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« More Straight Talk From The SecDef | Main | How Do You Spell Relief? »

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 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.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 19, 2001 10:38 PM
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Just a quick and meaningless quibble. There is nothing unnatural about the advent of antibiotics, either. Although organic chemists (there is one of those words again, used in its proper setting this time) have added to the design of many drugs "unnaturally", the mold penicillium is quite natural. Many other antibiotics, most of them to be precise, originate from natural sources, followed by the aforementioned fiddling by those pesky chemists. You may quibble in response and argue that Sulfa drugs were really the first antibiotics, and I might quibble in response to your response(!!) that they are really more antiseptics than antibiotics. All of this is really more information than anyone needs, but none of it really changes your essential point(very well put, I might add), which is that none of these words (along with many others that are morally charged in the vernacular) really deserve the pedestal upon which they have been hoisted. By the way, nature also intends that we rate our success by the percentage of our genes in the next generation, although that is surely a "natural" morality that Mr. Kass and others probably don't care to be involved with.

Posted by Paul Orwin at November 20, 2001 07:59 AM

"There is nothing unnatural about the advent of antibiotics, either. Although organic chemists (there is one of those words again, used in its proper setting this time) have added to the design of many drugs "unnaturally", the mold penicillium is quite natural."

While correct, I would say that our deliberate use of such natural antibiotics is unnatural.

A log is a natural wheel, but it becomes life-enhancing technology only when employed as such.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 20, 2001 09:13 AM

By extension, our deliberate use of anything that we don't happen upon without looking for it is unnatural. That is enough fooling around with all of this "unnatural" stuff. If I don't get started with my berry picking, I won't have any food for my self or my family tonight in our mudhut, which we didn't make, but merely happened upon. Fortunate for us, because naturally occurring mudhuts are pretty rare, and all of the ones we had found up till now had people living in them already!! (sarcasm mode off!) Seriously, it is quite possible to trail off into reductio ad absurdum here, because we can draw our arbitrary line about what is natural and what isn't more or less anywhere. If I were so inclined, I could probably argue that nearly anything is unnatural, and conversely, just about any process, chemical, or object that is used by man is probably at best mimicing something that occurs in nature. I would write more, but I am sliding down a slippery slope away from my keyboard, back to work, unfortunately!

Posted by Paul Orwin at November 20, 2001 10:11 AM

While we are debating the "naturalness" of things, it might be worthwhile to note that many of the cancer chemotherapies that we use clinically are derived from nature, as are many other types of drugs. For instance, the chemotherapy agent Vincristine comes from the periwinkle plant, Taxol from the Yew tree, and Adriamycin (called the red death by many cancer patients) is a "natural" toxin derived from a fungus.

Additionally, all of us have misreads in our DNA that could result in the formation of a tumor many times a day/week/year/lifetime. The "natural" order of things is that DNA misreads occurs, and our body is supposed to find them and eliminate them before there are problems. When this doesn't happen, cancer is the end result.

So I guess I agree with Mr. Orwin's original premise: Natural does not mean nice or good or wholesome or anything else that our ad driven society wants it to mean; it basically just means that life is what it is, be that amazingly good or horribly bad.

Posted by Neal Mauldin at November 20, 2001 03:30 PM

Baudelaire said much the same thing in The Painter of Modern Life in 1863. Rather than emphasize the inherent neutrality of nature, though, Baudelaire contrasts it to the products of reason and finds it lacking:

Most wrong ideas about beauty derive from the false notion the eighteenth century had about ethics. In those days, Nature was taken as a basis, source, and prototype of all possible forms of good and beauty. The rejection of original sin is in no small measure responsible for the general blindness of those days. If, however, we are prepared merely to consult the facts that stare us in the face, the experience of all ages, and the Gazette des Tribuneaux, we can see at once that nature teaches nothing or nearly nothing; in other words, it compels man to sleep, drink, eat and to protect himself as best he can against the inclemencies of the weather. It is nature too that drives man to kill his fellow man, to eat him, to imprison and torture him; for as soon as we move from the order of necessities and needs to that of luxuries and pleasures, we see that nature can do nothing but counsel crime. It is this so-called infallible nature that has produced parricide and cannibalism, and a thousand other abominations, which modesty and nice feeling alike prevent our mentioning. It is philosophy (I am referring to the right kind), it is religion that enjoins upon us to succour our poor and enfeebled parents. Nature (which is nothing but the inner voice of self-interest) tells us to knock them on the head. Review, analyse everything that is natural, all the actions and desires of absolutely natural man: you will find nothing that is not horrible. Everything that is beautiful and noble is the product of reason and calculation. Crime, which the human animal took a fancy to in his mother's womb, is by origin natural. Virtue, on the other hand, is artificial, supernatural, since in every age and nation gods and prophets have been necessary to teach it to bestialized humanity, and since man by himself would have been powerless to discover it. Evil is done without effort, naturally, it is the working of fate; good is always the product of art.

Oddly enough, this is the prologue to the main argument in an essay entitled "In Praise of Make-Up." As Baudelaire explains, "Woman is well within her rights, we may even say she carries out a kind of duty, in devoting herself to the task of fostering a magic and supernatural aura about her appearance; she must create a sense of surprise, she must fascinate; idol that she is, she must adorn herself, to be adored."

Though this excerpt may reveal as much about Baudelaire's capacity for fetishization as it does about feminine beauty, his point is that nature is something to be overcome. Civilization is not natural; that's why it's so hard to preserve.

Posted by Hugh Davis at November 21, 2001 11:26 AM

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