All Natural

Posted by on February 6, 2010 in Thoughts | 7 comments

“The unnatural, that too is natural.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We often hear the squaring-off of the “natural” versus the “unnatural”; we say things like “Natural is good, unnatural is bad.” But, as the quote from Goethe above suggests, I have often though that, whatever happens in the universe, all is natural; there is no such thing as artificial. Or if there is, then “artificial” or “unnatural” needs to be re-defined.

When someone says “natural”, we immediately think of forests and rivers, plants, animals, oceans and mountains. We think of fresh air and clean water. In food, we like to think of “natural” as anything grown without chemicals, or produced without additives. Geologically, we call events like volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides “natural” disasters.

Galaxies Colliding

Galaxies Colliding

As I have stated before, we live in a truly massive universe, where cosmic events occur on such an unfathomable scale that is difficult for the human brain to comprehend. For billions of years, the universe has been forming, galaxies spinning and drifting, crashing and colliding, objects hurling out of control into each other, creating new objects, new starfields and galaxies. There are truly huge events that happen all the time, and most of it is unnoticed by us. We would all call these events “natural”, as they are things that happen without human intervention.

So what is the true definition of “natural”?

Given that our knowledge of extraterrestrial planets is almost non-existent, we can only make definitions based on observations of the planet around us. There are numerous examples of nature seemingly out of control, out of balance or overtly destructive.

There are numerous examples of insects which reach plague proportions when conditions are either too favourable, or in a state of relative imbalance for that species. In the Amazon rainforests,when local food supplies run low, massive legions of up to 20 million army ants move as a single mass through the forest floor, eating anything and everything in their paths, plants and animals alike. They lay waste to huge tracts of jungle, taking all the movable food they can carry back to the burrows for storage or consumption. Ants also can make massive cities which alter the chemistry of soils, making the dirt somewhat waterproof, thereby making it unsuitable for plant life.

There are also numerous examples in animal species where the destruction of natural habitat happens as a matter of course. In North America, the beaver creates dams to help protect from predators, and to store food over the winter, when the rivers and ponds can freeze over. These dams can be huge, and can flood whole tracts of forests, diverting rivers and flooding land set aside by farmers for livestock. They can fell hundreds of trees in a week, and lay waste to whole areas of forest.

However, we have a habit of saying that anything made or done by human, is unnatural. Why is this?

Let’s assume for a minute, that the habits and behaviours of the ant and of the beaver are cumulative, that they have, over millions of years of outward influences, arrived at the behaviour that we see now. We would all agree, then, that these examples of destruction caused by millions of years of adaptations by a species is natural. So why is it that when we speak of the doings of humanity that it suddenly becomes unnatural?

All species have evolved and adapted over millions of years to be where they are. All species historically have done the same. Some have reached the end of their lineage because of outside forces, others have continued successfully. We too have arrived at this point in time after millions of years of adaptations to adversity. Everything we have created as a species, then, is a byproduct of our evolution. Is this unnatural? Is it unnatural to be the first species in the history of this planet to have the ability to alter our surroundings with intent? Is it unnatural that the human race destroy itself?

We should not put ourselves above nature, for we are not the creators of the universe, but a byproduct of of the universe. As soon as we tell ourselves that we have a higher purpose, we convince ourselves that we are above the natural processes of this universe. We make ourselves so much more important than anything else; is THIS “unnatural”?

So I put this forward: Anything that happens is “natural”, but “natural” may not be as palatable as we’d like to think.

We all inhabit the one planet. We need to recognise that there is only one chance at getting this right. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos says it best:

“Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.”

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7 Comments

  1. I like it. Everything is natural, but we humans have to realize that if we want to continue existing we need to become biocentric. Carl Sagan’s quote makes the point real well.

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  2. Thanks for making me think.

    My made-up-on-the-spot definition of ‘natural’: Natural is anything that occurs without a consciousness involved. Because humans have a consciousness, what humans do is automatically un-natural.

    There is also the confusion of ‘natural’ as a description of whether humans are involved, and natural as a moral description, ie ‘natural’ is good. Which, I may say, doesn’t make sense to me. There are plenty of unpleasant natural things too.

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    • See, now, this then gets into the metaphysics and meta-psychiatry of consciousness vs. sentience and free will. Is my cat conscious? I would say so, since I can interact with him, but then by your definition his actions are unnatural (which I would agree with if, say, we were talking about his tendency to eat plastic Easter grass, but not necessarily anything else he does).

      I think the whole problem with things like this is that abstract concepts like “natural” have so many ambiguous meanings, and attempting to define them so explicitly leads to confusion and trouble (which doesn’t stop legislative bodies from trying).

      From http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=natural, we have:

      Natural: c.1300, naturel, “of one’s inborn character, of the world of nature (especially as opposed to man),” from O.Fr. naturel, from L. naturalis “by birth, according to nature,” from natura “nature” (see nature).

      Again, this is outright contradictory. However, this post relies on the idea that anything humans do is something that we are conditioned or evolved to do. Even in the context of natural selection this is not precisely true – many individual actions are not adapted to their surroundings, and therefore reduce the reproductive imperative of the creature that perpetrates them.

      And so again we come to the question of free will. Are we, as humans, simply products of our evolution? Or, if not, are our actions that separate us from the other primates therefore “unnatural”?

      Interesting post.

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  3. Neat post, Marty. I’d never really put much thought into the distinction at all! It’s tangential, but your post got me thinking about the people who might call homosexuality unnatural for example, which in turn reminded me that those people are always religious. Of course the fact that homosexuality exists all over nature doesn’t matter to them – it’s simply not natural, thanks to that mighty fictitious book and what they’ve interpreted it all to mean :)

    It’s even more depressing as then I wonder how many of them, even if you sat down with them and explained concepts such as the ones presented in this blog, and conversed thoughtfully for hours on end to really take individual time with them, would still be lost causes and insist on such ridiculous definitions? And that’s the place it always ends for me – are people really that intellectually lazy? Is it really that scary to just think?

    Granted, it’s not the easiest thing to wrap your mind around. I remember when I started learning about how far away stars were as a kid, thinking that it actually hurt my brain to even try and fathom what the hell those numbers meant… but still. It’s so much better on this side of the fence!

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  4. I love you head. It goes to fantastic places.

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  5. Your posting influeced mine:

    Futile Facts
    I read something on a blog that suggested that ‘facts’ were perfect, god-like. I beg to differ and I say in my book ‘Again’ the following, “I do think history is interpretive. Yes, certain events have occurred on specific dates but we give meaning and/or significance to events. In You Never Know, I use the change of the planet Pluto’s status (from being considered a planet) as an example of how we change interpretation over time. History is interesting. We often learn more about what was significant to an era than anything else. Studying History can be very valuable if we stay away from it as fact. I am very willing to explore the history of reincarnation, but I am under no curtain of certitude. It is validating to recognize certain cultures’ beliefs, but these often change. I do not think a culture that is loyal to a belief-system, is outside the realm of change. Members of a culture might have believed something at a given time or still do, but that may alter. Shifts in paradigms or models and instability reign in life, you know. History, like most things, is not stable or secure. We may desire a linear narrative – a story that has a beginning, middle and end – but we will not get one. Our view of History is usually motivated.”

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  6. OH, OH. My comment was re: What an atheist believes was re:

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