What does “natural” mean?

Our own tribe’s customs aren’t laws of nature.
And what’s natural might not be good.

Dan Fessler, an anthropologist with an interest in evolutionary psychology, has some thoughts on the abuse of the word “natural” in contemporary moral and political discourse:

Controversy erupted in Kanab, Utah recently when the city council resolved to promote what it described as the “natural family,” a monogamous heterosexual marriage producing multiple children. This position is not unique to the Kanab resolution, having been promulgated by conservative think tanks, pundits, and politicians on the national stage. Because the word “natural” carries a lot of weight in such arguments, it is important to note that, by employing it, the council members of Kanab are committing two fundamental errors, one empirical, the other philosophical. First, let’s examine the facts.

“Natural” frequently refers to one of three sources of evidence, namely tradition, human biology, or divine prescription. Anthropology reveals that human societies are characterized by an array of marriage patterns, including monogamy, polygyny (one husband, multiple wives), and polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands). A common pattern is a combination of monogamy and moderate polygyny — most men have a single wife, but some men (generally those highest in prestige and/or power) have multiple wives. If by “natural” one means “prevailing in human traditions,” then the natural human family is quite different from that advocated by social conservatives. Perhaps proponents of the “natural family” disregard other cultures, equating “natural” only with the traditions of their forbearers. However, given their state’s history of polygyny, the council of Kanab is on shaky ground promoting monogamous marriage via this line of reasoning.

“Natural” is often used to justify practices by appeal to biology — those who wish to define marriage as exclusively heterosexual, or who advocate large family size, make reference to the complementarity of male and female bodies, the fact that the clear purpose of genitalia is procreation, etc. What does the study of reproductive biology tell us about the natural human family? The foremost feature of humans in this regard is that males are larger than females. Across species, this pattern is associated with polygynous mating. The explanation for this pattern is simple: natural selection favors larger male size whenever males compete to control access to multiple females. In monogamous species, males are no larger than females — because every guy gets a gal, there is no competitive advantage in being big. Across species, the pattern characterizing humans (males being about 10-15% larger) is associated with moderately polygynous mating. Appealing to biology thus does not support the vision of the natural family as one man and one woman (I leave for another essay what biology tells us about the naturalness of exclusively heterosexual behavior — suffice it to say that social conservatives won’t be pleased).

Lastly, the term “natural” is sometimes used to mean “dictated by God.” While those who employ the term in this fashion are unlikely to be swayed by evidence from either cultural anthropology or evolutionary biology, nevertheless, the religious traditions invoked often offer no more support for the view that monogamy is the natural form of human marriage. I leave it to theologians to debate the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the history of this organization clearly indicates that religious teachings on the subject of marriage can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Such a history is not surprising, as there are Biblical precedents for a wide variety of marital arrangements, notably including polygyny.

So, do I advocate polygynous marriage? Absolutely not. The reason has to do with the philosophical error committed by those who appeal to “natural” when prescribing behavior. Whether one means “prevailing around the globe” or “reflecting human biology,” the term “natural” should never be taken as providing moral guidance, as explanations of behavior do not constitute justifications. Many abhorrent actions are both common and scientifically explicable —scholars can study, and explain, homicide or the abuse of stepchildren, yet no reasonable person would argue that, because these actions are “natural” by either definition, they should be accepted. Of course, the Kanab city council might respond that their definition of “natural” only refers to their own traditions or beliefs. However, given that traditions change and beliefs are subject to interpretation, appealing to “natural” in this way is a rhetorical trick, giving the impression of immutability and incontestability to things that are anything but. Reasonable people should discuss the moral principles underlying their positions, instead of smuggling unstated and ill-considered assumptions into the discussion by referring to what is natural.

Footnote Could “Kanab” be cognate with “cannabis”? That would explain a lot.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “What does “natural” mean?”

  1. Another grossly misused word is "obvious". It is "obvious" that monogamy is the correct thing, since the birth ratio is almost exactly 50% male, 50% female.
    Of course, it is "obvious" that the Sun goes around the Earth (we still say "sunrise" and "sunset"), and "obvious" that Africans are not as smart as Europeans, and so forth.

  2. Nit-pick (a useful grooming behaviour in hairy apes, so it's authorised by nature: the good Dan Fessler wrote "forbearers" when he should have written "forbears", i.e. people who bore (children) afore.
    A "forbearer" would be "a person who practises forbearance", but it's an empty set in the blogosphere.

  3. The situation is even stranger when it comes to 'dictated by God.' Jewish society was Polygynous at least down to the time of Josephus, who in his autobiography refers to a brother of his and makes the point that he was both the son of his mother and his father — a distinction unneccessary except in a society allowing some form of polygamy. (My apologies for not giving the exact references. It's 88 degrees at 10:45 PM here in Brooklyn and I'm feeling lazy.)
    At no point do either Jesus or Paul condemn polygamy that i know of. In fact, there is one phrase is Paul, I believe, which states that the requirement of holding a particular office is that the man should have only one wife, again an unnecessary distinction except in a society where polygamy is permitted.
    Which means, since both Islam and Mormonism allowed polygyny, and Islam still does, this means all the "Abrahamic" religions permitted it.
    Which still doesn't mean it is a good idea — though if it were to be permitted, polyandry should be equally as acceptable.

