All Natural?

I read Yuval Harari’s Sapiens out of compliance with a personal rule. Whenever a book has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 100 weeks, I read it. This compels me to read books that I would not normally read, had they not been a publishing phenomenon. Harari’s 2015 natural history of Humanity hit that number a long time ago. Then it languished in my book queue for ages. Finally, I read it and have a wonderful passage to share with you.

Have you noticed the ideological use of the word “natural?” It has come to mean things that are not caused by humans. I agree with Harari; that’s a dubious distinction.

Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.

The normative term “natural” has a convoluted meaning. Aristotle conceived the purpose (τέλος) or goal of a thing as a causal force in nature. The Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Latin name Averroes) developed a system of ethics out of this. The Mulsim occupation of Spain allowed for the transfer of Averroes’s writings to European universities, such as the University of Paris. A Dominican scholar named Thomas Aquinas transferred Averroes teleological thought into Christianity, making a distinction between natural and unnatural acts. As the modern world turned its back on Christian theology, Romanticism continues to privilege a normative notion of the natural order and an abhorrence for the unnatural.

In reading Harari’s book, I see we are kindred spirits on this. I cannot stand the locution “natural” as it is commonly used today on consumer products or public policy.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.