Nature – It’s Good Isn’t It?

10 May

What is natural is inherently good or right, and that which is unnatural is bad or wrong. This naturalistic fallacy is the converse of the moralistic fallacy, the notion that what is good or right is natural and inherent.

Naturalistic Fallacy


So I went to the doctors to get my ears syringed as they were bunged up. Before having this done, I had to put some drops in to soften the wax for a couple of weeks. I went back to see the nurse to get the ear wash done and she asked:

“What drops are you using?”

“Brand x” I replied.

“You really shouldn’t be using those. Almond oil is better.” she advised.

“Why is that?”

“Brand x is harsh. You should use almond oil – it’s more gentle.” she asserted.

“What do you mean? What’s wrong with brand x?” I queried, interested as to why the drops the doctor prescribed were potentially bad for my ears.

“It’s a chemical. Chemicals are harsh.”

At this point I was becoming a little exasperated with the lack of detail so asked “what does brand x actually do that almond oil doesn’t do? Has there been some kind of study to show it’s harmful? Is there some evidence that proves it’s dangerous?”

She replied: “almond oil is natural. That means it’s good for you”.

At this point she’d finished the treatment so I thought “in for a penny”.

I retorted “poo is natural, cyanide is natural, AIDS is natural”.

But alas she didn’t have any more justification for her opinion.

This is just a taste of the inane arguments that I have to endure these days. And the problem is, it isn’t just a few people spouting such nonsense: this seems to be a fairly mainstream view, part of the zeitgeist.

The ‘reasoning’ goes: chemical = bad, natural = good. Bollocks. A chemical is simply something that’s derived from what we find in the world, i.e. products of nature. (An alternative definition is a scientific description of what constitutes a material, naturally occurring or otherwise.) One method of producing a ‘chemical’ is refining a product of nature to extract the ingredients that are good for us, while removing those that aren’t. Does this process make something bad for us by definition?

In fact, many plants have defences to stop animals eating them, e.g. chillis contain harmful toxins. As a result we often have to cope with these toxins – that’s why we’ve evolved the liver. Biologists talk about an arms race between plants and animals; it’s not a nicely balanced system or symbiosis.

Again, food that has been ‘processed’ is said to be bad for you. Surely it depends on what the actual process is, rather than simply the fact that something has been changed from what came out of the ground. Bleaching flour removes some of the nutrients. However on the other hand washing the dirt off a potato removes potentially hazardous bacteria. Then we’ve got crushing grapes, and letting them ferment for a few years, or cooking tomatoes which increases antioxidant levelsSome argue that we wouldn’t have brains as big as we do if it wasn’t for our ability to cook food. These are all forms of processing, some beneficial, some less so.

A good example is Aspirin. It is derived from the bark of a willow tree, but I’d prefer not eat bark – the refined end product that makes up the aspirin tablet is rather more effective.

All the “natural remedies” that people are peddling are part of this phenomenon; these – often eastern – nostrums that are usually placebos at best.

Big pharmaceuticals have not helped by often lying about drugs and their side effects. Many do have side effects and many are used by doctors without a full understanding of their effects. But it’s a non sequitur to say we should therefore switch to unproven alternative medicines. There are problems with dishonesty in both big pharma and alternative approaches: some have said vitamin pills cure AIDS, or that chiropractic can stop cot death and cure cancer. Sadly people lie for their own gain regardless of their beliefs in this area. People are people.


This marketing nonsense of putting something in a brown cardboard box, calling it “honest”, “hand-picked” or even “whole” makes no sense to me. It’s meaningless drivel that appeals to victims of the naturalistic fallacy.

As the Mash says, we have to put up with “pictures of craggy-faced farmers in cable-knit jumpers with the accompanying revelation that ‘Paddy knows each one of his cows by name and reads them poetry by moonlight’.”

