The Myth of the Natural

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naturalismIf someone placed an apple and a baseball on a table and asked you to pick out which of these two objects is natural and which is artificial, it’s not hard to figure out what category you’d place each object in. The divide between what is natural and what is not, then, seems clear enough. Carving up reality in this way is certainly helpful in many cases, but a problem arises when we try to apply such concepts to sexual orientation and sexual acts.

It is often said that homosexuality and homosexual acts are unnatural.  It is quite difficult to make sense of this claim, but we’ll do the best we can to understand it. On the one hand, as previously mentioned, the unnatural is that which is artificial; items like pharmaceuticals, computers, and airplanes would fall under this category. Yet, I take it for granted that those who stand by the claim that homosexuality and homosexual acts are unnatural do not mean that they are artificial but most likely mean that they go against nature in some way. So a different meaning of the unnatural needs to be fleshed out.

To go against nature, as homosexuals apparently do, might possibly mean that the sexual feelings and acts experienced by homosexuals are not what nature intended. To make the point differently, two women having sex makes as much sense as trying to write a book with nothing but a stack of papers when you would really need a pencil to do the trick. In simple terms, two women or two men cannot reproduce. Their sexual organs only work toward the goal of reproduction when they engage with members of the opposite sex; not of the same sex. As such, as we see with the birds and bees, and the entirety of nature, sexual acts that fall under the category of natural are those that would allow for reproduction. Two penises can’t give you babies. Neither can two vaginas.

Therefore, when homosexuals engage in homosexual relations, they are misusing their sexual organs since they cannot possibly reproduce. So in this sense, homosexual acts are unnatural.

But what seems clear enough is that this sense of the unnatural is problematic, to put it mildly. The first two immediate problems concern heterosexual couples who are sterile and heterosexual couples who have sex with contraception. The former cannot have babies and the latter are doing everything they can not to. So if we accept the argument that homosexual acts are unnatural, we’d pretty much have to include most of what humans do on a daily basis in the privacy of their bedroom, or wherever else they do it, under the category of unnatural. Surely that would be absurd.
Moreover, another problem arises in the post-Darwinian world in which natural selection, acting as a powerful explanatory device, allows us to see that much of our physical traits do not serve any purpose in some cosmic, grand sense. They only exist because they conferred some benefit to our ancestors. So the penis isn’t anymore “for” reproduction than the eye is “for” seeing.  The eye, for instance, exists only because it helps us see. It doesn’t exist in order for us to see. So if nature intends nothing, there seems to be no sense in which we can say we are going against what nature intended.

In short, sexual acts like oral sex or mutual masturbation are not for reproduction. And yet people of all sexual orientations seem to carry out such acts anyway, and most would never consider them unnatural. The divide between what is and is not natural is ultimately not so clear and may not even exist. What separates the tools used by our chimpanzee cousins and the highly advanced technology we use may be a matter of degree, not principle. Homosexual acts are also perfectly natural in the sense that they occur all throughout nature; several hundred species of animals have been observed doing just that. Of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, the Bonobo chimp has all kinds of sex, to take just one example. Also, homosexuality and homosexual acts date far back in history and are by no means a recent phenomenon.

And so the next time you hear someone saying homosexuality and homosexual acts are unnatural, make sure they clarify what they mean. Because if they mean it in the senses described in this article here, then suggest to them that at best, their claim is problematic. At worst, it is completely without merit.

Contributed by Kareem Zreik. Kareem is a Philosophy undergraduate at the American University of Beirut.

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