This page is intended for discussing the issue of natural vs unnatural in food issues. For more food issues, see Food.

Natural vs Unnatural

What is natural, really? I think the word natural is misused a whole lot, although I think Liam used it quite well in that he was speaking of his own subjective taste experience. In his usage, natural simply refers to the flavors the ingredients would have by themselves, so there is no question of them being natural or not because they only exist in the abstract anyway relative to what he actually ate. Some people, on the other hand, use an objective sense of the word natural that I don't like, so in the rest of this paragraph I shall rant on. I think a few things like necromancy are unnatural, but really not much else. People say that "chemicals" are not "natural" but then what isn't a chemical? I understand that as with natural there is both a rigorous definition and a popular definition, but I don't like it. Is the chemist stirring the vat really different from the farmer tending the field? After all, the growth of tissue is a chemical reaction too. I think the idea of natural and unnatural comes partly from the idea that humans are fundamentally different and separate from the rest of the world, not part of nature, and the more human thought has gone into the development of a process, the less natural it is. I disagree with this very strongly because I think humans are not separate and different. Also, alot of the things humans make that people might say are unnatural, like nuclear reactors, do actually occur without human action. I read in a science magazine about how at a uranium mine in Africa evidence was discovered of fission having started partly through the action of bacteria millions of years ago. Link to Wikipedia article about it. Humans aren't that special. -NickSchmalenberger

  • Very well put (except perhaps you could explain the necromancy exception). I think the answer must be that it is a continuum, not a rigid division. Instead of natural/unnatural, some things are "more natural" and some are "less natural". Less natural means more engineered/manmade. After various manmade disasters, we tend to think of the latter as being undesirable. Yet, diseases are natural and antibiotics are 'unnatural'. Uranium has been fizzing since long, long before mankind existed. —SteveDavison
    • Antibiotics aren't unnatural at all - they're made by fungi and bacteria all de times. They're as natural as disease.
      • I agree. Did Fleming do chemical engineering for pennicilin? But that dodges the question of whether or not chemical engineering is natural anyway. I think it is. -NickSchmalenberger
    • I agree that there is a continuum involved, but I don't think it is about "nature". I think the continuum is between wilderness and civilization. Why are things "more engineered" "less natural"? Is intellect and conscious thought unnatural? I don't think so. The wilderness/civilization continuum is subjective. I think wilderness means not being in control and civilization does, so a situation can be either wild or civilized to a person depending on how much control they have over it and how much cooperative control they have in the situation with other people. I think cooperative control that is maintained longer than one person's lifetime is part of the definition of civilization. This has nothing to do with natural/unnatural however. I think both wilderness and civilization are perfectly natural. The reason I think necromancy is unnatural is because I understand death to be part of the definition of an individual and necromancy would confuse this. -NickSchmalenberger
    • Some antibiotics are not found in nature, but I was really thinking of the process of producing and administering antibiotics. This reinforces my point that if you asked me to name something that was 100% synthetic/man-made/unnatural I would fail. You would always be able to point to various ways in which natural elements or systems were involved. The reverse is not true. I could point to things which existed before mankind (i.e. dinosaurs) or even outside life (i.e. diamonds). [Eventually many discussions collapse over matters of definition (vs. substance), so I am using what I feel is generally accepted.]

      I don't think that any of us disagree that "mankind came from nature, therefore everything mankind creates must be natural". While not false, it is a philosophical sort of divide-by-zero. It compresses the concept down into nothing, which makes it useless for argument, discussion, illumination. The continuum seems to be wilderness vs. civilization, natural vs. manmade, grown vs. manufactured, existant vs. engineered, unconscious vs. conscious, unplanned vs. planned, uncontrolled vs. controlled, wild vs. civilized, etc. None of these are clear-cut divisions. The interesting thing is that historically it was always assumed that more human control was entirely desirable. The first doubts appeared after the industrial revolution, then exploded in the post-nuclear age and became mainstream thought in the 1970's. Now we are in the curious state of believing we are the problem, not the solution. We have met the enemy and he is us.

      Regarding necromancy: If you care to, perhaps you could give a full definition/description so I could know what you mean. I could look up other definitions, but since this is your discussion, I'd rather have it from you. —SteveDavison

