Are you Naturally Unnatural?

Most self respecting Disinfonaughts will, at some point or other, have been condemned for the crime of being ‘weird’ or ‘abnormal’. These words play on an implicit root assumption that anything ‘unnatural’ is in some sense immoral or evil. Rest assured that those who try to attack you with such labels imprison only themselves. The truth, in a literal sense, is that there is nothing in this universe which is “unnatural”. Even metaphorically the word “unnatural” is almost irrelevant because our minds cannot glimpse that which it describes and can only hypothesise that it might exist.

The writer Philip Ball, in a piece on his website entitled “Unnatural: The Talk Based On The Book“,[1] says:

“[T]o call something unnatural is not an act of taxonomy but a moral judgement. The unnatural act is something we are supposed to condemn. […] Our disapproval stems from the theological tradition of natural law [..which..] plays out in a rationalistic yet teleological universe in which everything has a part to play, and all things have a ‘natural end’ which, being ordained by God, is intrinsically good.”

Here he is speaking about moral judgements suggested by the word in relation to controversies in science surrounding genetic engineering or cloning. Such debates are often framed by detractors as being about the implicitly immoral consequences of scientists who dare to “play God” but are often cloaked by concerns about people doing something “outside of nature”.

Certainly from a strictly rational perspective the word is fairly meaningless as by definition it cannot be observed in our natural universe. The dictionary defines it thus:


  1. Contrary to the ordinary course of nature; abnormal.
  2. Not existing in nature; artificial.

In a rational context the first definition isn’t very useful. How can a rationalist decide what is or is not “normal” without coming to deeply personal and subjective judgements? Most people might feel their personal perspective is ‘normal’, but as a result condemn themselves to living in a world where everyone else’s point of view is therefore abnormal.

So, some substitute the word “average” for “normal” and attempt the problem from that perspective. However, the more specific your number or measurement of the “average” the more confusing the picture becomes as more people will be excluded from it.

“The average is that which no person quite ever is”

– Robert Anton Wilson

The most famous example is the “average” family, described as having 2.4 children. It’s fair to say that this imaginary “0.4 child,” is a concept which in isolation is absurd. In a literal sense the “0.4 child” cannot exist, it’s a metaphor to describe statistical anomaly. For me the “0.4 child” is a reminder of the fact that the pursuit of “normal” or “natural,” when described by the laws of averages, produces an offspring which can only exist in our imagination.

Now, look to the second definition: “Not existing in nature; artificial”. What does this mean, where do the limits of “nature” end? Once you’ve answered that question we should be able to look beyond those limits and discover this illusive “unnatural” state. Suppose, for argument’s sake, we define the natural world as only being planet earth. This would make the moon “unnatural” but it is clearly not “artificial” as it appears to have been created by the same forces that fashioned the earth. However we can agree that as an environment fit for humans, who lack ingenuity, it certainly is “unnatural”. However I know few who do not celebrate our conquest of it[1].

The irony of the word is that it is most frequently used when the influence of human ingenuity is immediately apparent. For example, few consider ant hills or wasp’s nests to be unnatural but will happily condemn towns and cities. A dam built by people would be seen as an awful blight on the environment but if it was the work of beavers, no “eco warrior” would arrive to protest it. Equally a person who builds and flies a machine is against nature but a bird who has evolved wings is not.

Those who shout that something is unnatural are, in my opinion, the kind who will opine that people are innately immoral. This is ironic given that we are clearly one of the few creatures capable of moral judgements[2]. It’s an overhang from the doctrine of “original sin,” and those who use it betray a deep hatred of humanity and all the things we do well[3].

This domain that lies outside “nature” is a fiction which exists nowhere in our solar system, surrounding galaxy, or indeed universe. Like the paradoxical square circle it is a construct that can only reside in our mind as a hypothesis of the absurd. Furthermore it is not to be condemned but celebrated and enjoyed. Being called “weird” or “odd” usually means only that you have been condemned for possessing an imagination. The word has been a constant attack on human ingenuity and progress.

I am against nature. I don’t dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can’t touch with decay.

