Logical Fallacy

The ‘Appeal to Nature’ Fallacy

There is this notion that has been bugging me lately: the notion that nature is all-knowing, all-wise, acts as a mother to us, and that we should abide her infinite wisdom and abundance. It is otherwise known, to scientists and philosophers, as the appeal to nature fallacy. This notion, which is more of a feeling really, has serious shortcomings. One—and really the only one I need, and want, to address—is that it can only express itself through being lucky enough to be born at the top of the food chain, and it must then, by definition, in being expressed, fail to acknowledge the grim, short, and painful subsistence lives of almost every other member of every other species on this planet, even that of pre-civilized humans.*

This fallacy is, to repurpose to my own ends, a quote from comedian Bill Maher, ignorance masquerading as wisdom, which would, in any other age but this, be punished by nature itself with astonishing brutality and swiftness.

As the singer Gary Numan put it: “If nature is proof of God’s amazing creation then I have truly seen the light, and the light is black. Nature is genus at its most cruel and savage. No benevolent God could have come up with such an outrage.” Rob Hart put it another way: “Nature is not on our side. Most of it is trying to kill us. Nature abounds with neurotoxins, carcinogens, starvation, violence, and death. It is technology that makes our lives so comfortable.” He neglects though to mention virus’, bacteria, and genetic disorders. (I’m sure I’ve missed a few too.)

One of the few benevolent acts of nature toward us was, albeit unwillingly, the gift of intelligence, which has allowed us the opportunity to wrest ourselves free one step at a time from her invidious grasp. That intelligence, after 250,000 long, brutal subsistence-lived years, has recently born such fruits as GM food, medicine, and sheltered lives free from her (it’s) wrath, yet is being met with scorn and ridicule by those who adhere to the “nature rocks” mantra.

I’m not saying that just because appealing to nature is bunk—it is—that therefore synthetic things are automatically better. That would be guilty of the same fallacy, reversed. No, rather it is to say that we must take everything on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes natural stuff is better, sometimes it’s not; but to presume that just because something is natural that it is better is to arrive at that conclusion devoid of reason, logic, or evidence, regardless of how prevalent it is in society. As Vasil Deniador said (well, Isaac Asimov really said it, as it is his fiction book) in Foundation and Earth: “Common belief, even universal belief, is not, itself, evidence.”

The appeal to nature fallacy will help us with nothing and take us nowhere, and should be confined, for once and all, to the dustbin of history. Of course, it won’t be; at least not yet, but it should be.

With that, I’d like to conclude with a quote from Science Based Life: “Surely, if we have learned anything about our advances in other areas like medicine, agriculture, and public health measures, the way forward is with science, not backwards with an assumed beneficence of Mother Nature. The “unnatural” advances of humanity are some of its greatest achievements. Surgery, vaccination, conventional agriculture, electronics, and engineering (genetic or otherwise) have us living longer, healthier lives. If organic foods really aren’t as nutritious, if natural can also mean dangerous, if genetically modified foods have no scientific reason to be labeled differently, we simply cannot afford to continue making the naturalistic fallacy. What is best for us, what is healthier or safer or more nutritious, is something that falls out of proper research, not common sense.”

* – It was only 200 years ago that a day old baby had a life expectancy of 37 years. Go back 400 years, 2/3s of all children in Britain died before the age of 4, but it’s natural, so who needs vaccines, hygiene, and plentiful food, right? Go back 2000 years, and the average life expectancy drops to 25 years.

P.S. Recall that average life expectancy indicates that 50% of the population died before that age, and the other 50% after, not that everyone dropped dead at said age. Once one hit 15 years of age so, average life expectancy usually increased to between 45 to 60 years. But that is little consolation to the half who died young, and the majority of them who died as children.

P.P.S. I think this is the shortest post I’ve ever written. I guess that shows how few words are needed to show the appeal to nature fallacy for what it is. (That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it!)

41 comments

  1. I keep mine short. People have a short attention span.
    This idea that nature knows best (am I right in assuming it’s a medicine and diet claim, normally?) is demonstrably bull. Assuming nature knows better gives you no means to differentiate between a poisonous berry and a nutritious one: nature makes both. It give you no way to distinguish a herb with antiseptic or antibiotic properties and an irritant that will bring you up in a rash or inflame your intestines until you die a slow and excruciating death: nature makes both. And no amount of garlic will be as beneficial as a course of amoxicillin.

    The most potent life-challenging substances (neurotoxins, viruses etc) are natural…

    But One Direction are manufactured… case-by-case…

    1. Yep, mainly medicinal and dieting claims; just head over to natural news or any number of other sites for more cancer-curing with herbal supplements websites claims than you can shake a stick at.

