Okay, so there’s this thing which has always bugged me since I was a young kajigger just getting into science and philosophy. It’s a philosophy that I call pseudonaturalism. It’s mostly used in conservative moral philosophies (moral naturalism) and liberal philosophies of science. It’s the theory that something which is “natural” is somehow superior/better than things which are “unnatural.” For instance, moral naturalists usually say that homosexuality is unnatural, therefore it is wrong. (I’ve never been able to ask a moral naturalist what they thought of rape, but I’d really like to hear it if any of those types are lurking out there.)
Anyway, my problem with this is how they define “natural.” For me, natural is the entire physical world. I think things which are natural are things which actually exist in the natural world (i.e., the universe) and which arise from the laws and processes of nature. I lump everything into two categories: “natural” and “supernatural.” The natural is the physical, empirically verifiable jazz what we deal with in our quotidian lives, and the supernatural is any nonsense that can’t be verified through naturalistic means. Such as crazy mutant killer GM food that gives our babies ADHD and makes them retarded.
You may say that my definition of “natural” is nonstandard (or unnatural, if you will). However, the reason I define it this way is because every other way of defining the term for technical use relies on arbitrarily drawing lines at some point or other with absolutely no rational basis. Take, for instance, the fear of GM food. Fear of GM food is based on scant rational scientific reasoning: the fear is that an allergenic protein will get spliced into a food product, which will then cause a reaction in some unwitting person who doesn’t realize that they are eating food laced with proteins from a substance they are allergic to. Granted, this fear is not unfounded; however, the GM industry has an absolutely sterling track record for self-regulation. The fearmongers like to whine that the FDA doesn’t have any explicit regulations for GM crops, but that’s just because none are necessary at this point: the industry does it on its own out of fear of the inevitable lawsuits which would arise if they didn’t. Why fix what ain’t broke? As for claims that GM food can cause ADHD and all sorts of other jazz (I’ve even heard cancer!), that’s just utter nonsense (i.e., “supernatural” mumbo jumbo). I also hear people bring in the pseudonaturalist argument here: we are “playing god,” which makes GM food wrong. To me, I don’t understand how this is playing god while giving an individual infected with HIV antiretrovirals isn’t. But then, there are people who think the pharmaceutical industry is evil because it’s all “unnatural.” For both of these distinct types of nutjob, I’ve come up with what I call the Banana Argument.
It may shock you to hear this, but every banana you have ever eaten in the past 50 years–every banana you’ve seen at the supermarket–has been genetically identical to every other banana you’ve encountered. The Cavendish banana, which is the Banana in Chief of the edible fruit world, is the product of direct human intervention. Wild bananas are so far removed from the Cavendish that you wouldn’t even recognize them. Somewhere around 10,000 years ago, humans in Asia decided to start “playing god” with different varietals of a wild fruit known to the modern scientific community as musa. Some of these fruits had sweet flesh but were riddled with massive seeds which were difficult to remove, while others had small seeds but bitter fruit. They figured out that they could splice and cross-polinate these plants to get mixes of traits of the parents in their offspring. This went on for thousands of years, and eventually the Cavendish was born in the 1960s in the wake of the extinction of the Big Mike (Gros Michel). However, the problem with the Cavendish–the problem with all modern bananas of the past few hundred years–is that it is completely sterile. This makes for great news for banana lovers, since it means you don’t have to pick out any seeds, but it also means that the only way to keep the species alive is to continually take cuttings of existing plants and growing them into new trees–new trees which are virtually genetically identical to the parent tree.
Now, are bananas natural or unnatural? Clearly, the pseudonaturalist would be forced to call them “unnatural” and swear them off as morally repellant/bad for your health. However, doesn’t this seem a bit counterintuitive? After all, bananas are one of the most nutritious foods around, and there are societies which use the leaves and skins of these plants for a wide variety of important doodads (paper, cloth, etc.). Should we really conclude that bananas are evil? If you’re a pseudonaturalist, it’s your only option. Pseudonaturalism makes arbitrary assumptions about what is and isn’t natural. Bananas are just the latest casualty of irrational thinking.
The funny thing is that genetic modification may be the only thing that can keep the banana from going extinct. Since bananas are all clones of each other, there is no genetic variance, which means they are incredibly susceptible to disease. One disease could wipe out the entire population. In fact, that’s how Cavendish became king: Big Mike, the previous banana sovereign, got wiped off the planet by a fungal infection which spread like wildfire through the identical plants. Cavendish was just waiting in the wings–designed with this fungus in mind–for Big Mike to sputter out. However, while Cavendish have been stuck in evolutionary stasis due to the fact that they reproduce through cloning, the killer fungus has been getting stronger. Now it’s mutated and Cavendish is no longer immune. Only this time there isn’t any back-up banana: once Cavendish is gone, it could be decades before bananas hit the shelves for human consumption once again. The only thing that can save bananaphiles now is good old genetic engineering. We need science to find us a protein what makes bananas rot-resistant, and we need it now. If we don’t, not only are we losing an excellent source of protein and nutrients, but whole economies could collapse, bringing down the global market. Genetic modification doesn’t seem so scary now, does it?
Okay, so I know it’s not the best argument. Here’s another one: arsenic is natural. So is mercury. Also, dying of cancer and men sleeping around with lots of ladies. On top of that, the vast majority of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plants (the scientific discipline which studies plant-based drugs is known as pharmacognosy). Killing for reasons other than food (i.e., socio-political reasons such as war or punishment) is almost unheard of in the “natural” world. It’s perfectly natural to walk around completely naked, and it’s unnatural to shave or wear deodorant or brush our teeth. The point is, if you’re gonna start drawing the line between “natural” and “unnatural” and your basis for doing so isn’t something to do with natural laws, then you’re going to have to make some arbitrary decisions. It seems highly likely that these decisions would be difficult to defend. It’s just easier to do it my way.
Also, quit bitching and starting petitions trying to stop GM baby food. Sorry science likes to help the world. Next time we’ll leave our fates in the hands of a cruel, indifferent “natural” world in which we have only existed for a few milliseconds of geological time.