The False Problem of the “Unnatural”

The Modern Survival Guide #107

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And if I had to name one argument that makes me physically ill, it would be when a person tells me that they don’t agree with something because it is “unnatural.” It really gets my goat, because here’s the thing — this is literally one of the most serious survival issues you will encounter in the modern world, and it’s almost always a case of a false problem.¹

So I’m going to say this right up front.

If you are disparaging something because it is “unnatural,” all it proves in most cases is that you don’t know enough to hold an opinion on that subject.

That seems a bit harsh, but one thing we have all got to get through our heads is that the word “unnatural” doesn’t actually mean much of anything. Are you talking about supernatural events? No? Well, everything that’s left is something that exists in the real world, which by definition is the natural world, which makes everything that happens a natural occurrence.

What most people mean when they say that something is unnatural is usually one of two things:

  1. It was created in a lab, and they’re suspicious of it.
  2. They think it’s immoral (a.k.a., “against the natural order”).

Neither one of these arguments tends to hold water, they’re bad for your intellectual health, and they’re bad for your survival in the modern world. Let’s look at why.

Labs Are Not Inherently Bad

I’m going to start with this one, because it’s probably the most common usage (in the sense that it crosses ideologies). We’ve all got at least one relative or friend who steadfastly believes that lab-made = bad when it comes to all sorts of things. Vaccines, medicines, consumer products, makeup, soap, soda, whatever — if it was made in a lab it’s bad because it contains “unnatural” substances or *gasp* chemicals.

There are two points to make here.

First, everything is chemicals. You can’t avoid chemicals. You are made of chemicals. The air you breathe is composed of chemicals. You eat, drink, and stand on chemicals. I’m typing this on a keyboard formed from chemicals, thinking with a brain made from chemicals, inhabiting a universe composed of chemicals. Everything is chemicals. So saying that something is bad because it has “chemicals” is utterly meaningless bullshit panic pandering, and needs to stop.

Second, there is no such thing as an “unnatural” chemical. There are simply substances which are either common and uncommon to us. Everything that we can create in a lab is duplicated naturally somewhere else in this wide, wonderful universe. Chemical bonds and atomic structures don’t care where they’re made, they simply follow the rules of chemistry in terms of how they are made.

Nothing chemical is unnatural. We invent “new” things in a lab from time to time, and if we were to look into the core of Jupiter we would find some “new” things there as well. But the reality is that the universe has a sufficient variety of environmental conditions that any substance which can be created in a lab here on Earth, already “naturally” exists somewhere.

So what is the real point being made here? Quite simply, this is an example of someone who is concerned because they don’t know what went into the product they want to use. AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Product suspicion is a key part of being an informed consumer. The fallacy in the logic comes when we try to substitute a general fear of the unknown for justifiable suspicion or concern about a particular ingredient.

Whether or not something is bad for you has nothing to do with whether it was created in a lab or whether it has chemicals in it. It is true that some things that come out of labs are bad for you. That does not mean that all things that come out of a lab are bad for you, in much the same way that some men are tall, and some doctors are tall men, but not all tall men are doctors.

There are industrial chemicals which can cause cancer, for example. However, if you breathe around a smokey fire for any amount of time in your life, that’s also a potential cause of cancer. If you stand in the sun for any amount of time in your life, that too is a potential cause of cancer. Cancer is dependent on specific mechanisms and interactions on the cellular level, not on where a substance was developed or whether it was made by humans.

It is a better use of your time to avoid items which have been marked toxic or which pose a known risk to humans in the quantity or dosage levels for which they have been proven harmful, then it is to try to avoid “unnatural” things. It is better to be a careful and informed consumer than it is to be paranoid and ignorant.

So remember: it’s not that all chemicals are bad, it’s that all chemicals are bad in the wrong dosage. Water will straight up kill you if you drink thirty gallons in a day. That doesn’t mean water is bad for you.

And remember: there is no such thing as an unnatural substance. There are simply substances that you know about and substances you don’t. The trick is to figure out whether something is harmful, and how it is harmful. Whether you’ve heard of it before is neither here nor there.

Last but not least, it is worthwhile to admit that most of us cannot make this judgment on our own. We don’t have the education to do so. This is where expert opinion and rigorous scientific study come into play. Neither expert opinion nor rigorous scientific study require a YouTube video or a Facebook post, and vice versa, so don’t blindly believe memes and YouTubers.

Your Morals Don’t Make Something Unnatural

Moving on, the other prime use case when people say the word “unnatural” is to describe something they consider immoral. The phrase “against the natural order” is common, especially among people who are not biologists.

Biologists will happily tell you that nothing is against the natural order, because nature is fucking lit.

