Let’s get this out of the way: no, sex is not the most natural thing in the world. Next to falling down, it is about the least natural thing in the world,
Natural things are what they are and do what they do according to what they are – according to their natures, right? When we say, for example, that a forest is natural, we mean that all the trees and plants and animals that make up the forest are doing what it is that such things do: consume, grow and reproduce each in its own special way. So, both the forest and each creature in it are just being themselves – and that is what we mean by nature and natural, if we mean anything by them.
So, back to the original issue: what is the most natural thing in the world? We find, upon reflection* that different kinds of things have different natures arranged in a hierarchy. No, really. At the bottom, rocks, being rocks, fall when you drop them – but then, normally, so do petunias and elephants and heads of philosophy departments. The trick is, rocks do precious little else, and specifically *don’t* do any of the things that distinguish petunias, elephants and, one hopes, philosophy chairs from rocks. Plants do much of what rocks do, but what distinguishes them is that they consume, grow and reproduce, something no rock does.** Animals do everything plants and rocks do, and move around and respond to stimuli in a uniquely ‘animal’ way.
Up to here, I think there’s no argument that what we mean by nature is things doing what it is that makes them what they are. Mountains and sky, oceans and forests, and all the living creatures in them, these are Natural Wonders, after all.
It’s the next step that throws people. Human beings are animals, but only in the sense that a tree is also dead matter, and an elephant consumes, grows and reproduces just like a tree (in the functional sense: the mechanics are matters of style, one could say). Human being do ‘by nature’ everything that rocks, trees and elephants do, PLUS some other things.
There’s a cottage industry (ha!) of disputing the claim that people do anything really different than what animals do. Now, if there was anything obvious to all peoples up to modern times, it was that people were different from animals. It should be noted that people everywhere before modern times had much more first hand experience with animals than modern people do – they hunted them, rode them, raised them, saw them at market and on farms every day. It is curious that those who lived each day in close contact with animals had no thought that people weren’t another order of thing entirely. Not that people didn’t have all the characteristic behaviors – the nature – of animals. Of course we do, We also have something more.
The least, most basically natural thing is what rocks do. More natural are the things that plants do. Even more natural are the things that animals do. The most natural things in the world are what people, and only people, do. How about:
Money? That pretty natural, as it works because of trade, which requires industry and planning and abstract thinking. so that’s pretty natural. But not the most natural.
Cities? Now we’re talking. Cities are made up of many things unique to people, such as laws and rational government, and justice.
How about Civilization? The highest nature of human beings is expressed in civilization, under which falls commerce and cities. Human beings building civilizations is the most natural thing in the world.
In the same manner, the most natural thing in a civilization is its churches.
So tomorrow at Mass, in addition to praising God, I’ll be admiring Nature at its finest.
* By which of course I mean ‘reading Aristotle’ – few of us, least of all me, could be this lucid left to our own devices.
** Possibly the right place to mention: the existence of twilight does not disprove night and day. Of course, we can see crystals that grow and, squinting a bit, imagine they are consuming and reproducing thereby. Some plants move around; some animals remain always in the same place. In the words of the Philosopher that I just made up – yea. so? The questions these cases raise are only raised because the general natures of rocks, plants and animals are so clear in the first place. If it were really the muddle some people want to make it out to be, classification would never have arisen in the first place.
*** One more thought: we should not confuse natural with inevitable. Just because it is possible, indeed common, for humans to try to live as animals, and civilizations often fail, does not mean that civilization isn’t natural.