Radox have a new range of shower gels. They’ve gone all ‘natural’. Here’s a taster:

Feeling a bit shattered? Need to spice up your day? Showering with our mix of black pepper and ginseng will help stimulate your body and mind. Just the thing to give you a bit of get-up-and-go. What’s gone into it? A handful of black peppercorns, some natural ginseng

Pepper? Seriously? What the hell has that got to do with getting you clean?

Or how about “Wake up, with natural eucalyptus and citrus oils” which “Helps awaken your bodyFor those times when you’re feeling tired and worn out“.

This natural idiocy has gone way too far.

Just give me a block of good old sodium stearate (i.e. ‘soap‘). No hand-picked jojoba berries from the foothills of the Andes, or salt distilled from sweat from the butt crack of a Saharan camel.

Women are particularly bombarded with it. They are told they must maintain the natural oils in their hair. That’s just sweat for goodness sake. I mean, come on.

Organic food is another one. If all food was ‘organic‘ then we wouldn’t be able to produce as much as we do. In fact, if we didn’t use fertilisers, etc. then we’d only be able to feed two-thirds of the world population. Would you like to choose which third doesn’t get to eat?

Mother Nature

These views seem to be based on the premise that nature – this warm, fluffy and cuddly mother nature – is somehow better than us. That we don’t want to upset natural balances. That we are guilty of wrongdoing simply because we’re human, and therefore not natural. But we are a product of nature. Further we are part of nature. Why must people define us as apart from nature, somehow ‘wrong’, morally corrupt, and not ‘in tune’? It’s an arbitrary distinction that seems to come from some kind of catholic style self-loathing.

Nature is cruel. It’s dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. Animals kill and eat other animals. Actually they don’t usually wait for them to die before they start to eat them. When animals die, they will often get injured or reach old age, and be unable to find food and starve to death. So in fact being run over by a car or shot by a hunter may actually be a less cruel death than a ‘natural’ one.

The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 – 1919 infected around 500m people (about a third of the world’s population) and killed 1 in 5 of those who caught it. That was not very nice. In fact influenza kills roughly 375,000 people every year. But it’s ‘nature’ that does this.

One species kills another for survival – it’s the way nature really works when people take off their rose-tinted spectacles.

I suspect this is partly influenced by the post-modernist world view that tends to reject rationalism, science and entrenched organisations. Add this to the green movement and you have some possible explanations for these tendencies.

Another justification people use is that approaches that have been around for thousands of years must be good. Appeal to tradition is another logical fallacy, and can be considered a variant of naturalistic fallacy which can be restated: the way that things are – or the way things have been in the past – is good by definition, therefore shouldn’t be changed.

In short, calling something ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it can then be called correct, more healthy, or morally right. So when you next hear an argument put forward with this justification, question it.


4 Responses to “Nature – It’s Good Isn’t It?”

  1. Damian June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Some really good points here Si, but do I detect a hint of “Appeal to ridicule” in some of your arguments? 😉

    Overall I agree with you – although I think there is also some good logic behind some of this “naturalness stuff”. Nature sure can be cruel, but it also has some amazing examples of harmonious systems on multiple scales. I think we (as part of nature of course) have a lot to learn from both sides.

    • 5i5i June 20, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      I agree – nature is full of brilliant stuff. I love learning about our world.

      I’m not saying that nature is bad by definition; that’s just as much a non-sequiteur as all nature is good. I would say take each “natural” phenomenon on its merits.

      One thing I thought about after writing this is that people pick and choose what is natural and what isn’t, to fit in with this perceived rule. The non-argument that nuclear power is unnatural is often used by people, who seem to miss the point that our primary source of power is a giant nuclear fusion reactor, um, I mean the sun.

  2. 5i5i September 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    Here’s another good on this theme – the “chemical free” nonsense that people like to hear:


  1. An Unfebuckinglievable Review « unfebuckinglievable - December 18, 2012

    […] Nature – It’s Good Isn’t It? […]

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