This post was sparked by a blog post by Ivy Helman focused on the example of a wooden chair and whether it is “natural.” I wrestle with this question about what is “natural” since human beings are natural and so in one sense anything human is “natural.” I think the big problem is in assuming that the natural must be good or better. Pandemics, cancers, and wildfires are all natural. Human actions and ways of life can make them worse, to be sure. There is no sharp line dividing line between nature and culture either for humans or any other organisms that have something cultures or something akin to them. Neither patriarchy nor a national health care system is more or less natural than the other. That is not what makes one harmful and the other beneficial to human wellbeing. I think that is the basis on which they ought to be judged.
The Chinese traditions of Daoism (Taoism) and Confucianism have helpful resources for thinking about “nature” and the “natural.” I’m teaching about them this semester. I find Daoism particularly helpful in thinking about this, as it explores and highlights the two ways we think of “nature” and what is “natural,” that which is rooted in biology (and so some might say inevitable) and that which has been formed as a habit and so “comes naturally.” Breathing deeply and well, using our voices well to project sound rather than straining our vocal cords, and countless other things illustrate that we are born with capacities and yet by the time we reach adulthood we may have become accustomed to doing things very differently, so much so that things we are capable of learning and cultivating by nature seem impossible or at least overwhelmingly daunting. The Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) highlights that we do not reflect often on what we lose when we acquire something. We accumulate books (a good thing) but it costs us money and space among other things. We accumulate wealth and sacrifice security and peace of mind. In the same way, we acquire fluency in a native language and yet in the process other languages become challenging to pronounce the way native speakers do.
The natural is not inherently good simply by virtue of being natural, and the cultivated and developed is not inherently “unnatural.” Nevertheless, there is value, as the Daodejing emphasizes, in reflecting on and even returning to the uncarved block.
The debates in the Confucian tradition, especially between Mencius and Hsun-Tzu, on whether human nature is inherently good or evil, also seem so contemporary and timely to my students (as also to me). There seems to be truth to both stances, in the sense that there are natural instincts that should not be characterized as evil in themselves, but which need to be restrained in order to not be evil in our relations with other human beings (the instincts for survival, eating, self-defense, procreation, and so on, i.e. the yetzer ha-ra of rabbinic thought); and there are also instincts to be empathetic as Mencius illustrates with his famous thought experiment about a child falling into a well. Both recognize that what is there naturally may be made better or worse through teaching and circumstances that foster development along certain lines.
Nature vs. nurture, for a variety of reasons many of which I touch on above, has always been a false dichotomy.