Monday, May 26, 2014

Nature is Packed with Chemicals and Wants You Dead

OK, maybe that second part is a bit of an overstatement. Only some things in nature want you dead. Hungry polar bears, vultures, freshly-trodden-upon cobras--they have more use for you dead than alive. "Wants you dead" is just so much catchier than saying  "doesn't want to heal you", which is what I'm actually going to talk about. That, and the chemicals. As the title may indicate, this one may be something of a rant. I apologize in advance for this, but sometimes it just can't be helped. I'll try to at least make it entertaining.

All week long, I've been seeing memes like this:

And this:

And they've been eating at me. They (especially the first one) represent two simplistic, starry-eyed myths about nature that simply must die. These myths are:
1. Natural products are "chemical free."
2. Nature is designed to heal us.
The first is entirely, stupendously, howlingly wrong. The second is only mostly (but obviously) wrong. Both of them, I admit, drive me bonkers. Part of the reason, I think, is that I'm much more of a liberal than a conservative, and this thinking seems a little more common among liberals. I hate that, because it's a blow to our credibility; adding to the "starry-eyed, wishful-thinking, self-indulgent liberal" stereotype. Besides, such thinking can be downright dangerous. Anti-vaxxers who think vaccinations are bad because they're "unnatural" have caused outbreaks of whooping cough and measles, often in liberal enclaves like Boulder. It's really quite scary, and it's a direct result of this kind of thinking.

First, the chemicals. A while back I saw a tube of "all natural" sunscreen labeled "Chemical Free." Listed right next to that astounding statement were its main active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium oxide. That's right--this "chemical free" product works by using zinc (chemical symbol Zn, element 30 on the periodic table), titanium (symbol Ti, element 22), and oxygen (symbol O, element 8). Titanium is quite non-toxic, but zinc and oxygen can both kill you at the right doses. Oxygen is an especially dangerous chemical. It tends to rip electrons from other atoms, and is responsible for corrosion and building fires. It even caused the first major worldwide extinction, around 2.4 billion years ago, when bacteria evolved the ability to photosynthesize. Photosynthesis releases oxygen as a by-product, and soon the atmosphere was filling with it, poisoning everthing. Life eventually adapted, as life does, and incorporated the caustic gas into the process of respiration. That's why oxygen is vital for us--our distant ancestors adapted to a massive, global, and all-natural poison.

The people who make "chemical free" sunscreen are simply lying. They know very well that nothing made of ordinary matter (atoms) is chemical free. I don't want to say everything is made of chemicals (light isn't, for example) but every material thing we encounter is. We're made of chemicals, our food is made of chemicals, and the air is made of chemicals. We can't avoid chemicals. We ARE chemicals. The organic strawberries in the meme above aren't just made of "strawberry" for heaven's sake...they're made of chemicals, and a lot of them. That wonderful strawberry smell is the product of a cocktail of scary-sounding chemicals, as the picture below shows (pardon the blurriness, it's the best I could find).

Aldehydes? Terpenes? 5-hydroxy methylfurfural?! Those are can't be natural, can they? Yes, they can. And I'm glad they are, because I love the smell of strawberries.

Of course, people will respond, "Yes, but if all these chemicals are natural, then they can't be bad. It's the artificial chemicals that will get you." And that brings us to the second myth: that nature wants to heal us, or wants us to be healthy. To hear some people tell it, nature is full of herbs, essential oils, and even (among the kookier sorts) crystals that were put on this earth just to heal us.

They almost certainly weren't. If the theory of evolution is true--and it's stood the test of time for over 150 years now--every living thing evolves whatever features help it survive in a tough world. They aren't there to serve a purpose, as you often hear. They're there because they found an evolutionary niche and filled it, by any means necessary. Herbs didn't evolve to heal us, or even to be eaten by herbivores. In fact, most plant compounds with medicinal properties originally evolved as as deterrents; to keep animals from eating them. They can be pretty nasty about it, too. For example, a lovely flower called the California corn lily will cause sheep who eat it to give birth to monstrous, one-eyed lambs.

