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Dr. Alan Levinovitz illuminates how a human tendency to equate "natural" with "good" causes far-reaching harm.

Alan Levinovitz: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 9 Transcript

By Marian L. Tupy @HumanProgress

By Alan Levinovitz

The full interview between Marian Tupy and Alan Levinovitz is available here. The transcript is below.

Marian Tupy: Hello and welcome to a new episode of The Human Progress Podcast. Today, I’ll be talking to Dr. Alan Levinovitz, who is the Associate Professor of Religion at the James Madison University in Charlottesville. We’ll be discussing his book, which I think came out last year, about a year ago, Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. Alan, welcome.

Alan Levinovitz: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Marian Tupy: When we post the video, I will make sure to include a screenshot of your book from Amazon so that our readers can buy it, but I lost the cover because I was traveling with your the book and reading it, and somehow I lost the cover. Even though I did read it and I enjoyed it very much.

Alan Levinovitz: I appreciate that.

Marian Tupy: So we’ll be talking about something that a lot of people are thinking about, the notion of natural, how if it’s natural, it must necessarily be good, and a lot of people obsess about it in terms of food and medicine and so forth. But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the thing, why don’t you give me and our viewers the elevator pitch, what the book is about in its most general sense.

Alan Levinovitz: Sure. When people ask me what I want them to take away from this book, I have a single sentence answer, which is that we can love nature without worshipping it. That’s what I want people to take away from the book, we can love nature without worshipping it. What I mean by that is that people have come to see nature as a kind of substitute, secular substitute for God, in other words, nature is a force that comes from beyond and before human beings, that is responsible for all non-human order that we see in the world today, and that world, that world, the one that is natural, because it is ordered by nature is therefore good in all ways, and whatever things are going wrong can be attributed to departures from that order, so when I say we can love nature without worshipping it, what I mean to say, is that we can abandon the idea that what is natural is what is good, that what is ordered by nature is inherently good in all ways, and instead learn to appreciate nature and naturalness and understand the reasons why we like them, but also reject the sorts of biases that come along with seeing nature in this quasi-deistic way.

Marian Tupy: Very good. So your book opens with examples of humans treating the nature in this deistic way, and when you say that you start at the beginning, you really start at the beginning, which is with a birth, a birth of a child. So can you give us an example? Just to frame the conversation about that.

Alan Levinovitz: Absolutely, I’ll give you an example that people won’t find in the book because I think it’s always fun to do that, we had in our family, a babysitter a while back, who was sort of the prototypical natural person, she’s very hippy granola. She likes natural foods, she likes natural medicine, and she often posted on Facebook about her natural birth, the natural births of her children, and one of the things that you will be struck by in these posts is how she believes that natural birth is superior in all possible ways to a medicalized birth, which is how she would refer to it, so it is better for the baby, it is better for the mother, it is safer, it will produce in the long-term a child that is healthier and happier, it will produce a relationship that is healthier and happier. One of the things I really like about starting with natural birth is that the word “natural” itself has the idea of birth being built into the etymology of the word. “Natura” comes from Latin, which means a sort of origin and in birth. And so when you look at what something like this woman is posting, what you start to realize is that she believes natural birth is good in all possible ways, in every way you could think about what you would want your birth to be if you make it natural, it will be better if you make it unnatural, it will be worse.

Alan Levinovitz: And it only takes a moment’s reflection with my own wife and my own child to think about the fact that you would never… Well, some people might, but I certainly… My wife certainly would never turn down anesthesia for dental work, but my wife seriously considered rejecting an epidural for her birth, even though the pain that you endure in child birth, I am assured is far worse and far longer than anything but the most excruciating dental pain. And so it’s important to ask ourselves, and I did in this section, I went and asked a bunch of people who were interested in natural birth, why it is that one might believe that, and how we can allow people to still value what they value in natural birth. Without also bringing in a lot of, frankly, false claims about the virtues of natural birth. Among them, the idea that natural birth is safer, which it is not, of course, one of the greatest achievements of modernity is to reduce infant and maternal mortality, and this is something that is undeniable, if you ask even the most enthusiastic supporters of natural birth in certain contexts who study this scientifically will tell you that that’s true, and so what I wanted to do in that chapter is try to understand what it is that people value about natural birth and then decouple that from all of the other stuff that comes with it, when you believe that natural is a synonym for something like holy or pure or good.

Marian Tupy: And is it a… Is there a specific psychological profile of a person who will believe in the superiority of natural birth. Is it a set of beliefs or what did you find out about people who hold such views?

Alan Levinovitz: No. It’s not a particular set of beliefs or a particular psychological profile, one of the things that I was really excited to do in this book is explain how this concept is operative in almost everybody’s life in some form or another, so when it comes to natural birth, it’s simply an instantiation of a widespread, if not conscious understanding of naturalness as inherently superior, so I’m looking at the plant behind you, for example, and wondering whether that is a fake plant or a natural plant. I was just in a bubble tea store today, there was a ficus in the store, and I wanted went to touch the leaf and it was cloth, I was a little disappointed. Why was I disappointed? Well I was disappointed because I don’t like fake plants, I like real plants, I like natural plants, and everyone has some part of their life, whether it’s their house plants, or whether it’s the fact that they like to go hiking away from the city, or whether it’s they like food from the farmers market, whatever it happens to be. I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t value nature and naturalness in some way, and what happens with natural birth is that it’s this is simply people, mothers often also fathers who are participating in this, with mothers, obviously here, is the more important category, for whom this particular ritual that of child birth, which is a very, very important ritual, like food, something that religions focus on because it’s so important and so personal.

Alan Levinovitz: With food, you’re putting something from the outside world into your body, with birth, you’re bringing life into the world, it’s an extraordinarily important ritual, and that’s a case for them, where they want this connection to the idea of nature and naturalness in the same way that someone else, for example, might want to camp somewhere where they can’t see any electric lights. It’s that kind of idea. And what I came to realize because I went into this book thinking it was gonna be a sort of debunking book, kind of Richard Dawkins for nature or something like that instead of God, and I changed my mind because I get it, I get why you would wanna camp where you can’t see any electric lights, and I get why after talking to all of these mothers, why you would want to have a natural birth without any anesthetic, without the presence of doctors, even in your own home, rather than in a hospital setting, which is artificial and sterile and all these things, so I actually, I get it. It’s just that you can have those values, you can believe that camping away from electric lights is better, you like it better, without also insisting that that would be safer or… What it is that is intended for you in some kind of cosmic way, it’s not that. It is not God’s way of camping, and it is not God’s way of giving birth.

