One of the most irritating aspects of the human condition is how difficult it is to argue with someone who has already decided their conclusion from the outset. Instead of seeking knowledge for its own sake, they only seek to confirm their own prejudices, and at worst, they attempt to force them on everyone else. For such people, phrases like “it’s against nature” and “because nature said so” are their common refrains. Of course, appeal to nature is a logical fallacy, and it offends my scientific sensibilities in many ways.
First off, “nature” is a vague and loaded term. Just as “chemical” can be used as an adjective for anything, people use the term to mean “natural good, artificial bad.” A lot of stupid health scares such as “Facebook gives you cancer” or the aspartame controversy (which the European Food Safety Authority has confirmed as safe unless you have phenylketonuria) are motivated by a phobia of “unnatural” things. Well, diseases such as measles are natural, but would you rather have that or the “unnatural” vaccine? Actually, it’s sad that many would prefer the former.
So, as the anti-vaccine crowd shows, appeal to nature tends to be trotted out and accepted by those ignorant of science. Homophobes also fall into this trap. They claim that being gay goes against nature, but the animal kingdom hasn’t been listening and instead have a gay old time. Yep, gay necrophiliac ducks are a part of nature, and in fact, animals engage in a lot of behaviour that would horrify most humans. Yet, when you point this out, homophobes get a little annoyed at being compared to animals, claiming we’re totally different because we have free will. And yet “human nature” is constantly used to justify homophobia, among other attempts at controlling societal values.
Appeal to nature also assumes you are ignorant of history, because then it becomes a lot easier to sell 50’s America as representative of time immemorial. In fact, the “traditional family” is an invention of the 50s. During the Industrial Revolution and Depression/World War II eras, it was common for women to work outside the home. Also, extended families were common to save money during the Great Depression (just as more young people are staying with their parents nowadays as a result of the Recession), and this was traditionally a normal part of Chinese culture. So how did that “nuclear family” come about? By suppressing any form of dissent to avoid talking about those icky divorces, abortions, and homosexuality. Yeah, ask anyone from an abusive situation how that works out.
Another “natural” invention of modern times is that pillar of gender prescriptivism: blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Well, in the early 20th century, gendered colours were not well-defined, and in fact, old magazines used to say that pink is for boys and blue is for girls. The pattern we see today was, naturally, invented by marketers. Many studies have been done on colour preferences, and while the results are varied, blue tends to be the most liked universally. So in the end, pink/blue coding exists because people say so. So much for nature.
So in conclusion, appeal to nature is not only a logical fallacy, but people’s perceptions of nature are often wrong in the face of actual scientific evidence, with the examples written here being a mere sampling of the many things society accepts as true simply because they are repeated often enough. Also, whether you’re scaring people from taking life-saving vaccines or telling boys and girls that they are behaving wrong, it’s a harmful fallacy. Hopefully, by repeating scientific findings often enough, stereotypical perceptions can change, but prejudices are awfully resilient. After all, mass hysteria results from anyone suggesting that gender roles may be made up.
As a final note, you know what started the Sexual Revolution? Margaret Mead learning that Samoan girls in the 1920s were more free in their sexual expression compared to American girls. The truth really does set you free. Also, reading the whole Mead-Freeman feud is amusing, since it really highlights how far people will go to defend their prejudiced perceptions in the face of contradictory evidence.