Natural: How Faith in Nature's Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science

Alan Levinovitz

My review 2021-11-19

A very well-written, thoughtful discussion about the concept of Nature and the natural. In order to argue for something, it is often a highly successful rhetorical strategy to portray it as natural. Why is that? One insight in Levinovitz' book is that "natural" is a religious term: "'Nature' is another term for God; 'natural', a synonym for holy."

Levinovitz takes a close look at several debates where the idea of what is "natural" is at the center. Some topics he investigates are: How to give birth (fun fact: the patron saint of childbirth is Raymond Nonnatus, literally "not-born", because cut from his dying mother's womb); the complications of vanilla; the conflicting views of the origin of mankind as the prototypical noble Savage or the nasty, brutish and short lives of the first humans; the contortions of the Catholic church in applying some version of "naturalness" for deciding which birth control techniques are permissible; and many others.

He is elegantly scathing when describing the "consecrated consumption" underpinning celebrity woo such as Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop line of products, and Deepak Chopra's involvement in high-priced condo schemes ("completely reinvent how we should all be living"). "Nature" priced at luxury rates exclusively for the elite.

He highlights the common conflation of "natural" with "good", but also acknowledges and is respectful of the deep need that humans have for finding good ways to live, and for confronting the challenges and questions of existence.

The one issue I have with the book is that it uses the phrase "the unnatural animal" about humans, without investigating it further. Thus it misses out on what I believe is an important point. The ability, or rather the necessity, of humans to construct cultures as a way of living underlies many conflicts where the concept of "naturalness" is used as argument. The cultural patterns that one wishes to promote gain in credibility if they are seen as "natural", rather than developed by humans. And culture is unnatural in the sense that it would not exist if humans did not exist (barring a few proto-cultural examples among certain mammals), but it is also natural since Homo sapiens would not exist without it.

Levinovits ends with a conclusion that may be viewed as unsatisfying: compromise. Nature is wonderful, inspiring, and it can teach us a lot. But human actions and inventions to overcome nature are required for a better life. "Philosophical confusion isn't a sin, it's a virtue.