Unnatural (Or: On evo psych, gays, foods, and having too many atoms)

Lately I have found myself feeling less and less tolerant of pseudoscientific talk on the subjects of chemistry and consumer materials. Now, I think I’m a pretty good little liberal, and I have great respect for the crunchiest of my liberal compatriots. I also work to respect other cultures and look for value in traditions and accumulated cultural knowledge from around the world. I’d be the first to tell you that there are many good reasons to prefer eating one kind of food over another, or to choose one soap over another, or even a soapless existence if that’s what works for you or saves the puppies. But I’m not talking about making personal choices, or even about what may or may not be a beneficial choice from an ecological or broad social standpoint. I’m talking about the words themselves, about the pseudoscientific framing that informs discourse about how certain things are better or worse for you or society because they are more “natural,” “real,” or, my favorite, “chemical-free” (though I mean, who doesn’t love a good vacuum). These words are used a lot these days, but I especially hear them from people who belong to a particular social class – relatively affluent, generally white, often but not exclusively liberal. This talk sometimes goes hand-in-hand with similarly pseudoscientific advocacy for medicinal treatments that may accomplish something beneficial for a person, but that are not backed up by hard science: things like gall bladder detoxes, fruit juice purges, and yoga positions that heal your pancreas.* Oh, and weight-loss talk.**

There are so many examples of this that I’ll have to limit the topics I can address in a single blog post. But here is a list of topics within which some chemical compounds and substances might be designated as falling into categories such as natural/unnatural, real/fake, or even plain old good/bad:

  • Foods and food ingredients
  • Detergents
  • Soaps and shampoos
  • Fertilizers and pesticides
  • Clothing
  • Frankly, almost anything else.

On its surface, this could sound like a semantic argument put forward by an annoying chemist pedant. And okay, maybe there’s a little of that. But actually, I think these terms, particularly in marketing, really do encourage people into very unscientific thought about the world and our resources. Morality is very tied up with these words. I want to unpack that a little.

In defense of pedantry, I think precise language is important. It’s important in science, and it’s important in general communication. It’s important because, as many smart people have pointed out, words mean things. If your word communicates things you did not intend, that’s not the fault of everyone else for misunderstanding you. And if you choose words that have both precise and less-precise common usages, they can communicate a lot more than you might realize. So first, the word “chemicals”: Wikipedia says a “chemical substance is a material with a specific chemical composition.” Definr, my favorite online dictionary (following links around definr led me to an awareness of the term “screaming meemies,” which I do not say frequently enough), says a chemical is “produced by or used in a reaction involving changes in atoms or molecules.” Chemicals make up matter. Basically everything that isn’t energy or void (this is a simplification and I know it, fyi). You are made of chemicals, every piece of food you put in your mouth is made of chemicals, the air you breathe is made of chemicals, and every living growing thing is made of chemicals. As my friend Sweet Machine said, saying you don’t like something because it has “too many chemicals” is like saying it has “too many atoms.” /pedant rant. pedrant? ahem. sorry.

That brings me to the word “natural.” I want to be annoying for a minute and explore what that word means, too, so this can be very clear. Again, from Wikipedia, the infallible authority on all things: “Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world or material world. ‘Nature’ refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. Manufactured objects and human interaction generally are not considered part of nature, and are referred to as artificial or man-made. Nature is generally distinguished from the supernatural. It ranges in scale from the subatomic to the galactic.” (Italics are mine.) There are also about 10 definitions for “natural” from definr, including: in accordance with nature, relating to or concerning nature; existing in or produced by nature, not artificial or imitation; existing in or in conformity with nature  or the observable world, neither supernatural nor magical; (biology) functioning or occurring in a natural way, lacking abnormalities or deficiencies; unthinking, prompted by (or as if by) instinct; in the natural unprocessed condition.

