Re: What Is Natural?

Nathaniel Michael Pearson (raindrop@leland.Stanford.EDU)
26 Jan 1995 13:35:24 -0800

In article <>,
Thomas Pardoe <> wrote:
> Hasn't homo sapiens' (sapien's?) primary adpatation to the
>world been cultural, specifically, technological? And if so, aren't
>cultural and technological adaptations therefore "natural"? I
>recognize of course that over time, cultural adaptations likely result
>in physical and genetic changes in brain structure and function.

This is a point often overlooked by people on both sides of various public
issues. Cases in point: some argue that human technological encroachment on
existing ecosystems, synthesis of food additives, injection of hormones into
cattle, etc. are wrong because they are 'unnatural.' Others assert that
homosexuality is wrong because it is 'unnatural.' Or a religious sect hands
me a pamphlet urging me to become a vegetarian because humans are not
'natural' carnivores. In medical ethics circles the argument is applied to
plastic surgery, HGH, etc. Others see war, racism, homophobia and other
behavior as unnatural contaminants of a discrete (and essentially good)
'human nature.'

The issue crucially hinges on people's varying world views, and intertwines
with views of concepts such as free will. My own view is that anything that
occurs in the universe is natural, which makes the question moot. The natural
includes all human behavior and its complex causes and effects. Whether or
not it what humans do will serve to maximize the tenure and general welfare of
life on this planet is another issue, and to me is the (albeit problematic)
question we should ask in deciding our behavior. Its answers, of course, are
unclear and disputed, but it should be our focus.

Everything we do -- including thoughts and actions -- is, I reckon, natural.
This includes our conception (and the accompanying polemic) of some things as
"unnatural." Such a paradoxically inclusive view of the natural resonates with
things we already know from other perspectives: ecosystems, for instance, are
_not_ closed systems, and we are a part of them like it or not. We may choose
to try to _minimize_ our influence in certain ways, but the criteria we use
should not assume (as misguided environmentalist zeal often does) that we are
external to the natural.

Nathaniel Pearson
Stanford University

>Thomas Pardoe
>Carleton University
>I am the slime oozing out from your TV set.
> - Frank Vincent Zappa, 1940-1993
>Email address:

Nathaniel Pearson
Stanford University