      Nice examples too!

          1. What’s worse was that she was desperate; she wanted to try these things. She would have wasted a lot of money trying, too…
            As an industry it is exploitative and corrupt.

    2. I’m curious though, what made you mention One Direction? (I presume you mean the British band?) I ask because I just came back from Portugal, and in the hotel I stayed at were a bunch of teen girls yelling and screaming for several hours. I asked the concierge who they are screaming for, and apparently, One Direction was staying at the same hotel, lol. Talk about coincidence…

      1. They were the worst manufactured thing I could think of at the time.
        I thought about nerve gas and thalidomide, but One Direction topped it.
        Sorry you had to share a hotel with it, you doing okay?

  2. Something smelled a little off, so I went to my good friend Google, and I’m afraid that what you describe and denounce (both rightly and well) is not called the naturalistic fallacy. It looks as though it is called an ‘Appeal to Nature’.
    The Naturalistic fallacy, apparently, (and as coined by EG Moore in Principia Ethica) is the appeal of calling something good because it is preferable or desirable (a fallacy because selfishness is preferable to the individual).

    1. Touche. It would see a great many science writers have been duped into using then. I’ve seen it referenced everywhere as the naturalistic fallacy. But, thanks for the heads-up, I’ll modify the post to match this new information. Thanks Allallt!

    2. Another thank you. I will try to get that into my thick head because it’s an argument I make frequently myself: “Appeal to Nature,” “Appeal to Nature…”

      1. Usage is language. As long as you describe what you’re talking about, most people aren’t going to bother about it. In fact, Fourat is right; the assumption that natural things must be good things is so ubiquitously referred to as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ that it is probably useless pedantry to have corrected him.
        (Look! Look! We’re discussing the philosophy of language!)

  3. “One of the few benevolent acts of nature toward us was, albeit unwillingly, the gift of intelligence…” In this sentence, the act is unwilling, but I guess you meant to say that nature is unwilling and yet it is making a gift and it acts benevolently. What is nature? Or more importantly, what is not nature?

    Life on earth changes due to various causes. Life forms compete, achieve a balance, and the balance is interrupted, by living or non-living forces. We are a big force of interruptions. We imbalance things with our progress. We should be more cautious and less smug about insulating ourselves from “nature.”

    1. It’s more of a pun, employing the anthropomorphic features those that hold to the appeal to nature fallacy use. That is, our gift (intelligence) was not purposefully given to us, it is an accident, albeit a happy one from our perspective. The various forces are random, the final results are natural selection, and we are now able to superimpose upon natural selection.

  4. Nature is like a great sifter or sieve. Those species able to adapt move on until at some point a change in environment results in their inability to adapt and some other organism moves in to fill the niche. There is no malice or benevolence to this, it merely is. As a species we were able to adapt, arguably our intelligence is the greatest of our adaptive skills that allowed us to manipulate our environment and become so successful. Every successful species has a range of successful organisms within it. Some pass their genes on (success) some do not. If enough do not than the species dies out. Nature has no mind to care if we survive or don’t survive, that is purely us. Those people who choose to believe that “nature is always better” will die younger unless they are able to adapt their belief to benefit from what the rest of us have realized. In my mind there is no harm in this, I would prefer to see the genes that cause religion, “back to nature” etc. beliefs be phased out of the human genome. I think the species would be much better off for it. Sadly these belief systems seem to be deeply ingrained. I have pondered why many times but that is a different question. Bottom line is I don’t see the beliefs being phased out anytime soon. The naturopaths, homeopathy, chiropractors, crystal nuts and religious fanatics (all kinds, not just one type – I think they are all the same anyway)will be with us for a long time to come. They will be pulled along with the herd so to speak .

    Oh, loved the video..great one!

    1. Great comment! Couldn’t agree more on everything, except that they (naturopaths, homeopaths etc) will be around for much longer. I think the clock is ticking 🙂

    2. “As a species we were able to adapt, arguably our intelligence is the greatest of our adaptive skills that allowed us to manipulate our environment and become so successful.”

      Yes. And ain’t it funny how some folks can’t see the obvious: The human species IS a force of nature.

      1. Very funny, indeed! Their philosophies are so riddled with holes that they would hardly be worth the time to deconstruct if so many people didn’t hold them to heart.

