The Atlantic on “The Illusion of the Natural”

“What natural has come to mean to us in the context of medicine is pure and safe and benign. But the use of natural as a synonym for good is almost certainly a product of our profound alienation from the natural world.”

So says an article in The Atlantic titled “The Illusion of ‘Natural’.” It begins with the following:

It is difficult to read any historical account of smallpox without encountering the word filth. In the 19th century, smallpox was widely considered a disease of filth, which meant that it was largely understood to be a disease of the poor…Filth theory was eventually replaced by germ theory, a superior understanding of the nature of contagion, but filth theory was not entirely wrong or useless. Raw sewage running in the streets can certainly spread diseases, although smallpox is not one of them, and the sanitation reforms inspired by filth theory dramatically reduced the incidence of cholera, typhus, and plague.

The author draws a parallel between the 19th-century fear of filth with today’s fear of toxins:

In this context, fear of toxicity strikes me as an old anxiety with a new name. Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world. This is not to say that concerns over environmental pollution are not justified—like filth theory, toxicity theory is anchored in legitimate dangers—but that the way we think about toxicity bears some resemblance to the way we once thought about filth. Both theories allow their subscribers to maintain a sense of control over their own health by pursuing personal purity. For the filth theorist, this means a retreat into the home, where heavy curtains and shutters might seal out the smell of the poor and their problems. Our version of this shuttering is now achieved through the purchase of purified water, air purifiers, and food produced with the promise of purity.

Purity, especially bodily purity, is the seemingly innocent concept behind a number of the most sinister social actions of the past century. A passion for bodily purity drove the eugenics movement that led to the sterilization of women who were blind, black, or poor. Concerns for bodily purity were behind miscegenation laws that persisted for more than a century after the abolition of slavery, and behind sodomy laws that were only recently declared unconstitutional. Quite a bit of human solidarity has been sacrificed in pursuit of preserving some kind of imagined purity.

This kind of thinking pervades anti-vaccine movements and alternative medicine.[ref]Also food puritans and some environmentalists.[/ref] I’m always taken back by the view of technology or medicine as somehow “unclean” and the nostalgic pining for the “natural” world. Because when people were left with all things “natural” in the past, their lives were cut short:

2 thoughts on “The Atlantic on “The Illusion of the Natural””

  1. I think you’re being far too simplistic. The essence of support for “natural” is based on a long evolutionary history. Many chemical innovations, fertilizers, pesticides, elements in plastics, asbestos, etc. have been shown to introduce cancers or other surprising problems that were unknown or impossible to grok without a longer history of human interaction.

    Atlantic’s article is silly. Violates Godwin’s rule right out the gate…

  2. “I think you’re being far too simplistic.”

    Perhaps, though given Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory and its inclusion of “sanctity/degradation” (or “purity/pollution”), I don’t think I’m out in left field. In Haidt’s discussion of the political divide on purity/sanctity, he specifically mentions the Left’s moralization of food (conservatives tend to moralize sex).

Comments are closed.