Sep 23, 2007

natural instinct

One sometimes hears the argument that "doing x is good because it's natural" or that "x is good because it's natural" or that "it's instinctive for people to do x". (Or even the opposite: "you can do better than x. Now we have a modern way to do that".)

And at first hearing that seems to make sense.

But after rolling that phrase around in my mind for a few years or so, I don't think it makes sense any more. It's like when you repeat a word to yourself so many times you begin to question it ("wait, is that really the right word? it looks so weird"). The word isn't really weird, you've just bored through the top level of thought and discovered that the particular collection of letters has no intrinsic meaning, only what society has ascribed to it.

Same thing with "it's good because it's natural". In various circles one hears that it's natural for people to get seriously ill in old age, natural for humans to eat meat, natural for people to lose their tempers, natural to fight in wars. We hear that it's good to eat natural foods, good to give birth in a natural way, good to "get back to nature". Calling something "unnatural" is almost always an insult, and reflects curiously upon the speaker's personal discomfort.

Here's what I think: none of those things are really natural. None of those things are good or bad because of being natural. And unnatural shouldn't be an insult.

Let's define nature as the qualities and/or characteristics by which something can be recognized. In that case, something "natural" in this case would be something that bears the hallmarks of humanity. I don't think sickness in old age, fighting, or any of the other things I listed up at the beginning are actually descriptors of human nature. There are exceptions everywhere. And honestly, nobody wants to be summed up as "human: animal that gets sick when it gets old, fights within its species, eats food without or without pesticides, etc". Nah, humans are something more.

I think what really describes humanity is our ability to do "conscious evolution", that is, change our minds on the spot, have epiphanies, learn new behaviors within minutes (not generations), change our habits just because want to. We can decide what we want to do. If it's the middle winter and a person wants to lie in the snow in a t-shirt and shorts, he or she can. We can be as nonsensical as we want! Isn't that great?

Every person is free (to slightly varying extents due to circumstance) from what his or her ancestors did. This is not so for most animals, for whom instinct rules supreme. Humans may have an instinct for, say, fighting, but what makes us special is that we can override that instinct with conscious decisions - and not just once, but for our entire lives. I don't think we don't use our remarkable power of "conscious evolution" as much as we should. I don't think we should accept something or reject something on the basis of what's "natural for a human being" (we do this inconsistently anyway - of course nobody likes for a child to die a natural cancer death) . Maybe what's actually natural for a human being - that is, the action that truly identifies us - is to act on careful weighing of the facts, intuition, or whim - anything which allows us to break free of our instincts and go in new directions.

I realize some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of going against an instinct. But really, we seem to consider nothing more heroic. How about a fireman who runs in to a burning building?

It hasn't escaped me that one reason to call something "natural" is to designate it as an acceptable thing. We say, "sometimes jealousy is natural" and "it's natural to be afraid" and "it's natural to cry sometimes". I think what we mean in those cases is: "It's ok that you feel that way. Sometimes I do, too. So do most people. You're not weird. " And that's a comforting thing to hear. I just think it's better to say "it's ok to feel that way, sometimes I do too", seeing as our overall acceptance of "natural" things is pretty spotty.

Don't be afraid to decide who you are, and then become that person.

1. During the writing of this post, I did in fact experience the bizarre phenomenon of the word "natural" suddenly losing all meaning.
2. I feel rather compelled to tell you that I don't eat meat, do eat "natural" foods, try desperately not lose my temper, refuse to fight in any war, and do not expect individuals to die of cancer in at any age if they don't want to. But in all of those cases, I have reasons that have nothing to do with naturalness.

1 comment:

ismith said...

Damn skippy ... says the boy with the unnatural hair, hearing, and locomotion. :-)