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Our obsession with “natural” products and practices is a proxy for other values

Natural: How Faith in Nature's Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science

Alan Levinovitz
Beacon Press
2020
264 pp.
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When I was pregnant, I remember pondering with my husband the pros and cons of a “natural” versus a “medicalized” birth. Should we opt for a hospital that would offer epidural anesthesia or for a clinic that would allow the birth process to unfold without intervention and without pain relief? Should we choose to breastfeed exclusively or to introduce formula early on so that we could share more equally in caring for our newborn? Should we obey nature or transcend it through medicine? In Natural, Alan Levinovitz shows that the framing of this final question is fundamentally misguided, because it creates an oppositional binary where one does not exist.

Levinovitz covers a wide range of case studies, from childbirth to national parks, from lab-grown meat to organic foods, from financial markets to contraception, and from alternative medicine to the use of prostheses and supplements in sports. He unravels the moral and theological connotations of the word “natural” and questions what is left of the word once it is stripped bare.

Levinovitz shows how “natural” is often used as a proxy for other values. In cases where parents refuse to vaccinate their children, for example, he asserts that these parents are simply looking for an experience of medicine that is more holistic and provides an existential explanation to illness. We should strive to realize this more-expansive vision in conventional medicine, he argues, as it could help reestablish the trust that parents looking for alternative therapies have lost.

In another example, Levinovitz reveals inconsistencies in how the term “natural” is used with regard to a variety of athletic performance advantages. Olympians such as Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta, who had unusually high hemoglobin levels, and U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, with his abnormally long arms and torso, had distinct advantages over other athletes, but their ability to compete was never questioned. The naturally high testosterone levels of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, however, have been repeatedly cited as being unfair to competitors.

So what does “natural” mean in the context of professional sports? The book shows that there are legitimate disagreements, even between biomechanical experts, about the extent to which a natural advantage can be considered fair, but the term “natural” is usually used as a proxy for a “healthy and safe” body that does not cross some other supposedly “natural” division (for example, gender).

In another chapter, Levinovitz tackles Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and the justification of economic policies on the basis of appeals to nature. Here, he shows how something that may seem perfectly natural today, such as the practice of charging interest, was considered unnatural, even sinful, for a long time. Those who talk of Bitcoin as the evolution of “natural currency” similarly reflect our inclination to map models from nature onto economic systems—an inherently theological approach.

The idea that “natural” is used with moral or theological connotations is not new. Nearly 40 years ago, Stephen Jay Gould wrote that we cannot find answers in nature to how we should behave in our everyday lives (1). It is too easy to cherry-pick examples of natural behaviors in favor of, or against, any practice in which we might choose to engage. Today, Levinovitz shows that unraveling the layers of moral and theological meanings associated with the notion of “natural” is a relevant endeavor, not just for scientists, ethicists, and policy-makers but for all human beings as we try to make sense of our relationship with the world around us.

In the afterword, Levinovitz provides a reflective account of how his own attitude toward “naturalness” changed through the journey of writing the book. Although he was initially skeptical about the use of the word, he came to recognize its importance as he unpacked the different values that people ascribe to it. The take-home message? Rather than dismissing “natural” altogether, we should strive to acknowledge and explore its many facets, depending on the context. In this sense, Levinovitz’s book is an important call for more nuance over simplicity, for compromise over dogmatism, and for embracing uncertainty over certainty.

References and Notes
1. S. J. Gould, Nat. Hist. 91, 19 (1982).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, King’s College London, London WC2B 4BG, UK.