Traditionalists are frequently ridiculed when they oppose some practice or policy — sodomy, say, or putting women in combat — on the grounds that it is unnatural, or appeal to the idea of natural law to defend a moral or legal stance. Talk about what is "natural," the scoffers assure us, is merely an ideological smokescreen for outdated superstitions.
Yet it is the cultural Left, broadly construed, which in recent years has made the most unabashed use of the appeal to nature. Radical environmentalists demand that we go "Back to nature!" — even "Back to the Pleistocene!" to cite a current variant of this old slogan — and return to that state of harmony with each other and with the environment and its flora and fauna from which modern industrial society has allegedly dragged us.
Sexual libertines purport to find in Darwinism a justification for throwing off traditional moral restraints as incompatible with our true nature. As the Bloodhound Gang's "The Bad Touch," in what passes these days for a song for wooing, puts it:
You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals So let's do it like they do on the Discovery channel
Plausible as both the ecological and libertine appeals to nature might seem at first glance — at least to that chaotic mix of hormonal passion, romantic fantasy, and sheer ignorance that is the adolescent mind — it doesn't take much thought to see their absurdity and mutual incompatibility.
To start with the environmentalist's appeal: It is simply false to say that primitive human societies ever were (or, where they still exist, are) "in harmony with nature," if this is supposed to mean that such peoples lived in a kind of Edenic paradise of plenty, where everyone was equal and love was free and animals were our friends, not our food. In fact, of course, such societies were and are typically filthy, smelly, poor, disease-ridden, superstitious, and ignorant; hierarchy and male dominance and jealousy are universal, with primitive "free love" existing nowhere but in Margaret Mead's fevered imagination; and animals were commonly hunted to near extinction, as the buffalo, beaver, horse, and others were by American Indians. (Horses, wiped out completely, had to be reintroduced into North America by Europeans.)
Viewers of the PBS series 1900 House saw how extremely difficult it is for modern people, and especially modern adolescents, to adapt themselves to a way of life a mere 100 years old — and "deep ecologists" think we'd all find our bliss by going back 10,000 years?!
It is, of course, easy for young "idealists" to entertain such nonsense over pizza, beer, and marijuana in the comfort of a modern dorm room. Perhaps if they'd put the "activism" and fornicating on hold for a few moments and open a book or attend a lecture, they'd discover that Thomas Hobbes got the "state of nature" just about right 350 years ago:
No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Then again, perhaps not: One has to be very ignorant indeed to treat the "deep ecologist's" vision with anything but the contempt it deserves, but such ignorance is nowhere better fostered than in the modern university. In any case, the reality is that modern, Western, science-and-technology-based, industrial civilization is, certainly materially and to a very great extent politically (less so morally — though hardly for the reasons Leftish environmentalists think), the best of all worlds. (The fact that virtually no deep ecologists actually forsake this civilization to live among their sentimentalized "peoples of the earth" indicates that deep down they, too, recognize the reality.)
Moreover, the construction of this civilization, far from being something that alienated human beings from their true nature, was entirely natural for them. For whatever else man is, he is, as Aristotle said, a rational animal, by his very nature the cleverest thing on the surface of the earth.
It is in man's nature, that is, to know — to learn what the world is like and how to change it better to suit his needs. Automobiles, computers, skyscrapers, nuclear power; capitalism, global trade, individual rights to life, liberty, and property; and all the other glories of the modern, civilized world, are not in the least bit "unnatural" — they are every bit as natural as birds' nests and beaver dams. They are the product of the unfettered exercise of that natural attribute — reason — that distinguishes us from, and puts us above, the lower echelons of the animal kingdom.
Which brings us to the libertine's appeal to nature. Note first its inconsistency with the ecologist's appeal: If we're "nothing but mammals," etc., mere animals who ought not to be expected to hold ourselves up to moral restraints, surely there can be no objection to treating "the environment" the way animals treat it, and treating animals themselves the way they treat each other — that is, in whatever way they feel at the moment like doing, however wasteful or violent. (Moreover, the bizarre moral scruples of vegetarians notwithstanding, there can, on anyone's construal of "natural" and certainly on the libertine's construal, surely be nothing more natural for human beings than the eating of meat, and thus the killing of animals — anyone who doubts this is invited to examine his teeth in the nearest mirror.)
