On the Nature of ‘Natural’

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Rocket flower for my breakfast sandwich from my balcony garden. Eating beautiful things from nature is the epitome of ‘natural’.

Is something good because it’s natural? The word natural is often used when we want to convey something good, and imply that the object of discussion is not, in some way, the product of a humans-only process. To note, this common definition of the word makes the assumption that humans are something unnatural, which is an interesting starting point for reflection on its own right. The term natural, however, is rarely used when describing something with unwanted consequences – no matter how clearly they may also not be the result of any human intervention – instead it comes into the picture when talking of something that is wholesome, normal, healthful, or acceptable. You don’t hear people referring to a ‘natural food poisoning,’ say, or a ‘natural contamination with mold.’

This gives the word a skewed presentation, making ‘natural’ seem rosier than it may be.

For a contrast, consider this quote from the Daily Beast:

It is the natural course of type-1 diabetes for the patient to waste slowly to death, but nobody questions the benefits of exogenous insulin.

Our world today is full of things that are not, by most definitions, what one could call natural. It is understandable to feel a nostalgic appeal to times and states of being where there were no factories, no plastics, no concrete jungles, no smart-phones, power-lines, or traffic jams. No matter how messy our culture might be, and no matter how many bad things it may have brought about, there are nevertheless things most of us might not want to do away with, that are decidedly not ‘natural’, but a product of human invention. These include things like clothes, houses, sanitation, even things like laws, visual arts, and literature – or education. Going to school is a decidedly unnatural concept. Cooking, or the myriad ways of preserving food, are other decidedly human tenets. Does their being ‘unnatural’ make them better or worse?

The problem with natural is that it is ill defined – it can be used vaguely, to convey an image that the listeners believe they understand, but when it comes down to it, the word doesn’t give you much tools to assess the quality or significance of something. Many scientists have qualms with the word, as mentioned here in a piece about misused words in the Scientific American:

“Natural” is another bugaboo for scientists. The term has become synonymous with being virtuous, healthy or good. But not everything artificial is unhealthy, and not everything that’s natural is good for you.
“Uranium is natural, and if you inject enough of it, you’re going to die,” Kruger said.

The ambiguity of ‘natural food’ as a measure of goodness

Humans are hard-wired to appreciate colourful visual glimpses of fruit and flowers amid thick green growths of vegetation. Few things make us feel as close to nature as eating fresh, vibrant-coloured fruits and vegetables. To complicate things, the way we humans overwhelmingly get our food – farming – is in itself a practice that is very much a humans-only -kind of intervention into the business of nature. In fact, what we have been doing with agriculture has been influencing nature in novel ways for millennia.

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Chemistry teacher James Kennedy has produced many great infographics to illuminate the nature and chemical composition of our ‘all-natural’ food items, like this series of Artificial vs Natural.

As the MIT chemical engineer Terry Johnson said, in another piece about problematic or vaguely used terms:

When speaking of food, “natural” is even slipperier. […] In Canada, I could market corn as “natural” if I avoid adding or subtracting various things before selling it, but the corn itself is the result of thousands of years of selection by humans, from a plant that wouldn’t exist without human intervention.

Whereas we have made many plants more nutritious to us during centuries of artificial selection, the un-modified nature is still full of things that are downright harmful to us – just take a look at the Wikipedia list of poisonous plants. Natural origins are in no way a guarantee of safety. The difference between what is good and what is bad for us, in the context of nutrition, lies not in choosing to ingest natural ingredients – but in carefully choosing to eat those plants, fungi, and animals that are not harmful to us.

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My morning glory. While water morning glories are used like spinach, these ornamental glories can cause hallucinations and nausea if ingested.

For millennia, this meant choosing the food source which had not poisoned any animals or humans that we knew of. But the quite recent addition of ‘unnatural’ additives has actually helped make that food much safer to us – we have created ways to stop the natural processes of spoilage, which often results in clear ill effects to our health. In fact, some of the ingredients that cause most harm for human health worldwide are natural.

It is the excess ingestion of sugars and fats that is largely behind the problems of obesity and heart-disease, which are major killers in the world today.

If you would like to learn more about food additives, on the other hand, I warmly recommend the BBC series about E-numbers:

The reality is that all foods are a combination of chemicals, whether added by man or not, and just because a food is organic doesn’t necessarily make it better for you. The worst nutritional problems are caused by substances that come in purely organic form: salt, fat and sugar, none of which are E numbers.

In her excellent essay in the Jacobin Magazine, A Plea for Culinary Modernism, which is well worth a read in its entirety, Rachel Laudan takes a look at food from a historian’s perspective, highlighting how nature and its bounties were seen as something much more wild, tenacious, and resistant by the people of earlier generations:

Natural was usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied from fifty to ninety percent of the calories in most societies have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible. Other plants, including the roots and fibers that were the life support of the societies that did not eat grains, are often downright poisonous. Without careful processing green potatoes, stinging taro, and cassava bitter with prussic acid are not just indigestible, but toxic. […]

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.

Synthetic raises suspicions

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Fly agaric, poisonous but known – not as scary.

