Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The absurdity of labelling things as 'natural'

This week's column in the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Try it yourself when you have a minute. Use any Internet search engine that tickles your fancy and search for ‘natural.’ In-between news items on natural gas you will find that ‘natural’ is a very common feature in advertisements for all sorts of beauty and health products as well as in value judgments about all sorts of human activities. A national Toronto-based newspaper reports about a line of ‘natural’ hair products for black women, there is an endless stream of advertisements for quack products like ‘natural’ flu remedies, ‘natural’ health care generally and what not else.
On a good day you’ll find opponents of genetically-modified foods going on and on about the unnaturalness of these products to get across to you that genetically modified foods are bad for your health. Then there are my religious friends arguing against assisted dying on the ground that ‘we should let nature’ take its course and let people die a ‘natural’ death. In the not so good old days – and still very popular today in places like Uganda and Russia – homosexuality was frowned upon because it was considered ‘unnatural’.
Truth be told, I never understood what it is that excites so many people about ‘nature’ to such an extent that it would influence what hair care products they purchase and what remedies they choose to protect themselves against the potentially life-threatening – yet very natural – flu virus. Surely it has something to do with a romantic view of ‘mother nature’ taking care of its own. The reality is, of course, quite different, just think of malaria carrying mosquitoes, or that spider capable of killing us with a venomous bite while managing simultaneously to cause a multi-hour erection in men. No kidding, the latter is currently being investigated as a potential source for yet another erectile dysfunction drug. I suspect that would then be called ‘unnatural’ by some, given that it is synthetic. Even stranger is the fact that these ‘natural’ products are – at the end of the day – based on biochemical substances found in nature. That does not make them – as such – any more healthier or unhealthy than, by some definition, unnatural products. Just think of all the pleasant substances that you can find in poisonous concentrations in nature. Cyanide is one of them.
I recall a sightseeing tour in Australia’s Northern Territory. Truly a spectacular sight by any stretch of the imagination. We were in little aluminium boats on a river. Before we got into the boats our tour guide asked us to keep our hands out of the inviting water. When you consider the subtropical climate there, that was quite something to ask of us. I did notice (and duly had my picture taken) in front of a sign saying ‘Beware of Xtra Large Crocodiles’, which seemed like a nice attempt at adding a bit of spice to our little tour. Well, soon after we were on the water I realized that what I thought were massive logs of fallen trees in the water began to dive when the boat got near them. Turns out they were actually Xtra large crocodiles. An incredible sight, but it became also clear to me that mother nature would probably not look after me should I decide to tempt fate in these waters.
Nature can be spectacular at the best of times. There is a reason for why, in days gone by, Christian philosophers sought to prove the existence of God by means of pointing to the alleged perfection of nature. We often are in understandable awe of the beauty of nature. Still, most modern-day Christian philosophers and theologians have intellectually grown up since then and have given up on the idea of proving the existence of their God. – Their ideological predecessors actually died a pretty natural early death because modern medicine as we know it wasn’t quite invented. Oops, modern medicine is bad because its unnatural. I nearly forgot.
Something else is weird about the idea that non-human nature is nice of sorts, yet anything us humans produce is watched with suspicion by fans of ‘natural’ products. By any stretch of the imagination, we are products of natural evolution ourselves. There is no good reason to exclude ourselves or the things that we produce from nature, and pretend they are something other than natural. Just like high concentrations of natural cyanide are bad, so could be anything that we produce. However, there is no reason to assume that things we create are bad just because they are produced by us. Everything that is physically possible should sensibly be considered natural. Whether a particular product then is conducive to our well-being is simply a matter of scientific evidence. This has nothing to do with how it came about. So, the natural hair product for black women that the Toronto paper advertorialised about might be a good product, but its goodness surely has nothing to do with its ‘naturalness.’ We should not fall for such marketing claptrap, and we certainly should not pay a premium for natural products either. It is not a big surprise that purveyors of natural health products use deliberately vague marketing spiels to sell their stuff. ‘Your body will thank you’ one website, selling antioxidants, tells the potential buyer. It turns out there is evidence that antioxidants not only serve no purpose when you eat a regular reasonably healthy diet, they can actually be harmful to your health. Another website promises equally vacuously that the natural products it markets will ‘sooth, heal and rejuvenate’ our bodies. And so it goes.
There is another kind of nature that is deployed in other debates. Some have argued against assisted dying because that would constitute a human intervention in our natural process of dying. Well, here is my message to you: Our natural process of dying typically is a pretty nasty one. Disease is unpleasant. That’s why we invented medicine. Get over it. There is nothing wrong with using modern medicine to ease our way out of a miserable death. It is also quite all right to interfere with other natural processes such as cancer busily growing in our bodies. Similarly, there is nothing unnatural about folks having sex with others of the same sex. Happens all over nature, human and non-human. This tells us nothing about the question of whether that’s desirable, but it does tell us that arguments from nature are as pointless here as they are in advertisements for beauty or health products.
Udo Schuklenk teaches ethics at Queen’s University, he tweets @schuklenk.

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