Alan Levinovitz begins Natural: How faith in nature’s goodness leads to harmful fads, unjust laws, and flawed science by asking the question, “How can we live in harmony with nature?” A better question might be, “Should we?”
Levinovitz spends the rest of the book showing how attempts to “live in harmony with nature” have created havoc in our society. He seeks to convince us that “natural” itself is but a social construct that lacks real definition. More specifically, this “scholar of religion” asserts that “natural” is a religious term – and that is the primary flaw in his analysis.
“Natural” in this context means “holy,” and thus to the believer, unnatural (everything else) is unholy – whether you are speaking of childbirth, legal principles, or the food we eat. Wherever the term “natural” is used to describe a favored practice, there is, Levinovitz would have you believe, a religious foundation.
But it is paganism (a term he ignores) that has at its heart the recognition of the divine in nature. A true religious scholar would know there is a massive gulf between worship of the creation (nature) and worship of the Creator.
Levinovitz sees himself as an enlightened soul, one who knows that the best future for humanity and nature must be built on dialogue and evidence, “not taboos and zealotry.” Those who “wrap their rhetoric in the mantle of ‘what’s natural,’ he says, tend to be propagandists, bigots, demagogues, and marketers.”
High on Levinovitz’s list of debunkable myths is that of “natural childbirth,” which he rightly notes is fraught with dangers both for humans and members of the animal kingdom. A better standard, he suggests, is to prevent the transformation of childbirth into a dehumanizing experience, infused with fear and drained of symbolic power. After all, he reminds us, “nature gave birth to humanity.”
Or take “natural vanilla” versus artificial vanilla, about 85 percent of which today is derived from petrochemicals. “Natural” vanilla is extracted from orchids and was initially meticulously processed by Mayans in a four-step process involving killing, sweating, drying, and conditioning over a period of 8 to 10 months. Eventually, growers began artificially inseminating the orchid flowers, a highly labor-intensive practice that can hardly be described as “natural.”
Levinovitz dislodges the myth that noble savages lived in harmony with nature and suggests that our environmental crises are better solved with technology than nostalgia. Citing the work of anthropologist Shepard Krech, Levinovitz points to tribes that slaughtered entire herds of buffalo and left the carcasses to rot. Slavery, rape, and torture were also common in many Native American cultures.
The central weakness of this book is Levinovitz’s assault on “the natural order” and later on “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” He speaks of the “myth” that humanity “fell” from a state of nature (perfection) as in reality a state of ignorance but laments that evolving societies have classified those living in more primitive cultures as subhuman and thus worthy of treating as pack animals.
Seizing upon a strange speech by one 19th Century preacher (Henry Drummond), who called out hermit crabs for “failing to live by nature’s laws” (by “borrowing” mollusk shells), Levinovitz juxtaposes the values of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who asserted that science is the realm of descriptive authority while claiming that religion and secular ethics deal only with normative truths.
This viewpoint naturally leads to a deconstruction of the Declaration of Independence. Levinovitz argues that Jefferson followed the writings of the Swiss scholar Jean Jacques Burlamaqui in presuming that “natural” is a synonym for “rational,” hence that the law of Nature (and Nature’s God) is clearly discernible through reason.
Levinovitz disagrees, lamenting that the “very idea of ‘natural laws’ ordained by God invites haphazard conversions of the is of the natural world’s regularities into the ought of politics and religion.”
Levinovitz next challenges the concept of “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith, using as his foil a man who calls meat “the original bitcoin.” He cites a comment from a former Securities and Exchange Commission chair who saw his mission as allowing “the natural interplay of market forces to shape markets according to the demands of investors.”
But Levinovitz asserts that this “religious” worldview on markets belies the fact that “the benevolent design of Nature rarely works out in practice,” even though Smith assails monopolies for working against the common good (including elevating the real price of goods). He sees social Darwinism as the bastard child of the invisible hand and notes that social Darwinists lacked sympathy for the less fit.
While social Darwinism gave rise to the eugenics movement, which sought to eliminate “the unfit” from society, Levinovitz says many so-called social Darwinists merely picked and chose whatever biological principles happened to best fit their economic ideologies. But does not Levinovitz follow after these pickers and choosers when he rebukes as a religious construct the idea that transgender women have any unfair advantages over biological women?
In closing, Levinovitz admits that his skepticism about faith in nature’s goodness had become its own kind of faith, a photonegative of the false ideology he sought to discredit. His conclusion is that natural is neither good nor evil but rather a meaningless construct often exploited by advertisers, whether for healthful supplements or childbirth.
His solution is to see the problem as ideological monoculture in which disobedience to the stated norms is sacrilege. He proposes instead a polycultural approach that cultivates diversity, yet he admits that “I am more philosophically confused about nature than I was when I began.” Thus he embraces uncertainty as humility – and sees humility as a sacred concept.
After tediously following Levinovitz’s circular journey, there is some value in this book despite its ambiguities. Natural has (perhaps unwittingly) questioned traditional pagan and animist and quasi-religious ways of looking at the world and demythologized the very concept of “natural” – which he sees in many cases as little more than a sales pitch. In so doing, he demonstrates that faith in natural goodness belies the wisdom that comes from science, economics, and other intellectual disciplines.
But what is truly missing here is the distinction between the natural and the divine – that living in harmony with God is far more important than living in harmony with nature. Indeed, the Apostle Paul states clearly (I Corinthians 2:14) that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Thus, Levinovitz does not truly grasp the concepts of the law of Nature and the invisible hand, for it is not NATURE’s goodness – but God’s – that is transformative.
Levinovitz thus has laid the foundation for debunking a society based on the premise that enriching oneself requires taking advantage of others. A far better template is the win-win approach that asks the question, how can we serve one another, which is the same question as “How can we live in harmony with the Divine?”