The unnatural world of the word unnatural

I am against nature. I don't dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can't touch with decay.
- Bob Dylan

I remember reading in, New Scientist, a year or so ago that 'everytime you describe something as unnatural you are making a moral judgement'. It was a highlighted quote, I'm not sure of the precise wording, and it really struck me hard. I don't remember what the article in question was about but it will have related to some controversey in science like genetic engineering or cloning. There will have been a load of people moaning about it and saying it was "unnatural".

For somed time now I have suspected the word "unnatural" is in fact a meaningless term which is impossible to define:

The dictionary defines it like this:


  1. Contrary to the ordinary course of nature; abnormal.
  2. Not existing in nature; artificial.

The first definition isn't very useful. Who is to decide what is and is not "normal"? How do you come to such a subjective judgement? If you substitute "average" for "normal" you get into all sorts of difficulties. Firstly once you have a figure which is 'normal,' say it's related to height, that specification makes most of your sample group either more or less than "average". The end consequence of this is, as Robert Anton Wilson used to say, "the average is that which no person quite ever is". The most famous example being the fact an "average" family is usually described as having 2.4 children. I suspect a ".4 child," whatever that might entail, would seem to most people in some sense "abnormal" and, if they still use the word, "unnatural".

I think things are usually described as unnatural if humans, which are necessarily capable of moral judgements, are involved. For example, most people think of cities as being unnatural but few consider ant hills or wasps nests to be. Just as a dam built by people would be seen as an awful blight on the environment but if it was the work of beavers, no "eco warrior" would arrive to protest it.

The word natural is usually seen as being "good" which makes unnatural things seem "bad" by contrast. If something is made unnatural because it suffers from the 'blight' of human involvement this makes all human influence, and humans by extension, "bad". So, people who shout that something is unnatural are, in my opinion, the kind of person who will opine that people are naturally immoral.

Look to the second definition, "Not existing in nature; artificial". What does this mean? Where do the limits of "nature" end? Once you've answered that question you can look beyond those limits and you've got your "unnatural" world. Supposing we start on the moon. Is that an "unnatural" environment and by extension "artificial"? No. Where is this domain that lies outside "nature"? Nowhere on this planet is outside of "nature" is it? Nowhere in the universe is.

The only thing which can't exist in this universe and is therefore outside of nature would be an imaginary construct such as a square circle. I'd argue that is unnatural, because it cannot exist naturally in the known universe. It can only exist in the human imagination, which is where the word "unnatural" should remain.



Popular Posts