Alan Levinovitz: Nevertheless, we can, if we think hard about it, see, I think pretty easily why people would value it to begin with. So what I say in the natural birth chapter is imagine… I have to imagine, and you have to imagine, some of our viewers and listeners will not have to imagine, imagine what it would be like to bring life into the world and to connect yourself to a long chain of humans going all the way back into the mists of prehistory who have given birth in the same way that you are now symbolically participating in an act that mythically belongs to… If you wanna call it Mother Nature herself, nature bringing life into the world, which is what nature did, you don’t have to believe in God to recognize that forces beyond and before humans were responsible for ordering the structures of reality in a way that created life. And so to see oneself as participating in that process is deeply beautiful and mysterious, and if in order to feel that way, you want to eliminate those forms of order that were created by humans. I fully understand that. I think that makes a whole lot of sense. Just don’t claim also that it’s healthier for your baby or that it is safer or that it is what we are intended to do, and that anything less than that is some kind of falling away from an ideal.

Marian Tupy: Right, so that’s all very interesting. And it leads us… I think I want to talk about food a little later and medicine, I hope to incorporate it later in the talk, but that really leads us to the nub of the matter, you’ve you described natural, the belief in the worship of nature, so to speak, as a meta-myth constituted of archetypical narratives. Tell me what you mean by that.

Alan Levinovitz: Sure. One of the most important ideas, so when I say a meta-myth, let’s first start with myths, so myths have been defined in a lot of ways for religious study scholars, that’s not really my point here we can just think about them as the narratives that we use, to understand and order our own realities. So there are certain stories. A great example is the rags to riches story is a prototypical American myth. The story of the fall from paradise is another prototypical myth. In this case, it’s an Abrahamic religious myth. But you find that same myth, the idea that there was once a time in the past which was paradise, and then people disobeyed the laws of that particular paradise, and for that reason they were punished or they suffered, so that’s another archetypal myth. And what nature and naturalness do for people, is they tell them a variety of stories about where things came from and why they are better, so when we say that a birth is natural or when we say the food is natural or a medicine is natural, or a way of being is natural when we say act naturally to someone, what we are doing is invoking a kind of narrative about a pure way of acting, in the case of act naturally that is incorrupted by the artificiality of wanting to be a particular way.

Alan Levinovitz: When we say that a food is natural, we are telling people a story about where that food came from, that is superior to the alternative stories of where foods come from, and when we think about naturalness in terms of our own culture, whatever the culture happens to be, often, I believe, we are invoking a story about a time in the past, that’s vague, that was perfect. A time when everything was ordered properly, and it was ordered properly because nature ordered it, and there was no chance for humans to corrupt that order, and then we moved in and we started ordering things in our own ways, and therefore they were corrupted and they cause suffering and they fail, etcetera, etcetera. So that story, that meta-myth then gets applied to whatever it is that we happen to be talking about, you’re having trouble with your children? Well, let me tell you a story about children back in the day that were much better, that were naturally raised, and now when we raise our children, whatever problems we have are a result of a departure from that natural state, are you made sick by your food, are you made sick by your environment, does your back hurt? In every single case, we tell ourselves a story, a myth that’s linked up to this meta-myth of naturalness and nature.

Marian Tupy: So I recently had an email exchange with at least three people because I posted a bunch of articles about how cheap food has become over the last century in the United States, and the way I do it, at the Human Progress website, we have a small section called the Simon project, and what we do is we take a nominal price of say a dozen eggs in 1900, we divided it by a nominal wage per hour, and we repeat that in 2000 or whenever, and then you can see how long a person has to work in order to buy something and everything has just become incredibly cheap. I mean, the same amount of work that you could buy 1 egg 100 years ago, you can now get 26 and so on, believe it or not, well, you will believe it, the responses were always, Oh, but the food is much worse than it used to be, it’s not as nutritious and so forth, so that would really speak to something that you have written about this notion, that natural food before industrialized farming and so on, would have been much better, but I suppose our ancestors wouldn’t even recognize some of the things that we eat today. The carrot didn’t look like like that before, or corn or any of that. Can you speak a little more about nature and food?

Alan Levinovitz: Absolutely, this is where my interest in naturalness first came from. So the first book I wrote was about food specifically fat, salt, sugar and gluten, and I looked at the history of how all of those foods became demonized. In the course of researching that book, I spoke with people about how they make their food decisions, and often people would tell me I wanna eat naturally. And what was fascinating is that everyone told me this, whether they were vegan or whether they were paleo-carnivores, whatever they happen to be, the sort of real reason for why they wanted to eat the way they did was that it was natural, and so I started thinking more about what they meant by this, and as you pointed out, of course, the food they were eating today, the food foods these people are not natural in any literal sense of the word. All of the vegetables that we eat, the animals that you get your steak from or your chickens, none of them, even the ones that come from the organic farm down the road, and you pay 30 bucks for. They would be unrecognizable to someone from 3000 or 4000 years ago. They just simply didn’t exist because they’ve been bred by humans.

Alan Levinovitz: And what I came to realize is that in the case of these people, they were mixing up natural with another word, something like traditional and in fact, in British law, though not in American law, when it comes to labeling foods as natural, one of the requirements is that it be produced in a traditional way, which is unusual, if you think about it, so that means, for example, that beer, clearly a natural beverage, provided it is produced in a traditional way, is natural and people believe that it’s better and it’s tastier for a whole host of reasons. None of that is true. None of that is true, however, there are understandable reasons for buying into that myth, and that’s one of the things that I want people to understand that when they say food in the past was natural and therefore better, it’s not really what they’re saying, what they might be saying is something more along the lines of, to use your example of cheap food, post-industrial society has created through human ordering of food production, a surplus of calories that have been engineered to create over consumption in human beings, and therefore, I don’t want to participate in that system, because I see an epidemic of severe obesity taking over the world, and so I blame that particular system.

