Unpacking ‘Natural’

The notion of ‘natural’ arises in many philosophical discussions, and, prompted by reading Brave New World, I want to take a brief look at what lies behind the word when uttered in today’s society.

However, instead of trying to start from the ground up and provide anything like a thorough analysis of the term, which would require a serious research commitment, I want to comment on a recent, insightful blog post that comments on the issue of naturalness.

In Meghan Murphy’s blog post entitled “My performance of femininity and why it isn’t all about me,” she says:

There are many other things women are taught in our culture – they are taught to be polite, to be passive, to take up as little space as possible. They are taught that they will be treated better if they do a good job of performing femininity. They are taught that they will be successful at ‘womanly’ things like husband-getting and that they will be rewarded for being physically attractive above all else.
Now, just because we are taught these things, it does not mean we must abide, nor does it mean we all follow these rules. Nope. I know all sorts of ladies who leave the house with naked eyes on a regular basis. Most of all, though, what it does not mean is that femininity is natural. Or that femininity has anything to do with you as an individual. There is no eyeliner gene. Nail polish isn’t an expression of your nature. Though it does communicate to the world that you have learned the skills required to properly perform femininity.

In one of the comments to the blog post, “Michael H.A. Biggs” writes:

Nowadays, sensible biologists debating the nature/nurture debate seem to have given up the polar “either/or”, but they explore the deep interweaving of genes, hormones and experience from the moment of conception, so that separating out whether something is natural or social is a false dichotomy – everything is both.

If this is indeed the modern understanding of what ‘natural’ means, and it seems plausible to me, then that leaves one philosophical question: what is the value in something’s being ‘natural’?  In our everyday lives arguments are regularly presented for some claim with a premise being that ‘natural=better’ (think of how food is marketed, for example).  Given the above analysis, one can either argue that it is immaterial whether natural is better, as there is no such thing as genuinely natural, or one can analyze whether natural would be better, and only afterwards attempt to find any actual cases of a thing being wholly natural.

On the face of it, it seems highly implausible that one could provide an example of something that is totally natural while claiming that it is better in virtue of that very naturalness.  I think that this is one of the points made quite clearly in Brave New World, as Huxley presents a world that is easy to relate to, yet also easy to abhor.  Different castes of humans are ‘created’ to ‘naturally’ like certain roles in society above others, and no disturbance to this order is tolerated.  Way ahead of his time, Huxley’s message is just as applicable when applied to the ‘natural’ roles expected of men and women.  The lingering question, for the anthropologists in the audience, is why humans seem so drawn to the notion that natural is better.

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4 thoughts on “Unpacking ‘Natural’

  1. Arriving at some value judgement associated with “natural” is, well, natural.

    I’ll use the example of the world before the population of homo sapiens began to alter the natural order of things… so, post ice age, but pre modern times. in that world, there were innumerable examples of harmonious ecosystems that function in truly beautiful ways… the balance of population of rabbit and wolf, bear and salmon, eagle and rodents, etc.

    this natural state is beautiful in my opinion

    as humankind has “succeeded”, and multiplied without natural enemy, examples abound of things that have been thrown out of whack by human’s oblivion to the natural order of these interconnected ecosystems. fishing to the point of catastrophe, destroying forests, creating erosion, etc ultimately changing the very nature of the liveability of the planet

    I realize that human’s “success” could be argued to be a part of the natural order of things, I don’t know the answer to that assertion – perhaps with evolved intelligence was supposed to come the realization that population control was an essential?

    but it’s not difficult to assert that the natural order of things, as in that not manipulated by man, has a certain appeal

    and as it happens I sit firmly in the camp that rejects modern notions of femininity as tied to makeup, high heels, and other contortions designed to “attract the opposite sex”. they are all “norms” foisted on the unsuspecting by powers motivated by greed and power. just say no works really well imo so once again, natural, as in un-doctored wins hands down.

    1. Solid points, to be sure. The problem is, if you define ‘natural’ as outside of humanity, then what meaning is there in saying anything any person does, or interacts with, is ‘natural’ or less natural than something else?

      In other words, the word can retain meaning, but I think that definition is too tied up in an extraneous goal – something along the lines of: ‘natural’ is the best way of sustaining life on earth, with more diverse life being better, and hence natural is better than unnatural (i.e. human-tampered).

      There is more to be plumbed here, but I am still unsatisfied with aligning ‘natural’ to a definition like this.

  2. This is a great piece, Ben. I really enjoyed reading it and considering the development of the concept of ‘natural’ and why we are so invested in its value. Looking forward to talking about this one more!

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