In fact, though, we are, though animals, not mere animals. Assuming that because human beings evolved from apes, they must act like apes, is as stupid as assuming that because whales evolved from land animals, they really ought to be walking about on land on those little fins of theirs. It is the difference between human beings and the creatures they evolved from that matters, and that difference is the presence, in human beings alone, of reason — and of the capacity for evaluating the world and themselves in terms of the complex cultural, aesthetic, and moral categories that are the concomitant of reason.
To describe human beings as if they were "nothing but" lumps of meaningless matter, beasts subject to only the most base desires, would thus be to mis-describe them in the most brutally inept way. Human beings, being by their very nature reasoning creatures, cannot help but see themselves and their behavior in terms of complex concepts like free will and right and wrong, and trying to understand their behavior in a way that discards these concepts is like trying to understand the behavior of the lower animals without applying the simpler concepts of hunger and fear.
As the philosopher Roger Scruton has argued persuasively and at length in his An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, the tendency of modern intellectuals to try to reduce complex, intelligent, and meaningful human behavior to simple, brute, and meaningless animal behavior — that is, to reduce it to what it patently is not — is not genuine science, but crude pseudo-science, and is among the true causes of any sense of alienation and unease that exists in modern life.
Those inclined toward such a reduction also abuse the concept of what is "natural" when they seek to excuse some form of behavior traditionally condemned as unnatural by looking for some genetic cause of it. For though much of what is "natural" to human beings no doubt has a genetic basis, it does not follow that anything having a genetic basis must be natural, especially in any sense of "natural" which has moral implications. A squirrel which, due to some genetic mutation, is inclined to eat and store pebbles rather than nuts, or to try to mate exclusively with other squirrels of its own sex, is obviously behaving in a way contrary to what we might call "squirrel nature" — and in a way dysfunctional and harmful from a biological point of view, as such behavior rather decreases the chances of the squirrel's either surviving or reproducing.
Similarly, that there might be a genetic factor responsible in human beings for alcoholism, or over-eating, or homosexuality, or violence, or whatever, by no means entails that such behaviors are "natural" or morally unproblematic. Of course, precisely how the moral evaluation of such behaviors should go is a complicated business, and must be examined carefully and dispassionately. But however it should go, the identification of some genetic component is merely the beginning of the matter, not the end of it.
At the end of the day, though, it is the traditional moralist who has the advantage where questions of what is "natural" for human beings are concerned. The sorts of moral rules that are most conducive to human well-being must, of necessity, be those which are most in tune with human nature. Whatever rules those rules happen to be, no community of human beings which disregards them for a long stretch of time is likely to thrive or even survive, especially if competing against communities which do follow them.
It follows that the moral rules that have survived the longest are, in general, the likeliest to be in tune with human nature and conducive to human well-being — for if they were not, those rules would probably have died out, since the groups observing them would have died out. Traditional moral rules, then, must get the benefit of the doubt, and be presumed to be the ones most conducive to human well-being until proven otherwise.
Thus it is no surprise that the research of sociobiologists, in applying Darwinian evolution to human beings, and of writers like Hayek, in developing quasi-Darwinian theories of cultural evolution, should so often seem to confirm the utility of traditional attitudes and mores dismissed as "prejudices" by self-described progressives. Indeed, the political theorist Larry Arnhart, in Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, argues that Darwinian sociobiology — or evolutionary psychology, as it is often known these days — far from undermining traditional morality, in fact supports the natural law tradition in moral thinking associated with St. Thomas Aquinas, a tradition notoriously conservative in its moral implications (and thus abominated by the cultural Left).
Perhaps, then, "doing what comes naturally" means, ultimately, doing quite the opposite of what the libertines and "back to nature" types recommend. Indeed, perhaps "Back to nature!" itself ought to be the rallying cry of traditionalists — it could, in their mouths, finally be used to say something meaningful and constructive.
July 24, 2001