What is Natural?

Fatso is the cat in my village. Right now he is at the window miaowing to get in. He is a useless Tomcat who gets beaten up by the more aggressive Toms in the village but has a winning whine that gets him attention from human carers.

When I look at Fatso I can’t help thinking, “What is natural?” Is it natural for a cat to want to be stroked? Is it natural for a cat to spend so little time hunting? Since he is so useless, would it have been more natural for him to have been selected out, killed by one of his bigger and less cute rivals?

Or looked at from the other side, is his mortal enemy The Big Grey Cat a loser in the natural selection wars. He may be big. He may be fierce. He may scare Fatso half to death, but no one gives him extra food, he is wary of humans and that makes him antipathetic to my neighbours who talk about trapping him and releasing him up the mountain. However big and fierce he is the fox would get him there.

I’m not going to use the cat as an extended metaphor for education, but I wanted to raise Fatso as an example because I am so tired of arguments that talk about “natural” education or “natural” learning or “natural” abilities. It seems to me that Fatso’s miaow and cute face are hardwired into his genetic make-up and, since his ancestors lived amongst humans too, his propensity to seek food and attention from me is a cat survival trait in a human environment. It is natural and it is cultural at the same time.

If Fatso is natural and cultural at the same time, then so am I. So are you. So is everyone. Appealing to Nature as a trump card just does not work. We have field mice because we have fields and barn owls because we have barns. We have cute cats because humans have given a premium to cuteness over generations. Even at the bacterial level there are interactions between life and culture that affect the form, characteristics and behaviour of “natural” organisms.

Arguments that defend natural learning are frustrating. Deciding where nature starts and culture ends off is like looking at the Moebius strip and saying which face is the outer one. Our very genetic make-up is the result of cultural factors and, with sufficient distance, the greatest cultural achievements begin to seem like biological forces in action: the birth and death of civilizations seem like the colonisation of a rotting tree trunk by a mould. If Fatso is the result of evolutionary pressure- the cute cat gets the food and the girl- then the same is true of humans.

Democratic Education is plagued with people who use the word natural as a synonym for good. It sometimes goes hand-in-hand with the idea that adults should not get their pesky mitts on the little darlings’ development. They should be allowed to grow up naturally.

There is something very appealing about a vision of children growing up and learning self-regulation all by themselves. It is a fantasy that appeals to singletons with no children more than it does to parents who rapidly let go of ideological positions if they have any sense and pay more attention to practical suggestions from friends and relatives.

I can honestly say that I do not know where to draw the line between nature and culture. If you can tell me where it is I would like to know.


i wrote this a while ago.  Since then Fatso has gone the way of all cats, I’m afraid.  This post is for Peter Foti.