Alan Levinovitz: And frankly, I understand, that makes sense. You really didn’t have… Obesity was not a problem 3000 years ago. There were other problems, of course, that’s the thing. So to say something like that, or even to say… And actually, let me pause for a second. I just wanna give people a definition of natural, because often I get asked that, as if it’s some kind of mysterious question and it isn’t. I think it’s very easy to define natural, and I think there’s an intuitive definition that we can all use. Natural simply means not ordered by the will of human beings. That’s it, that’s all it means. And so there’s a spectrum of naturalness. At one end, a 100% natural, it’s all forms of order that came before humans existed, so dinosaurs are 100% natural. Anything that was ordered in a way, entirely independent of humans is completely natural. On the other end of the spectrum, are things that owe their order almost entirely, and obviously at an atomic level, humans have not been doing a ton of stuff, but owe their order almost entirely to humans. So you might think about New York City if you wanna look at an ecosystem, or you might think about lasers or some kind of space ships. These things owe much of their form and order to human beings.

Alan Levinovitz: So there’s a spectrum, more or less natural, we can debate where things land on that, but I actually think that makes a lot of sense. So if someone wants to say, “Well, I believe that global obesity problems are tied directly to unnatural food.” And what they mean is, food that has been produced and ordered by humans, they’re 100% right. That’s absolutely right. I don’t think there’s any way around that. However, to suggest, therefore, that natural food is better in all ways than unnatural food, is absurd. And that is where we get back to this idea that we can love what’s natural without worshipping it, but also means that we can acknowledge ways in which departures from the natural order have resulted in problems for humans, without assuming that that’s the default hypothesis, that natural order is always better, and therefore any problem will always be linked to a departure from natural things. And so that takes us back to the food, if that makes sense.

Marian Tupy: Matt Ridley, British scientist, had an article today in the British Spectator, talking about how natural food, and I’m using it not in your terminology, but in the popular terminology, is not only not good for humans, but also for the environment. The case that he’s making, for example, is that because “natural food” gets fertilized with feces of animals, as it did in Europe throughout thousands of years and even today, and in China, they actually used human feces in order to fertilize their fields. The outcome of that is, of course, periodic outbreaks of devastating intestinal diseases that can cause severe health problems, including killing people, E-Coli and so forth. Plus of course, if we all relied on “natural foods” to feed ourselves, we would need to displace many more animals and spoil much more nature, in order to produce the quantity of food necessary for feeding 8 billion people.

Alan Levinovitz: Yeah. I haven’t read the article, I’m not familiar with it, I can’t weigh in on the practice of using human feces, which though I would say again, either it works or doesn’t, either it makes people… It makes… Either it’s healthy or it isn’t. And I wish people would evaluate those things without thinking, Oh, this seems horribly unnatural, or, Oh, this seems very natural, whatever it happens to be. The question, of course, when you’re looking at using human feces for growing food is, Does it work? Is it cheap? Is the food good? Does it make you sick? And all of those questions, this is the argument of the book, again, simply cannot be answered by looking at whether food is natural or unnatural. To the question of displacing more animals or conserving the environment, again, not my area of expertise, but I’m convinced that, as you said, there is simply no way to produce food at scale, especially the diversity of foods that we have come to enjoy and expect in post-industrial culture. There’s no way to do that without using all kinds of unnatural food production techniques. Of course, even organic farming, whatever that happens to be defined as in a particular culture, is unnatural, it’s enormously unnatural. We use all kinds of machines, we use all kinds of plant breeds that didn’t exist, we use soil combinations and fertilizers, we alter the environment that the history of food, as I say in my book, is one long parade of unnaturalness. That’s it.

Marian Tupy: I want to carry on just for a few more minutes on the business of food. So some people that I know feel incredibly protective of their body and what they are putting in it. So for them, the way I see it, and please tell me if I’m wrong, is that it’s almost a feeling of internal spoliation, if you ingest something that is “unnatural” and it’s an internal pollution, it’s a pollutant if it’s filtered water. So there is a religious element, where the human body almost becomes a temple that needs to be kept from infection from outside, and I thought about that in context of you writing that for some people, a trip to Whole Foods is consecrated consumption. So can we talk a little bit about the spiritual aspect of food consumption?

Alan Levinovitz: For sure. Foods, of course, as anyone who’s passingly, familiar with religions, knows, are an important part of religious law, whether it’s Kashrut in Judaism, or whether it’s Halal in Islam, or whether it’s Paul’s dream about… I’m not a New Testament scholar, so apologies for everyone who’s… If I’m getting this wrong, but Paul’s dream about why now we can eat whatever we want. Food is really important, understandably, as you said. It’s a ritual, it’s something that we use to create our own identity, the foods that we love and hate, the foods of our culture, we take something from outside of our body, we put it into ourselves and also it can be dangerous. Foods can make you sick, they can kill you. They are what we use, to keep ourselves alive and thrive, and there are ways in which diet can be better or worse for you. So all of that makes sense.

Alan Levinovitz: However, what does not make sense is, believing that naturalness is the index according to… If you look at a food, right next to that kosher sign, you’ve got the 100% organic symbol, these are like religious symbols on foods, and not only do they indicate falsely, that the food will be better for your health, as you pointed out, but also as you pointed out, they indicate that the food will be better in all possible ways, because again, nature is acting as a secular substitute for God, and here’s what I mean. When you go to Whole Foods and you see that your food that you’re buying there is all natural, you’re not just thinking, “Hey, this is gonna be better for my health,” you’re also thinking, “This is gonna be better for the economy of the world.”

Alan Levinovitz: Often, on the bags of the foods, you will see things like “produced sustainably by laborers who were paid in ethical ways” or you will see “good for the environment”. What happens with that natural label is, it tells the consumer, “You’re eating food that is holy,” and what holy means is that it is good for you, it’s good for your fellow citizens, it’s good for the earth, it’s good for the citizens of the earth, it is good in every possible way. This is a panacea, and it doesn’t work that way, it’s entirely… And please don’t get me wrong, wanting your food to be good for the economy, the local economy, the global economy, wanting laborers to be paid sustainable wages, those are all good ends, but you can’t collapse them all into one single label, natural, that covers all of them. It’s absurd, if you think about it for a moment, to think that there is one way of producing foods, which would be good in all ways. Why would what’s good for your local economy, also be good for preserving forests in whatever country the vegetable that you were buying is being grown in and also be good for the economy in that country and also be good… It’s a way of getting out of struggling with the inevitable cost benefit of any particular decision.

Alan Levinovitz: When something has been chosen for you by God, there is no cost benefit conflict, because it’s all benefit and no cost. That’s what that label does for us, as consumers, that’s how it consecrate our consumption. It tells us, “Now you don’t have to worry about your purchase being bad in any way. It will be good in all ways.” And that’s a lovely rethought to have, when you’re taking your freeze-dried banana chips home and eating them, that’s a wonderful thing to think, and I admire and appreciate that people want to do good, but I think we need to be clear eyed about how to do good, and that requires abandoning this sort of meta-myth that collapses all forms of good into one vague understanding of how something is produced.

Marian Tupy: Okay. Well, let’s go back to the meta-myth and the sense described in your book, that the world at some point in the past, was a perfect place where everything worked, then humans came along and spoiled it all. I’m reminded off Hesiod and his stages of man gold to silver to bronze, but in your… And of course, there is the Garden of Eden. So can you take us maybe, through some of the most obvious religious myths about the perfection at the beginning of the world, spoiled by mankind.

Alan Levinovitz: Sure. How about… Let’s travel to the East, if you will. I actually hate the East-West distinction, but my area of expertise, believe it or not, is classical Chinese Thought. So let’s go over to the East, to one of my favorite books, the Zhuangzi, which is this early proto-daoist classic, and in this book, there’s this concept, Ziran, which roughly translated means, self so, so of itself, that is to say, not so because it was ordered that way by humans, but self so. So a parallel, if you will, to the word, organic. It emerged spontaneously, rather than being organized top down by humans. And this word, Ziran, is often translated as natural. That’s how that word is translated. And in the text, that idea… Well, I don’t wanna speak for the Zhuangzi, but in a lot of interpretations of daoist texts, that idea of Ziran is understood as better, inherently better. Why is it better? It’s better because it’s spontaneous. Why is spontaneous order better? Well, because that is the order that emerges when humans get out of the way and allow heavenly order, or tou, whatever it is, that’s what emerges when you allow those forces to take over.

Alan Levinovitz: And so even far removed from Abrahamic understandings of Eden, there is this idea that spontaneous forms of order are better. In Japan, in understandings of forests, which are very important, you have these extraordinary forest groves that have been preserved in Shinto religion, where you’ll be driving along, you’ll see some kind of field, and the whole field is being cultivated, and right in the middle, there’s what looks like an old grove forest, just a patch of it. Absolutely, astonishingly beautiful. And in referring to these forests, there are technical terms for forests that are more natural, that is to say, forests that we’re not planted by humans, that have trees that were not ordered by human etcetera, etcetera, and forests that are less natural. And again, it doesn’t take a degree in Japanese religion, to guess which kind of forest is the better kind of forest, and which kind of forest is the lesser kind of forest.

Alan Levinovitz: So all of these forms of thinking about nature and naturalness, map quite neatly onto, like you said, Hesiod and the idea that there were humans that were in a better order before, then slowly degraded over time, or the idea of the Garden of Eden myth, which as if to be so on the nose, and for those who don’t remember, the punishment that people suffer, specifically Adam and Eve, is pain in childbirth, pain in child birth in agriculture. Those are the two punishments for disobeying God and having to be kicked out of the garden.

Alan Levinovitz: And what I like about the Garden of Eden myth is that, in a way, it winks at the reader, unfortunately, that wink is often lost, by showing them a world that’s absolutely preposterous. Animals don’t seem to eat each other, there’s no suffering whatsoever, things, the trees… We live in a place that is filled, one assumes, with the kinds cultivars that wouldn’t have existed at the beginning of time, people… You can just eat fruits, just wander through a garden and eat fruits. A garden itself, of course, is an ordered form. It’s an ordered form of nature. So there’s a paradox built into that story. What I think happens is, people simply forget that paradox and go with the idea that early non-human forms of order are better, later non-human forms of order are worse, and then just to add one last part of my answer to this question, the secular version of these myths is instead of Adam and Eve, it’s hunter gatherers, and instead of the Garden of Eden, its unspoiled nature in which hunter gatherers lived, and they are the ones who lived in paradise, and we are the ones now, who suffer for all of the reasons that we’ve discussed.

Marian Tupy: So let me offer something that I thought about, when I read your passages about the noble savage. So you have the emergence of the enlightenment in 18th century and you’ve got the obviously, the gigantic influence that Rousseau has, on the way that in my view, the enlightenment takes the wrong turn, but never mind. Rousseau popularizes this notion of a noble savage, and I wonder if it takes off precisely because in Western Europe at that time, religion in its traditional form, sort of loses steam, especially among certain group of highly educated intellectuals, and it replaces… The myth of the Garden of Eden is replaced with the idea of a noble savage who lives in peace and harmony with nature. What do you think about that?

Alan Levinovitz: So what I would say is that, at this time in intellectual history, there was beginning… This goes to the Scientific Revolution as well, people were beginning to realize that truth could not be… All truths could not be deduced through appeal to religious texts, so authority started to splinter. Whereas before, you might go to a priest to figure out what you should eat, and when I say before, I mean long before, and when God might be the source of your dietary laws and when holy text would be the text that would tell you about the order of the universe, because of course, there was no separation between religious educational institutions and secular educational institutions, they’re all the same thing, which actually goes against the whole conflict between science and religion thing. That’s a separate conversation. But at this point now, people were starting to look more and more for secular authorities on these kinds of questions, so it wouldn’t make sense, to ask religious authority what the past was like, or what foods you should eat or anything like that. So then what do you do? Well, on my reading, you still need easy cognitive heuristics for figuring out what’s right and wrong in all possible ways, that’s what natural is. Another way of thinking about it is a cognitive shortcut.

Alan Levinovitz: We can’t, in every aspect of our lives, think to ourselves, all the time, or it’s difficult at least, “How should I do this? How should I do that? What are the costs and benefits of this? How should we order… ” So there’s all kinds of things we have to make decisions about. Once you’ve jettisoned the idea that God can provide those answers, then you need a substitute for that, that looks secular, but in fact, is religious in the ways that I’ve already described. So I think it’s entirely reasonable, although I’m not a historian of intellectual history, to argue that Rousseau came in, and others, at a time when people wanted that kind of authority. There was a vacuum of authority and a moment in which a new myth could be inserted. And so I know we’re gonna talk about this, later in the conversation, but this is the same way in which Darwinian evolutionary theory ended up becoming that, for many people. Here was this new authoritative story, origin story of where we all came from, and it was accepted not because people wanted to believe it, but because it was empirically accurate, except by scientists, and so then, people had to figure out, “Well, okay, if that’s where everything comes from, then that must be the way that we figure out how to do everything.

Alan Levinovitz: So what is it that… What is it that evolutionary theory tells us about what to eat and how to organize our societies, and how to raise our children? So there was, I think you are right, a moment at which people wanted to start substituting nominally secular origin stories and theories of what it is to be an ideal human for explicitly religious ones, while keeping all of the reassuring over-simplifications that went right along with those religious stories.

Marian Tupy: So the hunter gatherer, the noble savage, whatever you want to call them, provide this new short cut to how to live a better life.

Alan Levinovitz: That there is… I wanna add one more thing though, because I think it’s important, this is not obviously the 18th century, but mostly it starts in the 19th century, another thing that’s happening is that Industrial society is disgusting. I mean, London, it was as early as the 1600s. One of the earliest books about pollution is called The Smoak of London, it was written by guy named Evelyn, John Evelyn, I forget, Evelyn on the, it’s called The Smoke of London. Smoak spelled, S-M-O-A-K, and people are seeing ways in which new forms of… New forms of suffering and pollution are affecting them, and they’re rightfully tracing the origins of those new forms of suffering to what we would call now industrialization, but you could just call it unnatural order.

Marian Tupy: Yeah, I’m a little bit familiar with Evelyn and think he writes actually before industrialization, I think the problem there is…

Alan Levinovitz: It is the 1600s.

Marian Tupy: Really, urbanization, it’s the fact that you’ve got masses of people coming in and obviously they’re using dirty fuels…

Alan Levinovitz: That’s exactly right. Yeah, so I don’t mean to say with Evelyn, I’m saying, when I say industrialization, I guess you’re right to distinguish between the two, so what I mean in a sense is the sort of the beginning…

Marian Tupy: But it is a… No question about it, it is also a response to the cities and to the city of life and creation of a division between the corrupt city, which is where diseases, which is where money lenders are, and all the unsavory financiers and that sort of thing, and then you’ve got the bucolic countryside, where everybody knows each other and everybody is family, and everything is perfect and that sort thing. So that division between the town and the rural area, I think is there, and cities have been associated with corruption for a long time, and then also in 19th century, the nationalist, especially in Germany, take this and run with it in sort of creating a myth of the natural. The obsession with walking the mountains and that sort of thing.

Alan Levinovitz: That’s exactly right.

Marian Tupy: And belittling the City as the place of corruption.

Alan Levinovitz: And look, again, this is sort of what I wanted to do in the book. I get it. I get it, it makes sense. There are certain ways in which these stories are true or point to important truths about the city… London in 1690, or what it would be like to go to a meat packing factory when Upton Sinclair is writing his exposes, it’s not that this is irrational or unfounded, it’s that it flattens what is a very complicated situation into an archetypal myth, and that’s a problem, that’s a big problem, because at a time when we need to be very clear-eyed about what works and what doesn’t, as we move into a future in which we have all sorts of issues to deal with on a global scale and on a local scale or like, we want to be able to think clearly about them, and if we’ve bought into this kind of the natural German man walking through the mountains is healthy and the shriveled person who has taken their natural virtues and outsourced them by breeding with the wrong people and then staying in the city hunched over, if we buy those sorts of stories, we’re gonna end up making bad decisions.

Marian Tupy: This is the perfect place to move on to the next section, which is what I wanted to talk about, and that is the negative effects of naturalism in social, economic and political terms, so in the book, you spend a lot of time explaining how different ideologies latched on to naturalism and then used it to achieve the desired end. And so we are going to look at racism communism, we can look at progressivism and conservatism, I wanna make it as non political [0:43:07.6] ____ as possible. So let’s start with racism, how does nature and naturalism fix with racist ideas?

Alan Levinovitz: Interracial marriage is one of the best places to start, and I discussed this in the book, of course, which is that people looked at the animal kingdom, and they said, “Look at this.” There’s a bunch of different kinds of animals out there, different species, they don’t breed with each other. Let’s look at the humans, it’s like this, we can visually distinguish between different types of humans.” If you look at textbooks from the time for people who haven’t, they’re shocking, there’s different colors of humans, which is actually strange that we still use this today in certain ways, they do that, they’re black humans and white humans. This is a pseudo-scientific understanding of racial difference that goes all the way back into the 1800s, I think is when you first started seeing humans categorized as yellow, red, black and white, and then people wanted to believe that they were superior. So they said, “Oh well, this is how everything was created.” We were created as separate kinds of humans to then interbreed would be to violate the divine order.

Alan Levinovitz: But you don’t have to say divine order, or you can say divine order then also along with it, the natural order, which in a sense are one and the same because God created the natural world, so what you do is you say something like we were not meant to breed with other types of humans, we were meant only to breed with our own kind, which is how we ended up with separate kinds to begin with, and from there, it’s a hop skip and a jump to making interracial marriage illegal because it’s a violation of the laws of nature, AKA the laws of God. So that’s where you see racism, the other thing, the other place you can see racism, this goes back all the way to Aristotle, is this idea that some animals, all animals are more powerful than others, are smarter than others, are stronger than others, and so therefore, if in a pack of wolves, there’s an alpha wolf and there’s the other wolves that listen or whatever it is, I’m not a wolf biologist, I’m sorry to the wolf biologist out there who are like, “No, no.”

Alan Levinovitz: If that’s how animals work. Well, surely humans should work that way too, and some humans are meant naturally to lead other humans and other humans are meant naturally to serve those humans, and so what you can do is through kind of post-hoc mythologizing, figure out how whatever order props you up and props up your desired way of interacting with other humans, when it comes to racism, and you can just read that back on to nature. Actually, it’s quite simple.

Marian Tupy: That’s a perfect place to talk about Darwin and the way that… Well, you tell the story.

Alan Levinovitz: Sure.

Marian Tupy: I was shocked in your book to read that Stalin prohibited Darwinism from being studied in the Soviet Union, but embraced Lamarck. So maybe we can talk a little bit about these two visions of natural selection and of course, survival of the fittest.

Alan Levinovitz: Sure. So even before getting to Darwin and Lamarck, what’s so intuitive that we don’t think about it, but what is actually astonishing when we do think about it, is that any political leader would think that evolutionary theory would have any implications at all for what system of government is ideal. It’s bizarre, if you step back… So with the example of banning Darwin, you have to ask yourself, “Why in the world would anyone care which biological theory, which theory of evolution are we going to embrace.” It has nothing to do with whether society should be communist or capitalist, or whatever word you wanna use or for how societies economic systems should be organized, and yet we actually see again and again in the history of political economy, people wanting to ground the authority of their system in some kind of biological narrative of evolution, specifically in this case.

Alan Levinovitz: So you have people… There’s a Russian anarchist that I write about in my book, very interesting guy, Peter Kropotkin, who takes Darwin and says, “Well, people have gotten Darwinian evolution a little bit wrong, they focus too much on competition. But actually, there’s a lot of cooperation in the natural world.” And the reason that’s important to Kropotkin is because he thinks that that means that’s how you establish that cooperation is good in humans, which again, is a strange way if you think about it, to establish what’s good in humans, why would you need to establish cooperative instincts in animals in order to justify social systems or government systems that encourage cooperation. The two are completely unrelated, you would think but that’s not actually the case, and then the same way, lots of people who embrace the kind of individualistic understanding of capitalist competition also appealed to Darwin to make precisely the opposite point, which is to say they believe that you should organize society in such a way that it allows for economic competition, because that’s how evolution worked.

Alan Levinovitz: And it’s that point that I really want to quibble with because it doesn’t make any sense. We should not care at all about how evolution worked except… And so far as biology can tell us things about how human beings, the sorts of instincts the human beings have, but just because it’s our instinct, it doesn’t mean it’s good, we’ve spent a lot of time making laws and grafting society in ways to tamp down certain instincts.

Marian Tupy: You don’t think that the study of evolutionary biology is a waste of time do you?

Alan Levinovitz: No, not at all.

Marian Tupy: But you just don’t think that just because something that maybe we are predisposed towards certain type of biological behavior that in itself is an immoral statement, doesn’t mean anything. Okay, carry on.

Alan Levinovitz: That’s exactly right. It’s non-normative. So if we discover, for example, I hate to oversimplify this stuff but for the sake of argument, if we discover that there’s a violence gene in humans and we just love to hurt people, that’s just that biologically it’s built into us. When we hear shrieks of pain, we get a rush, and actually, the more… We did a study, and it shows that because of how we’ve evolved, the more shrieks of pain we hear, the more healthy we are, that has just… That has no concept, there is no normative implications for us, as Robert Sapolsky, a primate expert at Stanford, really, really great guy. What he told me was a nice way to think about it, is that evolutionary biology can’t tell us the right thing to do, all it can tell us is why the right thing might be harder or easier to do.

Marian Tupy: Right, right, right. Okay, yeah.

Alan Levinovitz: And I think that’s a great way to think about it. So again, to go back to political economy, none of evolutionary biology has really anything to say about some kind of overarching social organization that’s normative, that’s built into humanity because of how we evolve, that’s simply not how we should think about the relationship between evolutionary biology nature and yet, as you pointed out, everyone, from Stalin to Mao to… It’s really surprising when you get this history, I didn’t know this history before I was researching it, that everyone wants to see their own ideal political system as somehow emerging out of the natural order, and… That’s, you know.

Marian Tupy: Okay, good. Let’s go back just a little bit to Darwin and Lamarck and Spencer and that sort of thing. So how does Darwin play into this?

Alan Levinovitz: You mean in terms of why did people all want…

Marian Tupy: How was Darwin misused, for example?

Alan Levinovitz: The misuse of Darwin… So Darwin complaints, there’s one letter, he doesn’t talk about this too much, but he complains that he’s being used as a kind of justification for ruthless competition, I forget his exact words, and he was in the sense that Darwin never thought his evolutionary theory really had any bearing on how people ought to organize human society, so he never… Although this is the thing, okay, so let’s go back to Darwin, it gets very complicated. Everyone should buy my book because it’s a fascinating and complicated story, Darwin himself, slips up occasionally. And what I mean by slip up is that this idea that nature is good or wise is so ingrained that at times Darwin will say things like… Not say, he will attribute a kind of benevolent wisdom to the ordering forces of nature, that implies… That implies that defying them would be unwise. It’s little phrases, capitalizing nature as if it were a deity or talking about how nature has made things in a particular way, the perfection towards which nature tends. And so I understand how someone like Spencer, for example, would do a similar kind of thing, which is to say to talk about the proper organization of human society in terms of archetypal natural causes.

Alan Levinovitz: And with Lamarck as opposed to Darwin, the reason people found Lamarck more useful than Darwin is this, Lamarck for people who aren’t familiar or have forgotten their high school biology textbook in the paragraph in which he’s mentioned, although Lamarck in biology making a come back, which is very interesting in certain ways, not as evolutionary theory, but the idea in Lamarck, of course, is that through hard work in your own life, you can change yourself, in other words, if you struggle in life, in the life of a single organism, if you’re reaching up, I don’t know, let’s use giraffes. That’s the classic example, the giraffe is constantly trying to get to hire and higher fruit and stretches its neck, and then that effort is passed on to the next generation, in other words, struggle in this life is built into the nature of organisms and then it gets passed on to the next life. Whereas in Darwinian evolution, as people understood it, that was impossible, so no matter how hard you… No matter how much you work out or change yourself morally or physically, you can’t pass on the fruits of that labor to the next generation.

