Marriage and the Naturalistic Fallacy

We've been talking about marriage (here, here, and here). We've established that marriage has a history, it has variability, and that it is hard to pin down a narrowly defined set of functions for it. However, I also suggested that when we strip away a lot of variants that have special explanations (even if those variants are MOST of the variants of marriage) there is a thing we can call marriage that has a limited and understandable set of functions, or at least, there is a thing we can understand in a very basic evolutionary and social way. And we'll get to that. But first, I want to take a short detour to cover two important concepts that almost always get in the way of understanding human behavior from a biological perspective: The naturalistic fallacy (in this post), and the fallacy of the pristine primitive (in the next post). You've heard of the former and we've discussed it here before. I've made indirect references to the latter but have not addressed it intensively, and when I do as part of this discussion of marriage I only want to talk about part of that concept, so I'm shortening the name to reflect that narrow approach to the "Primitive Fallacy" or the "Fallacy of the Primitive." It may be the most annoying of all of the anthropologically related fallacies, it is one of the most common, and it is spoken about the least, possibly because it is so annoying.

But first the Naturalistic Fallacy.

This fallacy has two levels. The first is very simple: Given different options for how things should work, the one that matches that which happens in nature is preferable because it is good. For example, since babies in nature drink mother's milk, breastfeeding is good.

That breastfeeding is good, however, is not because it is found in nature. It is good for a lot of reasons, but being found in nature does not make it good (and maybe it just plain isn't all good). From the point of view of being nice to little babies, landslides are also found in nature. But when the mountainside falls on the baby and smothers it, we call that bad. And it is bad. That something is found in nature does not make it automatically good.

One of the most common ways of explaining the naturalistic fallacy is to consider smallpox and smallpox vaccines. If that which is natural is good, and in contrast, that which is not natural is bad, then smallpox would be good because it is found in nature, and smallpox vaccine, which is human-made is bad. But we know the reverse is true, right?

Actually, no, the reverse is not uncritically accepted as true. Using Nature to determine what is good has, minimally, the following aspects: 1) A thing is seen as natural (or not); 2) A thing is seen as good (or not); 3) We assume we know what "natural" and "good" are and have got that right for the thing in question.

In the case of smallpox, we can question the naturalistic assumption that what is natural is good by noting that smallpox is natural (1), that smallpox is bad (2) and that we are correct in saying that smallpox is bad (3). But none of that is true. Small pox like many similar viruses is zoonotic. It comes from non-human animals, probably rodents, and it probably umped into human populations because of long term residents in villages supported by agriculture. In other words, small pox is a disease that arises a much from human cultural practices as anything else. One could argue that this is wrong and that "natural" humans like foragers had smallpox too, but that argument won't get you far because I'll just change the disease to measles. Measles comes form cows, and domestic cattle is a human invention. Saying that smallpox or measles is bad vs. good is subjective; from the point of view of the virus itself, it is not "bad." Human made vaccine is bad. Thus, of course, we can't necessarily define good and bad in an objective way.

Having said all that, I'm personally not that concerned that we are objective with respect to things we measure on the basis of being natural. Let's stick with a human point of view. From a human point of view, however, we still can't say that just because something is found in nature (breastfeeding) it is good, because some stuff found in nature sucks (pox).

Therefore, the measurement of "goodness" by reference to nature is a fallacy and should never be attempted. Right?

Actually, wrong. This is the second level of the fallacy, which we might call the "Fallacy of the Naturalistic Fallacy." Now that we know that the Naturalistic Fallacy is out there, we should not stop looking at nature for clues about whether something is good or bad. Rather, we should refine the question and continue to use nature as a guide to estimating the effects of one or another decision or activity. For instance, it was discovered by researchers 30 years ago that humans "in nature" (foragers in southern Africa) ate a fair amount of meat, but that among all the food they ate, they consumed only certain kinds of fat. Meanwhile, the very unnatural industrially produced diet of Westerners included a different kind of fat in abundance. Those researchers suggested at the time that nutritional science would some day find out that certain kinds of fats and oils were OK, even good for us, and others would be bad for us. And they were right. The logic behind this is simple: Almost all foods have a down side and an upside, and a given organism tends to have adaptations (through prior Natural Selection) to mitigate against the negative consequences and make use of the positive effects of a given food. If you change the diet of such an organism, it may find itself consuming something which, for it, because of this particular history, has a negative effect.

