When a Writer Says They Are Researching–What’s Natural?

By Jacques-Louis David - http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/436105, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28552

In the year 399 Before Christ, Socrates of Athens was found guilty of corrupting the youth and showing impiety. He was sentenced to death. In an act forever immortalized in art and literature, Socrates drank a potion of hemlock. He well and truly died of slow, waking, asphyxiation due to paralysis. I guess if you’re going to commit suicide on order of the state, the origin of the poison is not particularly important. Socrates does not play a role in my next science fiction story. He came into my life as I was trying to develop another story idea. I wanted to write a story about a person who was unnatural, and one who was natural, and who… well, I’m not giving it all away here. Suffice to say that in order to do this, I had to figure out what was, and was not, natural. And honest to old Abe, I thought that would be easy.

For those more interested in continuing their lives here on Earth than dear Socrates was, Natural is a magic word. It can describe cereal, laxatives, medications, recreational drugs, building materials, whatever. Green building products can net you tax advantages. Slapping “all natural” on any foodstuff guarantees sales to at least a niche market. Jessica Alba has a whole line of stuff like shampoo that she swears is all natural, though I don’t see how anything that foams and isn’t rabid can be natural. Marijuana’s naturalness has earned it a cultish following from those who claim it cures everything from blindness to cancer. All with no demand for the kind of testing those nasty pharmaceuticals must undergo. I thought surely I could dress my all-natural heroine up in simple garments and have her conquer the unnatural world with some homespun humor and an even more literally homespun flag waving.

What is Natural?

Wait, that’s easy, right? I know what nature is. I go hiking, caving, biking, swimming and camping. I’ve visited the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the mighty Mississippi. I’ve swam in the Black River and two of the Great Lakes. I’ve watched sunsets in Hawaii and Florida. I’ve caught lightning bugs and been startled by snakes. I’ve had poison ivy, and eaten wild blackberries. Doggone it, I know nature when I see it. You do too, right? So ok, what is it?

Tree and Miner's RR Shack-San Pedro Riparian, AZ

Tree and Miner's RR Shack-San Pedro Riparian, AZ

Fill in the blanks in the following sentence. Nature is different from the unnatural in that nature is ________, and the unnatural is ________.

Ok, can I guess your answers? You either used the word chemicals or you said something about man-made. No matter how many people I ask that question, those are the only two answers I get. But are those true differences?

Let’s look at the first one.

Chemicals are unnatural.

How do you define chemicals? Darn it, I’m not trying to be difficult. Ok, I’ll look in a standard dictionary, not a fancy technical manual or Chemistry textbook. Google says:

chem·i·cal

ˈkemək(ə)l/

Noun

1. a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, especially artificially.

jelly (1)

jelly (1)

Hmm. A substance that is purified or prepared, especially artificially, sounds really unnatural--but is it? By this definition, jelly is unnatural. It is a substance (fruit juice, possibly with added sugar or pectin) that has been processed (cooked, mashed, canned).

And then that last word, artificially. What is your definition of artificial? Dang it! There I go again. I really am sorry. Not trying to be so blasted difficult. I’ll accept the common dictionary definition again. Here we go, back to Google:

ar·ti·fi·cial

ˌärdəˈfiSHəl/

Adjective

1. made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, typically as a copy of something natural.

Not sure what natural thing jelly is copying. Does that mean jelly is even moreunnatural? It doesn’t even copy anything natural!

So… it would seem the definition of natural which states, “anything with chemicals in it, is unnatural” is just self-referencing. A chemical is something unnatural, and we know it’s unnatural because it contains chemicals. Ok, that doesn’t work. We need a more precise definition of chemical then. Let’s see what else we can find. Let’s try About.com. They always have simple answers to hard questions. Here’s what they say on their Education page:

Question: What Is a Chemical?

Answer: Short answer: Everything is a chemical. Longer answer: Chemistry is the study of matter and its interactions with other matter. Anything made of matter is therefore a chemical. Any liquid, solid, gas. Any pure substance; any mixture.

