But ‘Natural’ is Better, No? ‘How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science’

Go to the grocery store to buy vanilla extract and you’ll be faced with an ontological choice: natural or artificial? The real stuff—expensive “pure vanilla extract”—is made from the beans of a vanilla orchid that was painstakingly harvested, cured, a shipped across the globe. Artificial vanilla extract, on the other hand, uses synthesized vanillin derived from wood pulp or petroleum.

I know that synthetic vanillin is chemically identical to natural vanillin. I know that my tongue can’t pick up on natural vanilla’s extremely subtle complexities. (In blind taste tests, people actually prefer the artificial stuff, probably because it’s more potent.) And yet, when faced with the choice, I most often buy what’s natural. The expensive stuff comes from a plant. It’s real. “It’s probably better for me and for the world,” I think, without a modicum of supporting evidence. “There’s a picture of a flower right there on the package.”

The allure of naturalness isn’t limited to the grocery store. From diet and medicine to childbirth and economics, we assume that natural is good and unnatural is bad. Yet these distinctions often blur a much more complicated reality. 

In Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science, religion scholar Alan Levinovitz investigates how Nature has become a “meta-myth,” an overarching conceptual framework that cuts across religion, science, and society. 

I reached out to Levinovitz over the phone to discuss organic food, birth control, alternative medicine, and the role of naturalness in explaining COVID-19. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

When did the concept of “natural” first grab your attention?

When I was working on food I noticed that people often use “nature” and “natural” as their justification for whatever it was that they happened to think was right. What fascinated me was the seeming decisiveness that naturalness had for them. It was as if you didn’t need to say anything else: that was it, the end of the line for argumentation. [Saying something was natural] was like citing scripture or saying that God approves or disapproves of something. 

I started thinking, “Where else do I see this?” and I realized it wasn’t just in food. Suddenly I saw it everywhere. It was just a word—“natural”—that was used almost reflexively as a synonym for “good” in virtually every context of our lives as humans. That made me really want to think hard about the history of the term and also try to present a more complicated picture of what the idea of naturalness is doing, not just in medicine or food, which is where you see it most often, but as something that crosscuts all aspects of culture and functions as a meta-myth in a variety of areas of our lives. 

You argue that naturalness will ultimately disappoint as a pan-value for making moral decisions, especially when it comes to food. Why is that the case?

I think people, myself included, really want to be able to make good decisions. And when I say good decisions, I mean good in every way. We don’t want to admit that our decisions have tradeoffs. In the world of food, people are confronted by a variety of different value systems that they want to honor: personal health, sustainability, the value of treating agricultural workers with dignity and keeping them safe, the value of keeping locals in business. We want to believe that there are foods that we can eat that satisfy them all. And so what “natural” does, as a theological term, is it reassures us that food labeled natural will at once be best for our health and for the natural world, and that it will also be better for the workers producing the food, and that it would be better for the economy.

One case study in the book is vanilla, and what the production of vanilla made me realize is that there is no such thing as a unity of the virtues when it comes to food. The vanilla that is most sustainable might also put vanilla farmers in Madagascar out of business. The vanilla that is closest to its “natural” form (not in Madagascar, which is not its native environment) might be very expensive and unaffordable to people. There’s a real reluctance to own these kinds of tradeoffs, but I think it’s incredibly important with food to realize that perhaps what’s best for the world is not best for our individual health, or perhaps the thing that tastes best is not the most natural thing or the most beautiful thing.

I actually found that the people who understand [this] most are the food producers… I went to Polyface Farms, the most organic farm you could possibly imagine. [Owner/operator Joel Salatin] really is trying to harmonize with nature, but he also needs to make soy-free chickens for his customers who are demanding soy-free chickens. So he’s feeding them fish meal, which is manifestly unnatural. When I asked him about that he acknowledged that we all have to choose our compromises.

In the book you explore a number of social domains—diet, birth control, parenting, economics, alternative medicine—where what’s “natural” is considered to be what’s best, and then you unspool them to show that the natural/unnatural divide was never really that coherent in the first place. Did any of your case studies surprise you?

One of my favorite examples when I was doing research was the history of contraception [and] the idea that there are “natural” and “unnatural” forms of sexuality, which are then linked to natural and unnatural forms of contraception. Catholicism most famously talks about this, but I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t just religions—even people who are anti-religion have also embraced the idea that natural contraception (however defined) is good, and unnatural birth control (again, however understood) is bad. And what ends up happening is that people try to shoehorn whatever it is that they want to believe is good into an understanding of what’s natural.

I lead the chapter on contraception with this great H. L. Mencken quote [about the rhythm method]: “It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.”

[In other words,] it’s still not ok for a woman to prevent pregnancy by recourse to physics or chemistry—condoms or the pill—yet, he says, it’s perfectly permissible to do it by using mathematics for the rhythm method, a supposedly natural way of preventing pregnancy that wasn’t discovered until the early twentieth century. 