  5. I applaud your comments. However I wish the blog had been a bit longer! I am stuck on your comments on average life expectancy. The population curve started rising sharply, indicating more people living longer, long before vaccinations or antibiotics. The most important factor was access to safe water, adequate food and improved hygiene. (Nightingale & her nurses demonstrated this in Scutari, by cleaning up the horribly filthy British hospital; providing adequate food, clothing and blankets for the patients; & getting a dead horse out of the water supply. This was before the germ theory of disease.) Additionally any references to life expectancy should mention that both modern global epidemiological statistics and excavations of ancient necropolises reveal that major factors in length of life are gender, marital status and social class. The more prosperous have always been healthier, better fed and longer lived — if male. Not married women have lived longer (and still do in the U.S. as well as elsewhere) because they are less likely to become pregnant — and die in childbirth, and less likely to experience domestic violence. (Until the mid-20th century U.S. judges upheld the “right” of men to beat — and rape — their wives and children. That is still true in much of the world.) Social conditions are major factors in life expectancy. Walking through Boston cemeteries from the 17th & 18th centuries vividly illustrates the point that those who got past 15 years old were likely to live into old age — unless they died in battle (males) or childbirth (young women). The U.S. foetal and maternal death rates are still the poorest in the developed world — and those statistics correlate with poverty and inadequate diet and lack of health care during pregnancy. All these are factors over which humankind has complete control, as demonstrated in Sweden, for example. “Nature” has nothing to do with it!

    1. ‘Not married women have always lived longer’ – have they? But most women never had the choice not to marry (certainly in the UK) so maybe for the few that didn’t, their longer life was because there were other factors, such as being independently wealthy (which didn’t happen very often because women weren’t allowed to own property, etc).

      1. Actually, I suspect that the idea that “most women never had the chance to not marry” is a popular belief which is not buoyed up by statistics. Nuns, for example, were not married. Women toiled away in many occupations throughout the centuries without being married. It is astounding how little the contributions of women to the GDP of past centuries has been studied. One doesn’t have to own property to be employed or to have income! (I am, of course, using the concept of “income” in the sense Milton Friedman used it. Not all income is disposable — room and board are income, for example.) Very unscientific to make the assertion that “women weren’t allowed to own property.” It actually varied from century to century and certainly from social class to social class. in fact, widows were able to own property, for example. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a ruler; as was Matilda, mother of Henry II of England and, of course, most obviously Elizabeth I and her elder sister, Mary. Many women were not married – there were other options for income, as I pointed out before. The point is that pregnancy or lack of it is a chief factor in shorter life expectancy for women in most societies — including the modern U.S.

  6. I like the way you changed the title – good on you!

    Now, the Appeal to Nature fallacy asserts that what is natural is good and what isn’t, is bad. I wonder if the fallacy is not the statement itself, but our assertion that there is good or bad. These are human value judgements that are unrelated to nature. It is like saying, red is good, orange is bad. Whatever. I propose to extend the Appeal to Nature fallacy to: Human value judgements that are extrapolated are irrelevant.

    1. Thanks, I try my best to be accurate, though I’m aware I’ll get it wrong occasionally (or many times). Everyone will get many subjects wrong, the only way to get past it is to correct it and move on. I won’t always get it right, but I’ll try, and when I don’t, I’ll update my outdated information 🙂

      That’s a different way of looking at it. It is, in essence, a value judgment. After all, nature doesn’t care, there is no bad or good in her opinion, only what is. I concur with your concluding statement, great stuff.

  7. I like this. It is true, in both directions. ‘Nature’ does not hold everything wonderful. Cyanide, ricin, Deadly Nightshade – they’re all ‘natural’. The recent UK measles epidemic is ‘natural’. It arose solely as a result of parents not vaccinating their children. Equally, technology/new techniques also don’t hold all the answers – just look at climate change!

    P.S. You quoted Isaac Asimov. You’re now my favourite blogger 😉

  8. Reblogged this on Socio-Economics, Biosafety & Decision Making and commented:
    Worthwhile repeating the following quote. Many thanks to Random Rationality for such a no-nonsense post.

    “Surely, if we have learned anything about our advances in other areas like medicine, agriculture, and public health measures, the way forward is with science, not backwards with an assumed beneficence of Mother Nature. The “unnatural” advances of humanity are some of its greatest achievements. Surgery, vaccination, conventional agriculture, electronics, and engineering (genetic or otherwise) have us living longer, healthier lives. If organic foods really aren’t as nutritious, if natural can also mean dangerous, if genetically modified foods have no scientific reason to be labeled differently, we simply cannot afford to continue making the naturalistic fallacy. What is best for us, what is healthier or safer or more nutritious, is something that falls out of proper research, not common sense.”