Clearly, part of the problem is that the word itself is so imprecise. In its broadest sense, “nature” encompasses everything we encounter (and most things we don’t) in the universe. Personally, I think that’s the best way to use the word – if nothing else, because some of those other meanings are similar but carry very different connotations from each other. For example, there is the usage that distinguishes between “natural” and “artificial/man-made” – a distinction that has some inherent problems, though a word for it is probably necessary. But humans exist within and as a part of nature; it is a mentality that considers everything we do as separate from our environment that has allowed us, for one, to neglect our own impact on that environment until recently. The usage that distinguishes between “natural” and imitation seems useful (the example is “naturally blonde hair”). It even makes sense to use the word when it comes to comparing processed and unprocessed substances derived from the natural world… sort of…

It comes down to a question of degree, I think, and how far you can go with that division. For example, if a raw banana is more natural than a mashed banana or a cooked banana, because the raw banana is unprocessed, then a mashed, cooked banana is arguably more natural than a banana extract for the same reason. Extract of banana might in turn be considered more natural than a completely dissolved banana, which is in turn perhaps more natural than a small group of flavor compounds extracted from the dissolved banana. And maybe one of those flavor compounds, as extracted from a banana, is more natural than the exact same chemical compound produced by a reaction of extracted compounds that originated from a mixture of organic and inorganic substances, which is in turn perhaps more natural than the same compound created by reactions between completely inorganic materials. But then the problems start. At the molecular level, why is an inorganic source more artificial than an organic one? Is it because it’s more imitative of nature than the compound distilled from bananas? Does that depend on purpose (i.e. are we extracting that compound to make things taste like bananas, or are we trying to extract or synthesize a medicinal compound that just happens to exist in bananas)? And stepping back, why is soaking a banana in a solvent for an extended period of time to extract just a few flavorful compounds more “natural” than melting it and extracting those compounds in a test tube? Is it because alcoholic extracts are an older technique, and therefore more “natural” for humans?

For one thing, this line of thought is confusing the different meanings of the word natural. We’ve moved from unnatural by processing to unnatural by imitation to unnatural by perhaps some kind of biological definition – people have been doing it so long that maybe it’s natural for us to do so now. The last one even sounds far-fetched, too. We haven’t been making extracts since the dawn of humanity. Did we eventually evolve to produce extracts, instinctively? (The answer is no.)

And the biological definition of “natural” as lacking abnormalities or deficiencies raises huge social issues. So does the definition of “natural” as biologically instinctive.  For one thing, there is an implicit assumption in all of this that more natural = better, that “nature” represents our innate state of being and the way things in the world ought to be, and that humanity’s interference changes things for the worse. There are religious overtones to that idea (in Eden we didn’t have computers, or cancer, or unhappiness!), and a severe skepticism of technological progress. This is not to say that technological progress is 100% a good thing – rather that it’s morally neutral. Technology can be used for very good or very evil reasons; and technology used for good can go awry (presumably, technology used for eviiiiil can also turn out to be beneficial in some way). A lack of understanding of how those technologies work results in severe (and generally uninformed) mistrust among non-specialists.

If we regard things we consider counter to our presumed instincts (and, thus, our “natures”) as deviations from how things are supposed to be, we’re entering dangerous waters. Being gay is bad for society because it doesn’t produce babies and is thus unnatural in animals (and never mind all those penguins. I didn’t mean animals animals, anyway, I meant humans, who totally aren’t animals!). Elevating natural instincts to a level that does not require moral justification also serves as an out for socially unacceptable behavior; please see all of evo psych.

