From Vaccines to Vanilla: Getting to the Heart of Our Obsession with “Natural”

An unexpected benefit of lockdown (we have to take little joys where we find them) has been getting to virtually snoop through people’s bookshelves in Zoom meetings. Some journalists have done the good work of putting together lists of titles they’ve spotted on shelves during interviews.

Dr. Fauci’s books made it into one of these features, and included a title that grabbed me so hard I couldn’t put the library hold in fast enough: Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science, by Alan Levinovitz.

This tearing-down of the pedestal on which we place anything “natural” is something I’m deeply interested in thanks to two excellent books I constantly reference: The Angry Chef and Bad Science. Although Natural also examines specific instances of “natural” products or foods purported to be superior, like vanilla flavoring, for example, it focuses more on where this underlying idea came from, why it’s so deeply entrenched across cultures, and how it’s causing dangerous legislation to be enacted on unsound principles.

Levinovitz, a religious studies professor at James Madison University, emphasizes that this isn’t merely a US-based belief, either: “Variations on the idea of “natural goodness” are ubiquitous in all intellectual traditions, ancient and modern, East and West.” The peeling back of layers around topics like food, processing, medical treatment, supplements versus pharmaceuticals, brands like Goop’s “aspirational” use of natural cosmetics and beauty products versus chemical-laden junk for poors, and just generally using the argument that natural is better to justify your position on everything from vaccines to vanilla is an important undertaking, and a complex topic that actually ends up quite simple once those layers come off.

At the very heart of it, this entire thing boils down to:

“Nature” is another term for God; “natural,” a synonym for holy.”

This includes a sort of obsessive worship of an idealized, mythical, paradise-type past where our ancestors ate from the pure land and lived blessed, charmed lives because of it (he likens it to the creation story), never mind that we currently live longer, better, safer, and healthier than any other time in existence by most applicable metrics. We could just end this discussion here, really. This idea, of natural equating with holiness, has since bled into so many facets of our lives, health and healthcare, and consumption that it’s borderline ridiculous. Maybe even more so considering how flexible the concepts of nature and the natural are. Levinovitz somewhat brilliantly sums it up thus: “Natural goodness sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s a mercenary ethic that anyone can hire to fight for their cause.”

That includes what our definition of nature even is, and what’s so worth emulating about it — he makes a sobering point by referencing Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, in which the film’s doomed subject saw empathy and wisdom in the stare of the bears he lived with, but Herzog saw hostility and indifference.

Again, this is the heart of it. We automatically give credence to the idea that anything natural has to be better because it hasn’t been soiled with dirty manmade greed or ulterior motives, and yet you can bend and twist its definition to whatever cause you need it to serve.

He even says that “good science is no antidote” to this problem: “Justifying same-sex marriage by pointing to homosexual activity in primates, or to genetic determinants of sexual orientation, only repeats the fundamental mistake of seeking morality in the mirror of nature.” This was an interesting reframing I hadn’t considered, because I’ve felt that leaning more heavily on science as an antidote seems to be the best option for dispelling the cult of all things natural. I do still believe that, but there’s a lot more to consider here.

I didn’t always enjoy — or follow well — the religious theory, even if it was broken down fairly well for the most part. It still read pretty densely. The strongest chapter, and the one I got most out of, was around those who eschew modern medicine in favor of “natural” healing techniques that are untested, unproven, or, most often, ineffectual. Levinovitz makes a sympathetic, sensitive case for why people go this route, and his look at it felt comprehensive and, actually, heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s because all else is tried and failed, other times it’s lack of access to treatment or medication, justified mistrust of the medical establishment, and so much more.

The book is worthwhile for this chapter alone, and likewise for his message that “Open-mindedness about people’s sacred rituals may be a virtue, but doctors and scientists should repudiate anecdotes and practices that are not supported by evidence, religious or otherwise. Hope is important, but it’s clearly malpractice to promise […] that thanks to the healing power of nature, ‘everything you struggle with can be easily solved.'” I couldn’t agree more.

The legal aspects promised did feel a bit thin to me, but in the medical chapter Levinovitz cites one case involving Native American beliefs that were manipulated and exploited and led to legal issues over who has the right to refuse proven medical treatment. This is simply fascinating, and religion’s role in medicine I’m excited to read an entire book about.

The best statistic around religion I took from it was a quick look at widespread belief in the power of prayer in medical healing — the prevalence is much more than I imagined, and I’d already assumed it was high: he quotes a 2004 Newsweek poll that found “72 percent of Americans ‘praying to God can cure someone — even if science says the person doesn’t stand a chance.'”

This is a tricky area that unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, is already very far gone. Natural is a good look at how we got here.