For example, many people oppose homosexuality on moral grounds by claiming that being gay is “unnatural.” It’s not. At all. There is ample and sustained evidence of homosexuality in the animal world. It’s as natural as anything.²

Another example would be a modern-day Luddite, someone who doesn’t like one particular aspect or implementation of technology and seeks recourse in labeling it “unnatural.” I have two immediate reactions to this assertion, and they are as follows:

If the contention is that it’s bad to use materials or processes that don’t occur in nature outside of human populations, then I would invite the other party to resume eating their food raw and sleeping in trees. A gas-range stove and a bed are two of the most unnatural objects you’ll find in everyday life, by that metric, but if you try to take my memory foam mattress I’ll fight you.

If the contention is that it is “unnatural” to develop materials or processes which do not occur in animal populations in nature, then I would invite the other party to recall that human beings are, ourselves, an animal population on the planet Earth. Therefore we are natural. Therefore it’s perfectly natural for an intelligent life form to make changes to its environment.

In general the argument that something is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong” does not work. There are too many awful things which are natural, and too many good things which are “unnatural” for this to stand up on its own, and the instant you start looking deeper the whole thing falls apart anyway. So let’s not make the argument.

The Problem With Using “Unnatural” Language

Ok, so why do I have such a rage-on for this topic? Well, I mentioned back at the start of the article that this is a survival issue. There’s a reason I included it in this series, and the reason is that calling something “unnatural” enables bad logic and poor decision-making as a result of demonization.

I’ve talked about this concept before in this series — to demonize something is to taint it with a general stigma or, when applied to people, to render a person as less-than-human or non-human.

That’s a serious problem if someone calls you “unnatural,” because what they mean is “this person should not exist because nothing else in nature is like this person.” If someone calls your behavior “unnatural,” that means “you should not even have the option of doing that because nothing else in nature does that.” On the other hand, if someone calls a material or process “unnatural,” what they mean is “this thing should not exist because it does not exist elsewhere in nature.”

All of these are bad arguments, but they have serious staying power. In part this is because, if you’re ignorant, it seems like a pretty good argument — if I’ve never seen something in nature, it makes sense it is unnatural. The fact that I’ve only seen a billionth of nature may not occur to me.

The argument also tends to work because if someone else is “unnatural,” that reinforces your status as “natural.” We humans do enjoy being superior to someone else.

And I think the argument keeps coming around because the word “unnatural” is itself an intrinsically powerful term, and has enough baggage that at least a travel suitcase or two lands on whatever person or concept the word is applied to. If you’re playing power chords, half the time no one notices that your technique is bad. Remember, the point of a lot of these arguments isn’t to logically debate the issue, it’s to make converts to a particular ideology.

So look, describing something as “unnatural” is a poor argument on general principles. If you think something is immoral, have some arguments to back that up without resorting to an appeal to nature. Nature is amoral. Maybe pick a better backdrop. And if you think a material or process is a bad idea, maybe have some research to back that up without appealing to nature. It’s lazy and ridiculous to think that, just because you haven’t seen something before, it ought not to exist.

Solving A False Problem

The point is that there’s no need to use the label “unnatural,” unless you’re talking about extra-dimensional parasites or something not of this universe, and in all other cases if you use it you’re creating a false problem. The concept of something being “unnatural” is a holdover from a more ignorant age, and unfortunately it seems like it’s very hard for us to let go.

This is important. It’s serious business with real implications in your life. It’s the difference between getting a vaccine or not. Between accepting another person or rejecting their lifestyle. Between boycotting a product or buying it. Between supporting legislation or going laissez-faire when it comes to consumer regulation. If you think something is “unnatural,” you will be making bad choices based on a bad premise, and that’s an issue.

Instead, and let me be absolutely clear about this, be honest. If you think an action is immoral, say that. If you think a person is wrong, say that. If you think a thing is bad, say that. But don’t say it’s “unnatural.” Don’t say it’s “against nature,” or “against the natural law.” Don’t perpetuate a false problem.

Be intellectually honest with yourself and with others, and your views will hold more weight because you will have to think of real reasons and real arguments to support them.

¹A “false problem” is something that is presented as a problem but actually isn’t, in the sense that there is nothing to solve or no reason why a problem exists. “You can’t ride your bike because it’s Thursday,” is a false problem. There is no information in that sentence as to why Thursdays should preclude bike riding. You can usually turn a false problem into a real problem by adding more or better information, though. For example, “You can’t ride your bike on Thursday because you’re scheduled to have your appendix out that day,” is a real problem statement, assuming you want to ride your bike.

²These same folks then turn around and say “Listen, just because an animal does it, that doesn’t mean it’s moral.” This is entirely true but misses the point by such a wide margin that Imperial Stormtroopers are looking at them with disappointment. The point is, if your argument is based on nature, and something in nature does the thing you’re arguing is unnatural, you’re wrong. Suck it up and be wrong, then come back with a better rationale.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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