And I’ve come full blog-post-circle: then there’s food, farming, and shampoo. This is where the pseudoscience surrounding the superiority of all things deemed “natural” really has taken off in public discourse lately. Natural: less-processed foods; smaller farms; more “natural” fertilizers and pesticides or none of those at all; bathing and brushing teeth with straight-up baking soda (note: sodium bicarbonate as sold in stores is inorganic and fairly processed for public use); no vaccinations; eating herbs as opposed to taking medications. Unnatural: Flours; cooked things; extracts (arguably; see above); pesticides; fertilizers; toothpaste; soap (that is some crazy chemistry in action!); vaccinations and pharmaceuticals. The problem with this is that it sets up a fundamentally false dichotomy. There are advantages and disadvantages to using shampoo, and to flour, and to preservatives (example: things can be preserved) and pesticides (example: bugs don’t eat your crops). And by saying this, I have had people get very angry and start arguing with me about the disadvantages of politically subsidized farming monocultures, and how more “natural” soaps are less irritating for many people’s skin. Which is not the point. I know those things! I am moderately a hippie myself! The point is that this isn’t the fault of chemicals being unnatural, that it’s not about nature at all, that technology isn’t the enemy, and that making the “natural” argument using one meaning of the word (i.e. artificial) is nonetheless very close to that other meaning of the word (biologically NOT MEANT TO BE).

Calling all manmade substances “unnatural” assigns them moral value and suggests that preservative salts are as harmful as DDT. And it simultaneously puts saltpetre and DDT, together, in the same category as being gay or (gasp!) a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother – because those things are unnatural. See also, being: fat, a man who demonstrates emotions, a working woman, or a man who has no problem controlling his libido. To name a few.

* Qualifiers: I have some cred here. I have personally benefited from eliminating from my regular diet those foods which I cannot properly digest; I love yoga; and I even think that in the absence of scientific study, patient testimony for the efficacy of a traditional technique can have at least some value. I’m happy to acknowledge that herbs and vitamins can have medicinal value. I also recognize that even if a treatment is beneficial purely because it generates a placebo effect, there is a great deal of power in placebos. But that doesn’t mean I need to avoid lactose because it creates an imbalance in my fire humours, which would of course be a problem for a body type that is overly airy and in tune with Io. I probably actually have a damaged and scarred enough intestinal wall due to chronic illness that my body fails to produce sufficient enzymes to digest lactose.

** If you’re new here, this is a fat acceptance space as much as it is a feminist, anti-racist, and generally pro-social justice one. Please read up before blowing up about weight loss here. And if you’re interested in how weight loss talk intersects with social class, boy do I have some good reading material for you!

19 Responses

  1. This is an outstanding post. This is totally going in my 101 bookmarks.

    Side note: you know you hang out with humanities scholars when you find yourself saying “I want to unpack that a little.” ;-)

  2. I KNOW. You’ve ruined me! I am going to repack my suitcase of unexamined things now.

  3. Not to be a pain in the ass, but organic = carbon based (including benzene, anything petroleum, anything with calories or that once lived). Inorganic = non-carbon based- salt, sand, ammonia, etc.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go smoke my chemical free cigarettes (cough-cough). Seriously, people have claimed such to me. This sort of stuff is also a pet peeve of mine as a chemist and a rational person who enjoys plenty of synthetic stuff (capilene) and is terrified of plenty of natural stuff (botulism, anyone?)

  4. I don’t think you need to apologize for being pedantic on a post about the value of pedantry. :) And yes, you’re right, organic (not in the farming sense, but in the chemistry sense) = [organic] carbon based. Did I say something in my very long, rambly post that was incorrect? It’s entirely possible. All I see in a quick glance through is that I said sodium bicarbonate sold in stores was probably inorganic in origin, not organic, but I honestly could be totally wrong about that – maybe it’s all OC.

  5. (My only quibble is that you’ve neglected inorganic carbon, but otherwise I am on board!)

  6. Yeah, I considered inorganic carbon, but I don’t really know of much other than buckyballs and diamonds, and I guess carbon monoxide/dioxide, etc. I don’t notice anything really incorrect in your post, though possibly questionable in your questions about organic/inorganic sources, but I came here from Shapely Prose where there was a lot of “woo-woo” (my term for non-science based, often New age sewage beliefs)

  7. Oh yeah, there are other sources of inorganic carbon than those. Wikipedia has a list of compounds that can be or tend to be inorganic (and being Wikipedia, I am sure it is 100% correct), including bicarbonate salts. Much of the bicarbonate in solution in the environment is derived from carbonate rocks, which can be organically or inorganically deposited.