20 thoughts on “From Vaccines to Vanilla: Getting to the Heart of Our Obsession with “Natural”

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  1. This sounds interesting. A lot of this reverence of the “natural” seeps into food and weight issues… like “food is medicine” – attributing miraculous healing properties to foods the “cavemen” ate. Demonization of refined sugar, processed foods etc. I’m not saying that a diet of exclusively processed foods is good for you, but the occasional Pop Tart won’t kill you! 🙂 Guilt and mental anguish about what you eat is detrimental to one’s health as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, exactly! And these issues just snowball, until you’re believing impossible things around certain foods and demonizing others for totally invalid reasons. It’s disturbing and very damaging. And I agree, it’s about moderating and eating variedly. This book doesn’t go as heavy into those topics as others I’ve read, but it was really interesting to get the background of how heavily this all ties into religious purity. Kind of crazy!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree wholeheartedly that the obsession with natural is misguided. I refer to the supplement aisles in stores like Whole Foods as the snake oil aisle. I’m not saying everything therein is junk but most of it is.

    The Grizzly Man documentary makes an interesting case in point. An excellent but sad film.

    I’m glad you take time to read such books and give us your take. Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m borrowing your snake oil aisle designation from now on! Agreed, the vast majority of it is junk and so expensive, completely unregulated, etc. etc. The list for why this stuff is awful on so many levels just goes on and on.

      This one did make a lot of good points, and helped me consider this issue from different perspectives, always a good thing! Glad you enjoyed reading it, thanks so much for your kind feedback 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds fascinating and as usual you cover the pros and cons of the book admirably! I’m behind on my blog reading (working from newer to older right now for a change) but always make sure I save your posts to read properly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As someone who works in pharmacy, this is something I deal with on a weekly basis in some form or another. Top one is homeopathic medicines are frequently confused with herbal supplements. One usually has some scientific backing, the other does not. People like to try to argue it with the pharmacists, for example; “But haven’t homeopathics been used for hundreds of years?” Pharmacist: “You’re talking about herbal supplements, to which the answer is yes.” Customer: “Oh. That’s what I get for arguing with a pharmacist.” lol. The pharmacist then educates them on why homeopathics are a waste of your time and money.
    I’ve heard/seen lots of weird ideas over the years. I can’t remember the name of the practice but this old lady once held a bottle of medicine close to her body so her body could tell her if this medicine would work for her. Something about energies/vibrations. She closed her eyes, crossed her arms, holding the bottle just a little away from her ribs. =/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good lord, I can’t even imagine the shit you have to hear and address. Homeopathics are the worst and the stuff that people attribute to them is ridiculous. Like magical kind of properties. Come on guys.

      I’ve heard what you’re describing!! About holding it near your body and your body will tell you if it works. Wtf. Our bodies are capable of incredible things, including healing, but again, come ON.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent review💜 I was drawn in from the title alone. So many strong opinions are bred from well managed marketing campaigns and the emergence of “natural” is one of those unfortunate ones. Again, I benefited from my hubby debunking the concept and it angered me. Now, every time I see the term, I ignore the product.

    Thanks for another insightful analysis of an interesting topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think this is why “Follow the science” has fallen so flat with the “COVID is a hoax crowd, the Anti-vaxxers, the Evangelicals, etc. etc. It isn’t “natural” because Big Pharma, blah blah blah. We have to figure out a way to speak to these people, but without validating their craziness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean. It’s become so difficult to talk about these things. But I mean, when you think about it, the coronavirus is what’s natural in this situation, you know? Straight outta nature! But this author makes such a good point of the concept of natural just being a very mercenary one, you can make it work for you whatever your argument might be. But I think as long as there’s a single adverse effect attribute to a vaccine (unavoidable, obviously) you’ll have the anti-vaxx crowd clamoring against it. Sigh.

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  7. I’m always suspicious when people start touting something because it’s natural.

    It’s funny how people think of our early ancestors living an idylic natural life when it was probably quite brutish and short. Reminds me of a cartoon I saw where two cavemen are sitting around and one is reflecting on how things don’t seem right because they get plenty of natural food and pure water and clean air and exercise but they’re all dead by 30.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same!! This author underscores why even just using the word “natural” is so dumb (dumb being my word, not his). But it makes no sense. How are you defining what’s natural? And generally any concept of “nature” is ugly and brutal and filled with poisons and death etc. etc. etc so why is it so aspirational? There’s no logic in it. Actually I think he may even have mentioned something similar to the cartoon you’re describing, such a great analogy!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I think of natural food, I wonder if it has parasites or nasty bacteria. My friend got some funky disease that used to be prevalent before the 20th century — picked it up from some fruit he ate. His doctor was incredibly excited because he’d never come across it before. A lot of people probably had various intestinal parasites back in the day.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh that’s crazy! So funny that his doctor was excited. Yes, they had all kinds of weird illnesses and died much younger (without antibiotics or vaccines just forget it, basically) and yet we venerate it like it’s some kind of idyllic paradise we should try to emulate. Just all so misguided!

        Liked by 1 person

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