Defending The Unnatural (Part 2)

From food to pharmaceuticals, reproductive technologies, cosmetic procedures and stem cell research, naturalness has been a hot topic in discussions of modern science. And it’s a subject that hasn’t been absent of conflict not only within the scientific community, but amongst the wider population too. Government, policy makers, human rights campaigners, religious organisations, food manufacturers, and every day people like you and me have all weighed in on the potential benefits, dangers, possibilities and consequences of new unnatural scientific innovations, with little hope of a consensus being found anytime soon.

In part one, I explored three common beliefs: (1) that ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ compounds are categorically different; (2) that bodies have an innate way of knowing what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’; and (3) that ‘natural’ is inherently good, and ‘unnatural’ is inherently bad. Now I want to look at the definition of ‘natural’ itself, and uncover why, despite it being a rather vague and self-contradictory term, evokes such a strong emotional response in public debate.

What does natural mean?

Part of the confusion and mistrust around ‘unnatural’ comes from the fact that ‘natural’ has no consistent and systematic definition. In food, its meanings are plenty. For example, some might say it denotes organic produce, untouched by synthetic pesticides, not to be mistaken for grown without pesticides at all, which may also be a true understanding of the word. It’s also used to denounce some types of processing, while others seem to get a free pass. Our understanding of ‘natural’ changes according to scientific discovery and social progress. Take for instance women in the workplace – once upon a time that would have been an offence to their ‘natural’ role as caregivers. ‘Natural’ can mean a figure of speech, something that is taken for granted: ‘naturally, the sun rises from the East,’ or it can mean talent: ‘he was a natural born musician.’ In most instances, it is the natural state which is favoured, perceived as safe and right, whilst unnatural is feared and demonised, inscribing opposing moral senses to the words.

Natural in Science and Communication

As I said in part one, the idea of ‘natural’ adopted most often by scientists expresses scepticism about any meaningful distinction between natural and unnatural and doesn’t assign either positive or negative values to items based on their perceived naturalness. For scientists, chemicals are chemicals, and their value lies beyond the process through which they were derived. A strong basis for this argument is that there are many unnatural technologies, such as vaccines and contraception, that have proven revolutionary in preserving and improving global health and wellbeing, meanwhile plenty of natural substances, like poisonous mushrooms and uncooked kidney beans, that are highly toxic and likely won’t have such a nice effect. ‘Natural’ here is considered a redundant and irrelevant property for defining something’s goodness.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped mass media and marketing from using ‘naturalness’ to report on science. For instance, in a 2016 paper exploring campaigns aimed to encourage more women to breastfeed due to its health benefits, the authors found that health communicators focused on using a ‘nature’s purpose’ rhetoric to convince its audience of new mothers. However, in addition to inciting stigma against women who were unable to breast feed for many different reasons, the reliance on ‘natural’ as best caused a rise in fear around vaccinations for children due to its ‘unnaturalness.’ This is just one of the ways the ‘natural’ argument often goes against public health goals.

Natural in Fad Diets

The common argument against fad diets is that they’re unnatural and, in that sense, you wouldn’t be wrong. Restricting the body of calories and essential nutrients, putting it into starvation mode and ignoring innate hunger cues is a sure way to cause some damage, physical and emotional. A biological self-preservation mechanism kicks in to amp up the food cravings, to retain fat in order to stay alive, which can really only be a good thing, thus seen as nature being ‘smart.’ The problem here is that the diet industry is pretty manipulative, disguising its ways as ‘natural’ and as a ‘lifestyle,’ meaning that people often leap from one diet to the next and see failure as a personal weakness rather than a biological response.

Take a look at any of the big diet trends over recent years and you’ll find ‘nature’ as the core of its rhetoric. The Paleo diet claims to mimic the consumption habits of our ancestors, before humans adopted ‘unnatural’ practices of agriculture. It banishes grains and legumes due to the role man-made technologies play in making them suitable for consumption. It fixates on ‘hunting’ and ‘gathering,’ eating only what you can put together from from scratch. But dismantle the nutritional composition of the diet and it looks hardly different to the low carb diets of recent past, simply dressed up with the story of Eden to appear closer to our roots. Similarly, the ‘clean eating’ movement which advocated ‘foods with only five or less ingredients, all of which you must be able to pronounce, and that your grandmother would recognise.’ This too places natural at the forefront of the eating style, but with gluten, dairy and sugar out of the picture and not a carbohydrate in sight, it would seem this is merely a way of cutting calories in half, inevitably resulting in weight loss, but ultimately is no different to any other form of restriction.

When it comes to food, it’s hard to trust what’s ‘natural’ and what’s not. It’s also false to say that natural is always best in diet, after all, most of us can’t get everything they need from a ‘natural’ diet alone. Many have to rely on fortified products to meet nutritional requirements. Here in the UK, it is recommended that everyone take a Vitamin D supplement throughout winter months as we can’t get enough from food and sunlight alone. Likewise on a vegan diet, supplementing b12 is an absolute necessity. Therefore, whether something is natural or not really don’t bear much influence to real-world value.

Natural and Ideology

In spite of the fact that many people, after exercising a degree of logic, come to the conclusion that natural isn’t always better than unnatural, this doesn’t always stop ‘naturalness’ from being used as a default argument against things we don’t agree with, be it fad diets, processed food or something much much more controversial. The idea of something ‘unnatural’ tends to evoke a strong emotional response as ‘wrong,’ and a ‘violation’ of some ‘sacred’ natural order. Often, this response can be aggressive, creating a sense of disgust that feels like intuition telling us that something is impermissible.¬†Unnatural entities are described as things that ‘just shouldn’t be.’

In the past, naturalness has been used as a basis of social discrimination and prejudice against race, religion, gender, disability and sexual orientation. Things like interracial and same sex relationships, gender fluidity and non-binary identities have been opposed for being ‘unnatural’, with little explanation beyond an arbitrary assessment of those who are different. Still today, prejudices exist under the veil of ‘natural preservation’ The ‘unnaturalness’ of modern life is a common rhetoric used to marginalise fat bodies, with weight gain being described as blameworthy fault that diminishes the humanity and value of people in larger bodies . Likewise, the plight against non-organic or processed food due to its ‘unnaturalness’ is often a way of hindering the independence of the elderly or those with disabilities who rely on such foods for basic self care. This creates a huge social chasm that makes life much much harder for those in non-normative situations.

It’s important to recognise that feelings towards unnaturalness are not inherent ‘gut feelings’ or an intuitive wisdom, but a product of social conditioning, and so whilst using the dichotomy of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ to decide whether something is good or bad may seem harmless, it can have devastating effects of oppression and injustice.

The Nature of language

When I tell people what I do, I’m often asked ‘Why do you research language?’ Well, I’ll tell you why. Because language reveals the very best and worst of humanity. It reveals our implicit biases, our distorted perception of reality, the beliefs we don’t even know we have until they’re spelt out in front of us. But it also proves a powerful tool for change. Shifting our language can shift our perspective and, at least I believe, begin to foster more empathy, understanding, inclusivity and equality.

I realise that to some, this discussion may all seem like a broad stretch. We can’t say that all uses of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ mean to discriminate, attack and shame. But language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and when we use a word in a derogatory way, those connotations diffuse to other entities across this trajectory. The solution is not to banish the terms, however, but make their meanings definable and justified through logic and reason. You wouldn’t be wrong in calling science and technology unnatural, only to suggest that its unnaturalness determines its moral status.

Maxine Ali