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What’s Natural about the Natural?: A Curious 10-Year-Old and a Confused 45-Year Old Want to Know

“What’s a ‘natural flavor’?” my 10-year-old asks me from the back seat of our car. He’s munching on a rare treat—a snack that lists about 500 unpronounceable ingredients and boasts of its Natural Flavor.

“It means… Well, it’s a term that advertisers use.” I wave the white flag of surrender immediately.  “Natural flavor” is a Madison Ave. confection.  Nobody takes it seriously.

“A flavor can’t be natural,” he reiterates.

“They mean… I guess what they mean is it tastes like something that’s in nature.”

“But what’s that?”

“I think the Food and Drug Administration, in the government, they have rules about when you can say ‘natural’ on labels.”

“The government’s not natural!”

Nothing makes you feel ignorant faster than falling down the hole of a tautology with a 10-year old.

The hollow imprecision of “natural” wouldn’t matter so much if we didn’t take the concept so seriously and use it so often.

In its earlier usage, natural was most often a slur. Its early meanings included being half-witted, or a mistress. In the mid-1700s, however, Rousseau took Hobbes’ brutish and nasty conception of the “state of nature” and imbued it with moral dignity and purity. You could say that nature’s reputation has been on an ascendant or at least a jaggedly upward path since then.

“Natural” today is usually a favorable adjective. Or, it’s an imprimatur of legitimacy.

The concept has stature in discourses on:

  • sex (sexual practices are deemed are natural, or not)
  • law (its advocates see “natural law” as universal and supreme, to which invented codes should conform)
  • health (natural remedies and healing)
  • childbirth and childrearing (natural childbirth  and the “natural mothering” movement, most popular with affluent, environmentally-attuned liberals, are gaining steam)
  • social relations (we are urged, oxymoronically, to just “act natural”)
  • food (“all-natural” ingredients, please)
  • aesthetics (unnaturally manipulating yourself with surgery or cosmetics to achieve natural-looking beauty or natural-looking large breasts are the ideals), and etc.s.
  • Rhetorically, the chief benefit of hitching your horse to “natural” is that it allows you to make a very strong case for something while appearing to do nothing of the sort, because your evidence comes from the apolitical, pre-linguistic, pre-rational world of nature.  In other words, natural is how an idea gains credibility by seeming to have no ideology, author, subjective interest, or human origin.

    But natural is perhaps the most ruthlessly cherry-picked concept in our culture. It can be called to testify on behalf of almost any human behavior that you fancy. 

    “Natural” is like a (broken) compass, which promises certainty, and then confidently spins in all directions.

    When primatology took off in the mid-1900s, we learned that humans are naturally bonded in patriarchal units and males are inclined to strict hierarchies, enforced through violence as needed, because the common chimpanzee live this way.

    Bonobo “pygmy” chimpanzees, however, which are presumably just as natural as any other chimpanzee, and the next-closest to humans behind the common chimp, are non-monogamous, peaceful, and promiscuous. These monkeys monkey around. Sex is used to solidify bonds between groups, females cooperate to raise offspring, and the uncertainty over paternity presumably foils aggressive behavior inspired by the protection of one’s “own” mate, or offspringl.

    So how does one primate become the sexual muse for humans while the other doesn’t?

    Maybe “natural” is a mirror—something in which we see ourselves reflected back to us, the things that we think or want to believe about ourselves–as much as it is a window–a place through which we look to learn something new. Many years ago, for example, scientist Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking work challenged the “objectivity” of sociobiological views. She noted how primatology had masculinized evidence that could have just as accurately been observed, and told, in a few different ways.

    After all, if we were fundamentalists about the “natural,” then the natural mothering movement would be practicing maternal rejection and infanticide (pandas, tigers and other mammals not infrequently reject offspring. Mother cats will sometimes leave the last born of a very large litter to die, because they’re exhausted and don’t have the energy to consume another placenta and lick another newborn kitten in order to get him to start breathing). We’d have near-universal “single motherhood,” (which, by the way, proposed legislation in Wisconsin by the GOP would now condemn as a contributor to “child abuse”). And, as with some bird species, stronger offspring in the nest would kill and eat their weaker siblings.

    Don’t look for any of this in parenting advice books. 

    But are these behaviors any less natural or probative than the morally-preferred natural behaviors?

    I’m not a sociobiologist. Just someone who gets told that a vast array of things is natural,” and wonders why.  Because it seems that if the natural enjoys a privileged epistemological status apropos one species of monkey, then it should enjoy a privileged epistemological status apropos another species of monkey, too.

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    But, to paraphrase Animal Farm, some naturals are more naturalthan others.

    Cases get marshaled for monogamy as a biological predisposition, too, although scientists haven’t found many species that mate monogamously for life. Even some apparently monogamous female birds have been found by more sophisticated DNA testing to be stepping out of the nest. Other scientists say non-monogamy is natural.

    In contrast, gravity really is a law of nature. No two sides about it. Try breaking that rule. 

    In its illusion of “author-less authority,” nature is a secular equivalent of a Fundamentalist reading of the Bible. But, as with the Bible, literal meanings defer to interpretation. Which part of the Bible are we to read literally? The part about stoning prostitutes? Well if not that part, then why another part?

    So maybe we can’t draw transparent ethical guidance from our natural monkey comrades. It depends on which monkey you discover first, and how you observe him.  More often than we probably care to believe, we have little to rely on in life except decency, trust, respect, integrity, and our own seemingly feeble human rules and contracts with each other. They all sound so much flimsier than the commanding resonance of NATURE, but they’re plausibly much stronger. Our frail efforts, supplemented with compassion, imagination, and tolerance, often work just fine.  


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