diets · eating

What’s natural? And why do we care?

From Amber of Go Kaleo:  “I watch a lot of nature videos, and it struck me a while ago: no matter what native tribe you look at, the women are never exactly thin, despite their healthy lifestyle. I mean, those people live in harsh conditions and work their asses off to survive a hostile environment, be it the Amazon jungle or the African steppes. And yet look! They have belly fat! And thick thighs! Oh noes! And the best part? THEY DON’T CARE! A thin tree is as beautiful as a thick tree, so why not a human being? Indeed.”

I like the point very much. Not all natural bodies are super lean. Nice to be reminded of that.

Why does it matter to us so much though? Why are we so fussed about what’s natural? I get that lots of people are critical of North American diets with overly processed food and North American lifestyles with not enough walking and lifting and way too much driving and sitting. But it doesn’t follow from the rejection of that diet and that lifestyle that we ought to seek out exactly what’s natural.

With Paleo diets, for example, you see a kind of romantic attitude about our natural bodies.

Now there’s lots to say about the Paleo diet. As an academic I’m interested in what anthropologists have to say about the way our ancestors really ate.

Here’s Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh Over “Paleo Diet”

In a rare display of professional consensus, an international consortium of anthropologists, archaeologists, and molecular biologists have formally released an exasperated sigh over the popularity of the so-called “Paleo Diet” during a two-day conference dedicated to the topic.

The Paleo Diet is a nutritional framework based on the assumption that the human species has not yet adapted to the dietary changes engendered by the development of agriculture over the past ten thousand years. Proponents of the diet emphasize in particular the negative effects of eating large quantities of grain and its numerous by-products, which can lead to hypertension, obesity, and various other health problems. Instead, the Paleo Diet posits that a reliance on lean meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables while minimizing processed food is the key to health and longevity.

The nutritional benefits of the diet are not what the grievance is about, said Dr. Britta Hoyes, who organized the event. She agreed that a high-carbohydrate diet can have a detrimental effect on long-term health, as many studies have demonstrated. Instead, the group’s protest is a reaction to the biological and historical pediments of the diet, in particular the contention that pre-agricultural societies were only adapted to eat those foods existing before the Neolithic Revolution.

Hoyes, a paleoethnobotanist who specializes in reconstructing prehistoric subsistence, stated that only thing unifying the myriad diets that she’s studied has been their diversity. “You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it. Our adaptability is the hallmark of the human species. We’re not called omnivores for nothing.”

As for the idea that agricultural products are somehow maladaptive to the human species, researchers at a seminar entitled “It’s When You Mate, Not What You Ate,”  pointed out that evolutionary fitness is measured by reproductive success, not by the health or longevity of an individual.

Richard Wenkel, a biostatistician who chaired the panel, explained: “As long as the diet of an individual keeps them alive long enough to successfully mate, then that diet has conferred an evolutionary advantage. By that metric, the agricultural revolution has proven to be the most effective dietary system in the history of our species. We are the most prolific higher-order vertebrate on the planet.” It is a point that he feels is overlooked by Paleo Diet enthusiasts.

See also  How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked [Interactive & Infographic]

I also want to read Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

But let’s suppose we did have a handle on our natural diet. Two things rub me the wrong way about this.

First, what’s natural versus what’s cultural is often very hard to tell. Here’s one example. People say it’s natural for men to have a more muscular physique than women and that women are naturally smaller and thinner than men. Okay. But why then, if it’s natural, do we work so hard to achieve those differences?

Read Are You Working Hard Enough to Achieve Your Natural Body?

We commonly hear claims that men are naturally more muscular and physically intimidating than women.  “It’s a biological fact,” someone might say.  If that were true, though, we wouldn’t have to work so incredibly hard to make it so.

@IllMakeItMyself sent in this great example of the way in which we are pushed to force our bodies into a gender binary that we pretend is natural.  On the upper right part of the Men’s Health cover, it reads: “Add 15lb of muscle” and, right next door on the Women’s Health cover, it reads “5 ways to lose 15 lbs.”

If we have to try this hard to make it true, maybe we’re not as different as we think we are.

This point is true for all sorts of so called natural differences between men and women. Men and women are fed differently and treated differently from birth (maybe even earlier as more people choose to know the sex of the child they’re carrying). How we turn out is a result of both social and biological forces. It’s hard to weed out the social and talk about how men and women would be if we were treated the same. What’s nature? What’s nurture? We just don’t know.

Second, that something is natural is neither here nor there in terms of goodness. Not everything natural is worth wanting. That’s something that authors of the Natural News ought to consider.

What’s Natural News? It’s the worst of the anti-science health sites on the internet, according to Skeptoid.

When Natural News began, it was basically the blog and sales portal of anti-pharmaceutical activist Mike Adams. His basic premise has always been the Big Pharma conspiracy, the idea that the medical industry secretly wants to keep everyone sick, and conspires with the food industry to make people unhealthy, all driven by a massive plot of greed to sell poisonous medicines. Adams appears to have become a protégé of Alex Jones, for he now writes on Natural News at least as many police state conspiracy articles as he does anti-science based medicine articles. They carry ads for each other on their sites as well.

The Natural Society is also opposed to Google’s new evidence based news ranking.

But I wouldn’t wave the banner of “natural” quite so proudly. Cancer is perfectly natural. Nature isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Philosophers call the fallacy of assuming what’s natural is good the fallacy of the appeal to nature.

…[C]onsider the…argument that what is natural is somehow good and what is unnatural bad. …[T]he principle is rarely stated so explicitly, but if we look at what people actually do, this does seem to be an assumption that underlies people’s behaviour. Consider, for example, the popularity of “natural” remedies. A great many people would always prefer to take a “natural” remedy over an “artificial” one. Similarly, people prefer foods that have “all natural” ingredients.
One obvious point to make here is that this very characterization of certain things as “natural” is problematic. What always strikes me about health food shops are the rows and rows of bottles and tablets. A greengrocer seems to be a much better source of natural products than such collections of distilled essences and the like. …
However, let us set aside such doubts about the category of “the natural” for the moment and just ask, even if we can agree that some things are natural and some are not, what follows from this? The answer is: nothing. There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural is good (or at least better) and what is unnatural is bad (or at least worse)

Source: Julian Baggini, Making Sense, Oxford, 2002, pp. 181-182.

Here’s an excerpt from Tim Minchin’s heroine in the story Storm:

Pharmaceutical companies are the enemy
They promote drug dependency
At the cost of the natural remedies
That are all our bodies need
They are immoral and driven by greed.
Why take drugs
When herbs can solve it?
Why use chemicals
When homeopathic solvents
Can resolve it?
It’s time we all return-to-live
With natural medical alternatives.”


10 thoughts on “What’s natural? And why do we care?

  1. It is a good point to wonder why we care so much about appearance and what is “natural.” What is natural for one person may not be natural for another and we should be more accepting of that!

  2. I basically need to re-post TIm Michin’s Storm everyday of my life, the hazard of living with, and loving many, philosophers!!!! hahaha

  3. Thanks! I always remind people: earthquakes, arsenic, and cobras are natural. Nature is impressive, but not always nice.

  4. Excellent analysis of this subject. Paleo diet does not work for me. I like my grains–oatmeal, the good cereal…I feel that any diet that leaves out nutritious food groups has red flags. I AM an omnivore and eat that way. Fascinating that the women depicted in the photo are all shapes and sizes. I blame Madison Ave for the skinny woman ideal.

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