Even if the most poisonous substances known to man are found from nature (like botulinum toxin aka botox, polonium, and arsenic – see The Five Most Poisonous Substances in the Conversation), nevertheless, our intuition is to assume that compounds which humans make in a lab, that is, synthetic substances, are inherently more unsafe – they haven’t been around for as long, so they are an unknown, and that thought is always frightening. That they might not be readily present in the natural world makes us fear that they could have some disastrous consequences on us or on our environment.

To find out more about the potential differences between synthetic and natural, in a classic study, Dr Ames and colleagues tested a variety of natural and synthetic compounds for carcinogenicity. They found that about half of the chemicals in both categories were carcinogenic. Plants have many substances that have evolved to act as natural pesticides, to drive away pests that feed on them. Most of the plants we eat have them in levels so low, that they don’t cause ill effects for our health. Commentary on this study in New York Times:

Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices contained their own pesticides that caused cancer in rodents. The toxins were found in apples, bananas, beets, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, grapes, melons, oranges, parsley, peaches — the list went on and on.

This resonates with my own discovery, which I have written about earlier in the piece Natural Assumptions, and the follow-up piece where I delved more into the Artificial vs Natural Pesticides dichotomy: that the decision to rely on only ‘naturally derived’ pesticides does not actually mean that we are choosing less harmful substances, as chemicals from both categories can vary from seriously harmful to virtually harmless.

A Berkeley grad student commented on the finding in this piece:

This is a case where everyone (consumers, farmers, researchers) made the same, dangerous mistake. We assumed that “natural” chemicals were automatically better and safer than synthetic materials, and we were wrong. It’s important that we be more prudent in our acceptance of “natural” as being innocuous and harmless.

Nature has room for logic

In fact, this false assumption is such a typical tenet of human nature, that it has been given its own name: it’s the logical fallacy called Appeal to nature. It is “an argument or rhetorical tactic in which it is proposed that “a thing is good because it is ‘natural’, or bad because it is ‘unnatural'”. Rational Wiki deconstructs the idea as follows:

Appeal to nature is a fallacious argument, because the mere “naturalness” of something is unrelated to its positive or negative qualities – natural things can be bad or harmful (such as infant death and the jellyfish on the left), and unnatural things can be good (such as clothes, especially when you are in Siberia). Another problem is the distinction of what is “natural” and what is not, which can be really murky: crude oil occurs naturally, but it’s not something you’d like poured on seabirds or your garden. The word “natural” itself has no exact definition and can be used in multiple ways, thus allowing equivocation.

Just throwing out the name of the fallacy, however, is not likely going to convince anyone of the lack of merits in their argument. The feeling of naturalness as an indicator of goodness is a very natural assumption to make, no pun intended. The fact remains that ‘natural’ reflects on positive things because we overwhelmingly choose to use it whenever describing the good things in nature, and not the bad.

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I think nature is pretty awesome.

Seeing and pointing out the lack of useful, definitive information in the adjective, does by no means imply a lack of appreciation for the natural world. Love of nature, at least for me, is the great motivator to pursue science in the first place: it’s not that we should or would stop valuing nature, it’s about gaining a more nuanced understanding of *its nature*. Nature is caring and cruel, ordered and chaotic, beautiful, vast, and mind-boggling. I wouldn’t do it credit by simplifying its fantastic diversity into a mere matrix of good or bad.

In the context of discussing the merits of any one particular detail, we can’t automatically derive a view of how things should be based solely on what already exists in nature. Nature hides poisons as well as cures, and nature itself is ever changing – it is the one true original innovator, and the existence of humans is just one small facet of that fount of inventions.

I don’t think we will ever come to a point when we will stop hearing the argument of naturalness as a point in something’s favour. With a little bit of patience, however, I hope anyone with a sincere wish to understand can be persuaded to reflect over the intriguing position which the word natural holds in our world view, and how it is neither something black and white nor straight-forward.

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If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Back up your claims with evidence.

Other good articles on the topic:

Chemicals are bad, right? Otherwise why would so many purveyors of all things healthy proudly proclaim their products to be “chemical-free” and why would phrases such as “it’s chock full of chemicals” be so commonly used to imply something is unnatural and therefore inherently dangerous?

…there are plenty of natural substances, made by healthy creatures in beautiful, unpolluted environments, that will nonetheless kill you in agony. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals produce poisons, wide varieties of intricate poisons, and they’re not doing it for fun.

And on the other side of the imaginary fence, there are plenty of man-made substances that really won’t do much of anything to people at all. You cannot assume anything about the effects of a chemical compound based on whether it came from a lovely rainforest orchid or out of a crusty Erlenmeyer flask. The world is not set up that way. Here’s a corollary to this: if I isolate a beneficial chemical compound from some natural source (vitamin C from oranges, for example, although sauerkraut would be a good source, too), that molecule is identical to a copy of it I make in my lab. There is no essence, no vital spirit. A compound is what it is, no matter where it came from.

In the early 1990s, dozens of women, most under the age of 50, were being admitted to hospitals in Belgium with renal failure. About half of the women who had surgery to remove their nonfunctioning kidneys also had tumors in the upper urinary tract. The cases clustered around a medical clinic that had been prescribing Chinese herbs, which for more than 15 years had appeared to safely help women lose weight.

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About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
This entry was posted in biology, chemistry, society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the Nature of ‘Natural’

  1. Pingback: O Naturze Naturalności – Naturalne-Sraturalne

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