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!)