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A Natural Perplexion

As a species responsible for so many constructive accomplishments, humanity still carries an aged core of sentiment toward ‘nature’ and ‘the natural’. It’s entirely understandable, intuitively reassuring - and nevertheless culturally indefensible.

Map the concept. ‘Nature’; grass, meadows, trees, birdsong, sweet floral scents, warm sunlight, refreshing streams, unconscious beauty - safety. Our first thoughts never include thorns or predators or decay, or any of the other negatives from which we’ve ever fled. Real nature is capricious and cold, and the warmth we enjoy today was earned rather than given. Uncritical praise of nature as something benevolent is a luxury known to we who’ve rarely had cause to contemplate its viscera, and is a belief almost entirely at odds with that truest state.

Prehistoric humanity learned, personally and genetically, that some places were better than others - better in the sense of facilitating reproductive fitness. One hominid may have lived on a well-lit hillside offering vantage, allowing him to note and respond to aggressors, thus he survived to breed accordingly. Another, carving out his existence from jagged caverns, would if nothing else have been at constant risk of ambush from bestial opposition with superior vision in darkness.

These principles would proliferate and become exaggerated throughout the generations - indeed, those iterations of earliest humanity lacked conscious understanding of their preferences. They’d know only an instinctive dread of such places, perhaps even forming the basis for spiritual belief. In a context of raw survival, the abstractions of good against evil would not be a routine matter - but the practical facts of life against death can never be underestimated, and it’s easy to see how intrinsic biochemical warnings could bloom into pseudo-religious devotional justifications.

We yet perceive beauty in nature because our entire notion of beauty developed as an incentive, for reasons that have nothing to do with the numinous and everything to do with propagating ourselves and our ideas. That these ideas themselves include the concept of beauty is elegant, perhaps even beautiful - but it would not benefit us now to confuse this with the sacred.

Nostalgic reverence for Eden misses the point. We did indeed pave paradise to put up a parking lot, because paradise was what we needed then but only for tactical reasons that no longer apply. The assailants from which we were then hiding have been comprehensively defeated thanks to our post-brachiation spears and tool-crafting thumbs and tribe-coordinating social prowess, and have since been reduced to oil, so now what we need is somewhere to park.

Nevertheless, all of the early programming still exists within us today to varying extents. Every phobia of a scurrying creature is an obsolete message from our earlier and more vulnerable selves. Even our proclivity towards overconsumption of sugar would once have served our congenital interests, signalling the value of fruit as something uncommon yet to be prized as vital to nutrition. In each case we’ve shaped our modern world around pandering to both sets of instinct rather than honestly confronting either, belated and perverse government interventions notwithstanding.

Our ability to second-guess crude feelings in favour of a truer analysis of our own best interests is a tremendous asset, and we owe it to our future selves - again, both individually and in generational terms - to use this peerless skill whenever we possibly can.

Progress has always depended on individuals taking a stand against comfort and complacency - what feels fine now ventured against what might possibly be made even better - and these looking to improve a situation for themselves or for others have inevitably found themselves in quarrel with majority forces of nature and conservatism. The ‘Appeal to nature’ argument is a well-known fallacy, but still something that works too well and too often - likely because our deep and idyllic perspective on nature itself is rarely subjected to open challenge. Any change for the better would at some stage have been called an affront to some personified conception of ‘nature’ - controlled fire, building, clothing, printing, then more recently assorted matters of civil rights - yet despite being proven consistently unviable, this fraudulent and chilling perspective never quite goes away. Just as secular governance still cedes both official and unconscious moral authority to faith leaders without quite knowing why, the primacy of nature as arbiter of propriety survives as a deep-rooted societal assumption.

As observed by Camile Paglia (“Nature is a festering hornet’s nest of aggression and overkill”), art kept the Pagan heart beating - and the culture shock caused by our traumatic move from village to city fixed a longing for simpler times in our collective identities - the very word ‘pastoral’ reflects this concept’s resonance within the soul.

