Unnatural!

One argument, sometimes heard, that spectacularly amuses me is that something is wrong because it is unnatural.

First, and to pick a subject that will hold our interest, let’s consider sex:

It used to be believed that only humans and a handful of species performed sexual acts other than for procreation, and that animals’ sexuality was instinctive and a simple response to the “right” stimulation (sight, scent). Current understanding is that many species that were formerly believed monogamous have now been proven to be promiscuous or opportunistic in nature; a wide range of species appear both to masturbate and to use objects as tools to help them do so; in many species animals try to give and get sexual stimulation with others where procreation is not the aim; and homosexual behaviour has now been observed among 1,500 species and in 500 of those it is well documented. (It’s Wikipedia!)

And that clip didn’t even mention cross-species rape… or homosexual necrophiliac rape by a non-human species a few of which could very well be quacking on your lawn right now. (Are you feeling unwell, Reverend? Open the window…)

I heard over on Pharyngula that bats engage in oral sex; and BBC says “an Antarctic fur seal has been observed trying to have sex with a king penguin”. (There’s a 45-minute video of that, probably on xHamster.)

So, to recap this first point: animals are not your friends if you wish to argue for plain and boring heterosexual single-partner devotion. What you may think natural might not be so.

Second, to point and laugh at the argument itself, even when the proponent’s facts are, ahem, straight: animals beat, abandon, kill and eat their own young. Animals are cruel, vicious, dumb, selfish and self-destructive in much the same proportion as we human animals, and occasionally more so. Animals are bastards, and not just because they can’t find a Reverend. An appeal to the widespread naturalness of something is no better than an appeal to the human popularity of something. (“Let’s starve — it’s real popular in Africa!”) The force behind that popularity might not have anything to do with goodness. Animals act in ways that are good, or invisible, or just not bad enough, for their evolutionary survival. Whether those ways are nice doesn’t matter. There’s no happiness-maximizing design at work there.

Famines are natural; granaries are unnatural. Floods and fires and volcanic eruptions are natural. Viruses and bacteria and dying of dysentery are natural; all medicine is an unnatural intervention into the natural order of things.

The strong eating the weak is natural; altruism occurs in nature only as a lucky mistake, as a misfiring of senses which activate because they used to be good for the survival of your genes as expressed in your relatives so helped. The few “natural” human tendencies to kindness to strangers are nothing more, of nature: a mistake, because ten thousand years ago a human in distress tended to have the same blood as you. Kindness while knowing you will not be repaid is an unnatural perversion of this, and a wholly human invention, and infinitely more precious for it.

Brains, reflection, and abstraction are deeply unnatural: the natural state of animals is not clarity, but a general absence of thought, and the rule of mindless, amoral and often fallible genetic programming. To quote a Finnish news headline I once saw, “a dog does not love its owner like the owner wants it to”; the unfortunate formulation of that headline aside, that’s just how things are. It’s easy and wrong to go Disney and think animals are just people that don’t speak. The selfless natural nobility of animals is just as much a myth as the patronizing fairytale of the noble savage: mankinds springs not from the forehead of some noble, thoughtful natural ancestor Zeus, but rather from the groin and the claws of the damned mindless beast.

There’s a picture for you.

Clothes are unnatural, too: animals don’t wear clothes, except the Emperor’s New Penguin, and the whole self-covering business is simply a sick, recent whim of a particular kind of uppity apes. We don’t have any trouble with our pets being in the nude; shouldn’t we be natural and disrobe ourselves, too? Away with the clothes, the glasses, the steel hips and the heart replacements! (Oh dear. Get some smelling salts for the Reverend. And is Ms. Green back awake yet?)

Science and religion both are unnatural. The natural state is a mixture of the two: accidental guesses that harden to Pavlovian superstitions and inherited mistakes. One leaves a dog pushing at the wall because by accident it first did so just when the feeder came. Another makes a moth fly to the flame, because a flame is not so far away as the moon. A third causes the cat and its owner to equally gorge until their joints and hearts break and they fall down dead: hey, it used to be a good idea, the natural combination of inquisitive pre-science and stubborn pre-religion! (But there’s a med for animal obesity, you know.)

Most of the glories and crimes of mankind are unnatural. In my opinion the most unnatural glories are much more impressive and profound than the most unnatural crimes. A dog will lie, and a dog might even wish to exterminate those obviously unrelated curs competiting for its food, if it could; a dog could just maybe think about a cure for smallpox, but not about the merciful, universal and unprejudiced application of it.

Most of the glories and crimes of all creation are natural. That is so simply because “natural” means “unguided by intellect”, and there’s not much guiding intelligence in the universe. (Aside: Sweetly so, because if there was an intellect behind the order of nature, that intellect would be morally numb, or then a monster.) “Natural” is a bigger class of actions, but it’s not a better one, not a privileged one. (Well, except in the sense that the evil natural actions have a much easier time of it because they’re built in, while the unnatural ones battle constant instinctive prejudice. Bad, bad constant instinctive prejudice.)

So, to recap all this: what you may think natural might not be so; and even if it is, touting its naturalness is a really stupid banner to fly. You, my dear readers, naturally, eh eh, know this; but it does not cease amusing me when a preacher or a nature-type raises this particular rotting banner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s