In praise of the unnatural (adapted)
24 January 2002
by Patrick West
(click for original source)
(Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, 2004.)
My friend Maria recently told me she was gay - which wasn't easy, considering that she is conservative by temperament and still thinks homosexuality 'is not natural'. But so what if something isn't 'natural'?
In modern-day discourse the word natural is increasingly used as a form of legitimisation, as a term of endorsement. Dairy products boast that they convey 'nature's goodness'; people buy natural skincare products from The Body Shop; and companies ranging from Marks & Spencer to Tesco to BP have adorned their products in the colour green.
In hindsight I could also have pointed out to Maria that [biologists have] detailed same-sex [relations] in 13 different species... But then, defending homosexual behaviour among humans just because there are lesbian lizards in South America would still be using nature as a reference point.
Who cares what happens in nature? As far as I'm concerned, nature is not our friend… Earthquakes, cancer, death, wisdom teeth, short-sightedness: these are natural. Penicillin, antibiotics, heart surgery, toothpaste, the spectacles I wear as I write this: these are the innovations of man. So why do we worship nature?
Consider the true state of nature. In pre-modern, pre-urban society, men and women lived in filth and were hostages to disease. …[L]ife expectancy at birth for a primitive hunter-gatherer was 26. For early agricultural communities, it was even lower: 19 years of age.
Today's nature worship is generated not only by ecological concerns, but by a broader crisis in the Western world. [To] what or who do we turn to understand what is right and wrong these days? It used to be God; then it was man; but we live in post-humanist times now. The high priests of humanism, scientists and doctors, are figures of suspicion. They are seen by many as being 'out of touch', 'arrogant', and decidedly dangerous. Nature has filled this ethical vacuum. Nature has become a point of reference…
At the Lake
A fish leaps like a black pin --
then -- when the starlight strikes its side -- like a silver pin.
In an instant the fish's spine alters the fierce line of rising
and it curls a little --
the head, like scalloped tin,
plunges back, and it's gone.
This is, I think, what holiness is:
the natural world,
where every moment is full of the passion to keep moving.
Inside every mind there's a hermit's cave full of light,
full of snow,
full of concentration.
I've knelt there, and so have you,
hanging on to what you love,
to what is lovely.
The lake's shining sheets don't make a ripple now,
and the stars are going off to their blue sleep,
but the words are in place --
and the fish leaps, and leaps again from the black plush of the poem,
that breathless space.
~ Mary Oliver ~
Before I became a minister, I was a scientist. I earned a doctoral degree in biology in 1988 and worked for years doing research in academia and in industry. I know a great deal about how living things work - about the chemistry and mechanics that life uses to sustain itself. I know a lot about how living things interact with one another.
The fact that this is in my background may make you feel that you can trust what I say about the world a bit more or it may make you feel more distrustful. As Patrick West accurately describes in our first reading today, the confidence we once had in scientists and science has vanished. Hostility and fear have largely taken its place.
There was a time when society was enrapt with the potential of modern technology. As we saw diseases cured that had for millennia brought human misery, there was a sense that we – through the intelligence of humanity – could be our own saviours – we imagined that our science and technology would allow us to create a world of universal peace and prosperity. The horrors of the 20th century shattered this vision as we saw our technology turned to more and more effective means of killing and oppression.
The pendulum seems to be swinging to the opposite extreme now. Science and technology are often seen as evils today. As West argues, many of us have adopted a sense that what is natural is necessarily good. Anything else is bad. The word “unnatural” has come to mean wrong, dangerous, and perverted. West would clearly like to refute this extreme notion that identifies natural as good and anything that does not occur without human intervention as bad.
So would I.
To quote author and fellow Unitarian Kurt Vonnegut “If people think that nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.”
Vonnegut’s take is a bit extreme. Nature is not our enemy. It is filled with beauty and wonder and our tradition has long understood the natural world to contain the image of the sacred, perhaps more than anywhere else. And yet, there can be no doubt that nature is not entirely benign.
As a scientist, I learned about thousands of dangerous natural substances. One of the most potent cancer-causing agents in the world is a chemical called aflatoxin. It is not produced in some shiny chemical plant. It is not a by-product of industry. It is produced by a naturally-occurring kind of fungus that likes to grow on grain. Eating food contaminated the natural fungus that makes natural aflatoxin causes cancer.
Aflatoxin is a particularly extreme example, but it is not at all unique. Many plants, mushrooms, and animals are, of course, toxic. Even some foods we eat regularly, such as parsnips and potatoes produce their own toxins - probably as a way of protecting themselves from insects or microorganisms.
And finally, I must mention comfrey. You may know comfrey as a tall perennial plan with lovely little flowers. It is commonly used as a vegetable and made into a tea. For more than 2,000 years, comfrey has been used as an herbal medicine. It has been used to treat broken bones, ulcers, congestion, inflammation, and wounds. It is just the sort of thing that is popular today, where natural remedies tend to be trusted over something the doctor would provide. 2,000 years of experience - that has to count for something.
Well, whatever else comfrey may or may not do, it also damages your liver and contributes to the development of cancer. Comfrey is natural and it has a very long history of use. It is not, however, safe.
