Dying the way that nature intended: Appeal to nature fallacies

The idea that nature has our best interest in mind is prevalent throughout the anti-science movement. For example, it is common to hear people say, “I’m not going to vaccinate, because I want my children to build immunity naturally, the way that people did for thousands of years.” Similarly, I often hear people claim that, “We should be healing our bodies the way that nature intended by using herbs and oils.” Another common argument is that we cannot improve on nature, and should be using the foods/medicines that nature provided for us, rather than trying to use science to create our own.

All of these arguments are, of course, nothing more than appeal to nature fallacies. As such, they are not logically valid and can be rejected out of hand. Nevertheless, they are so pervasive that I want to look at them further, because once you actually understand nature, it quickly becomes obvious that it is not your friend, and numerous problems with these arguments emerge.

Nature is not a conscious entity
The first major problem with these arguments is that they nearly always either implicitly or explicitly rely on the concept that nature is somehow a conscious entity that is working in your favor. This is exemplified in statements like, “the way that nature intended.” Such statements are, of course, utter rubbish. Nature is not an entity, it has no intentions, and it doesn’t give a flying crap whether you live or die. Nature is not some magical force that is orchestrating things for your benefit. Wild fruits do not grow specifically for your benefit, plants don’t produce chemical compounds with the intention of you using them as medicine, and nature is not striving to protect you from illnesses.

natural tornadoNature is a jerk
Nature doesn’t have intentions, but if it did, those intentions would be horrifying. As an ecologist, I get to do a lot of traveling and spend a lot of time in the field, and the things that I see are truly terrifying. I used to live in Jamaica, and every year, we had a 100% natural hurricane season. I then moved to Maryland, where we got natural blizzards. For my M.Sc. research, I worked in Oklahoma where we had a natural tornado season, and currently, I am living in Australia, where we have a natural cyclone season, as well as sharks, box jellyfish, venomous octopuses, funnel-web and red-backed spiders, saltwater crocodiles, the world’s most venomous snake species, and lethally venomous cone snails (that’s right, in Australia, even the snails can kill you).

Note: Animals like snakes and crocodiles are not dangerous to humans unless provoked, but if you provoke them…may Neptune have mercy on your soul.

My current study sites are also full of a natural plant known commonly as “stinging tree” (scientifically known as Dendrocnide sp.). This plant is covered in tiny hairs which, if touched, will break off in the skin and release a chemical that causes an incredibly painful reaction. Further, the pain from an encounter with a stinging tree can last for months (as I have personally been unfortunate enough to experience), and in some cases, animals and at least one human have actually died from stinging tree. It is a horrible, horrible plant, and it is what I instantly think of whenever I hear someone say, “nature’s intention.”

When I was doing research in the US, several of my sites contained natural mushrooms in the Amanitaceae family.  These are white, innocuous looking mushrooms that look like they should be edible or perhaps even useful as a remedy for some ailment. The reality is, however, quite a bit different.  These mushrooms have really fun common names like, “The Destroying Angel,” and they have those names because they produce natural chemicals known as amatoxins. These chemicals are extremely dangerous at anything but an absurdly low dose, and eating one even just one of these mushrooms will send you to the hospital where you will experience 24–48 hours of excruciating pain and violent diarrhea and vomiting, most likely followed by liver failure and death (there is no antidote for amatoxins, and a liver transplant is the most effective treatment). That is what nature “intends.”

As an ecologist, I get to see all of these things firsthand, but even if you have just watched a few nature documentaries, you should know that nature is brutal. I have yet to see the documentary about the healthy, long-lived, care-free animals merrily skipping through the forest enjoying “nature’s intentions.” Rather, what you see is a cold, desperate fight to survive and reproduce. Nature is not a Disney movie; it’s a graphic horror film.

My point here is really quite simple. Nature is not a generous being with your best interest at heart. It is a bloody and violent slaughterhouse that is full of parasites, predators, diseases, disasters, toxic chemicals like cyanide and arsenic, etc.

Note: To be clear, the dose makes the poison, so when I describe something as a “toxic chemical” I mean a chemical that is toxic to humans at anything but an extremely low dose.

When you look at data like these, it becomes pretty obvious that "the way that people did for hundreds of years" sucks.

When you look at data like these, it becomes pretty obvious that doing things, “naturally, the way that people did for hundreds of years” sucks. Image via the CDC.

Human history is full of natural deaths
In my opinion, the single most baffling thing about the argument that we should be doing things naturally is the fact the people often attempt to support it with statements like, “the way that people have done for thousands of years.” Even if we overlook the blatant appeal to antiquity fallacy, there’s a pretty obvious problem with that. Namely, people have been suffering and dying for thousands of years. For example, smallpox, which is a natural disease, used to kill thousands of people annually, but today, it no longer exists. It is gone thanks that vaccines, and I, for one, am very happy that we no longer have to acquire immunity to smallpox “naturally,” because only around 70% of the people exposed to smallpox developed natural immunity. The other 30% died from it! Smallpox is, of course, only one among many examples like this. For example, in the US, prior to vaccines several hundred people died naturally from measles infections each year, and in countries without vaccines, there are still thousands of natural measles deaths each year. So doing things, “naturally, the way that people did for hundreds of years” is clearly a terrible idea.