  4. I personally am not a fan at all over arguing whether or not homosexuality is a "natural" thing or a conscious choice. Either way, it ain't wrong, so I find it completely irrelevant.

  5. Kanab's website says it's named "for a Paiute word meaning 'place of the willows'". So maybe they're high on aspirin.

  6. According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, (you'll have to google it, since this site doesn't allow html in comments), "the word 'Kanab' comes from a Native American word for a willow basket used to carry an infant on its mother's back."
    Even if Kanab was cognate with cannabis, I'm not sure how it would explain anything in this story. I assume you meant that, rather than simply being cognate with the word "cannabis," actual cannabis had some continued significance to the town and that the town's actions could somehow be explained by "smoking" cannabis.
    However, the philosophy of the town's actions here are more in keeping with the kind of notions that caused Utah, in 1915, to be the first state to outlaw marijuana (as a reaction to their fellow Mormons returning from Mexico with it). It seems unlikely that 6 years later they would found a town and name it after cannabis, and even less likely that cannabis would influence them to oppose gay marriage 85 years after that.
    … or was the footnote supposed to be one of those "what were they smoking?" jokes?

  7. I agree with the spirit of the posting, but as so often happens when we ask that others examine their assumptions, Dr. Fessler lets one of his own slip through when he writes:
    "Across species, the pattern characterizing humans (males being about 10-15% larger) is associated with moderately polygynous mating."
    Our two closest ape relatives, the common chimp and the bonobo are both characterized by males larger than females by the same ratio as humans, and yet they are not "moderately polygynous" by any stretch of the imagination.
    Bonobo life features many sexual encounters on a typical day in every possible configuration save mother/son. As for chimps, when a female is in estrus, she's likely to have sex with every male who will have her, and females have been known to run off to a neighboring group to keep the party going when all the males in her group are unwilling (or unable) to keep up.
    I believe Jane Goodall reported observing one female have sex well over twenty times in one afternoon.
    Call me a bore, but in my social circles we don't call that "moderate polygyny!"

  8. You are objecting to the use of the word "natural" to describe the type of family the Kanab City Council favors? Because the resolution does not argue from any of the sources (biological nature, tradition or divine command) that you describe, but refers solely to empirical considerations of social policy (i.e., that the incidence of heterosexual two-parent families correlates inversely with most measures of social pathology). The empirical argument advanced by the Kanab City Council is actually better than half the peer-reviewed drivel I encounter. So this lengthy discourse on the use and abuse of the word "natural" seems kind of pedantic.
    Also kind of beside the point, like the commentators who point that the hundreds of academic organizations that pass resolutions endorsing "diversity" have no interest in, say, a diversity of political or religious opinions. What of it? Words have no inherent meaning: everyone knows what kind of admissions and hiring policies the faculty senate is intending to endorse, and everyone knows what kind of families the Kanab City Council is intending to endorse. If you want some other kind of admissions policy, or some other kind of family, say so, don't quibble with the words "diversity" or "natural."

  9. As a political and social policy matter, words do indeed have meaning, inherent or not. y81 may understand "what kind of families the Kanab City Council is intending to endorse" but most people are happy to take them at their word.
    The problem is not that religious conservatives try to coopt the word "natural" to support their view. Whatever the debate, one thing we know these days is that evidence, logic, and reasoned argument make little political or social difference. Sadly, many people without y81's insight vote.
    It's not about logical argument–it's about fundraising, riling the base, and tossing enough BS around that voters will react viscerally. Here words matter a great deal, especially when extremists stir the passions of fools. What we really should worry about is that to the extent that they make a certain "kind of family" the standard of behavior, they can dehumanize and demonize those who don't fit the mold.
    Once this happens, it is no longer a simple matter of refusal to grant state sanctions under family law–which is all the gay marriage issue is about, in the end. It becomes a matter of how to rid society of the unnatural vermin who live among us. First, the limit behavior, then thought, speech, political and business activity.
    For gays, this looks like a ban on sodomy, prohibition on discussion of homosexuality in education progtrams, and limits on the ability of gays to run for office or run certain types of businesses–such as day care or amusement park facilities.
    Does anyone out there think James Dobson, PhD, would object to any of these policy proposals? y81?
    And yes, I did call Dobson an extremist, and I called his follwers fools.

  10. Christopher,
    I would consider that "moderate polygyny." I would be careful equating behavior with social structure. Take gorillas for instance. Groups usually consist of one to three males headed by a dominant silverback wherein the silverback retains sole sexual/breeding rights to all the sexually mature females in the group.
    Ack Ack Ack Ack

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