The Naturalistic Fallacy and Sophie’s Choice
It’s not hard to accept that there’s a pressing need to find answers for the questions that issues such as cloning, pollution, or genetic manipulation entail. However, it is difficult to agree which are these questions and their possible answers because the debate is often driven by the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that nature is essentially good. The environmentalist movement, for instance, frequently appeals to the goodness of nature as a way to promote their causes. Many of the fears and misconceptions that shape our options and influence our choices are a result of this fallacy. Exposing them is therefore essential to reconcile clashing positions and find solutions that don’t force us to choose between man and nature.
A friend told me once that he was afraid of genetic manipulation because it could produce Frankesteins. Since selective breeding is also a form of manipulating genes, I wonder if he thinks his French Poodle is some kind of monster. I certainly do although not for the same reasons.
Genetically modified food, cloning, sustainable development, and pollution are some of the issues that today demand expedited answers and entail making difficult choices. Should we preserve nature or procure human development? Should we increase our control or reduce it? Do we have the right to change nature? However, some of these questions and their possible answers are driven by the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that nature is essentially good. Many of the fears and misconceptions shaping our options and influencing our choices are by-products of this fallacy. From our distrust of artificial things to the fear of tampering with the natural order, the following are some of the most common distortions behind the human vs. nature debate.
The Good Nature of Nature
Rape, infanticide and infidelity are not just examples of despicable human behavior that make tabloids’ headlines. They also illustrate the kind of action you can regularly see at Animal Planet. Filled with predators, parasites, starvation, sickness, cannibalism, extreme temperatures, hurricanes and earthquakes, nature is neither a peaceful paradise nor a wise and kind mother that cares deeply about her children, even though, most people equate it with something legitimate, dignified, pure, or at least, normal. In fact, nature knows nothing about justice or dignity and violence or abnormalities are ubiquitous in the natural world. Death from fighting, for example, is more common in most animal species than in the most violent American cities(1). Of course, we shouldn’t feel glad about the extinction of entire species or about oil spilling in the ocean but there’s something wrong about having a partial picture of nature, especially if man is portrayed as the enemy. The majority of our interactions with the natural world involve some form of control or transformation, so this partial picture makes most of the things we do look ignoble or illegitimate. Any alterations to the natural order are seen as bad and selfish because nobody wants good and pure things to change or to be corrupted.
Man is part of nature, of course, but a line has to be drawn between them to tell apart those horrible plastic flowers from the lovely fresh ones. We can sometimes be really mean to ourselves. As we’ve learned to praise nature, we’ve also learned to despise and distrust all sorts of man-made things from breast implants to instant coffee. We often think of artificial products as fake, ugly, dangerous or at least, suspicious. These feelings become particularly exacerbated when it comes to food. People firmly believe that artificial and genetically modified foods are major health and environmental threats when in fact, they are no more dangerous than natural foods. Artificial and natural flavors, for instance, are usually chemically indistinguishable, and when they aren’t, the natural flavor can sometimes be the dangerous one (as in the case of almond extract)(2). Man has been genetically modifying plants and animals with selective breeding and hybridization for millennia. These are the “traditional” ways of producing foods. Making them in a lab makes no big difference. A recent report of 81 research studies about genetically modified food failed to find any new risks to human health or the environment(3). The problem with these fears, usually irrational on health grounds, is that they can have serious implications. They can make food more expensive harming consumers and farmers alike, and less accessible to the millions of people in the Third World that suffer from starvation and nutritional deficiencies.
Thou Shalt not Play God
Apparently manipulating life was not in the original job description of mankind. From contraception to cloning, there is no other topic that makes us speak more passionately about our role on this earth. Human cloning in particular, is seen as the new evil concept that corrupt God’s natural order and that will eventually lead us to our own doom. This fear, rooted in the belief that nature is wise and we should not tamper with it, is behind many colossal misunderstandings. People believe that cloning entails things like becoming immortal, engineering “perfect societies”, producing zombies or bringing Hitler back to life. However, clones are nothing more than identical twins born at different times. Cloning will never be able to reproduce a person’s identity, design an entire population, produce people without a “soul” or bring a psychopath back to life.
Other people are preoccupied with cloning due to the use of human embryos in stem cell research. Arguments for and against frequently focus on the need to find a “biologic line” that can define what can be considered as a person. Of course, they all agree that nature being the ultimate source of goodness and truth should have the last word. The problem is that nature is not very specific on this respect. The biologic line is too fuzzy. A person emerges from a gradual development not from a crucial moment. A fourteen-week embryo is not substantially different from a fourteen-week-and-one day one, or from a thirteen-week-and-six days one. This is why it is necessary to shift the question from finding a line, to consciously choosing one that best trades off the conflicting goods and evils for each dilemma(4). Finding cures for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, infertility, birth defects, and cancer, could depend on that.
