Language Pulsations: Nature

1. An excerpt from Daniel Clowe’s 2010 graphic novel, Wilson.

2. View in a Safeway grocery store

3. In an AP news story entitled “Celebrity Sex-Tape Scandal Grips Indonesia,” Indonesia’s Minister of Education Muhammad Nuh is quoted responding to the question of whether education about sex should be added to the school curriculum. “I may be obsolete, but I don’t see that sex education in schools is needed,” he told reporters. “I believe people will learn about sex naturally.”

4. In Malcolm Gladwell’s article “John Rock’s Error,” the creator of the birth control pill, John Rock, is described as a pious Catholic who thought that “the Pill’s ingredients duplicated what could be found in the body naturally.” He thought that this “naturalness” was theologically significant. Gladwell explains that “Pope Pius XII had sanctioned the rhythm method of Catholics because he deemed it a ‘natural’ method of regulating procreation.”

5. “If you let people follow their feelings (original feelings), they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by the saying that human nature is good. If a man does evil, it’s not the fault of his natural endowment” (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Wing-Tsit Chan, via here).

6. Nicolas Cage’s character in the movie Lord of War intones, “I spent my life running away from violence. Now I was seeking it. It’s in our nature. The earliest human skeletons had spearheads in their ribcages.”

7. A November 2009 issue of Australia Women’s Weekly displays a cover photo of Sarah Murdoch sporting makeup, whitened teeth, and sculpted eyebrows. The accompanying text proclaims, “why she wanted an all natural covershoot.”

8. Aristotle thought we should look at a thing’s telos (final cause or end) when defining that thing’s nature. “Man is by nature a political animal,” he says (I.1253a2).

9. 17th c. philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought that in a state of nature men, driven by passions, would be set into a “war of all against all,” leading to a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Based on this definition of “natural” man, Hobbes went on to argue that we need a social contract and a strong sovereign authority.

10. A languid after-dinner conversation turns bioethical. “Well, what is the difference between life and death?” asks one. A second person responds, “If you are being kept alive unnaturally, then you are dead.”

11. A bag of chips in the grocery store is plastered with the words “natural,” yet the ingredients list is longer than the table of contents in Crime and Punishment. The word “natural” as applied to food, it turns out, is under no legal regulation whatsoever. (“Natural foods,” Wikipedia)

12. “When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature.” (Lera Broditsky, “Does Language Influence Culture?“, WSJ.com).

13. Two books about overfishing of the seas have the titles Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse (by Dean Bavington) and and The Unnatural History of the Sea (by Callum Roberts).

14. “It is biologically impossible for a gene to operate independently of its environment: genes are designed to be regulated by signals from their immediate surround, including hormones from the endocrine system and neurotransmitters in the brain–some of which, in turn, are profoundly influenced by our social interactions. Just as our diet regulates certain genes, our social experiences also determine a distinct batch of such genomic on-off switches….Such insights put to rest the century old debate on nature versus nurture: do our genes or our experiences determine who we become? That debate turns out to be pointless, based on the fallacy that our genes and our environment are independent of each other; it’s like arguing over which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, the length or the width.” (Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, 150, 151)

15. Tawhid, referring to the “oneness” and unity of God, is the most fundamental aspect of Islam. Recognition of the oneness of God is supposed to be man’s natural inclination.

“Nature” is easily identified as coming from Latin natura “course of things, the universe” which was derived from nasci “to be born.” Nature, in other words, was that which has been born; a thing’s nature is how that thing was at birth. The word came into vogue as Roman scholars started using natura as a gloss for the Greek word physis “body.”

However, due to the work of pre-Socratic philosophers and early scientists, the Greek word had a more expansive view of what nature was than the Latin one did. Through the process of translating and absorbing Greek learning, natura also gained this broader sense — a sense that nature included everything, from the immaterial intrinsic qualities of a thing to the measurable astronomical movements of the planets. Nature, even in Roman times, was contrasted with convention (or “nurture” as we say nowadays).

Similarly, the English word “nature” was understood as the innate or essential disposition of a thing. “Human nature,” for instance, refers to the basic character or disposition of mankind.

I hope that the sampling of quotes provided above alerted you to the importance of what we define as “natural” and also how fluid our concept of nature is. In many cases, the fact that something is or is not natural lies at the crux of an argument or claim, yet no one cares to define what exactly constitutes “naturalness” in that case.

The danger in the word “nature” is that it is all too easy to claim that something is “natural” but impossible to prove that that is the case, making it a great fallback (definitional retreat) when one has an agenda.

However, the benefit is that distinctions between human civilization and so-called the natural world are what make us “human” in the ethical sense. Distinctions like such as these invest us with a responsibility to protect biological diversity, guarantee human rights, and generally strive for more than a non-human species.

But they also make subjects such as abortion, cloning, artificial intelligence, euthanasia, sexuality, religion, and environmentalism/conservationism difficult and controversial.

Ultimately, we do not know, and cannot agree on, what is natural. So why make empty claims about it?

PS. If you notice any facile, fallacious, striking, odd, or just plain interesting uses of the word “nature” or “natural,” please pass them on.

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