Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Natural Living

There is a frank and robust conversation going on in my extended family about whether or not medical research should be carried out and whether we should try and cure diseases. The logic goes something like this:

Given that we came about as a result of evolution - the survival of the fittest – natural selection – then it follows that diseases are part of this process. Take cancer, for instance. This disease has been around since the time of the dinosaurs (I don't know this, I'm just repeating what I heard), and it's function is to reduce the population. Trying to cure diseases goes against nature, and we should live our lives without worrying about such things, and allow nature to take it's course. We are naturally evolved creatures and should therefore live within nature. To do otherwise is unnatural.

I now want to carry out a thought experiment. The parameters within which we shall consider whether something is “natural” or not is that if something is manufactured then it is not part of nature. Under this criteria, we therefore began to depart from living naturally when we created the first primitive stone tools – assuming they were stone of course! From there on in, we applied innovation and imagination and our tools became more elaborate and elegant as time went by. The image I have in mind is the brilliant “jump-cut” in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the man-ape “Moon Watcher” having realised he can use a hog's femur bone as a weapon to defeat his enemies, throws the bone in the air in a moment of triumph. The camera follows the bone up into the air and as it falls to earth the scene jumps to an orbiting weapon of mass destruction.

If we now think about what most people think of as the “natural” world we are looking at the world apart from Man. Thus, all the plants, animals etc. are all part of the natural landscape, part of it, live within it – all perfectly natural. However, there are some animals which have developed primitive tools, much the same as we did in our early pre-human existence. Given that these tools have been “manufactured” by the animal concerned, then the animal has departed from living “naturally” – it has entered the realm of technology, albeit at a very primitive level. Even so, as these tools have been developed by creatures other than man who inhabit the “natural world”, then all their activities and technological advances are inside the natural realm.

We now move a million years into the future and we find that one of these species of animals has gone on to develop auto mobiles, aircraft and weapons of mass destruction. They are also carrying out medical research, have a health service and extending their life expectancy as a result. However, as we still exist but are now so advanced that we are no longer recognisable as human beings, but have altered our physiology and become god-like, we look down on these now technologically advanced animals and regard all their advances as being perfectly natural. They must be so, because they are not human and therefore part of the natural order of things.

I think it is clear where I am going with this. There is, in my view at least, no distinction between the natural and the unnatural. We are all the products of nature, and evolution has dictated that it is in our nature to be technological. Therefore, all our cities, transport systems, health services etc.... are all part of nature precisely because it is within our nature to be like this. So, to reject medical intervention and medical research in the belief that it is against nature is a delusion. Also, let us not forget that we can only do anything within the laws of nature because everything we do is subject to those laws. Physics, chemistry, quantum physics are all part of the natural realm, and nothing we can do is permissible outside of their enabling. We might have a higher level of consciousness than the rest of the animal kingdom, but all our endeavours both now and into the distant future are part of our natural evolution – and that's only natural!

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