Sunday, November 11, 2012

Is this really as nature intended?

@AsNatIntended (As Nature Intended) is an excellent health food chain in London. I visit the Ealing branch regularly, but I can't help thinking that the name is a bit misleading, based on a romanticized idea of Nature.

Because some of us might think Nature intended apples to create apple trees, not apple pies. Surely fruit is "designed" to attract insects and birds rather than humans? And for that matter, didn't Nature intend men and women to smell of honest sweat, rather than organic lavender soap and fennel toothpaste?

Upmarket health food is based on a rather strange notion of authenticity. As @stephenpoole writes

"It is widely assumed that food sold as organic is purer and closer to an assumedly benign Nature, although no food is made from inorganic matter and organic farming standards sanction the use of neurotoxic fertilisers." Stephen Poole, Why are we so obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity? (New Statesman March 2013)

But the idea that Nature's purpose is to serve mankind is an old one. We can find it in the Bible and in Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things." (Genesis 9:3)
  • "Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man." (Emerson "On Nature", Chapter 2 Commodity)
And the idea that mankind has subverted Nature's purpose is also an old one. @DaveZinczenko suggests that "Whereas our sweet tooth was once nature’s way of protecting us from disease, now it’s the food industry’s way of tricking us into it." (Origins of the Sweet Tooth, Mens Health July 2004) via @br1anv. See also The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food (New York Times Feb 2013) via @EllenNaylor.

Meanwhile, there are endless ideas about restoring Nature's purpose - from naked cooking to public nudity. There was a 1961 film by Harrison Marks called Naked as Nature Intended (Link Not Safe For Work), and there are several militant naturists around these days, including Vincent Bethell and Stephen Gough. There are also some rather alarming ideas for Restoring Nature's Homeostasis (Link Not Safe For Mealtimes).

But is letting nature decide such a good idea (asks @stephenpoole)? 'After all, he reminds us, nature tried to kill us all with the Black Death. Nature is currently experimenting feverishly to find just the right strain of avian flu to cause a global pandemic. "Nature," as the young microbiologist points out in the zombie film World War Z, "is a serial killer." ' Is our love of nature writing bourgeois escapism? (Guardian July 2013)

It could be dangerous to regard nature as benign. The only consistent intention nature seems to have for us it is that we should get old and die. Et in Arcadia Ego.

See also Madeleine Somerville, Natural's not in it: just because a product calls itself 'natural' doesn't make it good (Guardian 8 March 2016). (I'm guessing the headline was a Guardian subeditor's tribute to the Gang of Four song "Natural's not in it".)

Finally, @HadleyFreeman writes that "perhaps the most striking thing about the natural trend is how much it reinforces gender stereotypes". If the cavemen did it or ate it, it’s got to be good for you. Right? (Guardian 16 April 2016)

Related posts: Viral Pandemic (April 2005) Arguments from Nature (December 2010) The Purpose of Baldness (Jan 2011). Related category: Death
(Links Not Safe For Romantics)

Updated 17 April 2016


Scribe said...

Must blog on this soon, but the local organic veg-growing scheme I'm with (hey, it's Brighton...) is great for revealing what nature intends, ie. Food which isn't always perfect, has slugs and snails and dirt all over it, and comes in all kinds of shapes. I love it.

When people think of "nature", the temptation to think of land-of-plenty style perfection is strong. Too often we have been trapped by a mental model of believing we "deserve" natural perfection. With comedic results.

Aidan said...

In my blog I use the argument the other way round. If something makes us healthy that is an indicator that we evolved to work that way and vice versa. I don't believe health or natural claims but I am prepared to test them and work on the basis of the results.