      • One of my points here is that I think the generally accepted definition of natural is so vague as to be worthless. So you are absolutely right that it is about definitions. You say "mankind came from nature" but my point is that mankind is nature just like the rest of it. Mankind cannot be treated as wholly separate from nature, only individuals. I realized this largely on a canoe trip in Canada with Boy Scouts when we were supposed to be practicing Leave No Trace. Once we came in our canoes to a place at the edge of a lake and I saw something bright red down in the water. Even though we were out in the "wilderness" this area is quite popular with canoeists, which raises alot of other issues I could go into at another time. I reached down into the water towards this red thing and pulled out an empty bag that used to hold crackers or something. After contemplating it I put it back but my leader told me to take it with us, which I did. This means that we were not practicing "Leave No Trace" as ourselves but for humanity too and I didn't like this at all; I wouldn't leave my own trash on the ground because that would be leaving a trace of me, but to pick up other people's trash does also leave a trace of me. I felt that it completely changed my wilderness experience. "Leave No Trace" had always implied to me a passive attitude to the environment, not in control and so wild, trying to leave it just as found, but I guess I was the only one who included other traces of humanity in "as found". So I think it is possible to talk about the relationship of individuals to humanity and of individuals to their environment, including humanity, but not of humanity to the environment. -NickSchmalenberger
        • I too was in BS and had a similar canoe experience! I was peeling an orange and tossing the the peels overboard. When someone more authoritative than myself saw the peels floating in the water he got mad and made us go around the river until we had picked up all the pieces. I thought "when an orange tree drops one on the ground, it doesn't have to clean up!". It helped me realize how silly some human notions are. As for your experience, I'd like to take it one farther: lightning strikes a tree nearby where you are camping. Should you intervene and put out the fire or just "leave no trace" that you were there? Let's say you decide to not intervene, but report it to the ranger who then intervenes. Is that leaving a trace? (p.s. Eventually they're going to kick us out of this restaurant.) —SteveDavison
      • I like this discussion. Carry on! - KenjiYamada
  • Dang, I missed this discussion, but carry it on I shall. Although I was never in BS, I was in the Sea Explorers, and we practiced: Leave it cleaner than when you got there, with respect to human-caused detritus. Orange peels, when tossed into the underbrush, were perfectly fine. Anyway, on to the real issue.

Steve is correct in that "Natural" is generally considered in terms of the continuum between human-independent and human-involved or human-made. First, what I find interesting is that we define natural vs artificial in terms related to humans and not intelligence, or ironically, artifice. Since a beaver dam would be considered natural, and a human dam artificial, the distinction already loses some of its meaningfulness. If artificial things are limited to cultural constructions (where a beaver dam and a bird's nest are constructed out of instinct rather than training), then consider the tools made by chimpanzees, which should be considered artificial because they are culturally inherited rather than genetically inherited.

Next, "Natural" describes only the process by which something came into existence, rather than any characteristics about that entity itself. Willow trees contain a compound in their bark, which when extracted and consumed relieves headaches - we call it Aspirin. A naturally-occurring compound that when encountered in pill form ellicits the feeling that it is unnatural. Imbibe it in some sort of "willow-bark tea" and you'd think "natural." Synthesize it in a lab, purify it, and avoid all the uncharacterized chemicals found in the willow bark, and all of a sudden, it is unnatural, Western, reductionistic, or bad chi. But did it ever occur to anyone that there is nothing natural about shredding and drying willow bark and dipping it into piping hot water?

Natural and Artificial might be better used in terms of degree rather than as either-or. The willow-bark tea might be considered more natural than the purified aspirin in a pill form. Brownish cane sugar would be more natural than white table sugar. But the problem with this is that natural merely refers to the degree to which something has been processed by humans, and so it would be better to refer to it in terms of its degree of processing. Additionally, if you think about it, one of the natural categories given by Steve above, "Grown" (vs manufactured) is not really very natural at all. Crops have been bred, selected, mutated, and engineered by humans for milennia (although engineering is more recent), and this entire process has resulted in wholly unnatural crops, works of artifice themselves.

Finally, natural in no way means good for humans, or even nature for that matter. Asteroid impacts are natural, yet they do humans and nature little good in the immediate future. Irrigation is artificial, yet, it can bring lush growth to otherwise dead areas. Finally, countless poisons and toxins are produced by both "nature" and humans, as well as anti-toxins, antibiotics, and antibodies. Natural flavorings aren't even neccessarily from the flavor they describe, as almond flavor comes from peach pits, and I have no idea where natural cherry flavor comes from, but I have it on good authority that it aint cherries. Tastes like cherries, though. Finally, human-caused forest fires were once used to frequently maintain the health of forests in California, arguably a component of the natural cycle, so where do we place these on the natural-artificial slide?

I am in agreement with Nick on this, that natural is useless term. Not that it shouldn't be used, because it can help us imagine the degree to which humans have modified something. But as a synonym for anything meaningful such as: safe, tasty, healthy, ecological, or moral, it falls apart. Synthesized aspirin in pill form is safer than sucking on willow bark, probably less disgusting to the taste, unknown about healthiness, and probably more ecological because it doesn't involve stripping tons of trees of their bark. As for whether or not it is more or less moral, let me know if you think it is right to

As for humans and artificial things causing damage to the world and us, I think the blame is wrongly pinned on artificiality itself. Would not cornstarch-based plastics be artificial, yet be part of a solution to environmental woes? All my garbage bags (incl. compost... so convenient!) are made of cornstarch, but there is nothing natural about a highly bred and modified grass that is seven feet tall having its seeds broken into its constituents, some of which are ground up and then pressed into pellets which are dyed green and spread out in thin sheets to contain my food waste and make it easy to lift out of my bin when I go to dump it. I think the enemy of a beneficial interaction between humans and their environment is not those things that are deemed artificial, as if artificiality had some intrinsic malicious quality, the proper enemy is ignorance. Ignorance of the effects caused by humans.

Eating willow bark for pain relief involves ignorance - of the uncharacterized chemicals in the bark, and so too do some artificial food additives, when we don't know the long-term consequences of consuming them. Using natural as a proxy for good only invites mistakes, indeed, if we were to set our powers of reasoning aside and use the natural-artificial distinction to decide on the superiority of one thing over another, we would be embracing ignorance and have created a new enemy out of ourselves. - KarlMogel

- Yes! —NickSchmalenberger

See Also