Thursday, June 30, 2016

In which I abandon the naturalistic fallacy

I've changed a lot in the past decade or so since I started blogging.  That's obvious, I'm sure, to all of you.  But a change I've not remarked much upon is that I've become a lot less crunchy.

Don't get me wrong.  I still love whole foods, clover in my yard, and handspun socks.  But I've gradually realized the errors in the prime directive of crunchydom -- a prime directive that I unconsciously was taking as a first principle: the way things happen in nature is always the best way.

It's not usually expressed in those exact words.  Rather, we say, "Why would nature work things out that way if it weren't better?"  Or, "If you have a health problem, it must be something unnatural in your environment."  Or, "I keep noticing this health problem!  It must be a modern epidemic because people surely didn't use to suffer from this."

It's pretty easy to believe.  If humanity was designed, then obviously our designer would make sure that our bodies were generally functional.  And if it was just evolution, one would expect evolution would have weeded out the problems by now.

But the evidence is against either theory, because human bodies are defective all the time.  There are genetic mutations, of course, and there are always communicable diseases.  Then there are just normal variations, like being a person who gets a lot of headaches or is vulnerable to mental illness or gets heartburn.  I don't know how you explain this in a theist worldview, but from an evolutionary perspective, these don't matter because you can still live to adulthood and reproduce.  Evolution doesn't care if you are happy, it cares if you have kids. And it doesn't mind occasional mistakes.

Evolution, after all, is a constant process.  It's never perfected because it's always ongoing.  The mechanism it needs is mutation, and the mutations happen regardless of whether or not they are harmful.  Most of them are either neutral or harmful, because the odds are always against a beneficial mutation.  And the way harmful mutations are weeded out is that you die.

Now, of course, is a good time to point out that evolution's goals aren't ours and that one of the great successes of humanity is our ability to kick evolution in the face: save frail babies, take care of our "useless" elders, and spend our time doing things like art and poetry that evolution would see as pointless.  So we have found treatments for a lot of perfectly "natural" ailments; the natural solution is for people who get them to die, but we don't want that so we turn to the "artificial" art of curing people.

So when I have a minor health problem, I have begun to realize it could be more than one thing.  Sure, it could be a toxin in my environment -- I don't at all deny that modern life is full of dangerous or untested things.  But it could also be that I was infected with an all-natural virus, or just that my body has some nonfatal but annoying variation.  And while I believe that, in theory, a headache is my body trying to tell me something, it's also possible that it's just a headache and I should take some (unnatural!) tylenol because there isn't going to be some easy explanation.

Another thing that bothers me about the naturalistic fallacy is that there are plenty of all-natural things that are deadly, so making a dichotomy between "natural plants" and "artificial chemicals" is often not so simple.  For instance, peach pits and bitter almonds are often touted by alt-health gurus as a perfectly safe cancer treatment because, after all, they're plants.  But they contain cyanide, which the plant produces to protect itself from predators like you.  It's all-natural and it wants you to die.  Meanwhile some pharmaceutical treatments -- aspirin, for instance, or digitalis -- are plant-derived.  The sorts of things that are so medically useful as to become drugs are usually quite powerful, so having an expert carefully dose you with them is a good idea.  The kinds of things that don't have a lot of healing power never get picked up by the medical community and thus remain "all-natural."  So rather than the line actually being drawn between "things that are plants" and "things mixed up in a lab," the line is drawn between "things for which there's good scientific evidence of efficacy" and "things for which there really isn't."  Believe me, if cyanide or frankincense is really that great and you can prove it, sooner or later a medical researcher is going to come test it and then market it as a pill.  Maybe it just hasn't happened yet and you are very clever and ahead of the curve to have figured it out first.  But maybe it just doesn't work.

