The Natural

I just read Glenn Reynold’s Instapundit site (a multiple daily occurrence), in which, in the midst of his ongoing family tragedy he notes that:

I’d have to say that the medical profession has made a lot less progress with “end of life” issues than I had thought. Unlike Leon Kass, though, I’d rather see them make progress at keeping people alive. They’re doing better, but, also unlike Kass, I wish that medical care had advanced as much since 1986 as laptops have. There’s nothing noble or natural about seeing someone die of cancer. Cancer isn’t natural. It happens because something has gone horribly wrong. Unavoidable, perhaps, but that’s not the same as “natural.” The same is true of everything else people die of.

First of all, having lost close family members myself, a situation that remains, to date, sadly (though I know Professor Kass wouldn’t agree) and fundamentally part of the human condition, I’d like to say that I wish for the best for his family in this trying time.

But if it’s not deemed too opportunistic in the face of such personal trauma, I’d also like to disquisite on the above quote. Being a mathematician and thus, by nature (i.e., it’s natural for him) logical, I would hope that Glenn’s father-in-law would see it as a good cause.

“Natural” is vastly overrated. As is “normal.” As is “organic.” That such scientific terms, which ought to be morally neutral, have somehow acquired intrinsic value, is a testament to the sad state of the news media and our educational system.

Let’s take them (not) in order. “Normal” is a statistical term. It just means a characteristic that most of a given sample have. If you’re human, it’s normal to have two legs and two arms. It’s normal to have skin pigmentation. It’s normal to have an IQ within a couple dozen points of a hundred. And it’s normal, if you’re a man, to be attracted to women. That doesn’t mean that any of these things are “good.” It only means that a vast majority of human beings have these traits.

Being homosexual is not normal, but then, neither is being Albert Einstein or Mark Maguire or…me. Or you. It is not normal to be either an axe murderer or a genius. The fact that these states are not a normal condition provides absolutely zero information as to whether or not we should or should not approve of them. Thus, the mindless condemnation that any particular trait is “not normal” is meaningless.

OK, next up–“Organic.” Although, via arm-twisting by addled ex-hippies and their willing accomplices in the press, the government has come up with bizarre criteria that determine whether or not a food product can be labeled “organic,” the scientific fact remains that organic means nothing more than that a substance is…well…carbon based. Scrawny blueberries grown under FDA-authorized conditions of minimum-to-zero fertilizer and pesticides are organic.

So are the disallowed fertilizer and pesticides.

So is botulism. And anthrax–even that produced in Saddam Hussein’s labs.

And finally, to get back to the original point spurred by Glenn’s family travails, “natural.”

This is a rare case in which I disagree with Glenn. Cancer is many things, and one of them is natural.

Nature is not our friend. Regardless of what Leon Kass and Jeremy Rifkin wish to believe, natural is not a moral value–it is just a state of being uninfluenced by humans (at least in the common parlance–some, including me, consider humans and their works to be natural as well).

It is natural to be born. It is natural to love. For humans, it is natural to create works of art and beauty, often transcendently so. Unfortunately, it is also natural, for many, to rape and murder. And it is natural to get cancer, and ultimately, for all so far, it is natural to die. I find it bizarre that those who would condemn rape, welcome death, on the basis that the latter is “natural,” when in truth one is no more or less natural than the other.

Since the dawn of recorded time, it was natural for someone injured to become infected, and lose a limb or die, until we came up with the unnatural advent of antibiotics. It was natural for a woman and her child, in the event of a breach birth, to die, or for the child to live, but the woman to die in agony by having the child literally ripped from her womb, until we came up with those unnatural anesthetics. It was natural for people to lose most of their teeth, often painfully, until we came up with those unnatural dental maintenance techniques.

And now that we’ve unnaturally conquered so many other ills, and, in defiance of human nature, dramatically reduced the incidence of violent death among our youth, and, by unnaturally producing food on farms, reduced our need to hunt dangerous natural wild animals–we live unnaturally long lives, and thus it is now natural for many of us to get cancer. And when we defeat that (as we will inevitably do, though, sadly, probably not in time for Glenn’s father-in-law), we will do it with means just as unnatural as those employed to improve the human condition in the past.

We must live our lives by a set of values, but whether or not something is natural should not–indeed cannot–be among them. If it were, and we guided our lives by it, we would still be living nasty, brutish and short lives on a savannah in Africa, subsisting on roots, berries, and whatever the hyenas left behind. Of course, none of you would be reading this in that event, because we wouldn’t have such unnatural things as computers, computer networks, or even written language.

We have to find other moral guideposts than whether or not it’s what nature intended–nature intends nothing. Or to the degree that one believes in such a teleology, nature intends only that we are born, we breed and we get out of the way for the next generation. If that is our highest aspiration, then we truly are no different from any other animal, and I don’t think that even (or especially) Leon Kass believes that.