Thursday, March 27, 2014

Doing What Comes Naturally: Playing Devil's Advocate re Natural vs. Unnatural

In 1994, a college roommate and I got into a heated argument about our microwave.   The argument wasn't about whose turn it was to clean the microwave, or who had spattered tomato sauce all over the inside of the microwave.  The argument was about whether the microwave was "artificial."  

This argument was, I recognize, pretty standard fare in the repertoire of drunken or high arguments with college roommates.  But the two sides of the argument went pretty much like this:

Side A (my roommate): The microwave was artificial, that is, a technology created by man that did not previously exist in nature.  

Side B (me): Humans are animals, products of nature.  How can anything produced by humans, who are products of nature, be deemed artificial, and not also products of nature?

I know.  Is your mind blown yet?  Also, don't bogart that J, yo.  

Side A is conventional, and accepts a conventional definition of the term "artificial": 

: not natural or real : made, produced, or done to seem like something natural
: not happening or existing naturally : created or caused by people
: not sincere

Merriam-Webster Online.

Side B is a typical mid-90s college rhetorical move: what does anything mean?  How can we draw lines?  Isn't natural vs. unnatural a false dichotomy?

For some reason, watching the last few episodes of Cosmos brought me back to this relatively stupid argument.  In the second episode, the show reviews the history of mass extinctions on earth.  These were, undoubtedly, natural events.  Given that these were events produced by nature (i.e., volcanic activity, meteor strikes), were they tragic?

What about the natural course of extinction of various animals (saber tooth tiger, woolly mammoth) due to natural climate change, or the activity of other, natural animals -- including man?  Should we feel bad about those extinctions?  Wasn't that nature just taking its course?

Certain creatures seem to adapt and thrive even as we humans radically transform the planet.  The territory of coyotes has expanded dramatically with our development of North America.  Rats and cockroaches have also thrived with the spread of our species.  Our polluting and warming of the oceans has led to the rise of the jellyfish (probably our favorite topic on this blog).   Are these "good" or "bad" developments?  Are some species more valuable than others?  

Some species die out over time.  That is life on earth.  Circumstances change, and species adapt or die.  New species rise in new conditions.  Nature has no stasis.  We may like the current assortment of species we have on the planet, but it's just a fact that they can't all stay with us forever.  (Or, perhaps, us with them.)

You can guess where this is headed.  Should we feel bad about what we, as humans, are doing to the planet?  Other animals, natural as can be, have altered the climate in the past, though obviously not to the extent that we are.  Humans want to have comforts, and luxuries, and the nice things other humans have.  That is a human desire, but also a natural, animal desire.  Humans want to have sex, and have children, and eat foods that make them feel good.  How do you stop that?  Legislation?  Democratic legislation?  (Or would this be a good example of how something like the Chinese model may be more effective than the democratic model currently on view in Washington, D.C.?)

This argument is, granted, an argument for just sitting back and doing nothing.  It is the ultimate laissez faire justification: we are products of nature, so let us do what we feel like, because that is what is natural.  Any attempt to dictate what the masses should do from on high will ultimately be misguided because it will not be directed by the wisdom of the market/herd/flock/hive mind.  The wisdom of the few is outweighed by the wisdom of the many.

The objections are obvious: unlike animals, we are capable of rational thought, of understanding the consequences of our actions, of disciplining ourselves for the good of our species, of the other species on the planet, etc.  We are capable of argument and persuasion to change the behavior of others.  

But who gets to decide what should be done?  What sacrifices must be made?  Who must give up wealth and comfort for the more intangible benefits of sustainability?  Actually, we know who: the powerful and the rich.  Those who control wealth, and the flow and content of ideas.  (But, again, is it artificial, or bad, that certain individuals or entities are powerful?  Did they end up that way through unfair, unjust, or artificial means?  Again, what does artificial mean?  What is fairness?  Those are contested terms.  Who's to say what on what fair field those terms should be justly defined?) 

And, yes, underpinning much of this argument is the assumption that what is "natural" is better than what is "artificial."  But we all know of all of the examples that disprove this.  For example, it may be "natural" to want to punch someone in the face, but we restrain ourselves because of "artificial" social norms, laws, etc.  Isn't it better that people are not constantly getting punched in the face?  (Honestly do not know the answer to this.)

To be clear, the above is not what I believe.  Far from it.  Just playing devil's advocate.  Like I was with my roommate and the microwave.  Just to be a pain in the ass.