Synthetic drugs are tested using an incredibly exhaustive and expensive serious of chemical, animal, and human studies. Synthetic drugs are pure and guaranteed to be almost exactly the same every time you take them - no matter who makes them or which chemist you buy them from. Natural drugs are complex mixtures that can be very different in every batch. They undergo almost no testing.
I am very concerned about the natural food and medicine phenomenon. Sometimes, it is harmless to take a herbal medicine. Sometimes, though, we do irreparable damage to ourselves either because of side-effects of these natural potions or because we forgo a synthetic drug that could really help us because we have been led to be afraid of anything “unnatural.”
It is appealing to believe that natural is necessarily good. I understand myself to be a part of the natural world and I have a strong sense that all life is connected in some deep way. I sometimes find myself thinking that, because of this great communion, nature would not be in any way threatening. Indeed, it should be nurturing and restorative. It should provide a remedy for all of my ills. It is a comforting and deeply spiritual notion.
If we believe a traditional religious story of the origin of the world, God would certainly have made plants to suit our needs. In a more scientific world view, we might imagine that we would have a special relationship with plants that were around as we evolved. They might have adjusted to suit us and we to suit them. Mutually beneficial relationships do occur in the natural world. Some insects and flowers have developed such intricate and interdependent relationships that neither can live without the other! The plant could not be pollinated without its special insect and the insect would starve without its special plant.
But the reality is that we don’t benefit the plants and they did not evolve to benefit us. All of the drugs found in nature, such as penicillin, aspirin, some anticancer and cardiac drugs – are made by plants that evolved to produce them for some other purpose – usually to repel or kill some kind of invader – and we are just lucky that they have beneficial effects for us.
Just as natural materials are not necessarily good, unnatural ones are not necessarily bad. Synthetic medicines, as West points out, have extended our lives dramatically. They have literally transformed the nature of human life. Unless we are walking naked through an untouched primordial forest –we are making use of something or many things that are unnatural.
Patrick West says that we worship nature. He claims that we do so because we can no longer worship the traditional God and because we no longer trust scientists and doctors implicitly.
There is some truth to this claim. Human beings crave a simple organising principle. The world is immensely complex and becoming more so every day. Scientists and engineers dream up new things faster than we can keep track of them, much less know how to evaluate their safety. In response to such a complex and dynamic reality, some turn to fundamentalist religion and use scripture or religious dogma to help sort the things into categories that are easier to manage. Others turn to different simplifications, including the notion that nature is pure and good.
The duality of natural and unnatural is applied not only beyond us, but within us. Is the human character innately good or evil? This is a question that has been argued for centuries.
Today, a common notion has emerged that our character is intrinsically good – that it is by nature pure and true. Evil comes in only by that which is artificial and imposed upon us. As long as an aspect of our character is natural, this thinking would say, it is good.
I am reminded of when my son Jacob was very young. My wife and I were absolutely determined to keep him free from the contaminating influences of our culture’s violence and shallow values. There would be no telly in our home. The toys would all be wood - no artificial plastic stuff for this child. And most of all, there would be no weapons of any kind.
It was not long at all before our darling, pure, innocent Jacob was making anything and everything into a weapon. “We don’t have weapons in this family” we said, as we confiscated the toast he had bitten into the shape of a gun. “We don’t have weapons in this family” we said as he shaped his fingers into a gun and blasted away at us. “What are you going to do” he countered, “take away my finger?” At that point, we realised we were fighting a losing battle – not just against him, but against something that is hard-wired into us.
Human nature, I am convinced, is not purely good. Nature does not bestow upon us infinite goodness. Just as in the world beyond us, nature provides a complex mix of harmful and helpful, good and bad, constructive and destructive attributes and impulses.
It is human nature to be compassionate. It also appears to be human nature to fight one another. I believe that a sacredness, a goodness exists within each of us – call it dignity, call it soul, call it Atman, call it God - whatever you call it, it is there to be found in every heart. But the goodness is not all there is. We are innately capable of good and evil.
There will be no simple measuring stick for us to show us good from bad or right from wrong. Categories such as natural or scriptural that create simple black and white dualities will not be adequate signposts to show us the way.
Mary Oliver, in her poem, “At the Lake,” speaks rapturously of a natural event - a fish leaping through the air. She speaks of holiness and identifies it with the natural world.
The point is not the simple one that everything natural is holy and everything unnatural is not. It is more subtle. She writes:
“This is, I think, what holiness is:
the natural world,
where every moment is full of the passion to keep moving.”
The holiness of the natural world lies not in its naturalness alone, but in its motion. It is in the process of life – its exuberance and energy, its determination – that holiness is found. Goodness is to be identified in everything that shows us our unity, brings us together, creates understanding, and grows the living force of love in the world.
Dualities are for the solitary and untrusting. It is when we are alone that we must measure and determine for ourselves - when we turn to simplistic categories to guide us. It is when we can not trust others to carry out their roles responsibly that we must suspect everything and turn to simplifying dualities.
In community, we turn to one another. It is here, inspired by vision and bound together by love, that we learn what creates understanding, what creates trust, and what reveals our unity.
It is here that we begin to create the world we long to see.
So may it be with you.