    * – It was only 200 years ago that a day old baby had a life expectancy of 37 years. Go back 400 years, 2/3s of all children in Britain died before the age of 4, but it’s natural, so who needs vaccines, hygiene, and plentiful food, right? Go back 2000 years, and the average life expectancy drops to 25 years.”

  9. The story has a mistaken idea the humans have a special place in Nature’s environment. Total nonsense, the Nature does not care, we are one of the millions of living things and we know that 98% died out, we can be next without Nature even “blinking the eye”. Most of the statistical “truths” stated do not have any real facts backing.

    You are suggesting we can play “gods” with GMO, vaccination, prescription drugs etc. but facts show totally different picture. In few generations of playing gods, we were able to bring cancer from 1:300,000 to 1:4, cardiovascular disease from 0 to biggest killer, diabetes, kidney and liver failure and I can go for hours.

    We were able to decrease violent men deaths but when you compare apple to apple, average age hundreds years ago in develop middle class world was about 80 years old, now is 74-78 years old (male). We actually went down.

    1. Hi Stan,

      This story doesn’t have a mistaken idea that humans have a special place in nature, because I do not think they do, thus did not write that into the ‘story.’ It’s not even a story, it’s a debunking of the appeal to nature fallacy.

      Most of the statistics here are backed up empirical evidence, historical documents, and careful scholarly work. I have no idea where you got your numbers from, but they seem made up to be honest.

      The average life expectancy hundreds of years ago was 80? That is wrong. The average life expectancy in most ages before the 20th century, if one was lucky enough to make it past the age of 5, then the age of 15, was between 45-60. But, that means surviving to those ages. 200 years ago in England, 2/3 of born babies failed to make it to the age of 4, just 200 year olds again. Your data is without merit.

      The reason that so many people die from cardiovascular diseases and cancers now is because we are living longer. We’re no longer die by the truckload at 4, or before 15, now we’re making it to 60, 70, 80 and beyond which allows more things to go wrong. It’s the old adage, every enemy you kill creates two more. Every disease we vanquish reveals another disease or disorder. Of course, other things affect cancer and mortality such as smoking and obesity, but to so generalize the claim that we’ve gone back because those numbers in absolute and relative terms have gone up is to miss the point entirely. We’re dying more from these specific diseases because we’re healthier than ever, and there has never been any selection pressure to act against these later day diseases/disorders.

      If you haven’t made these numbers up, then you got them from extremely biased and inaccurate sources. Thanks for your comment, but better to fact-check your sources next time.Thanks for stopping by.

      1. ”we’re dying more from these specific diseases because we’re healthier than ever” ..? ! 🙂 The ‘selection pressure’ for these is a question of choice really isn’t it. Who has the strength of will to do the right thing. Again, it’s the ability to adapt and adjust conscientiously that’s needed. Meaning on has to be aware of one’s self first and foremost. The same criteria that has seen people live to ripe old ages throughout the evolution of the species. Surely science needs to pin down the genes that make such awareness and subsequent choice possible, relative to the environment such people are found in, not try to substitute them with synthetics. Common sense is such a valid trait given it’s derived from experience, which, given the randomness of nature, and the extent of harm synthetic ‘progress’ has caused, requires both feelings and intellect to be considered of equal merit in order to be understood. The maths is fine afterwards for verification, but even that is limited as proof of the validity of something. Proof is only real as experience amidst the randomness of nature….but strange how the math always seems to take precedence. The resulting social stress gives rise to an equal but opposite reaction, just another way of seeking certainty…the ‘appeal to nature’ by those who are concerned about the stalwarts of reason who, by their manner of discourse, seem to suggest they have little kind regard for the less mathematically equipped in humanity, given which it seems perfectly logical for a large swathe of humanity, particularly those who have experienced the harsh ‘progress’ of modernity to want to chance their lot with the randomness of less sentient manifestations of nature. At least then they can actually feel like their lives are their own, no matter what happens.

