March 28, 2002

STOP THINKING, JUST MARCH :

Oh no! Bill McKibben's said too much. He's said it all. (Chris Mooney, 3.28.02, American Prospect)

[This] brings us...to Bill McKibben and the philosopher-academics -- they're that at least as much as environmentalists -- in his coalition. In his Times op-ed, McKibben wrote that "cloning of any kind is a step toward genetic engineering...toward leaving the natural world behind." "Nature," incidentally, is the keyword if you want to know where someone really stands in the therapeutic cloning debate. With remarkable consistency, its usage demonstrates when therapeutic cloning opponents have gone beyond science, which tells us certain things about the natural world, in the direction of prescriptive, philosophical statements about the way they believe the natural world ought to be.

The problem, of course, is that the dichotomy between "natural" and "unnatural" is a spurious one; humans are part of the natural world and all their activities, science, cloning, and otherwise, are therefore hardly unnatural, even if they may be unprecedented. McKibben tries to draw a distinction between his defense of the "natural" and "liberalism's faith in the onward march of science," but there shouldn't be any daylight between these two things. It's not good for science or for liberalism.

Of course, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with finding yourself in new coalitions, as McKibben has. But such alignments can only be assessed by weighing the strength of the arguments that have brought them into being against their more negative consequences. That's why it's so troubling that philosophically weak worries about the "unnatural" have prompted leading liberal minds, like McKibben's, to ally themselves so closely with anti-choice religious rightists like Brownback.


One of the surest signs that someone is uncomfortable their own intellectual position comes when they try to redefine words. It's quite often an indicator that they recognize they can not respond to the opposing argument effectively if words are allowed to retain their true meaning. We see this kind of unfortunate tendency to bastardize language for political purposes on display in Chris Mooney's distortion of the meaning of the word "natural".

He argues that because Man was created by Nature, nothing he does can ever be unnatural. But take a gander at the dictionary definition of "natural" :

nat·u·ral Pronunciation Key (nchr-l, nchrl) adj.
1. Present in or produced by nature: a natural pearl.
2. Of, relating to, or concerning nature: a natural environment.
3. Conforming to the usual or ordinary course of nature: a natural death.
4.
a. Not acquired; inherent: Love of power is natural to some people.
b. Having a particular character by nature: a natural leader.
c. Biology. Not produced or changed artificially; not conditioned: natural immunity; a natural reflex.
5. Characterized by spontaneity and freedom from artificiality, affectation, or inhibitions. See Synonyms at naive.
6. Not altered, treated, or disguised: natural coloring; natural produce.
7. Faithfully representing nature or life.
8. Expected and accepted: "In Willie's mind marriage remained the natural and logical sequence to love" (Duff Cooper).
9. Established by moral certainty or conviction: natural rights.
10. Being in a state regarded as primitive, uncivilized, or unregenerate.

Obviously, "natural" means something which precedes human manipulation. Contrary to Mr. Mooney's assertion, at the point where human activities are brought to bear on something it ceases to be natural. Now, we may wish to give Mr. Mooney the benefit of the doubt and assume that he simply didn't understand the words he was using, because the only alternative is to conclude that he was being dishonest, and trying to escape from the bounds of language because he could not otherwise answer Mr. McKibben's argument. We'll leave it to you to decide.

The broader point though is that what separates Man from the rest of Nature is precisely the fact that we alone are capable of going beyond natural limits. We do not have to accept the world as it exists around us, but instead can bend it to our own purposes. This is an awesome and terrible power. It has been a great benefit to us in most instances, but it does frequently have negative consequences, some intended, some unintended. Those of us who propose that we go slowly on things like cloning are really only saying that we as a species need to take responsibility for all of the consequences that will follow, intended and unintended, when we move beyond the natural and experiment with the unnatural. This requires that we carefully consider what the consequences might be, rather than marching (a probably accidental but entirely apt metaphor from Mr. Mooney, suggesting as it does a certain measure of thoughtlessness) blindly into a future that might not seem so much like "progress" once we get there.

(via Instapundit)

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 28, 2002 1:25 PM
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