Clear thinking about the world we live in is hindered by some very basic
muddles, new and old, in the ordinary uses of the words nature and
We seem to slip easily into thinking that it is possible to be outside of nature-that with a little help from on high, we could rise above the ordinary contingencies, evade the consequences of our actions, and be supernaturally delivered from the all-too-natural realities of illness and death. Some usages seem to suggest that it is possible to be below nature, as in "unnatural acts" (sometimes called "subhuman"), or "unnatural parent" (which means an unloving parent or one who fails in the obligations of nurture, with no logical connection to a "natural child," one born outside of the culturally sanctioned arrangement of wedlock).
These usages have in common the notion that nature is something it is possible
to get away from, to get around. The intellectual problems created by
circumscribing the domain of "nature" are probably even more confusing than
those created by Cartesian dualism, although they are no doubt related. Descartes
was concerned to define a domain for science that would be safe from
ecclesiastical interference: res extensa, matter, the physical body, divorced
from mind or spirit. The effect of this was to create two different kinds
of causality and separate spheres of discourse that must someday be brought
back together. The folk distinctions that describe the concept of "nature"
are messier but equally insidious. As with Cartesian dualism, they tend to
slant ethical thinking, to create separation rather than inclusion. In Western
culture, nature was once something to be ruled by humankind, as the body
was to be ruled by the mind.
Recently, we have complicated the situation by labeling more and more objects
and materials preferentially, from foodstuffs to fibers to molecules, as
natural or unnatural. This sets up a limited and misshapen domain for the
natural, loaded with unstated value judgments: the domain suggested in Bill
McKibben's title The End of Nature or in William Irwin Thompson's
The American Replacement of Nature. Yet nature is not something that
can end or be replaced, anymore than it is possible to get outside of it.
In fact, everything is natural; if it weren't, it wouldn't be. That's How Things Are: natural. And interrelated in ways that can (sometimes) be studied to produce those big generalizations we call "laws of nature" and the thousands of small interlocking generalizations that make up science. Somewhere in this confusion there are matters of the greatest importance, matters that need to be clarified so that it is possible to argue (in ways that are not internally contradictory) for the preservation of "nature," for respect for the "natural world," for education in the "natural sciences," and for better scientific understanding of the origins and effects of human actions. But note that the nature in "laws of nature is not the same as the nature in "natural law," which refers to a system of theological and philosophical inquiry that tends to label the common sense of Western Christendom as "natural."
Ours is a species among others, part of nature, with recognizable relatives
and predecessors, shaped by natural selection to
a distinctive pattern of adaptation that depends on the survival advantages
of flexibility and extensive learning. Over millennia, our ancestors developed
the opposable thumbs that support our cleverness with tools, but rudimentary
tools have been observed in other primates; neither
tools nor the effects of tools are "unnatural." Human beings communicate
with each other, passing on the results of their explorations more elaborately
than any other species. Theorists sometimes argue that human language [Ref
: Iotm18] is qualitatively or absolutely
different from the systems of communication of other species; [Ref:
Edge14] but this does not make language (or even
the possibilities of error and falsehood that language amplifies) "unnatural."
Language is made possible by the physical structures of the human nervous
system, which also allow us to construct mental images of the world. So do
the perceptual systems of bats and frogs and rattlesnakes, each somewhat
different, to fit different adaptive needs.
It is often possible to discover the meaning of a term by seeking its antonym.
Nature is often opposed to culture or to nurture. Yet
human beings, combining large heads and the appropriate
bone structure for upright posture and bipedal locomotion, have evolved to
require a long period of adult care after birth, time to acquire those variable
patterns of adaptation and communication we call culture. How then could
"nurture" be "unnatural"? The characteristics of the human species that set
us at odds with our environment and with other species are part of the same
Increasingly, nature is opposed to artifact, yet, human beings must always
work within natural possibility to create their artifacts, even in the
productions of dream and fantasy. Ironically, in current parlance, many artifacts
are called "natural." If what we mean by "natural" is "unaffected by human
acts," then natural is very hard to find. Walk in the woods, for instance.
Patterns of vegetation in different North American biomes were already changed
by human habitation long before the first Europeans arrived, and were changed
again by the colonists. Today, there are introduced species of birds and
insects and plants all across this country, even in so-called wilderness
areas. The migrations of human beings to every continent on the globe have
transported human parasites and symbionts since prehistoric times. Human
beings, as they learned to use fire, weapons, and agriculture, have exerted
selective pressures everywhere they have lived-like every other species.
Henry David Thoreau was fully aware that what he could study and reflect
on, living beside Walden Pond, already bore a human imprint. Still, we are
wise to treasure and learn from landscapes in which the human imprint is
not obvious. This is perhaps what we usually mean by wilderness (one wonders
how much the wilderness into which Jesus or John the Baptist withdrew was
a human creation, as so many spreading deserts are today). Wilderness turns
out to be a relative term but still a valuable one. We need areas with no
visible structures and no soft-drink cans to remind us of human activity,
but still, they are affected by human acts.