– Bob Dylan

So rejoice in your unnatural dreams. Reject the absurd notion that the imagination is to be condemned and finally, revel in the conquest of the “natural world” with all its cancer, diseases, death, decay and suffering. Long may you be weird, long may you be strange and long may it be in your nature to be unnatural.


My twitter:

Further reading:

Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball

[1] Apart from the conspiracy theorists. That annoys me. Alright, so it appears they messed with a few pictures, doesn’t prove they didn’t go. It’s cool we went to the moon, don’t ruin it for me! I’m a kid of the 80’s I still want to be an astronaut.

[2] There’s debate on this, obviously. Frans de Waal claims to have witnessed inter-species acts of empathy between bonobos and birds. His work is particularly interesting.

[3] People are good.

Step 1 You’re a person.
Step 2 If you do not think people are good then you must also be bad.
Step 3 If you are bad your judgements are suspect and you are not capable of making a fair assessment of humanity.
Step 4 Therefore, logically speaking, you must believe people are good.

It’s only those who want to keep you down that need you to think otherwise.

I can’t source this, I heard it somewhere once and am including it in the footnotes to this Disinfo article with that note. It’s possible I made it up OR stole it off Alan Watts… anyone?

Nick Margerrison

I write on Disinfo for fun, I've been a fan of the company for years.

In the real world I'm a freelance TV/radio presenter. I've worked for LBC, Kerrang Radio, The Bay, Edge Media TV, Hallam FM and The BBC.

My podcast is here:

13 Comments on "Are you Naturally Unnatural?"

  1. Ted Heistman | Jan 9, 2013 at 4:27 pm |

    maybe I’m naturally natural living in the midst of an unnatural civilization?

  2. Ted Heistman | Jan 9, 2013 at 4:33 pm |

    Nick, you might enjoy some of the essays here:

    They do a lot of similar examinations of the idea of what Nature is, kind of like what you are doing here.

    I enjoy this type of examination.

  3. There are lots of False Dilemmas and Equivocation in this essay.

  4. I agree with some things in this essay, for example that there is no clear boundary between nature and nature. This essay draws some very strange conclusions from that fact though, it is very black and white in its view on things, for example you do not have to think people are bad to believe that people do bad things, pointing out “bad” behavior does not diminish the potential value of your assessments for one thing.

    The idea of fighting decay, cancer and so on seems to bring more of that into the world, our society is obsessed with hiding decay, aging and it is obsessed with long life, cleanliness and so on, still cancer is rampant, allergies are steady on the rise, mental illness is widespread and so on. Fighting battles you cannot win will only leave you frustrated and mad. Why not try to age gracefully, learn to love the transitory, see the value of beings dying to give room and nourishment to new life and at the same time work for a healthy environment and life cycle for all beings. The battle against nature, nature includes death, decay, illness, suffering, birth, love, pleasure, sex, growth, aging and so on (nature of course including ourselves) that this guy is preaching only contributes to keeping up the false dichotomy of man vs. nature.

    I agree that the false boundary between nature and culture is dysfunctional to say the least but criticizing contemporary cities for example is very rational (since the author seems to hold rationality so high) based on the study of healthy life giving natural systems. It’s all about definition and alot of cults, groups and people use the word nature in a very careless way. I think it is possible to make a, fussy, distinction between culture and nature in a helpful and productive way by making clear definitions of what we mean by nature and unnatural, nature can be a word for everything that is but in common speech I think people usually mean living, biological, interconnected, diverse systems like forests, coral reefs and so on, or sometimes the biosphere as a whole, this type of nature for example abhors garbage, everything is used, reused, eaten, integrated, cities leave heaps of garbage that in the form it is left is alien to the living systems of earth.

    Another way I tend to think of nature is a bit hierarchical but in my opinion it is a correct and sound hierarchy. The world is made up of centers within centers, within centers, nature is a word that can be used for any higher center of which we are a part, any whole that we can not live without is higher than us, the biosphere for example is more nature than man since man cannot in any way live without the biosphere (not at the moment or in any near future at least, I don’t believe man can ever live without some sort of biosphere higher than us but that is debatable I guess) while the biosphere can easily live without us, cities are less nature than man because there can be no cities without us but we can live without cities. This to me seems like a pretty meaningful way of thinking about natural systems, not perfect of course but one way of thinking that is clearer than that presented in this essay.