  8. And maybe you saw my attempts to battle the woo-woo at SP – I’m pretty much in agreement with you about that. Though I don’t call it “sewage” so much. Untested doesn’t always mean crap, just sometimes.

    Uh, apparently I’m getting visitors to this post from philosophyetc.net. Hi philosophers, I am not trained in philosophy, so please be nice to me? :)

  9. This is a terrific post and also the “chemical-free” part made me think of this.

  10. Great post. I’m wallowing in the “joys” of thermodynamic chemistry now, so I appreciate this on a deep level. I do wish you’d also address the “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!” screed that is going around. (Since I’ve had basic intro organic, and can pronounce some of those chemicals, can I eat them now? If I tell you bananas have ethyl butyrate in them, do you have to avoid them forever?)

    I’m also deeply impressed by the sheer toxicity of some of the “natural” chemicals out there – I’ve heard people who would never use a industrial pesticide tout the benefits of homemade nicotine applications. Eeeee.

  11. I never should have eaten raisins as a kid, because I could only call them “waisins!”

  12. “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!”

    So if you can’t pronounce deoxyribonucleic acid you can’t eat anything of animal or vegetable origin? And I hope none of those people are eating beef, because phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase is quite a mouthful. And…you get my point. Idiots!

  13. On the flip side, I’m waiting for someone to start kicking and screaming because we’ve “limited” ourselves to left-handed amino acids. Right handed ones are found in space, after all – surely they must be good for us! (Maybe I’ll start a new company that claims to make right-handed amino acids. My slogan could be “Is your protein sinister?”)

  14. It totally hits home when you compare it to weight loss pseudoscience and moralizing. So true. After the discussion on SP, I thought about how maybe years of dieting have made it hard for me to see food without thinking of it as good and bad.

    Sure, I’m over the dieting, but maybe “organic” and “natural” are just my new low-carb and fat free. Part of a fantasy that the “right” foods can change everything for me. Not weight wise, but health wise. Does that make sense?

    Thanks for giving me a lot to think about.

  15. I think it completely makes sense, Sticky. You can eat the correct foods and never get sick, or cure your illness*, or NEVER DIE. Also, you will save the puppies!!

    * I used to be on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which really does help a lot of people with chronic digestive illnesses. In principle it cuts down on difficult-to-digest foods, reducing flares; in reality no one is sure quite why it works so well. The problem is that it’s very restrictive and very strict, and quickly going off the diet after trying it can spin someone into a dangerous flare-up. The OTHER problem is that people very quickly start moralizing about the fact that it works so well because it’s more natural/primitive/healthy/good-for-us, when the actual scientific reality is probably a little bit more complicated than that. Not to mention, it’s poorly tested and does not work for everyone, though patient testimony suggests high success rates if followed strictly. And even when it does help with these diseases it is never a cure. But people get kind of religious about these things.

  16. I read the end too late in the game for shapely prose, but THANK YOU. I will respect people who say they prefer to use plant derived things, or things with less than x ingredients, or whatever. I’ll even let natural go. but as a professional chemist, if you’re claiming it’s chemical free, your ingredient list better be 0 items long-I’m looking at you, Burt’s Bees. oh wait, it never is? yeah-the demonizing chemicals annoys me, but it’s at least not a lie. chemical free? not so much

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  18. Your banana analogy made my eyes cross.

    But excellent post.

  19. Great post, Volcanista. I’ve also had a lot of chemistry classes, so I also get a bit growly when people talk about Scary, Scary Chemicals and the need to avoid them, but at the same time I also share a lot of the concerns about what some of the components of the things we use (like, say, fertilizers) do when they wash into rivers. But I absolutely agree that thinking of some foods as Evil and Dangerous Poison and some foods as Wholesome Real Foods is just as bad as Good Foods and Bad Foods, or Fattening and Not Fattening. If you can eat it and it doesn’t make you sick, it’s food.

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