Thursday, April 10, 2008

Beyond 'natural'

Have a close look at this:

How does that make you feel? A bit woozy? It does, me.

It's called cognitive dissonance: and age-old trick of confounding one cognitive mechanism - say words and their corresponding expectations - and another - say colour perception.

Now take a look at this:

It's Thomas Beatie, a pregnant man (photo courtesy of The Advocate and NY Post).

How does this make you feel?

If you're like many people, it makes you feel more than a little uneasy. Some were outright disgusted.

William Leith from the UK's Telegraph sums it up nicely:
But on a purely emotional level, the very idea of male pregnancy is difficult to accept... I found the whole concept deeply disturbing.
But why do we find this disturbing, if indeed we do?

Commentators provided different accounts, but many, if not all, amounted to some notion of it being 'unnatural'.

But what about being 'unnatural' makes it feel so wrong? Having an artificial hip is 'unnatural', yet we're not disgusted by that. There are animals that change gender and mate with members of their former sex. Weird, maybe, but arguably very 'natural'.

Would it help to know that Thomas was born a female, but went through gender-reassignment surgery but maintained his female reproductive organs (albeit with a hysterectomy)? For some it does. For others, the gender ambiguity just compounds the feelings that the whole situation is unnatural.

In fact, I had the privilege to edit a powerful article by David Salt when I was editing Cosmos on intersexuality. This suggests that transgenderism and intersexuality are far from being unnatural, but that doesn't change the fact that we've evolved and been conditioned to have very clear stereotypes associated with gender. This will probably never change, but the case of Thomas should give us pause to acknowledge and reflect on our emotional responses, and then decide whether they're appropriate given the unusual circumstances.

Another interesting response comes from Nature, one of the world's leading scientific journals. Here the editors also call for us to re-examine our notion of natural, especially as biomedical technology advances and empowers us to reach well beyond what was 'natural' even a few decades ago.

And this is only the beginning.

We're in for more 'unnatural' situations, emotional reactions and cognitive dissonance. If we're going to be able to cope with the 21st century and beyond, we had better equip ourselves quick smart to be able to respond in a measured way - not dismissing our emotional responses and evolved moral sentiments, but tempering them with reason and science.

The question remains whether our culture and social institutions can keep ahead of the curve in the face of increasingly rapid technological development. Still, it should be a wild - if occasionally dissonant - ride.


At 3:02 am , Blogger Mizz allure said...

While I strongly agree with your positioning of 'natural' as whatever happens to be 'socially' natural, rather than what is 'technically' natural, I don't think 'reason and science' should be used to navigate through unprecedented waters, as you suggest.

First of all, whose reasoning shall we use? And looking to science for an answer is not only too broad of a search, but the very nature of science forces us to accept things in absolute terms.

Very unhelpfully, I am not sure what the answer is, but I wouldn't go looking to reason and science for guidance.


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