I will come right out and say this: if the subtitle turned you off, give this book a chance. Yes, this is a sceptical take on the subject, but without the typical mockery and ridicule. Natural sees religious scholar Alan Levinovitz critically but thoughtfully examine the appeal to nature fallacy*: the idea that just because something is natural it is good. For a biologist, the “natural goodness” myth is particularly grating as it requires some exceptional cherry-picking to come to this conclusion. As far as logical fallacies go, this is a big personal bug-bear. Why is it so compelling?
Levinovitz makes the incisive observation that it is a theological argument, which is perhaps unsurprising coming from a religious scholar. “Nature” has become a stand-in for God, and “natural” synonymous with holy. Our technocratic society thus represents our fall from grace, complete with pollution, human-caused extinctions, and the looming spectre of global climate change. If only we had not turned our backs on the divine wisdom of Mother Earth, etc. etc. Of course, the sheer impossibility of trying to talk logic with believers has caused many a sceptic to throw up their hands in despair, but Levinovitz calls the categorical dismissal of appeals to nature its own pernicious faith. You will find zealots in both camps. In reality, he argues, there is no point picking sides, because the whole framing is misguided to begin with.
The remainder of the book shows how natural goodness is one of our oldest and most pervasive myths. In the process, Levinovitz touches on a diverse range of time periods and topics: childbirth, food, our hunter-gatherer past, natural parks and the notion of wildness, healing and medicine, wellness, economics, sex and birth control, and sports. Rather than going into each one of these, let me highlight just some of the many interesting insights that emerged.
“”Nature” has become a stand-in for God, and “natural” synonymous with holy. Our technocratic society thus represents our fall from grace […]”
One is how old this line of thinking is. When it comes to looking at nature for ideas on organising our economic and political systems, Aristotle and Plato already likened society to the human body. Adam Smith made comparisons to our circulatory system. In fact, Levinovitz writes, these explanations often use whatever scientific model is the flavour of the day. For a while it was physics, today it is evolutionary biology. But stare hard at these metaphors and they fall apart, though people rarely do: “the premise that models from nature can be neatly mapped onto economic systems remains largely unquestioned, instead of being revealed for the theological claim it is” (p. 186). Mythologizing life in the past similarly has deep roots, notably the idea of the “noble savage” that can be traced back to the 16th century (though some argue this is a myth in itself). Other authors have pointed out our starry-eyed romanticizing of native cultures by thinking of them as peaceful and non-violent, or as the “first environmentalists” living in pristine rainforests that doubled up as mother nature’s pharmacy. Did our ancestors have it better? Some say yes, others say no. Levinovitz thinks the question is impossible to answer one way or another and concludes that mythic binaries are inadequate.
Despite his scepticism, the second interesting observation he makes is that those who appeal to nature, as mistaken as they might be, do raise valid concerns. It is hard to deny that industrial agriculture harms the environment, is far from transparent, and happily deceives consumers with similar appeal-to-nature marketing claims. Is it any wonder that people, in their distrust, are driven into the arms of someone like Vani “Food Babe” Hari who provides “pseudoscientific sermons about the virtues of eating naturally“? The same logic crops up in medicine. In the modern healthcare system, patients frequently feel disempowered and no longer in control, suddenly entering a frightening, sterile, clinical world, where bedside manners are often poor. As Levinovitz rightly points out: “Sick humans are not just broken machines. We have a deep emotional connection to our bodies” (p. 123). It is easy to discount the need for empowerment if you have never been seriously ill. However, as his many interviewees make clear, this is an important reason for seeking out natural therapies. Patients prefer to hear that they can regain control of the situation, rather than cultivating a stoic acceptance of their own mortality, or accepting the honest answer of a medical specialist who also cannot explain why you fell ill.
“[On wellness gurus] Levinovitz makes the bitingly sharp observation that this is “consecrated consumption, in which the ritual of shopping becomes a kind of spiritualized retail therapy dedicated to nature””
Third and final, Levinovitz makes some bitterly ironical observations. Obstetricians point out that only because people have forgotten just how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth used to be they can be tempted by the stories of natural childbirth advocates. And, I would add, the same twisted logic applies to vaccines. Ancient healthcare practitioners, meanwhile, would be mystified by our distinction between natural and unnatural—for them, surgery and drugs were completely natural, for the alternatives were magical rituals such as exorcisms. And then there are the wellness charlata––sorry, “gurus” such as Deepak Chopra and Gwyneth Paltrow who hypocritically equate wellness with wealth by charging fortunes for their products and treatments. Levinovitz makes the bitingly sharp observation that this is “consecrated consumption, in which the ritual of shopping becomes a kind of spiritualized retail therapy dedicated to nature” (p. 135).
Although I appreciated Levinovitz’s even-handed approach, in places he feels rather mild. An apologetic afterword explains how he started researching this book a fanatical sceptic, only to realise that he was confirming his own biases and was possessed by a myopic dogmatism. In the end, the whole exercise left him philosophically confused, although he argues that this is not something to feel guilty about. Such honesty and humility are refreshing. Even so, I felt somewhat disappointed when I finished the book. Why? Having covered such diverse topics, a concluding chapter to tie it all together, reiterating the points he made in his introduction, would have been welcome. To return to the book’s subtitle, why seductive? I think Levinovitz is really onto something when he calls the argument theological. Why myth? Because we are natural-born storytellers that crave narrative. And the notion of “natural goodness” provides an incredibly compelling if overly simplistic hook. Lastly, the blurb teases with a Herzogian-style** resolution that the book never delivers: that nature is neither good nor bad, instead not caring about us in the slightest.
This notwithstanding, Natural is a thought-provoking book that stands out by urging readers to embrace nuance over simplicity, and uncertainty over dogma. Would I recommend it? Yes, naturally.
* Not to be confused with the similar-sounding naturalistic fallacy.
** German director Werner Herzog is known for his borderline nihilistic view of the nature of nature, and Levinovitz quotes from his documentary Grizzly Man.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: