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

Dried vanilla pods are sorted for processing at the Vaniacom factory the Comoros archipelago off Africa's east coast, the world's second-largest producer of vanilla / Getty Images

What do people mean when they talk about stuff being full of "chemicals"? Isn't all matter made of chemicals from one part of the periodic table or another? What do they mean by "unnatural" chemicals? Synthetic goos of various sorts?

Things can get messy when the question of what's "natural" comes up. Just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's good. It also doesn't mean it's bad. It means so many things to so many different people that it's only useful if looked at with extreme care, if not meaningless. It's a word that has become—as Kingsley Amis liked to declare terms muddied through thoughtless overuse—junked.

Alan Levinovitz is just the person to unjunk it, in his new book Natural: How Faith in Nature's Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. The book offers a nuanced view of what "natural" means in different contexts and shows what's so troublesome about the ideas of natural birth, natural ability in sports, human nature, natural law, and more.

One chapter on natural foods explains the history of vanilla, which it turns out is an almost completely unnatural product of artificially inseminating orchids. Fake (unnatural) vanillin tastes just as good, and is a petrochemical. Environmentalists might reflexively assume the much more expensive and rare real stuff from orchids is better, until they learn it's produced by cutting down the rainforests of Madagascar. Levinovitz uses this example to explain that while the "whole foods" and Whole Foods enthusiasts of the world say you should not eat anything your great-grandparents wouldn't recognize, food science has on the whole made what we eat objectively more tasty, less toxic, and less slave-labor intensive. Bucolic farms are still nice, but screw your commandments, Michael Pollan.

You won't come away with the idea that the "natural" label can just be thrown out—though, if you see the word "natural" on a literal label you're probably being scammed. One particularly funny illustration from the book: "A typical ‘raw water' company, Tourmaline Spring of Maine, touts its ‘sacred living water' as ‘verified naturally pure by science' and ‘filtered by mother nature to a degree that no man-made machine is capable of replicating.'" This water costs five bucks, which is five bucks more than a barrel of oil right now. But it is "‘flawless, gem-grade water' that ‘is bubbling up of its own accord through gemstone-lined vaults in one of the most ancient mountain ranges of North America.'" One of the most ancient? You can't afford not to buy it!

Levinovitz has a keen eye for details like this and a low tolerance for bulls—t, freerange or otherwise. His last book, The Gluten Lie, was a sharp examination of how fad diets and irrational nonsense in how we think about food made eating a source of unnecessary anxiety. He's a liberal religion professor who can't help but notice and argue with nonsense when he finds it, so you might say his niche is "sympathetic hippie-punching."

Levinovitz's thesis is that "natural" carries with it a theological valence that smuggles in the idea of goodness. What is natural is willed by God, even for people who don't seem to care about God's will. In a secular age, people will still overpay for "natural" candles with scents called "Church" (from Gwyneth Paltrow’s "natural" product megabrand, Goop). When we say something is natural, we are not just saying it is, we are saying it ought to be how it is. That can be used to tacitly justify all kinds of stuff that wouldn't otherwise pass rational scrutiny—like five dollar water.

But there's a third overlapping sense of "natural" Levinovitz misses. If the first sense is like the science journal, Nature, a word for the stuff that exists, and the second sense is like "human nature" in meaning "essence" or "true self" or telos, the third means something like "inevitable" and comes more with a shrug than a commandment. Think, "It's only natural." Missing this is why Levinovitz's only chapter that falls flat is the one on economics, where he talks about Adam Smith’s invisible hand. According to Natural, the "laissez faire" intellectual descendants of Smith justify their economic policies as being more natural because they resemble the Darwinian evolutionary theory of natural selection. Levinovitz says this is a selective use of a metaphor that doesn't legitimately apply. But it applies perfectly well if you stop projecting the moral onto it.

In Cybernetics, the socialist polymath Norbert Wiener introduces his argument that all technology is a simulacrum of nature by claiming that Adam Smith and Charles Darwin had the same idea. The idea of relating capitalist economics (with its emphasis on creative destruction) to Darwinian natural selection (with its emphasis on survival of the fittest) isn't that it is morally good and endorsed as good by God, but that each system is efficacious at preserving certain traits in a population. Evolution is deeply concerned with chaotic interrelated systems with a single self-organizing principle (greed, reproduction, whatever) acting as a mechanism for increasing the efficiency of the system as a whole.

Levinovitz's chapter goes on with some discussion of George Berkeley, Edmund Burke, and William F. Buckley, ascribing a crypto-naturalist belief in their political convictions because of a metaphor that makes complex moral and theological claims seem like scientific claims about the material world. (Berkeley, for his part, is innocent as charged—the philosopher famously didn’t even believe in such a thing as material reality.) Social Darwinism in all its forms definitely employs a naturalistic way of justifying itself. It says that the way power is distributed must be the way power ought to be distributed. But in his chapter on it, Levinovitz devolves into some mild political hackery, for example, in giving the Progressive movement a pass. There’s no reason that in tracing the negative consequences of social Darwinism, one should include Buckley and Mao, but not President Woodrow Wilson or Margaret Sanger.

Still, that chapter’s flaws are a minor exception in a book typified by strong arguments and fascinating storytelling about science and morality and the ways we don’t always realize they interact. It also contains one of the best treatments of the bioethics issues in sports I have ever encountered, taking on the fairness questions raised by doping and transgenderism. In Natural, Levinovitz looks at "natural" in lots of bizarre and interesting contexts with extreme care that's fun, not precious. That makes this book a win for clarity and honesty—equally recommended for the college library, the summer beach retreat, or the interminable quarantine.