Wait, is About.com telling us that chemicals are not particularly useful in defining natural v unnatural distinctions? If all matter is chemicals, then jelly is a chemical. Ok, it’s definitely unnatural then. Good to know. No more jelly on my P. B. & J.. No peanut butter or bread, either though. Hmm, according to About.com, I can’t have any water either, in my all-natural diet. This is getting tough. What other definitions can we find? Ok, here we go, I found a definition that looks definitely kind of official-ish. The MSDS hyper-glossery.

Chemical

Definition

    • As a noun, the common definition of chemical is a substance that is produced or used in a process (reaction) involving changes to atoms or molecules. The term is sometimes defined more broadly as "a substance".

    The OSHAdefinition of chemical under the Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200 (which requires MSDS's),"element, chemical compound or mixture of elements and/or compounds" is quite broad. For example, steel coils which are cut and processed, castings which are subsequently ground or welded upon, bricks that are dry sawed or drilled, carbide blades which are sharpened, are all examples of products which contain chemicals which, if available for exposure, are covered by the HCS.

    Well that seems promising. I wouldn’t wash my face with steel coils. And I definitely wouldn’t want castings in my vaccines. I’ve never eaten a brick, unless you count the oatmeal bar in an old school MRE. (Pretty sure an MRE could be used as the exemplar of all things unnatural.) So let’s apply this definition to our standby, some grape jelly. (Grape, because combining anything else with peanut butter on white bread is probably a petty crime in the USA.) There are, hopefully, no castings, steel coils, or bricks in our grape jelly, so I feel safe in saying, it might be natural after all. Hooray! P. B. & J. is back on the menu.

    But wait, there are lots of things involving changes to atoms or molecules besides Chernobyl and x-ray machines. After reading up on the manufacture of jelly (yes, they call it “manufacture” in some old books, See this and that), I discover that the sugar in jelly is either caramelized, or invert sugar. Inverted sugar is made by splitting sucrose, a disaccharide, into its component monosaccharides, glucose and fructose, like it says over at Science of Cooking. Pretty sure splitting a chemical bond between two molecules is changing them. And caramelizing is one of the most frequently cited examples of a simple chemical reaction. Yeah, I Googled “simple chemical reaction”. I never said I was a chemistry whiz. Ok, back to P.B. and no jelly, right?

    measuring cup sugar

    measuring cup sugar

    But what about that bread? It’s starting to look suspect to me now, what with all this fancy book learning I am being forced to learn, just to write the simplest of stories. So I Binged (can’t always Google, not fair to the competition) chemical reaction and bread. I got a story by some self-styled “babe” saying there are yoga mats in our bread. I don’t eat yoga bread, so I went looking for the next article listed. It turned out to be a pdf from Chemistry World dot org, though their www says rsc.org and OH MY GOD there are CASCADES of chemical reactions in my bread! Cascades, people! Also, according to the very first paragraph, most of bread’s chewy goodness is due to gluten, which turns out to be less unnatural than I realized, being in the wheat to start with. Well I’m not having that. Does that mean at least my peanut butter is free of chemicals, at least using my new, more official-ish definition?

    Alright then, I’m giving up on that whole chemicals argument. You people don’t know what a chemical is, or whether its natural or not, and you’d have me on a vacuum diet consuming only anti-matter. I’m a big girl. I can’t live like that. I don’t even want to think about what chemical reactions are cascading all over my chocolate bars. So what about that other one?

    Anything humans do is unnatural.

