come_to_think (come_to_think) wrote,

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Against nature: 4. Is it all nonsense?

Evidently, if the appeal to nature is foolishness, it is natural foolishness, and as such deserves some attempt at sympathetic understanding.  A notable attempt at a balanced view is provided by Bertrand Russell.  In "What I Believe" he says

There is a certain attitude about the application of science to human life with which I have some sympathy, though I do not, in the last analysis, agree with it.  It is the attitude of those who dread what is "unnatural."...  I think there is a mixture of truth and falsehood in the admiration of "nature" which it is important to disentangle.  To begin with, what is "natural"?  Roughly speaking, anything to which the speaker was accustomed in childhood....  Clothes and cooking are too ancient to be denounced by most of the apostles of nature, though they object to new fashions in either....  [T]hose who preach "nature" are inconsistent, and one is tempted to regard them as mere conservatives.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said in their favor....  [I]n the absence of knowledge, unexpected harm may be done by a new departure from nature; but when the harm has come to be understood it can usually be remedied by some new artificiality.  As regards our physical environment and our physical means of gratifying our desires, I do not think the doctrine of "nature" justifies anything beyond a certain experimental caution in the adoption of new expedients.  Clothes, for instance, are contrary to nature and need to be supplemented by another unnatural practice --- namely, washing --- if they are not to bring disease.  But the two practices together make a man healthier than the savage who eschews both.

There is more to be said for "nature" in the realm of human desires.  To force upon a man, woman, or child a life which thwarts their strongest impulses is both cruel and dangerous; in this sense, a life according to "nature" is to be commended with certain provisos.  Nothing could be more artificial than an underground electric railway, but no violence is done to a child's nature when it is taken to travel in one; on the contrary, almost all children find the experience delightful.  Artificialities which gratify the desires of ordinary human beings are good, other things being equal.  But there is nothing to be said for ways of life which are artificial in the sense of being imposed by authority or economic necessity....

To the charming example of children in subway cars one might, in our day, add the potent one of children using computers.

In "Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism", tho, he loses his balance:

...Where living beings are concerned, and most of all in the case of human beings, spontaneous growth tends to produce certain results, and others can be produced only by means of a certain stress and strain.  Embryologists may produce beasts with two heads, or with a nose where a toe should be; but such monstrosities do not find life very pleasant....  It is possible to cut shrubs into the shape of peacocks, and by a similar violence a similar distortion can be inflicted upon human beings.  But the shrub remains passive, while the man...remains active, if not in one sphere then in another.  The shrub cannot pass on the lesson in the use of shears which the gardener has been teaching, but the distorted human being can always find humbler human beings upon whom he can wield smaller shears.  The inevitable effects of artificial moulding upon human beings are to produce either cruelty or listlessness, perhaps both in alternation....

...The ultimate psychological argument for democracy and for patience is that an element of free growth, of go as you please and untrained natural living, is essential if men are not to become misshapen monsters....

I fancy there are better arguments for democracy & patience than that.  One might retort that nature can produce monstrosities without the help of embryologists; that they need not find life any less pleasant than their normal parents do, and may even be the beginnings of new species; and that we can hardly avoid artificial molding of human beings, which are (as Skinner points out) the most domesticated species of all.  In this respect even the earlier passage is somewhat incoherent.  People's "strongest impulses" are not necessarily the natural ones.

Mention of children, however, does bring up one fact about human nature that is of great moral importance --- tho more for the problems it creates than for the guidance it provides.  That is the fact that as infants we need to be taken care of, and so as a species we have to be provided with instincts for caring and for being cared for.  We share that program, of course, with other mammals & with birds, but we have carried it to an extreme.  A vast range of habits, including especially those that enable us to live together, is left to upbringing.  As Isaac Asimov ("No Connection") imagines an intelligent bear describing us, we are "gregarious without being social":  We have an inborn need to live with each other, but no inborn ways to do it.  That means, in particular, that the notion of liberty has to be reconstructed in each individual over a period of years.  (From the way some libertarians talk, you might think they had hatched & walked away on all eight legs.)

IMO nature deserves far more respect in esthetics than in ethics.  It is odd that people tend to think of esthetics in connection with art; it seems to me that most of the ugliness in the world is due to art (e.g., make-up, motel signs, Mylar balloons, newspaper advertising supplements, rock and roll, small-business storefronts, and station breaks on vulgar radio stations), and most of the beauty is due to nature.  Except for music, I see little use in trying to create beauty; it is more important to find it & try to avoid destroying it.
Tags: art, beauty, children, clothing, ethics, family, music, nature, philosophy, psychology, russell_b, science
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