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Nature vs. "Natural"

Ville Kokko

Posted on August 19, 2018 16:19

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Humans cause a lot of problems by doing things in an "unnatural" way – but the way the term "natural" is used in marketing us things is still nonsense.

We're constantly being told that something is good because it's "natural." I've noticed two kinds of reactions to this from different people.

The first is this: That's good. Natural is good.

The second is: That's nonsense. It's an empty marketing term to fool the gullible.

Mine tends to be the second reaction. Yet, at the same time, I admit we have a problem with doing things that disrupt the balance of nature or are unnatural to ourselves. What's going on here?

First, let me say what I mean when I think that we are doing unnatural things and that's bad. (Something like this argument is also a theme in Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.)

There are two main areas where the harms of unnaturalness come up: the ecosystem and human health. Both are complex systems that have adapted to more or less work as they are, or were. In both cases, this adapted balance can be disrupted. We might disrupt an ecosystem by overusing its resources, for example, or adversely affect our own health by adopting a diet and lifestyle too different from what our bodies and minds are evolutionarily adapted to.

What happens in these cases is often that the system is so complex we can't see the consequences of our actions. We try to change something simple about the system with a simple aim in mind, and it turns out to have complex, harmful consequences we didn't anticipate. Our models of the complex systems tend to be too simple to take into account all the details and interactions; meanwhile, mindless natural selection can adapt the system to all kinds of things, leading to a natural balance.

So in sum, we should be careful about doing very "unnatural" things, as we may ruin the environment and our health.

Why then do I think "natural" as it so often used is a nonsense term? It's because it tends to mean that something is of natural origin – or even that it's just something that feels natural, whatever that means. (Clearly GMOs just don't feel natural.)

Simply put, using something of natural origin has nothing to do with not disrupting the workings of a complex system's natural balance. Looking at natural origins is practically magical thinking – or vitalism, the proto-scientific theory according to which living and nonliving things are made of fundamentally different kinds of stuff.

Suppose humans have evolutionarily and bodily adapted to have a certain kind of diet, and then they start consuming large quantities of something quite different. This might cause health problems, and it doesn't matter if that something else was natural or "organically" grown.

As for the ecosystem, a classic example of interfering with is when rabbits were introduced to New Zealand and disrupted the ecosystem... the rabbits may have been of perfectly natural origins.

Sorry, but there is no magical quality of natural goodness that comes from natural origins. The naturalness we need to care about will always be a complex, systemic matter.

Ville Kokko

Posted on August 19, 2018 16:19

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