You can see that just because something has never been picked up and marketed as a drug doesn't mean it's harmless.  You know how I mentioned bitter almond and how toxic it is?  Well, it's available as an essential oil!  They recommend that, if you do decide to take it internally, you just take "a little bit."  How little?  Who knows?  I know, I know, some essential oils have been shown to be effective for some things.  But I also know that some people take them willy-nilly and, unlike homeopathics, they actually contain active substances and can therefore be toxic.  And the sorts of people who so constantly assure you that they come from plants and therefore cannot ever be toxic are usually paid to say that so they're not really any more trustworthy than Big Pharm -- they have a profit motive to lie to you.

All that said, I admit the medical establishment is freaking frustrating.  It's expensive, it's slow to change and adapt to new discoveries (see: childbirth), it's dedicated to breaking you into little bits and hyperfocusing on the bits to the exclusion of the rest of your body, and it's way too eager to prescribe stuff without paying a whole lot of attention to the side effects.  I, too, wish there were another option.  But often there is not.  I can get a midwife, for instance, and that's great, but I can't get an all-natural Rhogam shot, which means I have to fight the medical establishment for nine months every dang time I have a baby so that someone will give it to me.  I can see a naturopath or chiropractor and it is possible they will give me some new directions I can look in for healing.  Or, you know, they'll try to sell me on some quack medicine.  You can't really know when you go to these people -- yes, they are willing to look outside the system at evidence-based treatments your doctor didn't think of.  But they are also willing to look so far outside the system that they want to put you on a permanent juice fast or feed you cyanide.  You can get a recommendation from a friend, but it's possible you have a gullible friend.

Of course I still look for a home remedy for minor ailments before going to the doctor.  I consider the possible side effects on the rest of my body before taking anything, because even though my body isn't perfect, it is in a delicate balance.  I haven't taken an antibiotic since 2006, though I would if I had an infection that I felt merited it.  I'm not saying nature is the enemy, or that it doesn't have to be respected, because it has its own way of doing things that we always have to work around.  But it isn't exactly our friend.  Sometimes it wants to kill you, and it's okay to fight back.


Enbrethiliel said...


Is this our lucky week or what? =P I've changed in this respect, too! That is, I'm using commercial moisturisers again. LOL! But not shampoo, though. I've worked out a fabulous (if eccentric) hair routine that totally suits me.

I suppose that if I lived in an "all natural" world, I could just keep sealing in moisture after my shower, with natural oils and have perfectly supple skin. But since I work in an air-conditioned office, I have to fight what is "unnatural" with something equally "unnatural."

Well, this isn't quite the point you were making about health, but as you might have noticed, it was the cosmetic side of natural products that always fascinated me the most. =)

Sheila said...

That's true too. There's a great deal in our environment that's not ideal and we have to solve those things as best we can. I don't know why I suffered for the past 18 months from low progesterone, but I did, and I shied away from going to the doctor for hormone replacement because it seemed "unnatural." But it's hardly natural -- or, even if so, hardly ideal -- to suffer from low progesterone! (Pregnancy seems to have corrected this for the time being, but I have resolved that I WILL go to the doctor if this happens again. It is probably connected to the depression I had and may have also made me anemic.)

Meredith said...

Lol the peach pits. One of my FB friends shared a photo of a bag of apricot pits for sale at a health food store. There was a warning on the bag not to eat more than 8 pits per day. No kidding! What if a child got into the bag? And even if you did eat a few per day, constant low-level cyanide poisoning is not "healthy."

I know I may be treading on fragile ground here, but have you re-thought any of the natural childbirth stuff? I am glad I could give birth without an epidural because those needles scare me, but I've always been amazed by the people who say "Trust Birth!" and head off to Bali to give birth alone in a lagoon with dolphins or whatever. Do these people not read any history books? Human childbirth is one of the cruelest signs of nature's indifference to our happiness.

I don't know if she's educated herself since, but I read an old book by Ina May Gaskin in which she claimed that hyperemesis gravidarum was a disease of self-absorbed middle class white girls. I couldn't take her seriously after that. And that Dick-Read dude, the one who saw a peasant girl give birth painlessly and decided that all women could do that if they weren't so worked up and hysterical? Ugh!

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