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Is Man the "Unnatural Animal?"

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For the last year and a half I've been fascinated by traditional distinctions between natural and unnatural. My interest emerged out of a conflict with government over the management of a species-at-risk. The argument that we should "allow nature to take its course," was made repeatedly in defence of government inaction.

Recently I was watching a video called "Early Anthropogenic Transformations of Earth's Climate," in the thread "Early Anthropocene." In it, the lecturer, Ruddiman, makes the comment, "What can you think of as ‘not natural?’ Well, humans."

Of course the antropogenic vs. natural distinction is one that is commonly used, and generally does not lead to any confusion. However, I argue that the distinction is actually untenable, and leads to the perpetuation of a mythology that undermines science and clear thought.

There is much that can be written on this topic, and there are some philosophers who have (for example Steven Vogel). For the sake of this thread I will try to be brief.

The main problem with the above distinction is how to reconcile it with evolutionary biology, which describes human beings as just one of many species that have evolved according to the same sorts of processes as all other species. To separate our consciousness and our products from the rest of nature seems to require a kind of intrusion, whether supernatural, or unnatural, that gave rise to our consciousness. This should sound familiar, since it is the kind of story we find in many mythologies and religions.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to ask, according to the definition of "unnatural" as anything caused or made by humans, are beaver dams natural? The answer is obviously, yes. Is a  pile of rocks made by a human to mark the direction they're traveling natural or unnatural? According to the definition, it is quite clearly unnatural. Now, it is obvious that beaver dams have much more impact on their ecosystems and the environment than a pile of rocks made by a human to navigate. The value of putting these into unique ontological categories is dubious. If beavers have evolved to build dams, and modify the environment in doing so, why should we think of it as unnatural that human beings build things that modify the environment?

Of course, there is a difference between a pile of rocks and a project like the three gorges dam. But the standard definition does not distinguish between the two. It simply places our artifacts in a unique category distinct from the rest of the world.

The consequence, I would argue, is that we smuggle in a kind of dualistic thinking that sees human beings and our consciousness as something alien to the universe. As a result, it alienates us from our environment, as we fail to recognize how we are another creature on the planet shaping our environment that arose out of this planet, not something that arrived here and started mucking around, that doesn't belong here, that can only either interfere or not interfere.

As far as this relates to climate change, I think this kind of hidden moralism makes the environmental movement less attractive. It ends up being romantic, always harkening back to a "nature" or "natural" that in fact, by definition, excludes us, and so we could never return to anyway. It can also lead to a primitivism, and the kind of mistrust of the intellect that is sometimes found in Fascism. It seems strange to wonder, what would have happened if we weren't here, since, though we may be an accident in the sense that all evolution is accidental, we are an accident of this earth, the natural history of this earth. Our choices are part of that history. Our choices, one way or the other, are natural. All of our politics, our follies, our plastic, all of it, part of the natural history of this planet. It's time we reconcile ourselves to that, accept that this is our home, and that we had better adjust our behaviour if we want to keep it.

When species struggle within an ecology under evolution, even when using primitive tools (stone, stick, beaver dam) it's considered natural.
When one of them wins, multiplies and then subverts the whole ecology, using tools such as mined fossil fuels and radioactive metals, it's considered unnatural. It's nothing specific to humans, except we are the "winning" race. I would say it's a matter of degree, of signal to noise ratio.
Should the human species go extinct or go back to being just one species among others, it would be proper to call it natural.


An interesting definition. But it rests on a presupposition of "balance" and "harmony" in nature. While I certainly acknowledge the tendencies within the universe towards equilibrium, to me it is more mythological than scientific to privilege balance over imbalance.

Balance within any system, after all, always disappears as we extend the x-axis (when the x-axis is time). Any predator prey cycle, climate cycle, etc. appears as noise within the larger trend.

The cyclical, balanced view of nature is very ancient. It permeates ancient religions. It is obvious that from a human timescale it is very intuitive. We have the seasonal cycles, the cycles of the sun through the zodiac.. etc. etc. (However, even the zodiac changes with time).

It has been argued that evolution occurs rapidly during areas of great unrest (Stephen Jay Gould, for example). From that perspective, biodiversity is dependent upon these periods of imbalance, even if they also sometimes result in a loss of diversity.

I would also argue that culturally and scientifically speaking, it is during moments of upheaval, when the previously stable system breaks down, that many new ideas appear.

Finally, the "natural/unnatural" distinction as you use it is a moral one. And the problem with attaching morality to this distinction is that it is fallacious. The "appeal to nature" fallacy gets us no where closer to ethics, since we can find examples of all sorts of "immoral" things within nature. In fact, the appeal to nature for morality effectively undermines morality, which leaves us back at the same point; how do we make arguments for why this mass extinction is wrong? How do we make arguments for why this change in the climate is wrong?

To appeal to nature (in the traditional sense) gets us nowhere. Something more is required, precisely because, in the traditional sense, morality is unnatural.


I would also add that we can find lots of cases of herbivores on islands without predators overpopulating the island and wiping themselves out. Or, predators on islands with a ton of food, wasting kills and eventually starving to death after they've wiped out their prey. Nothing much "unnatural" about a lack of consciousness leading to disaster, it would seem.

"Morality and ethics is as natural for humans as rocks are natural to Earth."

That hasn't been disputed. But if you apply the standard definition, that means that morality is unnatural (since all things created by, or caused by humans are unnatural).

"Thinking in only science mode is unnatural. It gets you stuck fast."

You're applying a different definition of unnatural. Apparently doing something that doesn't benefit your survival is unnatural. But in that case, other animals also do it all of the time, and so it seems to be a feature of evolution. And now you're left calling evolution unnatural.

"Flip it to get it right"

No, it's both a cause and an effect. The breakdown allows for the new ideas to appear. It also forces people to think differently.

I've, in own thinking, currently set the unnatural of the human culture to begin in the beginning of bronze age, but agree there's plenty to talk about. Birds can use human made roads as an aid to navigate, are crows eating a roadkill unnatural, are pests eating on monocrop farms unnatural, do sea eagles eat unnatural food from fish farms? Human might be the unnaturaliest of species but are the other species which use the spoils of humanity (traditionallly called opportunists). If we don't tell a child how anything works, does he become more natural?


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