Over the last several years I have developed a bit of a deep distrust of claims regarding what is or is not natural. For one the word’s meaning is somewhat ambiguous. For some it means, that which existed prior to humanity or prior to some arbitrary point in human history, like the early industrial revolution. I have also heard the adjective use to describe any of, or noncompliance with the rules that govern the natural universe. Finally I have all too often heard it used to describe what the person speaking likes, and as the antithesis of what they dislike.
Case in point, a while back a family member of mine argued to me that they objected to homosexuality because it is unnatural. I retorted that this is absurd; it is so natural that it has been documented in wild animals and in human societies dating back to ancient times, making it a very natural part of the human landscape. I also had to object that saying something is unnatural is hardly a case against it. Airplanes, automobiles, vaccinations, plastics and all the other technologies that make our lives longer and easier are not natural by nearly all conventional uses of the word. Furthermore, hurricanes, snake venom and malaria are all perfectly natural.
Furthermore the various miracles that religionists of all stripes are a complete violation of what nearly everyone understands of the meaning of natural; this is especially true because they by definition violate the laws of physics.
I remember this whenever I hear Catholics or other believers arguing that contraception or oral sex are somehow unnatural or even crimes against nature. I rarely hear them make similar denunciations of cars or telephones or the internet.
Needless to say, I find this argument for the natural and against the unnatural to be fallacious, but like many misconceptions there may be an element of truth behind it. Specifically, we as a species did evolve to live on this planet a few hundred thousand years ago, and that an environment that deviates too far from the settings we arose from will not be hospitable to us. On the other hand we are perfectly capable of modifying ourselves and our environments to make them more suitable for us than they would otherwise be. In many ways a case can be made that our species has found success by working with nature when it was helpful and modifying it when it suited us.
This is why I tend to be suspicious of products and ideas labeled “natural”. An example I have frequently come across lately, and feel a special need to discuss is the notion of natural rights or natural law. Simply put, I see rights as social constructs that need to be enforced, by some sort of legal system, a generally accepted series of norms or the very least the power of the individual to defend them. While many of the rights claimed to be natural are one’s I think should be recognized by whatever regimes humans live under, I don’t think they themselves are intrinsic to our nature, God-given or self-evident and they are certainly able to be alienated. Whatever system of rights one thinks we should have, the act of calling them natural, largely confuses what ought to be with what is not to mention some of the discretion among rights and laws that have been claimed as natural.
To conclude, while I like the natural universe we live in especially, aspects of it that are occur without human activity, I think we need to be mindful of the fact that “natural” does not always mean good, and that it is a word often abused. People like to declare things that they like, or that benefit them as natural, and things they dislike as unnatural. This approach lacks precision, is based upon fallacy and lends itself to dishonesty.