Saturday, February 15, 2020

Book Review: 'Natural: How Faith in Nature's Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science' by Alan Levinovitz

Who would have thought the word "natural" would be so contentious? In Natural, Alan Levinovitz looks at how the word is employed in numerous contexts, from childbirth to sports, from farming to groceries and national parks, and lots more. It is a word with many meanings, used in all kinds of contexts differently. But in every case, the jury is deadlocked.

Levinovitz teaches religion, and much of the controversy he discovers can be blamed directly on religion. It has colored our views, corrupted our thought processes, and planted seemingly unremovable prejudices based on nothing. In every chapter, readers will see religion's influence, and it is never a positive force, as he acknowledges throughout. Mostly, it promulgates ignorance, despite facts available. The enormously silly and tortured arguments over what constitutes natural sexual practices (and therefore not birth control) is a classic example.

Giving birth is undergoing a vast program of returning to natural methods. This is because the medical system is so advanced that we can afford these romantic experiments. The state of relative cleanliness, the availability of help and the research available make all the difference in the world. The sad truth is that childbirth can not be made great again, because it was always a horror. Mother and child both risked their lives every time. Myths aside, natural childbirth is a mortal challenge to all mammals, and always has been. It is never a joyous experience. "Childbirth is an example of nonintelligent design," he quotes an expert. The farther we can distance ourselves from it, the better for both parties.

Similarly, ancient natural diets are not an ideal to be copied. Ancient medicines did not cure. Life was nasty, brutal and short. Raw meat and fish led to constant sickness. A return to this natural state is not in any way desirable.

On the other hand, Levinovitz points out that the modern nuclear family is an anachronism that is not a great development either. He visited a village in Peru where the old ways still operate. Everyone knows everyone. The children all play together and are looked after by everyone. There is no homelessness or starvation, as the whole community ensures everyone is taken care of. The artificial isolation of the western invention of nuclear families, single family homes and apartments is not an improvement on this system. Play dates for pets is not natural.

In food, Levinovitz shows natural can mean anything, as chemicals can come from natural sources. Organic produce can employ pesticides, and  natural seeds can be bombarded to produce what the farmer wants. Again, it was never better in the past:

Penny Candies: "These, according to an 1833 article in the medical journal Lancet were routinely made with 'red oxide of lead, chromated lead, and sulphuret of mercury,' then wrapped in papers printed with poisonous dyes known to inflame the gums of children who sucked them." Also, powdered glass gave French confections "a glittering." And everyone knows the origins of wholesome, universal Coca-Cola. All natural foods.

As for religion, it allowed for the natural, but only for the wealthy. Inequality has always ruled: "Yet the long and dubious history of associating religious purity with socioeconomic class should give us pause when it comes to the latest naturalized version of the same. The conversion of class structure and of wealth into spiritual status is nothing new, and it usually involves a corruption of the values that supposedly animate a religion. When class and purity are interchangeable, a religious system cannot offer solutions to injustice. Instead, it offers an explanation: a natural hierarchy in which the highest are necessarily pure and the lowest are not." (Levinovitz tends to be wordy. In plain English, what is natural is intolerance of the poor, for whom all the rules are written. The rich buy their way out. God doesn't notice.)

By the time he gets to sports, readers will wonder why Levinovitz is even bothering. Sports is rife with faux naturalness and purity. Amateurs vs professionals, men vs women, women with naturally high testosterone levels, men with artificial limbs, transgender question marks, and the omnipresent threat of meds. Natural has been so twisted out of shape in sports it is beyond recognition - or redemption.

Then, in  a surprise move at the end, Levinovitz throws in the towel. "Natural is not perfect," he says.   "Therefore it is meaningless. Favoring a choice because it is natural amounts to a superstitious mistake."

So ends years of research into natural.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.