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Against nature: 2. Why do people talk that way?
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come_to_think
2.1  Nature as a stand-in for God

If you do not believe in God, it is rhetorically helpful to have some other powerful authority to appeal to.  That has been an increasingly important maneuver among primitivists in recent times.

If you do believe in God, then nature is part of Creation, so it has to be good in some sense; but some parts of Creation are embarrassing.  Thus, calling something natural is a way of intimating that it is good or at least tolerable without the blasphemy of calling it divine.  For this purpose, nature is often personified as female and called Mother Nature.  That, of course, is heretical if taken seriously: it was not God the Father who needed an help meet for him.  In the Christian scheme, as Chesterton justly complained, Nature is not our mother but our sister.  In either case, however, making her female eases the notion of her doing God's dirty work.  Having to piss or shit is a "call of Nature" --- part of a mother's job, no doubt; "call of God" would be in terrible taste.  "Nature's Mistakes", the sign at the freak show used to say:  "God's Mistakes" would have been blasphemous, and "Mistakes of Nature and of Nature's God" would really have been giving the show away.

The substitution of Nature for God can also be a license for harmless fun.  Burns says:


  Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
    Her noblest work she classes, O:
  Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
    An' then she made the lasses, O.

Nature made man first --- but that was only for practice!  Burns could not have gotten away with making that joke about God.

Mencken, who was a skeptic, had another kind of fun:


The central aim of civilization, it must be plain, is simply to defy and correct the obvious intent of God, _e.g._, that the issue of every love affair shall be a succession of little strangers, that cows shall devote themselves wholly to nursing their calves, that it shall take longer to convey a message from New York to Chicago than it takes to convey one from New York to Newark, that the wicked shall be miserable and the virtuous happy....

2.2  Nature as an excuse

In some arguments (most notably, these days, those about homosexuality), it is supposed to be important whether certain desires and behavior are genetically determined or are due to environmental influences.  Heredity, being due to "nature", is supposed to be unchangeable or perhaps divinely inspired; contrary environmental influences are supposed to represent culpable choice or Satanic perversion.  There is no sense in any of this kind of talk.  Genetic tendencies can be resisted; indeed, because they conflict, some of them have to be --- even if they are not wicked, which some of them are.  (A great deal of evil has deep roots in human nature.  If I had to choose one Christian dogma to believe in, I think it would be Original Sin.)  And plenty of learned tendencies are far more difficult to change than many inherited ones.

The fact that my hair was once blond & is now gray is undoubtedly due to hereditary influences.  It is also partly a matter of choice, because yonder lady in the supermarket has dyed hers orange, and I could do the same if I wished.  If I had become a beach bum in my youth, there would have been streaks in my hair, and that would have been due to environmental causes.

The fact that I speak English is undoubtedly due to my childhood environment.  The fact that yonder Cambodian immigrant in the laundromat speaks English is a matter of choice (more precisely, the choice of a package that includes that as well as wealth, freedom, and a smaller chance of getting shot); he is following up that choice with some effort.

A law against speaking English would be far more oppressive to me than a law against gray hair, altho I was born with a propensity to the latter & not the former.  Either law would be beyond the moral competence of government.  Whether getting rid of either would be worth a shooting war is a prudential question, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.  Nature & nurture have nothing to do with it.

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