  10. There are records of people who live extremely long, healthy, productive lives by maintaining a healthy balance between work and play. The ability to do that would arise from a combination of choice and chance. What matters for the sake of the article is that such individuals are making a conscious choice on how to live their life based upon how they feel at any given point in time within the boundaries of their environment, and adapting and adjusting their responses to suit. The fact that more people are living now as a consequence of advances in synthetics also removes the selection for those who can use their own initiative for adapting and adjusting. Doesn’t that just create an even more unstable situation … a kind of bubble ?! Wouldn’t it be better to learn how people live long lives naturally by learning what it is in human nature that allows people to do so, and cultivate the necessary social attitudes towards our relationship with each other and our environment. Synthetics have a place, but that is also an argument for common sense isn’t it. Common sense is something that has to be gained by experience, and it has to be said, synthetics also cause a lot of harm. Reason is the better part of human nature, and one wouldn’t be mistaken for assuming that humans are ( though one could easily be forgiven for thinking otherwise) somehow better selected for it. It’s enemy is unsentimental reaction. The result ? Unnecessary stress. So was this article really necessary ? Seems like just another invitation to rant …and I just fell for it didn’t I 😉 Oh, those naughty naughty genes…

  11. “What is nature? Or more importantly, what is not nature?
    Life on earth changes due to various causes. Life forms compete, achieve a balance, and the balance is interrupted, by living or non-living forces. We are a big force of interruptions. We imbalance things with our progress. We should be more cautious and less smug about insulating ourselves from “nature.””

    @kilimanjournal
    YES thank you.
    Without worshipping it or personifying nature, one can still appreciate all the intricacies and beauty and balance. While the worship of nature may be silly it is one of the less harmful fallacies out there. As a general rule of thumb, I try to 1. not be a jerk and 2. be humble. This includes not being arrogant enough to think that we DESERVE to exponentially extend our lifespans if we are in the process interrupting ecosystems. A natural gas pipeline may help us… but it also might kill of 2 beautiful species of salamanders whose absence would surely effect whatever ate them/was preyed upon by them. I mean technically all the imbalances don’t matter because they’re less than a blink in geological time… but then again you could punch someone in the face and give the same excuse. I don’t know… just be mindful.. and humble..
    any thoughts?

  12. For many of us, both your position and the “appeal to nature fallacy” are equally unsatisfactory. Quality of life is a huge issue. One can reference “250,000 long, brutal subsistence-lived years, ” but one can presumably find “natural,” traditional cultures where lives are more satisfying (regardless of their length) than those in the dreadful urban ghettos that seem to be home to growing numbers of people in the modern world. At any rate, life expectancy alone certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.

    Nature certainly isn’t benevolent, but it still behooves us, I think, to play be her rules. If she is an adversary, then she is a worthy one and we shouldn’t underestimate her. There are several reasons, more or less persuasive, to object to GM foods — but the main one to my mind is the movement away from bio-diversity and toward monoculture. This is simply a bad bet — and the impetus, sadly, is as much capitalist in nature, i.e., cornering the market, as it is an attempt to feed the world’s hungry.

    Up here in “tarsands country” (well, I’m presently one province removed, but I HAVE lived in Ft. McMurray), I also have to call your attention to the “technological advances” that are associated with tarsands extraction. which have despoiled huge tracts of land and which dramatically increase the possibility of worldwide catastrophe — or if you would prefer something less alarmist, worldwide pollution (ocean, land, air), which surely have the potential to reduce the general quality of life. I could also mention the risks attendant upon nuclear reactors such as Fukushima, which have yet to play out but which are obvious fruits of technology.

    I’d like to see technology divorced from capitalism, but good luck with that. As it stands, we seem to be in a fight to the death with nature — and I don’t think that such a contest is going to produce any clear winner. To my mind, all legitimate technological advances have to be based on a respect for the natural world. Presently, that’s not the case. I enjoyed your article, but if I was to offer any criticism, it would be that you tend to see nature as an adversary.

    .

    1. The Appeal to Nature fallacy is the claim that natural things are good for you. This is patently untrue: some berries are poisonous, some animals produce neurotoxins, some irritants will inflame your bowels and lead to a long and drawn-out painful death.
      Fourat’s counterclaim is not that manufactured things are good, or that we should cut natural things out of our livelihood altogether; it is about evidence-based reasoning. The bark of a Willow tree inspired aspirin, and I asparagus is much better without petrol on it. I’d rather live in the forest than the site of a recent nuclear explosion, etc.
      There are issues with your comment. For example, GMOs don’t enable monoculture. Monoculture existed well before GMO technology was utilised. What GMOs have the potential to foster (admittedly, doesn’t yet) is actually very broad biodiversity. You are more likely to grow banana trees next to rhubarb if both plants are GMO than not. We wanted monoculture well before that (for the mistaken proposition that it is more profitable, which it isn’t).

      Respecting the natural world is, of course, paramount. But the idea that we need the environment to survive doesn’t extend so far as to suggest organic foods are better than GMOs. The idea that nature is pretty necessary for our survival isn’t the same as it being as good as it could be; we could improve it!

      I’m sure Fourat will say it better later.

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