I am generally not a fan of the term ‘natural.’ I’m fine with it in the context of human talents and skills, such as saying that someone is a natural runner or painter, but applying natural in other contexts, such as to foods, human social orders, and behaviors is often problematic. In the first context I mentioned, relating to human skills, we use the term natural to mean that something comes easily to someone. They have a proclivity toward something as a result of genes, epigenetic factors, or a lucky upbringing that gave them lots of exposure to the thing from a young age. In the other context, we are using the term natural to make normative judgements that don’t sound like normative judgements. We are attaching our values to what is desirable or undesirable, and cloaking that judgement in an idea that something simply happens because it happens and its a good thing.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, we can look at what might be considered ‘natural’ for human beings in terms of living and social arrangements. When looking back at human history in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the evolution of Homo sapiens in tribal groups. He writes, “Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. … In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.”
What has helped Homo sapiens form societies larger than about 150 individuals are technologies such as religions and political institutions. Man-made structures for organizing human life have propelled us beyond our small tribes which would compete, fight, and break down. Harari’s quote suggests that what is ‘natural’ for humans is to live in small bands where we are distrustful of strangers we don’t know intimately. What is unnatural is for us to exist and coordinate across large groups of human beings.
The way that Harari describes the ‘natural’ state of being for humans helps us see that ‘natural’ is often used to propel certain ways of being without actually considering whether the idea of ‘natural’ is a good or bad thing. It would be ‘natural’ for humans to live in small groups that fought each other, but that wouldn’t be good for the flourishing of humanity. So when we make arguments that eating the paleo diet is good because it is ‘natural’ or that political leaders need to be tough, strong men because that is ‘natural’, we are simply hiding a normative judgement behind the phrase ‘natural.’ What we can see, however, is that ‘natural’ is not a good or bad thing on its own. We should be responsible and stop using ‘natural’ as an argument or as a way to advertise products. It doesn’t mean what we purport it to mean.