, those impulses aren’t designed so much to help us find out the truth as they are to help us prolong our living existence – a significant part of which involves seeking social acceptability, at least in most cases and to one extent / degree or another.  The impulse for social acceptance does a lot to help us either avoid, combat, or endure unpleasant situations. 

Combined with our strong instinct to live as long as possible (i.e. the survival instinct(s)) it seems humans as a whole will seek truth only to the extent that they either (a) help prolong our existence or (b) are pleasurable for their own sakes.  It’s also the case that we often willfully disregard truth-seeking if that truth holds great promise for challenging our cherished beliefs, perhaps especially our definitions of “natural behavior”.  In short, most humans find truth-seeking pleasant only to the extent that it helps us survive and – combined with our social needs, themselves evolved as it provides weak creatures such as ourselves an important survival advantage – whether it conforms to the desires of the group or a certain segment (usually upper-class) thereof.

Unfortunately for our animal-instinct-based impulsive thoughts, just because something may help us survive does not mean that it is the deepest ultimate truth – it merely means it’s true to the extent that awareness of that truth helps an organism avoid unpleasant and especially dangerous situations.

Where it concerns nature being a source of truth, many truths of nature and “natural” human behavior  are so repugnant that the behavior’s only defenders could be either moral nihilists or something close to it. Examples are theft, deliberate deceit, and spousal / child abuse.  We can also add prejudice to the list of our natural impulses (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia).   Yet, the greater society condemns all these behaviors because they are highly disruptive to the greater public good and even our own interpersonal relations with members of the targeted groups.  This damages the very trust upon which modern society’s highly complex social arrangements depends, and therefore many natural behaviors in general can hurt society’s security and prosperity of even the wealthiest nations.   Therefore, we as a society decided that such “natural behaviors” are highly inappropriate (not that society condoning them proves those behaviors are legitimate).

The truth is the claims like “Nature knows best”, “Nature knows X” is just an anthropomorphism – attributing human qualities to non-human objects, a category error of logic. Nature (true nature - ultimately just the laws of chemistry, physics, and mathematics and little else when you get down to it) cannot know anything. It’s simply a kind of machine - simply doing what it does what it does without any thought on its part whatsoever; just as an internal combustion engine does what it does while it’s in operation.  Only conscious, self-aware entities can know anything.  

Unlike most natural creatures, humans can question nature.  It also allows us – to a degree – to discern what is the case from what ought to be the case (though there’s a lot of debate about the latter especially). It also allows us the gift of foresight – letting us see the long-term dangers of our actions and practices even if they are beneficial in the short-term.  Humans can also overrule their instincts to a degree considerably greater than other animals can, for we are wise enough to discern that new ways of doing things may yield superior results despite the fact that so far in living experience (human or otherwise), no such behavior has been recorded in nature.  We can also see that the old ways of doing things, even well-established ones, can create great inefficiencies in societal operation and general progress.

Therefore, our animal-based impulses, themselves of natural origin, are not necessarily practical guides for everyday living in a post-hunter-gather phase and especially not in a technology-oriented one.  Our very ways of making a living are radically different from even human hunter-gatherers despite the common needs of people at both levels of development.  Therefore it follows that the traits needed for surviving and thriving are going to be radically different.  This alone renders our animal-based impulses obsolete at best and hostile to our well-being at worst – so long as we remain living in societies with the technology to maintain any civilization worthy of the name.

In the end, insisting that “nature knows best” (or, more accurately, the meaning we derive from nature’s acts), at least in areas of human behavior or social relations, is a regressive mentality. For to do so is to imply that humans have no more capacity for high-level though than wild animals.  To say this clearly goes against not only thousands of years of progress we made beyond our wild cousins, but against the fact that humans throughout history strove to beat back the threats nature hurls our way (i.e. beat nature itself).  That is what history shows is the most naturally human thing to do.


Stacy said...

This is a great post. Evolution does not care if we are happy, or if we enjoy life, or if we are comfortable. It also doesn't care about our suffering. The only thing evolution "cares" about is how well we pass on our genes, and that we are able to bring our offspring to adulthood so they can also pass on their genes.

Rafael T. Melo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rafael T. Melo said...

Hey Filras! I´m saving your post to read tonight, but already enjoyed the intro! Other than that, your last post about sanity was a gem! Way to go man!

It´s me, Shadow! =)

filrabat said...


Hard to disagree right there. Beyond this, our natural instincts are simply obsolete. Values and attitudes vital to our pre-human ancestors (and perhaps even to hunter-gatherers as well) are in settled societies redundant at best and counter-productive at worst. This is especially true of societies as economically and technologically advanced as Earth 2012 (aside from a few lagging locales). Alas, evolution works at glacial pace while technology advances like a flash flood these days. This, plus our ability to choose to change when sufficiently motivated strongly argue against "nature" (at least in the sense most people mean it).


Thanks. These issues really were irking me a bit for a while, but I found the right words apparently. Enjoy :)