    Also I don’t really see the connection between the notion of weird and unnatural, perhaps in a very religious strict society with a perversely dysfunctional definition of nature, but does anyone really tell weird people their unnatural? Maybe the U.S is more behind than I imagine, I cant imagine anyone in any situation I have been using the term unnatural to mean weird in the disinfonaut sense.

    I have to give the author the credit of bringing up an extremely interesting and tricky subject though and I could write essays in reply to it if I didn’t stop myself but I will.

    Hope some of what I write makes sense, maybe it’s just weird. Would be interesting to get some feedback from some disinfonauts, I have been actively following the contents here but I haven’t posted much.

  5. And isn’t it strange to advocate a worldview where we see everything as nature and a few lines down advocate that we battle nature and a quote from Bob Dylan saying he doesn’t like nature.

    Should I draw the conclusion we are to accept human nature and human endeavors as nature only to continue to battle half of all natural processes and escape into, “natural”, dreams? And if the unnatural is nature why should we make a conquest of it?

  6. BuzzCoastin | Jan 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm |

    if anything
    this points to the problem of the limits of language
    since nothing in this universe can be unnatural

    as we are using language to shape our realities
    one of the greatest tools we have are new words with which to express our imaginations

  7. Anarchy Pony | Jan 10, 2013 at 1:04 am |

    I’m unnatural for embracing the natural. Gaia bless the birds and the trees and the you’s and the me’s, but not the deadly earth raping machines.
    Doesn’t quite rhyme, but close enough.

  8. I had some thoughts on nature before falling asleep last night, the kind of thinking that can generate deep insight or just crazy associations, I am not sure which kind of conclusion will spill out in the following lines.

    Nature is a very abstract word, like god, it doesn’t have a real counterpart so it is hard to define, when two people discuss the existence of a god the one might have the idea of an old man on a cloud throwing flashes of lightning on people and the other might picture a field permeating all reality, if they do not clearly define their view of what they are actually talking about the discussion will lead to a lot of weird misunderstandings.

    I would say that what the word nature always aims to describe is some kind of whole, so, nature can be used to mean the whole of existence, or it can mean the whole of the biosphere, or the whole of an individuals collected traits as in “it is in the nature of such to do so and so”. So the problem in this essay in my opinion arises from the author mixing up a lot of different levels of nature.

    So what then is unnatural, well unnatural is anything that does not have a place in the specific nature (whole) we are talking about, thus as far as we know a living mix between a crocodile a deer and a rabbit is unnatural in view of everything we “know about nature”, other things like a perpetual motion machine also seems to be unnatural to the nature we are part of, in my opinion nature is not static so that might change and knowledge is even less static so our knowledge might expand to include these things or the universe might change its habits and the possibility for these things might be developed, right now they seem highly unnatural though. In this same way a city is unnatural (that is a contemporary city) to its environment, most technology (not all, surely technology can be integrated and adapted with lots of wholes predating technology) is unnatural to most wholes on earth, driving around with a 4 wheel drive car on a field of flowers for hours will disrupt that whole and the field of flowers will not be able to integrate having this car tear it up constantly, in the same way a whale will be a very unnatural visitor in a small local pub, it is not in the nature of a small local pub to be full of whale.

    There is no moralism here but there is a lot of practical lessons, if you want for example a nature (a whole) where people can live healthy long lives within a living thriving natural world (right now man and culture are subsystems of the nature of the biosphere, all of us depend on the whole of the living world, parts can be taken out but we need some kind of intact biosphere to survive, to the biosphere on the other hand we are just one of those parts that can be taken away, if we adapt to the larger whole the risk of that happening will become smaller) certain things can be labeled natural and certain things unnatural, spreading life destroying poison throughout the whole of the biosphere is in this case unnatural, disrupting all flow and cycling of water would be unnatural, killing all macro fauna would be unnatural. So what kind of nature do we want, what kind of nature do we want to possess? I would say a nature that tries to fight half of all the processes of the larger whole is not a very practical nature to have for a part of that larger whole.