Since people believe not only in a natural order but also in the rightness of this order, man’s power to control nature is generally perceived as evil or at least as wrong. We seem to be convinced that the control we exert over nature is destroying it. However, we don’t realize that protecting or reconstructing it is another way of exerting that power. Human beings have always been controlling their environment. Finding increasingly sophisticated ways to do so has been the key to our survival and success. We are among the few species that protect the handicapped and the sick, and the only that can save other animals and plants from extinction or preserve entire ecosystems. We even have developed ways to control our own harmful behavior (laws, morals, etc.) to protect the environment and ourselves. Control, has made our lives safer by reducing accidents and by helping us plan for the future (environmental tragedies are due to lack of control not excess of it). So the question is not about whether we should have control over nature or not, but about the ways in which we exercise that power.
Another myth deriving from the naturalistic fallacy is that we are so stupid, greedy and selfish that we will inevitably consume all the resources that good Mother Nature provides for our survival. In fact, according to the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus we should all be starving by now. He predicted a cataclysm based on the notion that population increased at a geometrical ratio while subsistence could only increase at an arithmetical one. His predictions failed mainly because he didn’t considered the creative power of people to find innovative solutions. Nevertheless, many people still fear or predict this kind of scenarios and think sustainable development is mere wishful thinking. The problem is that the definition of this concept is still fixed on the context of the availability of natural resources. Long term development depends not on obtaining things like paper or coal but on finding ways to communicate our thoughts and heat our homes. Strategies that focus only on resources can become quickly obsolete. Therefore, our forecasts should consider that our relation with the environment includes not only people and resources but also their minds and their exponential power to come up with new ideas and solutions.(5)
Figuring out the Figures
Our unconditional love for nature along with our relentless distrust for humans have an impact on the way we read information such as statistics and technical reports. We like to make weird correlations, come up with bizarre explanations and sometimes, we just give in to collective hysteria. If for instance, the probability of an accident occurring in a nuclear plant is 0.1%, we only grasp that something can go wrong and apply Murphy’s laws to predict it will go wrong. We tend to overreact and don’t pay attention to relations and quantities. Panic follows when we see the words “apple” and “cancer” in the same sentence (even heavy smokers will feel appalled by the imminent danger). We think too that when a substance is found to be hazardous a single of its molecules can kill us and we assume that everything that happens to laboratory overdosed rats will inevitably happen to us.
The problem is that if we don’t leave our prejudices aside and learn to read the data we can be easily manipulated by selfish interests or we can end-up distrusting everybody, unable to discriminate between lies and information supported by scientific evidence.
Facts and Acts
In addition to how we read statistical data and technical reports, there’s also how we react to scientific facts and discoveries when they challenge our beliefs about nature. We don’t accept easily, for instance, the fact that violence is pervasive in nature or that there’s no such thing as the Noble Savage. The problem is that we sometimes insist on blaming what we know for what we do. But one thing is knowledge and another is what we do with that knowledge. By attacking research, assaulting scientists, or condemning the facts we won’t be able to stop irresponsible human behavior. Scientific research poses many ethical questions, but facts are just facts. They cannot be moral or immoral, innocent or guilty. Scientific interpretations are ways of understanding the facts not calls to action. We may question these interpretations, but we cannot say they’re wrong just because they challenge our beliefs. We need to recognize that science doesn’t dictate our choices, it enriches them. We also need to complement facts and findings with formal expressions of our values and with ways of resolving the conflicts that they can yield so we can be in a better position to account for what we do with what we know.
Imagine a world in which nature is declared sacred and we are left powerless against its impelling forces. A world without pharmaceutical research and fast means of transportation. One where it is impossible to produce large quantities of food, where there’s no hope for cancer patients and where there’s no future for the poor.
A world without science and technology is a world without choices. Our long-term interests and our increasingly complex relationship with nature depend more than ever on them. That’s why our options shouldn’t be dictated by those who force us to choose between man and nature. It is not like Sophie’s choice. We can, and should, choose both.
(1) Pinker, S. 2002. The Blank Slate. Viking; p.163
(2) Schlosser, E. “Why MacDonald’s fries taste so good,” Atlantic Monthly, January 2001 in Pinker, S. 2002. The Blank Slate. Viking; p.230
(3) “EC-sponsored research on safety of genetically modified organisms-A review of results.” Report EUR 19884, October 2001, European Union Office for publications.
(4) Green, R. M. 2001. The human embryo Research Debates: Bioethics in the vortex of controversy. New York; Oxford University Press.
(5) Romer, P. “Ideas and Things,” The Economist September 11, 1993; Pinker, S. 2002. op. cit. pp. 237, 238.
Paula Bourges Waldegg has a web page here. She can be emailed at email@example.com