We can’t seem to shake this blindly favourable sense of the primitive having some irreplaceable qualities; our authentic and devoted earth-mother who knows what’s best and mustn’t be pushed too far. An ironic point of similarity between fundamentalist authoritarian zealots and counterculture Gaia-sympathisers is the notion that we as a species must not “play God”, though it’s not always phrased as such because many harbouring the modern flavours of this view are bafflingly unintrospective about their own personal theologies. While having little else in common, these groups align against rational scientific progress on the basis that a great and soothing nurturer will solve all our problems if we only allow this to happen ‘naturally’, and that the world itself can be characterised as a rejuvenating force of peace.

Only the ‘peace’ part of this has any validity, but not in the beneficial sense they wish to believe. If anything, the natural world plus everything in it or beyond it is at least slightly inimical to survival. From universal entropy to amoral Cytopathic killers, there is nothing about the nonhuman universe that is in any way conducive to sustained existence for individuals. The overwhelming majority of space in existence would kill us in moments were any attempt made to live there unprepared. Even within our own planet’s protective atmosphere, our bodies are subjected to constant corrosive attack; externally by free radicals and internally by hazardous cell mutations.

While ‘unnatural’ factors of modern life do exacerbate both factors, they are neither responsible for the underlying phenomena nor uniquely necessary to those conditions’ severity. Moreover, it seems reasonable to expect that any further headway made against ill-health would consist of greater sophistication in analysis and technology rather than lesser. This too would be rejected by the cult of nature, because of its denial on the matter of death.

Death and decay is of nature in the same way that rape was - we’re maturing as a culture to a point where the latter is unacceptable, but are still fixated on the inevitability of death to the point of desperation. Cognitive dissonance whispers to us of how positive death may be, and many spurious benefits have been named - but as noted by Immortalists, would any of these be sufficient reason to introduce death when it had not been before? A resigned acknowledgement of death as a present reality may be a wise attitude, but many would go further under the guise of moral superiority. In most such cases, the argument from nature is a crutch standing in for the real attitude; “I don’t want to talk or even think about that, so will claim it’s unnatural and pretend that’s an answer”. This taboo is assisted by well-meaning conservationist rhetoric - human trash can last for millennia, which can certainly be bad if it’s causing harm in that time. That latter subtlety was lost and now we’re in the surreal situation where endurance in and of itself is regarded with suspicion. Every memetic lament at Coca-Cola’s vitriol or the intuitively worrisome stability of McDonalds’ food plays on this same irrational anxiety.

The only actual benefit of death - theorised to be a species-favouring mechanism to ensure rapid evolutionary adaptation to changing environmental circumstances - is also becoming redundant as we further develop means to mitigate against extreme conditions. We can operate almost anywhere on the planet with sufficient planning, and can certainly take responsibility for our own meta-evolution.

The question of our previous ‘mistakes’ may be a valid one, though frequently exaggerated for political ends in almost every direction. Those of us who temperamentally fixate on negatives might call for cessation of (or at least drastic reduction in the speed of) progress, but this fails to consider how many problems we have already been able to solve as well as how quickly we can work.

Homo sapiens has existed for perhaps 200,000 years. In the past 125 of those years, we've made the following achievements:

  • The initial invention of of practical powered & controlled flight, about which we then learned enough to land recently on another planet.

  • The first large-scale usage of computing machines to record and process data, enhancements to which were self-perpetuating and rapidly led to an information and communication revolution that generated exponential progress in this and other fields.

  • The discoveries of x-rays and general radioactivity, and the introduction of various products involving their properties - perhaps most notably, ‘virility-enhancing’ radium suppositories - and the swift discovery of their associated dangers.