Marian Tupy: Right. Just make it absolutely clear. Darwin slips up occasionally, but most of his scholarship basically says that natural selection happens because there are these chance changes in the genome and whichever, just a random mutation happens to be better for survival, that is going to be passed down on to generations, whereas Lamarck says that if you work really hard, let’s say that you can pass those hard working genes on to your progeny, and that’s presumably why it would be so appealing to somebody like Spencer, because he believed that the best people should be allowed to pass their genes on to the progeny.

Alan Levinovitz: Yeah, now, of course, they’re not… I’m not an expert on the Lamarck, so I can’t say, Darwin is not using the language of genes, but if I’m not mistaken, I don’t think Lamarck or Darwin thought of their respective approaches as teleological, and what I mean by that technical term is as directed towards a good end. So a divinely organized system is teleological. It’s headed towards perfection. I’m not as familiar with Lamarck, so I can’t say for sure, but again, with an occasional slip up, that’s not how Darwin understood what it was that he was articulating, Spencer on the other hand, did seem to understand it in exactly that way, and of course, these political leaders did as well, and I wanna pause and say something, I guess… Well, you said we’re gonna get to liberalism or progressivism and conservativism or whatever you wanna call these categories, I hate all those words.

Alan Levinovitz: So disclaimer, I don’t like those general terms, but if we’re gonna get to that, then we can talk about someone like Edmond Berk and the way in which natural has another thing built into it, which is something like a precautionary principle is what people call it, in other areas of ecology say, and so there is a kind of intuitive connection between naturalness and biological processes more generally, and how we ought to approach organizing humans that I think is unlike the sort of stuff we saw with appropriating Darwin and Lamarck, somewhat reasonable. Provided we tease out exactly what’s going on.

Marian Tupy: Okay, let’s talk briefly about communism, so they also use nature in terms of the struggle between capitalist and communism, can you talk about that a little.

Alan Levinovitz: Yeah. Well, so even communists, of course, wanted to understand their own theory of government, and political economy as synced up with the natural world, and so again, to make this point, which seems so obvious, until you realize it’s completely ridiculous, Marks and Angles were concerned about Darwin. Now, you wanna ask yourself, why do they care at all? Why would they care? These are two totally separate spheres, there should be absolutely nothing in Darwin that has anything to do with their understanding of how the world should be organized, but for them, what they saw in Darwin was a kind of argument… I mean, it gets sort of into the philosophical leads, but we don’t even have to get into those leads, what they saw was something that they felt threatened, their own vision of how history worked, and that’s all we really have to say for people who are interested in it more… They can get more into that. The main takeaway I want for people here is that it seems silly really to think that the discoveries of evolutionary biology would threaten one’s plan for making society better.

Marian Tupy: A lot of the issue that they sort of described the struggle between capitalism and communism as a natural struggle, were they… For example, thinking about the noble savage ad how if capitalism was a state of affairs where everybody was equal, sharing and so forth, then in a sense, in a sense, and the communism, you’re not departing from a happy state of affairs into constantly worsening state of affairs, like [0:59:07.1] ____ would put it. Communism would see a constant improvement of mankind until you get to that noble savage perfection.

Alan Levinovitz: So there is… You see that. Okay, look, this is what I always say to my wife when I’m trying to explain something to her that doesn’t make any sense, I always say that, don’t make me defend something I don’t agree with. So to be perfectly frank with you, I read a lot of this stuff and I don’t think they’re very coherent on what it is exactly that they see as good or bad, but what we can say is that they did like some parts of Darwinian evolution or the implications, so the idea, for example, that things could have a kind of teleological tendency towards perfection, this is very important for communist theory, that we are slowly perfecting things, that they liked, but what they didn’t like was the way in which they understood Darwinian selection to operate because they thought that that operation wasn’t… Didn’t line up well with their vision of how we would perfect society.

Marian Tupy: Right, because in Marxist thought, obviously the human being has to be completely malleable and Darwin says that’s something… Okay, moving on to conservatism and progressivism. I don’t want to spend too much time on it, not to offend too many people, but basically conservatives use nature to justify, let’s say position of women homosexuals in society and progressives use nature in order to have a peculiar view of GMOs and vaccines and things like that, can we…

Alan Levinovitz: I wanna stop you. So the GMOs and vaccines, ’cause I’ve worked on this a ton, first, so this is a… That’s a bipartisan problem.

Marian Tupy: Okay.

Alan Levinovitz: It is a bipartisan problem. What I would say though, let’s go back, let’s go to homosexuality, which is a great example. It’s not that conservatives use nature and liberals don’t. Strangely, both… And I don’t think of liberals and conservatives, ’cause this is, again why I don’t like these terms, but let’s say people that oppose homosexuality or think it’s unnatural, they’re not the only ones using nature, so in the history of the debate over homosexuality, the idea that it’s natural was also used to defend it, so just as the idea that it was unnatural was used to attack it, the idea that it was natural was used to defend it, whereas I am here with what seems to me to be the obvious position, which I said, it’s just not what we should care about when it comes to homosexuality, we should not care whether there are gay seagulls or not, and this was a big deal, and again, the stories in the book, it’s really funny to me, I’m looking at this is…

Alan Levinovitz: The scientists discover that there’s gay seagulls and people flip out as if this somehow has kind of normative implications, and the people who want homosexuality be accepted saying, “Look at the gay seagulls.” And the people who don’t are like, “Those scientists are ruining everything with their bat science and their gay seagulls,” and to me, I’m looking at this and I’m just thinking to myself, why do you care about whether the seagulls are gay or not, it has absolutely nothing to do with how we should understand homosexuality, if homosexuality is harmful to people, if it’s bad for people who are involved in the relationship, if it’s pathological for a society, and we can show that then that’s a problem. If homosexuality is not harmful to people and it’s not pathological, and that’s totally fine then that’s it, that’s the end of the line. And nevertheless, even today, frustratingly to me, this kind of stuff continues.