    Ok, now we have something I can work with. This seems pretty cut and dry. I don’t need a dictionary to tell me what a human is. (Well, not for this story.) So, first thing, our natural human is born. Erp. How? A human did it, right? I mean, a human did it, and then a human did it. A human is kind of required for this step, and I see no way around that… unless my protagonist is not human. My protagonist is an ape. Apes are nearly human. They’re really, really close to human. I could make this work.

    gorilla

    gorilla

    Ok, my ape baby, who is smart for a simian with so much hair, gets a start in life. What will her clothing look like? (Don’t laugh, this is actually the first question a lot of sci fi authors ask themselves about their alien characters, and a smart ape is alien, isn’t she?) It’s got to be all-natural, so I’m going to go with cotton. Of course, cotton grows wild, doesn’t it? Yep, though not legally in Florida. The boll weevils will be considered an additional all-natural foodstuff for our simian heroine. And these clothes will be sewn, right? Thank goodness Simione (I’m working on it, don’t critique a work in progress) is an ape, or that would be considered man-made, and be against the rules. Her clothes are undyed, which reduces the artificiality, but they’ll still have to be carded and spun and woven. You can’t stick cotton bolls all over, even if you are an ape. You know what? Let’s just dispense with the clothes. This is getting too complicated.

    bananas (27)

    bananas (27)

    What will Simione eat? Bananas, of course! Uh-oh. She’ll have to live in a tropical climate. And she’s going to have to climb those trees, tarantulas and all. She’s going to have to expend an awful lot of energy getting these things and eating them. Natural bananas, it turns out, are small, husky, and full of seeds. Luckily, gorillas spend about half their day foraging and eating, so that fits right in. Unluckily, they only spend about 3.6% of their time socializing. This will be a dull story. Mostly a banana finding and eating tale at this rate. I’d say they could store up their bananas, so they’d have more time for socializing and such, but that would require the building of an unnatural barn or silo or something.

    grain elevator cropped

    grain elevator cropped

    Do apes build structures? Well, articles in a bunch of journals say, yes. Scientific American found several saying orangutans and chimps build elaborate “nests”. They don’t use them long though, and they don’t use them for storing food. Since our ape is especially bright, she’s going to figure this out quick, because I can’t write more than a page or two about the joys of finding a delicious banana. So she builds nests that last a little longer, and don’t you lecture me about how this isn’t natural, you hear?

    Now to the real story. She’s got to encounter that unnatural fellow, fight with him, defeat him, and get married. I just added that last bit just now as I thought about it. It’ll be a great way to guarantee a second book, Simitwo: The Next Generation. (Don’t worry, I’m sure the editor will make me change it.) So she’s a country gal, and he’s a city slicker. She has a farm, and he’ll come along and burn it to put in a factory.

    A farm. Ok, how natural is this farm? It’s organic, that goes without saying. But how natural is organic farming? I mean, can she use a plow? Animals don’t farm, do they? Now I have to look that up.

    hand plow

    hand plow

    Turkandkids

    Turkandkids

    Well, ants apparently can be cowboys and farmers. Ants aren’t really natural in any way, when you think about it. I have a theory that aliens have colonized Earth, just like the Discovery Channel guys says, and they’re still here, their little alien colonies ruining picnics and damaging woodwork all over our planet. Damselfish are mean little buggers who grow otherwise endangered crops. But I didn’t find any evidence of apes farming. I’m going to pretend she has been talking to the ants, and has it all worked out. And yes, she uses tools. Because,  holy gorilla, they do!

    Time for the encounter. I imagine the more natural Simi (more familiar sounding, I think), getting caught in a trap, and learning to outsmart it, maybe disassembling it and reassembling it to defeat her foe. Ok, I admit, we’ve got to have crossed the natural v unnatural dividing line at this point, right? Animals in the wild just don’t… oh crap! You mean, they do?

    Seems we discount the fact that we humans are part of nature. If an ant can turn a leaf into a tool, a chimp can use a stick to fish for ants, and a bird can build a nest, and still be a part of nature, why can’t we humans use our tools naturally? I’m starting to think there is no reason both my characters can’t be human. The problem for the story is, now how do I know which is natural, and which is unnatural? If every blasted thing that makes a thing unnatural, is also found in nature, if chemicals determine what is unnatural, and yet everything found in nature is chemicals, is there any difference?

    Heck with it. I’m going back to writing about robots and witches and lothar.