This last example in particular probably goes a long way towards explaining public uncertainty about new ‘miracle’ technology - but it’s not clear how this manifests as the idea that uninformed folk may learn from mistakes that seasoned experts somehow cannot see. Radioactivity, insofar as it is ‘bad’, is not ‘bad’ because it’s unnatural. It is to be taken seriously for sure, and used constructively, and rigorously evaluated on its own empirical merits. Rejection of the ‘unnatural’ because we don’t yet know absolutely everything about it is ignorant to the point of abjection. We learn, we do not easily abandon - and in the case of the nuclear sciences, we put them to work in ways that are almost entirely beneficial.

Applied Genetic Modification is newer even than those mentioned above, existing under the current definition only since the 1970s - and is a paragon flashpoint of selective scepticism and under-analysed neurosis. Its opponents can rarely articulate what the differences might be between GM and non-GM versions of a product, in the same way that many show equal and opposite devotion to the wilfully undefined concept of ‘organic’. They may even attribute their concerns to the ever-dreaded 'chemicals', though how these 'processed' chemicals vary from the everyday sort is never clear - this conflict has nothing to do with objective reasoning or solving a problem. In the minds of the anti-GM movement, every science-fiction and horror trope is coming true. There will never be any standards of proof to satisfy their requirements, the fear is too primal and the benefits too distant. Another social incongruity; the same earnest protesters making demands for the developed world to somehow feed and heal its former competitors are too often the same prigs objecting to the Golden rice that could make this possible, often on the grounds of an ill-conceived natural prejudice. Questions on their attitudes toward selective breeding of Dogs, or Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, are rarely answered coherently. The notion that GM products lead to the same or better results merely using more efficient means is rejected, as the almost homoeopathic connection to ‘meddling’ means that the output is tainted ineffably by our artifice.

It should also be acknowledged that many find their way to these perspectives by way of a reflexive anti-imperialism. Protests against Monsanto, in particular, are often two-pronged - credulous neo-luddites on one wing, with the other occupied by a rabble that hate innovation and success almost as much as they hate themselves for being Western. This may be the most vicious adherence; as if in an abusive relationship with nature itself, they flagellate the society that created them and their iPhones. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “It is a frequent vice of radical polemic to assert, and even to believe, that once you have found the lowest motive for an antagonist, you have identified the correct one” - and it’s so easy for them to imagine that all parts of the US industrial complex must therefore have malicious designs. Monsanto must be bad, what Monsanto is DOING must be bad... so any half-baked claims of being ‘closer to nature’ are taken at face value alongside the additional, unstated, unjustified assumption that this must be something ‘good’. Nature tells us that our feelings are important, and if this gets contradicted by fact then it’s not much of a stretch for facts themselves to become ‘bad’.

Society may not be perfect, but the alternatives are almost certainly worse. Social constructs may be inconvenient, but they are what keep us safe. Brutalist skyscrapers do not match our vision of comfort because we’re seeing them through the eyes of our primate ancestors with very different lifestyle requirements. Nature has comprehensively failed to keep up with our needs, so we are under no obligation to continue giving it any benefit of the doubt - we've stepped up before and can again. We hardly ever get anything right on the first attempt, but that’s never meant we shouldn't ever try.

The paranoia surrounding science - which can really just mean ‘measurement’ - is often hysterical beyond anyone’s sincere interest. This will continue until people stop accepting ‘nature’ as a be-all answer to every question, from food packaging to planning departments or ethics boards. Submission to nature is an end to aspiration, a short-term solace in an increasingly long-term world. We have problems, real problems, that cannot be addressed by dying in a tree of old age at 35. In the words of Isaac Asimov: “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them”. We have enough obstacles already without acting as if we’re virtuous for paying such tribute to nature’s strangling umbilical.

Rory Leech

Rory Leech

Jack of computing, master of naysaying, recovering NEET. Was once called an autodidact, prefers instead the term "dropout". Quietly problematic & openly selfish. Views my own. Singularity is dear.

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A Natural Perplexion
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