Looking at the history of debates over natural contraception, both within the church and outside the church, was an incredibly compelling deconstruction of the idea that there is some kind of objective form of natural sexuality or contraception that is therefore inherently good for society and for individual human beings.

I expected you to be deeply critical of alternative medicine, which is often full of dubious appeals to naturalness. But I was struck and persuaded by your argument (in the book and in your recent RD piece) that alternative medicine systems do serve an important role. Modern biomedicine can’t make claims about meaning or the ultimate purpose of suffering. And that leaves people with unmet needs.

Going into this book I expected it to be a sort of straight forward debunking, but in the end I actually came out surprised by how complicated my feelings were. Talking to people who are dying, or who have people who they love dying, you realize that illness is an existential crisis. And the appeal of natural medicine, like you said, is not just that of the potential for a cure. And it’s not that these people have been misinformed or brainwashed. 

The appeal of natural medicine is that it comes with an explanatory framework that can offer some kind of certainty about the source [and] resolution of illness. That kind of certainty, when all certainties have been shattered by staring death in the face, is extraordinarily important. I’m very sympathetic to people who seek it out and even demand that contemporary biomedicine take it more seriously.

You also argue that scientists can slip into overly simplistic understandings of nature, sometimes for similar reasons.

I see it all the time. The coronavirus is a good example. I just wrote something about this recently. Even very careful scientists, who wouldn’t otherwise embrace the appeal to nature, say things like, “You know this is what we get for messing with nature,” or, “This is what happens when we interfere with ecosystems.” It’s because of this binary that natural [equals] good and unnatural [equals] bad. 

It’s so tempting as an explanatory mechanism of suffering or failure, [because] you have to give people a sort of cosmic overarching explanation. It’s not enough just to say, “Coronavirus was caused by trafficking pangolins,” or whatever it happens to be. That is just a local explanation of a problem, but what people want is a quasi-theological explanation. I don’t just want to know the proximate cause of coronavirus, I want to know how it fits into a broader understanding of good and evil, and naturalness provides that broader context for explaining evil.

Does that make naturalness a secular theodicy for making sense of COVID-19?

Theodicy is definitely one way to think about the idea of Nature as a harmonious cosmic system—then, when something like coronavirus happens, we can explain it as a violation by humans of that cosmic harmony. We went against Nature, and therefore evil happens. We’re punished by Nature. This manifests itself in a variety of ways depending on your starting ideology, from “It’s unnatural to eat bats and dogs and snakes, that’s why this happened,” to “It’s unnatural to live in dense urban centers and be overpopulated.”

I’ve also seen people talk about this in the language of secular wellness as “Nature detoxing itself,” in which we, humans, are the toxins, and Nature is getting rid of us.

But as I start my unit on Judaism in Religions of the World, I still feel that the theodicy in Job is the only one that makes sense—the answer to the problem of allowing evil to happen to good people, as I read it, is God thundering at Job, in incredibly beautiful poetry, “Who do you think you are to even ask this question? Can you fathom creation?”

What do you want readers to take away from your book?

We need to be able to love nature without worshipping it. The book ends by emphasizing the importance of uncertainty.

I think it’s fine to want to grow vegetables in your garden because that’s more natural. I do believe that natural has meaning, and that there is value in naturalness. There’s a reason that I’m sitting in my office right now with a bunch of actual plants rather than plastic plants. They connect me to nature in a way that is existentially important for me and it’s okay to embrace that value.

But what I would ask people is, “Are you valuing nature on its own terms?” If you’re buying something labeled natural because you decided that “natural” is a synonym for every other thing that you value, that’s potentially problematic and you might want to just think about those things on their own terms instead. If you value what’s natural because you think there is something sacred about a force that comes beyond and before humans that has made beautiful things in the world, then I think, “Go for it.” The important thing [is] to be able to reflect about what it is that’s valuable in nature and make sure we’re not confusing that with a whole lot of other things.

You sometimes describe nature with what seems like genuine awe. It’s a “force that comes beyond and before humans” that confounds our every attempt to simplify it. Against worship, you emphasize uncertainty and mystery. So I have to ask: is this pandemic your… mysterium tremendum? Is the novel coronavirus awful?

COVID-19 is a part of nature, a dangerous part, one that I desperately wish didn’t exist. But it is there, alongside all the other terrors of the natural world: the suffering of children, disease, death itself. And yet, our existence—that of humans, of the world, of something instead of nothing—that is also a product of nature, of organizing forces that came beyond and before us, and I’m infinitely grateful for it. 

For me, as a religious agnostic who worships mystery, I worship that inexplicable combination of profoundly unjust misery and profoundly undeserved existence. It has no agency. It is not a “god.” It is not “Nature” that wants things. It is…what is it? An awesome, awful question.