Alan Levinovitz: The debate over being transgender, there’s this really… There’s a sort of push to figuring out, well, is this biological or not? Is it natural or not? Can we find… Are there transgender hunter gatherers? So then like, that’s a great thing, and if there aren’t, then that’s a bad thing. And again, I’m just thinking to myself, how are we making the same mistake that we made with the gay seagulls, that’s not the point when we are evaluating everything from the place of women, and I wanna talk, actually, I’m sorry, I’ve said a lot here, but I wanna talk for a second about the place… I don’t wanna talk about the place of women because that’s not what I mean at all. And it sounds bizarre, but when we’re thinking about, for example, what kinds of roles, natural kinds plays, female and male are natural kinds in the same way that infant and adult are natural kinds.

Alan Levinovitz: It is true that there are some features of natural kinds that can tell us about the kinds of roles that we would want them to play, so for example, infants are incapable of walking and they are not, I assure you, having had one myself, very good thinkers. You do not want infants in charge of stuff, they should not be in positions of leadership, and the argument you would make for that does have to do with what I think we could call their natural capacities, that is to say the order of an infant as it was created by forces beyond and before human beings, but at the same time, that is not determinative of all of the ways in which we should understand people’s roles in society, so to take an example of women, just because females have reproductive biology as a part of their natural kind does not mean that women ought to understand their role as reproductive. You do not have to reproduce in order to be a good woman.

Alan Levinovitz: That is where the disconnect happens. So again, to take the example of infants, in the unlikely event that a genius infant that can walk is born, put him in charge of the country, I don’t care. There’s nothing unnatural about it as long as they can do the job well. So that’s… I wanna add a little bit of nuance there before totally dismissing the idea.

Marian Tupy: Sure, but the point being that, obviously in the past, people had very different views of what women could do in society and partly sort of justified it by appeals to nature, women are mothers and so on, and yes, of course they are, but they can also go to space or whatever.

Alan Levinovitz: Sure, and they can be not mothers. Totally fine.

Marian Tupy: Right. Yeah. So we talked a lot about the past. Let’s end up in the future. What do we do? Do we eat those lab-produced steaks? Do we allow our children to be genetically enhanced even if it’s not natural? Where do you stand on that?

Alan Levinovitz: So what I would like people to do with both of those examples, what I would really like people to do is just be a bit clearer with themselves about what they mean when they say, “I think this is unnatural and therefore bad.” So I’m gonna give you the example of… Let’s take lab-grown meat, which I think is an interesting case. Personally, what I think we should care about with lab-grown meat is a suite of issues that people talk about, is it cost effective? Is it healthy? Is it environmentally sustainable and sound? Is it delicious? These are all things that we ought to care about when we’re talking about lab-grown meat, but also whether it’s natural is something we should care about along with those other things. And what I mean by that is, there is something to me, at least, perhaps you shop at Farmers Markets, there’s something nice about feeling like you understand where your food comes from, there’s something magical about going to a farm and picking your apples from the orchard, and there’s even at least to my mind, there’s something kind of magical about knowing that the animal that you are eating really was… It was an animal and you’re eating… You’re a part of a kind of chain or as a cycle of life that is mystical and important and meaningful.

Alan Levinovitz: And so what people are saying with lab-grown meat is that it takes us out of that cycle of life in the same way that perhaps an epidural and a hospital birth takes us out of this form of giving birth that is meaningful, that’s fine. I think that’s a fine thing to bring up, however, we can’t assume that just because it doesn’t accomplish that for us, that it is also less healthy, bad for the environment, less tasty, more expensive, whatever it happens to be, so what we need to do is, again, love nature without worshipping it, we need to understand why we might not like lab-grown meat because it’s unnatural, and then separate that dislike from our evaluation of all of the other metrics that are important when we’re trying to figure out whether to integrate lab-grown meat into our world. I’ll take GMOs is another example, even though it’s another term that I hate because it’s very confusing, but if someone wants to object to GMOs because they’re unnatural, I think that’s foolish.

Alan Levinovitz: If someone wants to object that the genetic engineering of plants makes it so that fewer people have access to the kinds of technologies that are necessary for competing in the agricultural market, let’s say that, that’s a good way of thinking about it. I think that’s a great objection, I wanna see the numbers and I wanna see how it works exactly, but if the problem with genetically modified fruits and vegetables is that it will cut people out of a competitive market, let’s say smaller research university simply can’t compete with larger corporations or something like that, that’s a consequence that we would want to look at, but it’s not because GMOs are unnatural, that this bad consequence is happening, it’s just simply a consequence of a particular form of technology, again, with genetically modified humans. If what we are saying is that there’s something about what it is to be human, that’s deeply magical, and it has to do with having been ordered by a force that comes beyond and before us, that’s fine, or if we wanna say that genetically modifying humans is gonna lead to a kind of dystopia in which we create a de facto to species system in which only people that can afford genetic modification are gonna get it, and the separations that already exist or can get worse, whatever.

Alan Levinovitz: That’s a fine argument, but it has nothing to do with unnaturalness or naturalness, there are plenty of ways in which natural states of affairs can exacerbate inequality, and so what I want people to do with all of those issues is separate out the reasons, the valid reasons for valuing nature and naturalness from all of the other factors that we have to take into account when we’re evaluating a particular kind of technology or intervention.

Marian Tupy: Well, thank you, this has been absolutely fascinating. Once again, we will link to your book, but it is called and I quote, “How Faith In Nature’s Goodness Leads To Harmful Fads Unjust Laws and Flawed Science by Alan Levinovitz.”

Alan Levinovitz: Yes.

Marian Tupy: Thank you very much for giving us your time.

Alan Levinovitz: I really appreciate your having me it’s been a great conversation.

Marian L. Tupy is a senior fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and editor of HumanProgress.org.​

Alan Levinovitz is an associate professor of religion at James Madison University and the author of Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. 

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