“All Natural!” … So what?

Firstly let me say I’m an evolutionary biologist by training.  So I love nature.  I think nature is amazing, awe-inspiring, incredible, and just about every other superlative.  I do not think nature is good.  In fact, I find the idea incredibly offensive.

Let me explain.  ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are human constructs based on morals.  It is a way of judging things and seeing if they measure up to our personal sense of right and wrong.  In fact I’ll go further and say the whole idea of ‘good’ nature is religious thinking, because it is based on the idea that nature was created for us, to look after us.  This is incredibly limiting.  Nature is bigger than us, and to me it takes a special kind of arrogance to think you can judge nature by human standards or in human terms.

Yes, nature has given us some amazing systems such as skeletal development, bee colonies and coral reefs.  It has also given us diptheria, tetanus and earthquakes.

Some of the most dangerous things to eat include eggs, fish and nuts – all natural.  And in the long term, fat and sugar are more likely to kill you than BPA.  Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the industrialised world, and the obesity epidemic wasn’t caused by artificial additives.  If you make homemade goodies with the most natural of butters and sugars it doesn’t matter if they are free from artificial preservatives – they are still firmly in the ‘sometimes food’ category, not ‘everyday foods’.  It is perfectly possible to be incredibly unhealthy on an ‘all-natural’ diet.

Some of the most important drugs are anti-biotics and pain killers like aspirin and morphine – all natural.  Whole classes of pharmaceuticals are based on natural chemicals from plants and moulds, because nature has been in the business of creating bio-active chemicals for a very, very long time.  But those important drugs also have side effects and can be dangerous, exactly because they work so well.  A side effect is just a biological effect of a drug other than the one we want – and nature created those drugs without worrying about what humans might want.

If you are ever told that something is ‘has no side-effects’ because it is natural then a) they’re lying or b) it doesn’t work.  How can I be so black and white?  Easily.  Natural things are messy and complicated.  They contain many different drugs in different doses, meaning there are more things there to affect your system.  And then there are interactions between drugs, where we have trouble even guessing what might happen.  Even eating fruit changes the way your gut absorbs things and can give you a dangerous overdose of some drugs!  So being natural is actually a guarantee that there will be effects other than the one you are after, which is the definition of a side-effect.  Unless of course it doesn’t have an effect at all.  Because that’s the only way you can guarantee no side-effects – if there is no effect.  Which means it doesn’t work.

As far as nature is concerned, we are one moderately successful species out of the billions that have ever lived.  It doesn’t create anything especially for us.  And the past 10,000 years of human history are largely the story of trying to get away from nature.  Fire, planting our own food, living in one place, sanitation, electric lights, comfortable beds, these are all ways of avoiding nature.  And I like it.  I like being able to stay up past sunset because I have light.  I like being able to have a hot shower and a flush toilet.  I like being able to keep my food fresh in a refrigerator, and get fruit and vegetables that are out of season and don’t grow in this area.  I especially like that my children are not likely to die.  Living to see my grandkids grow up will be another bonus.  All of these things are ‘against nature.’

Like I said, I love nature.  I am fascinated and awed by it.  It has created some amazing things, including planets and ecosystems and even the human brain.  But it is not human so I don’t judge it in human terms.  And I don’t use it to judge other things.  It’s not a way to tell if a food is healthy – it might be, it might not.  It’s not a way to tell if a drug will work and be safe.  It’s not even a way to tell if a parenting practice will be good for my children.  These are complicated questions and lots of factors need to be considered, not just how natural they are.

So if you try to sell me something by telling me it’s “all natural!”  my considered response will be “So what?”

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One response to this post.

  1. My response is always, “So was smallpox.”

    Great post. I’m consistently astonished that people don’t realize that “no side-effects” usually means “no effects.” (Except on your wallet.)

    Reply

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