Image via the CDC

Image via the CDC

The problems with the argument that we should be doing things naturally become even more obvious when you start to look at mortality rates and life expectancies over time (above and left). Notice how mortality rates (particularly for children) go down over time while life expectancies go up? That means that the way that we are doing things now is objectively better than the way that we used to do things. Those decreasing mortality rates are a direct consequence of modern scientific marvels like vaccines and antibiotics.

Indeed, if we back the clock up a few hundred years, we see that our ancestors got lots of exercise and sunshine, ate locally grown, organic, non-GMO food, weren’t exposed to the “toxic” chemicals in modern medicines, used herbal remedies, etc., but they still had incredibly high infant/childhood mortality rates, and even if they survived childhood, they still spent the rest of their lives being plagued by diseases that we can now cure. So I do not long for the good old days when people “lived to the ripe old age of ‘died at childbirth.'”

At this point, you may be thinking, “but it was sanitation that caused the decreased deaths, not modern medicine!” I explained why that is incorrect at length here, so for the sake of this post, let me just point out two obvious problems with that argument. First, indoor plumbing and washing your hands aren’t exactly natural, nor are they things that people have done for hundreds of years. So even if they were the reason for the increased life-spans, that would still defeat the argument that we should be doing things naturally.

Second, sanitation certainly did have an important effect, when it was first introduced, but sanitation standards in countries like the US haven’t changed appreciably in a very long time. So you can’t attribute the continued declines in death rates to changes in sanitation, because there haven’t been significant changes in sanitation. Look at the graphs again. Mortality rates are noticeably lower in 2010 than in 2000. Are you honestly going to tell me that there were major changes in the US sanitation standards during those years? Similarly, sanitation standards were quite high in 1990, 1980, 1970, 1960, etc. yet the death rates have continued to plummet. This clearly demonstrates that improved sanitation standards do not deserve credit for recent declines in mortality rates.

Natural selection is not your friend
At this point, I sometimes encounter people who argue that without vaccines, antibiotics, etc. we would evolve resistance to disease, and ultimately, nature would act to our benefit. If that is what you have been thinking, then I award you 10 points for cleverness, then I subtract 15 points for failing to understand how natural selection works. It is true that natural selection will cause organisms to adapt to their environments, but there are several really important clarifications that need to be made.

First, populations evolve, not individuals. So the “wait for natural selection” argument does absolutely nothing for you, me, or anyone else who is currently alive.

Second, (and closely related to the first point), natural selection is an exceedingly bloody process. So even though, in concept, we could eventually evolve resistance to measles, the flu, etc., it would take several hundred or even thousand years of death before that happens, and that seems pretty pointless given that we have vaccines which can prevent the deaths right now, without requiring countless years of suffering.

Third, it is important to realize that at the same time that natural selection is causing a host population (e.g., humans) to adapt to a pathogen, it is also causing the pathogen to adapt to the host. Remember, nature doesn’t give a crap about you. So it’s not trying to improve human populations. Rather, populations adapt because of the simple mathematics of how natural selection works, and those same mathematics also apply to the pathogens. This results in what we call an evolutionary arms race. Anytime that a new mutation arises which gives humans some benefit over the pathogen, that simply increases the selection pressure on the pathogen, ultimately resulting in it evolving a response to that mutation. So this notion that we will someday evolve complete resistance to diseases is probably fiction. It works in concept, but it rarely, if ever, happens in reality. To be clear, because of this arms race, populations that have an evolutionary history with a pathogen are better equipped to handle infections than populations that have never been exposed to the pathogen, but that is still a far cry from developing protection that is equivalent to the protection provided by something like a vaccine.

Fourth, a quick look at history will, once again, debunk this argument. Humans have already had thousands of years to adapt to diseases, but without vaccines and modern medicine, we still suffer horrendously high mortality rates.

Appealing to nature is hypocritical
Finally, I think that it is important to point out that essentially every single person who makes appeals to nature is a hypocrite (or is at least behaving hypocritically). I can safely say that because if you are reading this right now, then you either have a computer or a smart phone, you have access to the internet, you’re most likely in a building made of modern construction materials, you’re probably wearing clothes (I hope), you probably have a fridge that is full of foods that don’t occur in nature (even if they’re organic), you’re enjoying the benefits of modern plumbing, etc. All of these are testaments to the fact that we are capable of improving on nature. Unless you live in a cave or crude makeshift shelter, don’t wear clothing, eat only wild animals and plants, etc. you don’t get to argue that “nature knows best” because you clearly don’t actually think that it does.

I’m not saying any of this to attack or belittle anyone. Rather, I am simply trying to draw your attention to the fact that it obviously is possible to improve on nature, and you have already accepted that reality.