If natural means "unaffected by human acts," it won't be found at the "natural
foods" store. Most food products have been produced by selective breeding
over the centuries, turning wild plants into cultivars dependent on human
beings and multiplying or eliminating their variations. Most are also processed
and transported in clever cultural ways; after all, tofu doesn't grow on
trees. Organic farmers must work hard and skillfully; nature doesn't do their
work for them. Still, the effort to produce foodstuffs without the chemical
fertilizers and insecticides that produce toxic residues is an important
area of ingenuity and persuasion. It would be nice to find a way of talking
about it without nonsensical and self-contradictory uses of terms like "natural"
or "organic" (what would a vegetable be if it wasn't "organic"?). Some of
the animals and plants cultivated by human beings can survive without human
help, like domestic house cats that become feral, foreign to their settings,
and disruptive to other species. Living in a more "natural" way, they may
be more disruptive. It may be useful to distinguish between what we create
"on purpose" and unexpected by-products. In this sense, gardens of any kind
should be distinguished from the deserts created by some of the ways in which
humans use land.
Human populations today exist because of massive interference with "nature."
Without the invention of agriculture and other technologies, human populations
would have stayed tiny, and most of our ancestors would never have been
Individually, we are probably alive because of medical technologies, public health, and immunizations. Without some kinds of technology, you're dead. When warfare disrupts the artifices of public health, clean water, transport, electricity, and so on, the death rates reflect this new level of "naturalness." Even "natural childbirth" is an invention that depends on modern ideas of hygiene, training, emergency backup-and on the use of a watch to time contractions. Some of us pride ourselves on looking and acting "natural," but try looking in the mirror. Do you use hair conditioner, toothpaste, vitamins? Even the so-called natural ones are human artifacts-and so are a clear complexion, shining hair, straight teeth.
All this will become clearer if we try looking at something really "unnatural":
a hydroelectric dam, for instance, or a plastic bag, a nuclear plant, or
a polyester suit. All of our artifacts exist only because they fit into natural
possibility sometimes all too well. If they did not, they would not serve
our purposes; bridges would collapse. Invention, technology, industry-all
of these exist in complete deference to nature, subject to its ordinary tests
and sanctions, entropy, decay, extinction. Much
that serves our purposes in the short term may work against us and the earth
as we know it over time.
Human beings reshape the material world in ways that seem to meet their needs
and desires. Needs, of course, are both biologically given and passed on
by cultural tradition. The wiles of advertising exploit the fact that at
the most ancient level, human needs and desires were shaped by the natural
pressures and scarcities with which our ancestors lived. To the extent that
the circumstances of human life have changed, through the exercise of human
adaptive skills, the attempt to meet some needs may have become
This is the great and awful irony of "doing what comes naturally." The desire
to have children is a product of past millennia when bands of human beings
could barely keep up their numbers and as many as half of all offspring died
too young to reproduce. High rates of infant survival are artifacts, not
"natural" in the colloquial sense at all. Some religious groups reject
contraception as "unnatural," yet the use of contraception to restore ancient
balances is the use of artifact to repair the effects of artifact. The
attempt to stave off death through biomedical technology is a similar result
of desires that were once adaptive for the species. Because scarcity has
been a fact of most of human existence, miserliness, overeating, and conspicuous
consumption burden our lives today. Perhaps the delight in swift and powerful
automobiles is a translation of the need to be able to run, whether in flight
from predators or in pursuit of game. It's "natural" to want to own a
gas-guzzling monster. It's "natural" to cling to life and the life of loved
ones beyond any meaningful exchange or participation. The population explosion
Most serious of all, the habit of seeing the human community as in some sense
separate from (and in opposition to) nature is a natural habit, one that
has appeared to be adaptive for our species through most of its history and
may have ceased to be adaptive. Few cultures emphasize this separation as
sharply as the Western tradition has, but even with stoneage technologies
and the various mythologies of Earth kinship, the awareness is there.
The steady increase in the impact of the human species on all other species,
on the atmosphere and the seas and the earth's surface, requires new patterns
of adaptation and new kinds of perception, for the natural course of a species
that destroys its environment is extinction. What we need to fashion today
is a way of thinking that is both new and artificial-something deliberately
dreamed up in the twentieth century and learned by all members of our species
to protect the lives of future generations and preserve their options. We
need to invent new forms and learn some new things: limits; moderation; fewer
progeny; the acceptance of our own dying. We
need to look further into the future, using more and better science and learning
to think more clearly about our interdependence with other forms of life.
In doing so, we will be following our natures as the species that survives
MARY CATHERINE BATESON is Clarence Robinson Professor of Anthropology and English at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Bateson considers herself a self-styled "professional outsider" who has a unique gift for being able to discern recurrent abstract patterns in very different situations. She has written on a variety of linguistic and anthropological topics. She is the author of, among other books, With a Daughter's Eye, a memoir of her parents, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead; and Composing a Life.
How Things Are: A Science Toolkit for the Mind