And thus, we who study human hunter-gatherers are not surprised to find that donuts = death. Because there were no donuts, or at least very few donuts, in the "paleolithic."

Here's the thing: We can look at nature, or at the "natural" version of some thing, and learn from that. Assuming that something in nature is good requires that we know what "nature" is (and we often don't), and it assumes that we are explicitly NOT using a human perspective, and all sorts of other things. These assumptions are not unlike assumptions we make when we take advice from people we know are experts on something (using authority to stand in for knowledge) or when we use a rule of thumb as a shortcut to finding the answer to a difficult problem (picking the simpler solution because we believe that life is simple so it must be more correct than the complicated solution) or when we use a guideline to make a basic choice (always wearing one's seat belt even if we feel we can estimate the actual danger associated with each trip we make in a car). In all of these cases we are doing something that could be very, very misleading, but at the same time doing something that lets us come to a solution that is better than random, if we are thoughtful.

Years ago scientists and engineers who wanted to build robots, especially the kind that would explore other planets, realized that they could look at insects to find ways in which "nature" "solved" problems of locomotion. When they did this a lot was made of it, and there was much press and we saw science reporters fawning all over engineers who were fawning all over robots made to look like insects. I'm not sure what actually happened after that because I was not there, but I suspect engineers quickly discovered that they would have been committing a form of "naturalistic fallacy" by making 900 kilogram robots that looked like insects that are so small that gravity is the least of their problems. And so on. What happened instead was, I think, a quite re-orientation, wherein engineers looked at insects and other creatures to see how they got around, and then uses what they learned along with basic engineering, the results of experiments and experience, and came up with amazing machines that would land on and explore other planets. They looked at nature and they used it.

Nature is like Yoda. Or the swami guy in the cave on top of the mountain. Wisdom in nature, there is; always obvious it is not; learn to use the lessons of nature wisely, we must.

What does this have to do with marriage? This: If we find humans in a "state of nature" and examine their way of marriage, should we say that this is what is "good" or, more relevant to the current political debate, "normal"? And the answer is: Don't assume that you are looking at humans in a state of nature, that what is found in nature is good, or that its meaning is what you would like it to be. To be conti


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Well, if we look to nature for marital advice, perhaps we can go with the the female killing the male after copulation. Or maybe we'd prefer that one male gets all the females in the area and is the only one who mates until another man kills him. While he's at it, the new guy can kill any children that aren't his own. Can't risk wasting resources on some other dude's genetic material.

Or maybe we should just go with the most common solution and have individuals hook up with whomever looks best and then never see each other again.


Marnie, I think that would fall under the " [ specified peculiar sexual behavior ] MUST be adaptive" fallacy.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 17 Jul 2012 #permalink

I prolly should have said [ specified peculiar human sexual behavior ].

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 17 Jul 2012 #permalink

There's a song by Love & Rockets that includes this:

You can't go against nature
Because when you do
go against nature
that's part of nature too

So another reason why the naturalistic fallacy is a mistake is because the distinction between nature and artifice is itself artificial (wait, that makes it natural, right?)

What's really interesting is how often people make the mistake of appeal to nature while also getting their characterization of "nature" dead wrong. I.E. "homosexuality is immoral because animals don't ever do it!"

By Mike Lewinski (not verified) on 17 Jul 2012 #permalink

“homosexuality is immoral because animals don’t ever do it!”

That is not correct. Animals do do it. That's what makes them ANIMALS. They are viscious predatory killers without souls and without accountability to their CREATOR. Humans are not animals. We have souls. We will one day have ressureected bodies. We will one day give an account or judgement unto our maker. Animals are just dumb fuzzy things that eat, sleep, poop, and screw each other.

Then again there is a species of human that is quite similar. They may be extinct now but at one time theyr were called hippies.

Get a life and stop sodomizing America.

By Kevin Sanders (not verified) on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

You can also translate "Animals are just dumb fuzzy things that eat, sleep, poop, and screw each other. " INTO

Occupy Wall Street Protestors are just dumb fuzzy things that eat, sleep, poop, and screw each other as well. Maybe some people are more animal than human.

By Kevin Sanders (not verified) on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

The naturalistic fallacy is the fallacy of attempting to define evaluative concepts with descriptive concepts . The naturalistic fallacy is related to but is not identical with the “is-ought fallacy,” which is the fallacy of drawing evaluative conclusions from descriptive premises.