Conclusion
In summary, nature is not a conscious entity, and it does not have intentions, but if it was an entity, it would be a sinister and evil one. Nature is full of horrifying and dangerous things, and human history is a lengthy tale of people dying painful, natural deaths. The massive decreases in mortality rates that accompanied the advent of modern medicine are extremely clear evidence that doing things “the way that nature intended” is not a good idea, and we are in fact quite capable of improving on nature. Finally, if you are reading this, then you have already accepted that nature’s way is not the best way, because you are reading this on a piece of technology that does not exist in nature. So please, for the love of all things bright and beautiful, stop making appeal to nature fallacies. The fact that something is natural does not mean that it is good, and the fact that something is unnatural does not mean that it is bad.

Side note: I often encounter Christians who make a very similar argument, but instead of arguing that we can’t improve on nature, they argue that we can’t improve on God’s design/plan. If that is your view, please see my third major point (“Human history is full of natural deaths”) because it effectively debunks that argument as well. If God exists, he is clearly ok with letting untold millions of people suffer and die from diseases that we can prevent/treat using modern medicine. So given the millions of people that he has allowed to die, relying on him to magically protect you/your children is ill-advised at best.

Other posts on logical fallacies:

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12 Responses to Dying the way that nature intended: Appeal to nature fallacies

  1. john zande says:

    “A bee amongst the flowers in spring is one of the most cheerful objects that can be looked upon. Its life appears to be all enjoyment; so busy, and so pleased.” (William Paley, 1802, Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, pp. 253)

    Unfortunately for Paley, under the microscope, the bee’s outer body is found to be infested with the ferocious varroa mite, their airways riddled with impatiently greedy acarine (tracheal) mites, their intestines ravaged by the veracious nosema apis, and their hives, where some degree of safety should at least be expected, is instead crowded with gluttonous bacillus larvae and the hideous Brood Disease.

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  2. Mike B says:

    As a small farmer, I get to see “mother” nature up close and personal, too, just as you do as a field ecologist. One of the crops I grow is apples, and let me tell you: everything wants to kill your apple crop: bacteria (fire blight), fungi (scab, brown rot, sooty blotch), arachnids (mites), insects (plum curculio, saw fly, apple maggot, tarnished plant bug, round-headed borer), mammals (voles, deer, porcupines). And the irony is that the farmer him or herself is not exempt from nature’s depraved ways: that’s why we use antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides, miticides, herbicides, guns, traps and poisons! It’s a Darwinian world out there, and it ain’t pretty. Thanks for the article.

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  3. Sébastien FARIBAULT says:

    The ‘appeal to nature’ is indeed hypocritical and can even be dangerous when some people decide they should only take natural remedies when they are seriously sick.
    Everybody is obviously free to make its own choices but what if those choices are ill-informed ?
    It is a serious question that addresses a tendancy to a lack of scientific knowledge in favor of fallacious preconceptions.

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    • John Rogers says:

      I do wonder about the ‘rights of people’ to make their own choices. The consequences of bad choices is visited on those around that person and they can be devastating-what about their rights? What about those having to clean up the mess from a biker who chose not to wear a helmet? Not pretty.

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  4. Al says:

    to add a “Fifth” to the natural selection argument; our ability to create vaccines /is the result/ of humans having won said arms race already. These huge melons we lug around on top of our spindly little mush-bodies wouldn’t be your first pick of super-powers to get not-eaten by that lion until you realize you can use that heavy, power-hungry, walking-weakness to build an M1 Abrams.

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  5. Morgan says:

    Great article and effective use of humour! I generally agree with your arguments though I would challenge one detail concerning fruit (paragraph 3). Fruits and mammals are thought to have co-evolved, with the plants benefiting from — and to some extent, depending on — mammals to eat their fruit so as to disperse the seeds. So in a way wild fruit *does* grow for our benefit.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I wondered if anyone was going to call me on that. I actually thought about it as I was writing this post and attempted to make my wording precise by stating, “specifically for your benefit.” As you said, in many cases, the purpose of the fruit is for the mammal to eat it and disperse the fruit, but in that case, the fruit is not growing specifically for our benefit. Rather, it is growing for the plant’s benefit. The fact that the fruit tastes good to us is just a means for the plant to get us to do its bidding. So I would still argue that fruit is not an example of nature doing something specifically to benefit us.

      Also, most of the plants that we eat today were carefully cultivated rather than being produced in nature. So the actual natural fruits that we co-evolved with are not nearly as tasty our current ones.

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      • Mat says:

        It would also be just as valid to draw the conclusion that mammals evolved for the benefit of the fruit tree. That’s how it goes with symbiotic relationships.

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          If you consider the math behind selection, everything evolves for its own benefit. In other words, traits are only selected when they benefit the organism itself. This may at times also provide benefits for other species, but the actual reason that those traits evolve is because they benefit the species that possess them. So I don’t actually think that it would be correct to make a statement like, “the mammals evolved for the benefit of the fruit tree.”

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  6. MI Dawn says:

    I’m a bit confused, and just wondering if you switched 2 figures. You say “Mortality rates are noticeably lower in 2000 than in 2010.” Didn’t you mean the opposite, as mortality rates are falling?

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  7. John Rogers says:

    Thanks for the great post! I look forward to reading more. Nicely leavened with humour.

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