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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Philosophy, Ethics & Religion

Natural The Seductive Myth of Nature's Goodness

By: Alan Levinovitz(Author)
252 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Profile Books
Natural is a thought-provoking and eye-opening examination of the appeal to nature fallacy that deftly avoids ridicule and mockery.
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  • Natural ISBN: 9781788161992 Paperback Apr 2021 Out of stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Natural ISBN: 9781788161985 Hardback Mar 2020 In stock
Selected version: £9.99
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About this book

Without our realising it, a single, slippery concept has become a secular deity throughout the modern world. We make terrible sacrifices in its name: of our money, our health and our planet. That deity is nature itself.

From supermarket shoppers to evolutionary biologists, atheists to pastors, Alex Jones to Gwyneth Paltrow, we are all prone to the intuitive faith that life should be lived ‘naturally’.

But nature can’t teach us how to live. If we try to stick to its imagined commands, eschewing human artifice in pursuit of Edenic purity, we jeopardise the environment, our health and our society. (We might also waste a lot of money on pots of weird slime.) It is time to accept our profound responsibility to shape the world of which our technology and our selves are wholly a part.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Thought-provoking scepticism without mockery
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 Jul 2020 Written for Hardback

    I will come right out and say this: if the subtitle turned you off, give this book a chance. Yes, this is a sceptical take on the subject, but without the typical mockery and ridicule. Natural sees religious scholar Alan Levinovitz critically but thoughtfully examine the appeal to nature fallacy, the idea that just because something is natural it is good. For a biologist, the “natural goodness” myth is particularly grating as it requires some exceptional cherry-picking to come to this conclusion. As far as logical fallacies go, this is a big personal bug-bear. Why is it so compelling?

    Levinovitz makes the incisive observation that it is a theological argument, which is perhaps unsurprising coming from a religious scholar. “Nature” has become a stand-in for God, and “natural” synonymous with holy. Our technocratic society thus represents our fall from grace, complete with pollution, human-caused extinctions, and the looming spectre of global climate change. If only we had not turned our backs on the divine wisdom of Mother Earth, etc. etc. Of course, the sheer impossibility of trying to talk logic with believers has caused many a sceptic to throw up their hands in despair, but Levinovitz calls the categorical dismissal of appeals to nature its own pernicious faith. You will find zealots in both camps. In reality, he argues, there is no point picking sides, because the whole framing is misguided to begin with.

    The remainder of the book shows how natural goodness is one of our oldest and most pervasive myths. In the process, Levinovitz touches on a diverse range of time periods and topics: childbirth, food, our hunter-gatherer past, natural parks and the notion of wildness, healing and medicine, wellness, economics, sex and birth control, and sports. Rather than going into each one of these, let me highlight just some of the many interesting insights that emerged.

    One is how old this line of thinking is. When it comes to looking at nature for ideas on organising our economic and political systems, Aristotle and Plato already likened society to the human body. Adam Smith made comparisons to our circulatory system. In fact, Levinovitz writes, these explanations often use whatever scientific model is the flavour of the day. For a while it was physics, today it is evolutionary biology. But stare hard at these metaphors and they fall apart, though people rarely do: “the premise that models from nature can be neatly mapped onto economic systems remains largely unquestioned, instead of being revealed for the theological claim it is” (p. 186). Mythologizing life in the past similarly has deep roots, notably the idea of the “noble savage” that can be traced back to the 16th century (though see The Myth of the Noble Savage). Other authors have pointed out our starry-eyed romanticizing of native cultures by thinking of them as peaceful and non-violent, or as the “first environmentalists” living in pristine rainforests that doubled up as mother nature’s pharmacy. Did our ancestors have it better? In some ways yes, in other ways no. Levinovitz thinks the question is impossible to answer one way or another and concludes that mythic binaries are inadequate.

    Despite his scepticism, the second interesting observation he makes is that those who appeal to nature, as mistaken as they might be, do raise valid concerns. It is hard to deny that industrial agriculture harms the environment, is far from transparent, and happily deceives consumers with similar appeal-to-nature marketing claims. Is it any wonder that people, in their distrust, are driven into the arms of someone like Vani “Food Babe” Hari who provides “pseudoscientific sermons about the virtues of eating naturally”? The same logic crops up in medicine. In the modern healthcare system, patients frequently feel disempowered and no longer in control, suddenly entering a frightening, sterile, clinical world, where bedside manners are often poor. As Levinovitz rightly points out: “Sick humans are not just broken machines. We have a deep emotional connection to our bodies” (p. 123). It is easy to discount the need for empowerment if you have never been seriously ill. However, as his many interviewees make clear, this is an important reason for seeking out natural therapies. Patients prefer to hear that they can regain control of the situation, rather than cultivating a stoic acceptance of their own mortality, or accepting the honest answer of a medical specialist who also cannot explain why you fell ill.

