Let's Get Rid of 'Nature'
I want to put an end to this argument, since I’m seeing it frequently touted and pointed to and nodded at like a mantra. Phrase it however you want: “it’s natural”, “it’s a biological urge”, or the corollary, “it’s unnatural”, “not even animals do it”, etc. There are variations - but the essential theme is to line up a (moral) claim with something called “nature”.
A classic example that’s making the rounds – that I’ll be writing about later – is the idea of parenthood, thanks to Jessica Valenti’s new book. Many have told me and continue to maintain that it’s “perfectly natural” to have/want children; that it’s the most “powerful biological urge” (how this measures up against starvation or thirst, I’m not sure). Because of this power and potency, it’s moral to breed.
However, this is not true: that’s an explanation for why breeding occurs, not what makes breeding moral! People move from a description to a normative claim: just because it is the case that things occur – for example, racism, sexism, violence – is not a reason to think it moral or not worth questioning or criticising. All we’ve been given is a description of the situation, not what makes the situation moral.
There are also more pressing concerns in terms of this thinking. Firstly, it’s highly selective. By defending this position, we are being dishonest thinkers because we’re only reporting one side, namely the “good” part: rainbows, cute animals, having children (I guess), and so on. We are ignoring the other: diseases, earthquakes, predation, and so on, which are awful occurrences and natural. To be accurate and scientific, we must have a broader scope in our thinking. Otherwise we’re selectively choosing one type of occurrence, making the whole framework of ‘natural’ seem entirely preferable.
If we align ourselves to nature, does it mean eating our young, killing violently, and so on, just because it occurs in nature? Why ignore this category of natural occurrences but embrace the other “good” one? We must know the broader framework to make accurate assessments. Selective thinking like this is unscientific and unhelpful: choosing to view “natural” only in terms of what is “good” is selective.
Secondly, it also becomes redundant.
If “natural” is “good”, what use does it serve as a moral rubric? When people say “homosexuality is unnatural”, they are saying “homosexuality is wrong”. But how does that help the discussion? “It’s wrong because it’s unnatural” is the same as saying “it’s wrong because it’s wrong”. That doesn’t tell us why it’s wrong: it’s again “a description” – a false one in this case since, since, as I indicated previously, there are 1,500 animal species that engage in homosexual behaviour. The assertion becomes a tautology. But just showing that a supposedly unnatural act occurs in nature does not make it moral either! The entire point is to get rid of linking so tightly “moral” and “natural”: whether something does or does not occur in nature doesn’t aid our deciding whether that act is moral.
After all, wearing glasses, building hospitals and using crutches don’t occur in nature – are these to be considered “wrong” based on that category? If they’re not, why use the category of “unnatural” or even “natural” at all when discussing morality?
We need to stop this appeal to nature in our thinking, in our application to actions, and in our moral deliberations. There are better, reasonable and, indeed, evidence-based justifications for these, which better serve us than mere appeals to this thing called “nature”.
Nature is just a description of things that occur “naturally”. Presumably this means “without interference from humans”, but why remove humans from the natural? We’re as natural as daffodils – with which we share genetic ancestors. What exactly is unnatural? Cars? Plastic? The Internet? I see no difference between a beaver’s dam and the Internet: both are made using materials from the Earth. Sure iPods don’t grow on trees, but like beavers’ dams, they have origins in raw, “natural” materials. At what magical point from the mining of metals to downloading the latest Linkin Park song does your iPod become “unnatural”?
‘Nature’ to a large extent is an entirely useless notion in moral thought that is high time we got rid of.
Update: I originally wrote about "otters' dams" but reader Thom Shanken kindly corrected my idiocy.
Image Credit: Biogradska gora/Wikipedia (source)
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?
There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.
An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.
- "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
- "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.