Looks kind of unnatural, doesn't it? It's not. Because of its effects, the chemical that produces it is called cyclopamine. It turns out that cyclopamine may be useful for treating certain kinds of cancer, and that's wonderful. But here's the crucial thing: California corn lilies don't make cyclopamine to cure cancer. They don't give a damn about us. Most likely, they make it to attack herds of mammals that try to eat them, and horrible attack it is.

Now, it's true that plants have evolved to have certain parts eaten by animals. This usually has to do with sex. Flowers produce nectar so that bees and hummingbirds will visit them, pick up pollen, and then pollinate another flower. But some flowers are "deceitful." They just smell enticing to pollinators, but they don't actually have nectar. Others entice insects with smells and then trap and dissolve them--which can't be a pleasant way to go. Similarly, many fruits are "meant" to be eaten by animals, because they contain seeds the animals will spread, depositing them with a nice little dollop of fertilizer. That's why so many fruits are so tasty.

However, most plants emphatically do not "want" to be completely devoured, and that's why so many of them are poisonous, at least in partially. Tomatoes are delicious, but if you eat the green parts you'll be in trouble. That's not the part with the seeds that need dispersed. Even many common foods today are only edible because they've been selectively bred for centuries. Ancient people in Peru, who first domesticated the potato, had to eat clay to counteract the poisons in the ancestors of today's nourishing Idaho potatoes. Many wild animals do the same thing so they can eat plants that don't want to be eaten. Cassava, which is a staple for many in the tropics, has to be processed extensively to be edible. Otherwise, it's toxic. Wild almonds will straight-up kill you. It's no coincidence that cyanide smells like bitter almonds.

Nature is neither benevolent or malevolent. It just is. What's going to happen in nature happens, regardless of whether it causes joy or suffering. In Rocky Mountain National Park, there's a sign to remind hikers that they can die out there if they aren't careful. It says, "The mountains don't care." It's a good lesson. People think that because nature is so beautiful, and fits together so intricately and well, that it must also be benevolent. It isn't.

As I mentioned above, this should be obvious. Some of the nastiest, most deadly things on earth were produced by nature: arsenic, strychnine, ricin, leprosy, influenza, liver flukes, pinworms, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis...the list goes on and on. People somehow manage to ignore all this; plugging their ears and chanting, "La la la, rainbows and herbal remedies, la la la la la." Why? Maybe it's because of the human tendency to see things in simplistic, black-and-white terms. People want to put clear labels on things, to categorize them as all good or all bad, even though most things can be both. Nature contains most things, so nature is obviously both. To steal Walt Whitman's phrase, it is large. It contains multitudes.

That's really my main point here. I'm not saying artifical chemicals are always good, or that nature is always bad. I love nature as much as anyone I know. Some artificial chemicals are very bad. And "natural" foods (by which I mean the small subset of foods we have learned are safe, or made safe through breeding) may be more healthy than foods covered in artificial pesticides and fertilizers (or natural pesticides and fertilizers, for that matter). Those foods are tried and tested, so we know they aren't toxic, at least in normal amounts, to most people. All the chemicals in nature have in some sense stood the test of time. If they're destructive chemicals like oxygen, nature has neutralized or adapted to them. Synthetic chemicals haven't stood the test of time, so there's always the chance that a new chemical will have nasty unintended effects on our health or the environment. Ozone-destroying fluorocarbons are a good example.

So yes, oftentimes natural is better. Artificial chemicals can be more dangerous than natural ones. But sometimes nature kills and artificial chemicals save lives. What we have to do, then, is think about these things in more nuanced terms, and stop saying ludicrous things like, "I only eat chemical-free foods" or "nature wants to heal us." We have to be smarter than that. Mother Nature is beautiful, creative, ancient, and subtle...and will kill you if you don't respect her. Seeing her in simplistic, romanticized terms is not at all respectful, and if we keep doing it--as the anti-vaccination movement is starting to demonstrate--we'll pay a high price.


Further Reading

Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You / Dan Riskin

Wicked Plants / Amy Stewart

Overview of Plant Defenses / Brian Freeman and Gwen Beattie