    To define nature as everything existing can be a profound, deep and beautiful thought, for practical considerations here on earth it is often quite pointless though. You will learn very little of how to be a whole in the whole of a living world by viewing the things that are killing and disrupting that world as natural, even if from a zoomed out perspective they might be that. Good and bad are relative values so to say that technology is natural is a completely meaningless statement when we are for example pondering what actions to take in the face of possible doom and destruction of the whole made up of the human race and our immediate ball of natural environment.

    Often I think that the kind of irresponsible (I like irresponsibility in a lot of contexts so don’t think I’m some kind of moralistic control freak here) thinking put forward in this essay is a kind of cognitive defense mechanism, it is to overwhelming to change the way we act, it is to hard not to escape into fantasy (instead of using it for learning things that can have effects outside of the nature of fantasy), we are so addicted to a lot of the technology that is destroying our natural environment that we rather just break down all meaningful distinctions so that we can view ourselves as “good” whatever we do. Sorry but good and bad are very real in specific contexts, they only break down when we view things from a far. In the context of human health spreading poisons in the food chain is bad even evil and yes unnatural, in the context of world peace greedy consumption of technological gadgets using conflict minerals is bad, evil and unnatural, in other contexts they are not, in the context of technological progress letting Congolese people kill and rape each other over minerals is probably good, but is that a viewpoint we really want to take? Do we really want to value the further development of technology higher than the health of the whole of life on earth? Could we not value technological innovation but not value it higher than certain other things? Could we not decide that we only allow tech progress that can be fitted into nature in a way that does not encroach other higher values like a healthy biosphere, peace, human health and happiness and so on?

    I do not think that this kind of base for moral and ethics is a relic from the notion of original sin at all, I think it is highly rational to criticize the way we have built cities, over consumption, war and lots of other human behavior without falling into some moralist puritan heritage trap.

    Humans are not inherently bad but we have inherited a lot of very very bad habits.

  9. Gregory Wyrdmaven | Jan 10, 2013 at 8:42 am |

    To expound on this, and touch on Bob Dylan’s quote: Science actually has now told us that material nature is unexplainable, irrational, etc. at the quantum/sub-atomic level. The logic of the material world we experience through our senses, as filtered and processed by our nervous system, breaks down at the foundation of it. In other words, material reality is like a house but it sits on nothing we can really relate to. And the house itself is imaginary as we cannot have any direct experience of the house, only sensory impressions of it, subjectively processed by our nervous systems. Grass isn’t green, sugar isn’t sweet, shit don’t stink, etc. We’re spending billions trying to find the partical that explains why anything has mass, since everything is actually empty space since atoms are just shells of energy. There’s not only no wizard, there’s no one behind the curtain, there’s not even a curtain.
    Or is there. Because when you strip away “reality” what do you get? Energy. Dylan says the only real things are dreams. What he’s revealing is the only real thing is consciousness. And the real consciousness is when we can remove the context of material reality and dream, when our bodies are inert and we remove physical stimuli from the equation. Consciousness therefore is energy.
    “We don’t have a soul, we are a soul, we have a body.” C. S. Lewis.
    It is the dualistic, compartmentalization of nature into categories of meaningfulness that has led to the current state of spiritual incompetence in which we see groups either claiming their god and their religious text are the only one or another group claiming there is nothing but physical reality. Both fews are irrational, the product of closed minds and have no logical basis. Once we didn’t take reality as we experienced it and called things unnatural, natural or supernatural. It’s all expressions of nature, which itself is an imaginary, chaotic, ever-changing, temporary (in both space and time) construct in which our consciousness has some frame of context. The natural world, meaning ANY experience, is our religious text. Experiencing it directly, without ideology or intent or subjective prejudice, reveals the truth about reality to us. It is only when people seek to control others, or are afraid of Reality (big R), that they try to narrowly define truth via particular religious texts or cultural filters or political parties or economic systems, etc. If we only had the wisdom, or the balls, to experience Reality as it comes to us, not trying to “own” it…all our problems would be solved.
    The good news is after 50k thousand years of human activity, we’ve only screwed the pooch in this area for the last several centuries. We are able to stop being seduced by stuff and being sure that “all that glitters is gold” and start enjoying the process of living again.
    Fiat lux

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