Sometime back, I wrote a post about the Appeal to Nature fallacy. It is a fallacy that bothers me quite significantly; the main reason is because its assumptions and consequences are unspoken or, in most cases, never addressed.
For those who don’t know the Appeal to Nature (ATN) usually involves a dietary and medicinal claim that natural products are, directly or otherwise, better than artificial (read: man-made) products. Anytime you read the words “Natural”, “All Natural,” “Organic,” you are reading an Appeal to Nature; specifically, to nature’s goodness–I’ve never seen arsenic used in an ATN. Notably, it tends to rear its head in relation to conditions and diseases that our current medical knowledge is unable to address—Alzheimer’s and cancer being two examples among many. (In that light, the ATN might be considered the exploitation of severe emotional distress among those at the least rational stage of their life as they face daunting, perhaps hopeless, odds to make money, but that’s just the pessimist in me talking.) The selling of natural supplements is often marked as a way to give back power and certainty that psychological wellbeing demands; subsequently relieving cognitive discomfort, albeit at exorbitant costs (in relation to their benefit that is—except for a few, genuinely exorbitant price tags such as Stanley Burzynski’s supposed cancer cure which rings in at several hundred thousand dollars). From multivitamins to gingko bilboa, the ATN is a powerful train of thought.
However, despite its popularity, it is so full of holes, contradictions and—what really gets me—unspoken assumptions and conclusions. I’m not going to bother debunking it; that has been done many times; once here on this blog, and many other—far better—denunciations on the Internet (my favourite being Kyle Hill’s Does Mother Nature Always Know What’s Best). Rather, I plan on taking the ATN through to its logical conclusion.
If, according to adherents of the ATN, natural is indeed better than artificial, than, if one earnestly held to it, one should follow through on several other facets of natural human life. For example, why live in a home when nature intended for you to live the nomadic life among the plains and caves of the Rift Valley? Why, for example, drive a car, take a metro, or ride a bus when nature clearly intended for you to walk and run everywhere? Why live in a city of millions when humans evolved to live in groups of a few hundred? Why cook food when nature intended you to eat food raw (though we have evolved now to eat cooked food)? Why vaccinate when nature evolved viruses to infect/disable/kill people? (At least some Appeal to Naturists follow through on the last two.) Why see a doctor, conventional or alternative, oncologist or quack when one is sick? You’re sick, so it follows that nature made you sick, so, if you were to appeal to nature, you’d wind back at the beginning of this sentence: nature made you sick.
If you want, you can live in a cave with animal skins for clothes, eat hunted animals, gather plants, and never have medicines or clean water…you are now 100% natural, with life expectancy of 27 years. ~ Stephen Propatier
There are those who eat organic food instead of conventional food due to the perceived naturalness of the former compared to the latter. However, by the dictates of the ATN, neither are natural; and, in fact, both are much closer to each other than the natural mode of meeting human dietary requirements (hunter-gathering). If conventional food is unnatural, so it goes for organic food. Farms of any kind did not exist in any form prior to 10,000-20,000 years ago in the Orient. If, for example, the human race were to disappear, its agriculture would accompany her occupants into oblivion; as many of our crops can’t reproduce without direct human intervention—corn and banana to name two, with most of the others requiring pesticides, crop rotation, and other forms of pest management to keep nature’s hordes at bay.
As is obvious, organic corn is practically identical to GM corn, and worlds apart from nature’s corn.
For better or worse—definitely worse, actually—the above quote accurately summarizes the natural life.
I realize how utterly pedantic I am being, but I am merely following the axioms through to their logical conclusion*. Yet the question remains: if natural is better, why isn’t natural always better? In other words, why would one restrict one’s self solely to dietary and medicinal claims? Why not go the full monty? And since no one who shops at Whole Foods drops everything to go live in the Rift Valley: by what logic does a certain aspect of life become devoted to natural claims (dietary for example) and other aspects, say living accommodations, resorts to artificial conditions?
There is no suitable answer here; at least not by the axioms of the ATN*; it’s all or nothing. Since the system of belief that is (or could be termed) the ATN does not account for which aspects of your life should be subject to natural law, how does one choose which aspects of their lives fall under the natural dictum? Some kind of evidence must be used in place, or above, the ATN to guide it. So, considering that some extra-ATN evidentiary standard exists, what is it? However, to take it further, since some kind of extra-ATN evidentiary standard exists: of what use is the ATN to begin with?
However, my biggest issue with the appeal to nature is a simple observational fact of human life. If natural things/conditions are better for humans, why do we find that prior to the industrial revolution, prior to modern medicine, sanitation, mass agriculture, and everything else we might call unnatural was the average human life expectancy about 27 years of age? Think about that for more than a second; about 50% of the entire human race would die before they reached my current age of 28. The unfortunate ignorance of this fallacy reveals itself not only in its spoken conclusion (that natural remedies—as ill-defined a term as that is; for example, how natural can homeopathy be if it must be diluted, shaken, sorry, I mean succussed, in just the right way a hundred times over?—are superior to artificial remedies), but also in what those who adhere to it don’t change about their lifestyle.
Some natural conditions are indeed better than artificial conditions. However, given that, the ATN allows no reliable means to discern which; only logic and evidence can do that, and since you have to use logic and evidence to define which tenets of appealing to nature you will use, then the appeal to nature is nothing more than a tautology; not only vapid, but illusory. That is why it is a fallacy: because even when you use it, you’re not using it.
* – Notwithstanding the fact that the ATN is fallacious, which indicates a break in logic, but I am here referring to what adherents of the ATN would conclude with.