Being Suspicious of Nature

It should be clear from the last couple of posts (as well as a number before that)that I am somewhat suspicious of the invocation of nature, especially in the context of the discussion of family forms.    There are really third main reasons for this.

First, these invocations are usually accompanied by (an often unarticulated) assertion that “natural” is good.   As the last post points out, sometimes the natural is good and sometimes it is not.  We need to be very careful not to stop thinking critically just because nature is invoked.

Second, I’m not at all convinced I or anyone else really knows what actually is “natural”  in these contexts.   Is it natural for a man to love or feel protective of or feel responsible for children who are genetically linked to him?  I think reasonable people could probably differ on this.   At best, what I’d say is there’s a wide range of observable conduct in this regard.   Some is more socially desirable and some is less so.    Given that I don’t know what is natural in this context, I’d rather spend my time trying to figure out what is socially desirable and how to encourage that behavior, be it natural behavior or not.   These questions are quite hard enough for me without working on the “what is nature” question as well.   

Which brings me to my third reason:   Why should I care whether a particular way of being is “natural,” unless of course I’ve accepted the idea that if it is natural it must be good?  Social or other scientists may care about this, but do I need to?   If my goal is to create a better world (whatever that means) then I need to focus of encouraging whatever behavior serves that end, whether it is natural behavior or unnatural behavior.

Here’s a concrete and somewhat trivial example.  Most of the two-year-olds I have known are fairly grabby.   They’ll just take what they want without much regard to sharing or taking turns.   It may well be that this is natural.   I don’t really care.   Natural or not, it is socially problematic.  Thus, I’m inclined to think it’s a good idea that we teach two-year-olds about things like sharing and taking turns, even if it isn’t natural.   And indeed, I don’t really need to spend a lot of time figuring out whether the impulse to grab and/or the impulse to share is natural.   It’s better to spend the time figuring out 1) what the more socially productive behavior is (sharing/waiting for a turn, in my book) and then 2) how do I encourage/teach that?

Perhaps this all seems rather in the realm of the abstract, but I think it’s a train of reasoning that is behind some of my recent posts and so I thought it was worth highlighting.    Particularly for anyone who doesn’t agree with me, perhaps this will make it clearer exactly where we part company.

There may be one other subsidiary assumption I should highlight here.    (I hope I’m not about to contradict what I’ve already said–I think I’ve mentioned it in passing.)  Whatever natural is, it very often includes a wide range of things.    What I mean is that even where we may think  something is “natural” there’s typically a lot of variation within the category “natural.”   Again, to be concrete (if somewhat trivial) we vary a good deal in height, one to another.   No one height is natural.  Instead, there’s a wide range of natural heights.

I won’t go on about this any longer today.   I think this is necessary background to my ongoing consideration of how we talk about what’s natural when it comes to parentage.


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