    Third and final, Levinovitz makes some bitterly ironical observations. Obstetricians point out that only because people have forgotten just how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth used to be they can be tempted by the stories of natural childbirth advocates. And, I would add, the same twisted logic applies to vaccines. Ancient healthcare practitioners, meanwhile, would be mystified by our distinction between natural and unnatural – for them, surgery and drugs were completely natural, for the alternatives were magical rituals such as exorcisms. And then there are the wellness “gurus” such as Deepak Chopra and Gwynneth Paltrow who hypocritically equate wellness with wealth by charging fortunes for their products and treatments. Levinovitz makes the bitingly sharp observation that this is “consecrated consumption, in which the ritual of shopping becomes a kind of spiritualized retail therapy dedicated to nature” (p. 135).

    Although I appreciated Levinovitz’s even-handed approach, in places he feels rather mild. An apologetic afterword explains how he started researching this book a fanatical sceptic, only to realise that he was confirming his own biases and was possessed by a myopic dogmatism. In the end, the whole exercise left him philosophically confused, although he argues that this is not something to feel guilty about. Such honesty and humility are refreshing. Even so, I felt somewhat disappointed when I finished the book. Why? Having covered such diverse topics, a concluding chapter to tie it all together, reiterating the points he made in his introduction, would have been welcome. To return to the book’s subtitle, why seductive? I think Levinovitz is really onto something when he calls the argument theological. Why myth? Because we are natural-born storytellers that crave narrative. And the notion of “natural goodness” provides an incredibly compelling if overly simplistic hook. Lastly, the blurb teases with a Werner-Herzog-style resolution that the book never delivers: that nature is neither good nor bad, instead not caring about us in the slightest.

    This notwithstanding, Natural is a thought-provoking book that stands out by urging readers to embrace nuance over simplicity, and uncertainty over dogma. Would I recommend it? Yes, naturally.
    Was this helpful to you? Yes No


Alan Levinovitz is an assistant professor at James Madison University, Virginia. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, Salon, Wired, The Believer and The Millions.

By: Alan Levinovitz(Author)
252 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Profile Books
Natural is a thought-provoking and eye-opening examination of the appeal to nature fallacy that deftly avoids ridicule and mockery.
Media reviews

"An indispensable read [...] The romanticisation of the "natural" is, Levinovitz notes, rooted in privilege. Only those who enjoy a lifestyle sufficiently protected from the ravages of nature have the licence to romanticise it."
– Kenan Malik, Guardian

"Concise and imaginative [...] A tour de force"
– Daniel Akst, Wall Street Journal

"Levinovitz's book is an important call for more nuance over simplicity, for compromise over dogmatism, and for embracing uncertainty over certainty."

"Thoughtful, engaging forays into realms where the idea of the natural is most abused. It is remarkably wide-ranging [...] Some of the most likeably spiky passages are still highly sceptical. The section on Goop is almost painfully sharp [...] The book does much more than sneer and scoff – and this is what makes it interesting [...] subtle and serious"
– James McConnachie, Sunday Times

"A useful corrective to lazy thinking"

"Despite Levinovitz taking smart aim at the snake-oil salespeople of late capitalism – those selling expensive natural remedies, natural "cures" for cancer, or loudly advocating "wholly natural" childbirth, sex or sport – he concludes that there is something innately glorious about the non-human natural world. What Levinovitz critiques is what he sees as a religious attitude towards nature. An appeal to natural goodness – with "unnatural" as its evil twin – is among the most influential arguments in all human thought, ancient and modern, east and west."
– Patrick Barkham, Guardian

"This is important stuff, as evidenced every time someone discusses the supposed naturalness and thus supposed inevitability of some appalling human behavior. [Natural] is a superb book­ – fascinating, accessible, elegantly written, and deeply thought-provoking."
– Robert M. Sapolsky author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

"In a fascinating tour across time, cultures, and ideas, Alan Levinovitz shows us how the worship of an abstract idea of nature can lead us astray in everything from our health to the laws we pass and even how we structure our governments and our way of life. This book is required reading for anyone who wants to face the scientific and moral challenges of 21st century with a clear head."
– Tom Nichols author of The Death of Expertise

"Alan Levinovitz provides a bracing corrective to our often misplaced faith in all things derived from nature. Throughout its exploration of a fascinating range of issues, from vanilla to wolves, the book is both thoughtful and addictively readable."
– Deborah Blum author of The Poison Squad

"evocative, convincing [...] this argument for removing "natural" from the altar of absolute good will certainly start conversations, particularly among naturalists and environmentalists."
Publisher's Weekly

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