Appeals to nature are painfully common in our public discourse. From capitalism being the most natural economic system (a loathsomely clumsy comparison to Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest) to efforts to decry homosexuality or any kind of sexuality that wasn’t invented by high-collared clowns for that matter, they’re ever-present.
They’re also nonsense. To merely call them fallacy is lazy. The appeal to nature is not only offensive to the field of natural study and to human reason, but it bespeaks a fundamental failure to comprehend the remarkableness of human morality and ethics.
Let’s take an example.
A common one is a distinction drawn between the natural and synthetic. Natural flavours are good, artificial flavours bad. Some people go so far as to say natural molecules are good, and synthetic ones are bad, not realizing they are literally, not figuratively, the exact same thing. But there are people who will unironically decry the conjuration of water in the laboratory, submitting that its natural incarnation is superior, armed and armoured with an ignorance of chemistry.
This is at least mostly harmless, if irritating and disingenuous. Where it becomes dangerous is when it becomes the philosophical foundation for further-reaching nonsense, such as the disregarding of modern medicine. Especially in the appeal to natural remedies, what is missed is that the natural remedies are not dismissed by a cabal of drug-obsessed doctors in the pay of Big Pharma. They persist when they can be empirically validated. Their naturalness, or unnaturalness, is neither qualifying nor disqualifying.
Homosexuality is another one, one that people have felt obliged to defend by citing incidents of homosexuality in nature (Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at the New York Zoo, are a heartwarming example). This is the wrong decision, since it reinforces the idea that the naturalness, or lack thereof, of the behaviour has any relationship with its moral turpitude, or lack thereof. And if we’re discussing penguin behaviour and using it as a guideline, either way, to moral behaviour, the fact that male penguins will have sex with the long-dead corpses of their fellows has some unsettling implications.
That this is obvious is not obvious. But if we are citing contradictory natural phenomenon at one another, which is to prevail (A similar notion is put against advocates of homeopathy, which relies on a supposed ability of water to remember, in an abstract sense, what it had dissolved within itself. Water’s selective memory is finely tuned to medicine, but it is notoriously good at forgetting excreta)? But truly: some animals exhibit homosexual behaviour in a state of nature; most do not. Is that our criteria?
No. Because what is the connection? Why is what is natural good, and non-natural bad? As an assumption, it’s based on heuristics: the shortcuts our brains create to more efficiently understand and evaluate the world. Natural being good makes an intuitive sense here. We live in nature after all, and we’re doing alright. Of course, those of us who’ve died of scorpion stings, genetic abnormalities, shark bites, fungal infections, tooth decay, and a miscellany of other natural hazards aren’t contributing their opinions. Appealing to nature is easier when one conceives of its kindnesses than its cruelties.
Look to the natural world for moral guidance and you will be found wanting. If one were to listen to Mother Nature’s whispers for moral guidance, in one ear she would hum hymnals, encouraging absolute and utter self-sacrifice for the sake of our offspring, as in the giant pacific octopus, which will starve to death rather than leave its children alone before they hatch. In the other, she would snarl commands of death, and we would fall on our offspring with tooth and claw to ease our hunger, as the wolf spider or house finch may.
In short, she will spin you round. So too do the sophists who say, look to the trees and fields for guidance. If you follow their guidance, your journey will proceed nowhere.
Human morals and ethics are grounded in our biology but also transcend it. Seeking to reduce our ethics to their constituent atoms would see them undone. Lazy appeals to male and female physiology to justify misogyny spring to mind.
What is right, and wrong, to us is as much (and more) about what we’ve agreed to as it is how we are. If we weren’t social animals, morality may well not exist in us at all. Of course, we also lack the cold-eyed avian appraisal of the extent of ethics. Nazca boobies almost invariably kill any younger siblings. Cattle egrets often kill the third sibling. It’s so commonplace that there’s a mathematical formula that guides when it’s more worth it to kill your siblings versus let them live (since they share some of your genes, letting them live is a tradeoff of losing resources to avoid putting all the eggs in one basket). As biologist J.B Haldane put it: “I would gladly give up my life for two brothers or eight cousins.”
Reptiles, for the most part, laugh such calculations off as tiresome considerations for the nerds to worry about, happily devouring their own offspring. Lions take it as more of a grim necessity, with male lions sometimes devouring the cubs of females to make them available for mating again.
This has implications for those enthusiastic about conservation. While modern extinction rates are undoubtedly terrifying, an uncomfortable truth is that preserving apex predators can stabilize ecosystems. A notable example is the wolves of Yellowstone National Park, whose removal may have even precipitated the collapse of shorelines in rivers in the park. But the conclusion of this truth is that we needed those wolves to be eating elk much more consistently than they were. Running them down to exhaustion and tearing them to pieces. It’s not a nice thought. But we cannot be focused on conserving cute, cuddly, or kind species at the expense of ecologically significant ones. Restoring the park required resurrecting mass-murderers who feast on their victims’ corpses.
So stop expecting nature to sort out your moral conundrums. To her, all is accepted.
Feature image from mirror.co.uk.