The Nature of Nature

Natural is an unnatural term, entirely manmade.  Nothing about it is natural anymore. 

Nature today connotes perfect, wholesome, balanced, and right as rain.  Natural cures, therefore, must be better than "unnatural" medicines created by flawed humans.  This unquestioned positive nature of nature has created a multi-billion dollar industry of natural therapies.

But if nature is everything, then nature should encompass imperfect, unwholesome, unbalanced, and wrong as David Hasselhoff singing the Beatles' song "Rain."

In reality, nature is neither good nor bad.  Nature is indifferent.  Nature is merely the framework within which humans evolved.  And while that might sound impressive, evolution is only concerned with getting humans to live to about age 15, mate, and then live a couple years longer to raise offspring.

The ugly truth about nature shouldn't be an invitation to eat a box of Twinkies, if Twinkies are just as natural as broccoli.  But it should make you think twice about trying a treatment just because it is labeled as natural.

As natural as searing pain

As anyone who has gone camping during a downpour might attest, nature sucks.  Humans have tried their entire existence to avoid it.  Other animals have little choice; and for the most part, nature means dying of starvation or being eaten alive, in some cases mercifully swallowed whole but usually torn apart slowly and painfully.  Such is nature.

Manipulating nature — draining disease-laden swamps, irrigating crops, wearing clothes — is an ancient practice that has enabled humans to thrive arguably better than any species that has ever existed, aside from some bacteria (ants do pretty darn well, too).

How nature gained its positive connotation is a mystery.  This unnatural understanding of nature likely developed during the 20th century, when human interventions — vaccines, food fortification, water chlorination — led people to forget how much nature sucked.

Suddenly, for the first time (in the developed world, at least) most children born were living to adulthood.  And most people living into adulthood were living into their 70s.  Few young adults today appreciate the vast success of modern medical practices in extending lifespan and are familiar only with well-publicized side effects and recalls.

Natural cures

In the world of natural cures, herbs are perhaps the most abused.  Most plants are either inedible or deadly to humans.  Herbs, too, run the gamut of being helpful, neutral or lethal.

Pharmacology is the science of taking a little of the bad out of nature to make a better cure.  Willow bark, for example, is a mild pain reliever.  Aspirin works much better.  Aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, was derived from the salicylic acid found in willow bark.  The "acetyl" part buffers the acidic nature of the willow bark extract, making it gentler on the stomach.

Willow bark, sold in health food stores, is more expensive, more acidic, less effective and equally as "natural" of a substance compared to aspirin.  Willow bark is a natural alternative medicine; the other alternative is getting rid of your headache.

While herbs can be powerful, many products sold as natural supplements offer a crapshoot, unlikely to do much harm but unlikely to do much good.  Natural guarantees nothing.

Natural superstitions

Almost all so-called natural cures and treatments are based on the notion of bodily humors, which dominated medicine for millennia until germ theory replaced it as the true underlying cause of most diseases. China had yin and yang; India had vata, pitta and kapha; the West had blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.  These were fluids or spirits that needed to be kept in balance for good health.

The science of humors, although very wrong, was nevertheless brilliant in its thoroughness, penetrating all aspects of life.  Colors, herbs, foods, planets, seasons, stones and other elements were associated with one humor or another.  Traditional healers provided or restricted these elements to restore a patient's health.

Natural treatments employing the ancient science of humors, such as ayurveda, touch therapy or crystal healing, have never cured cancer, restored sight or helped a soldier without legs to walk.  But smart folks today like to dabble in such treatments because they tap into an ancient knowledge base, seem more in tune with the body, and are packaged in slick, modern ways.  I guess it's only natural.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.