Fake Banner
    Why Challenge Nature?
    By Lee Silver | February 14th 2007 09:20 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Challenging Nature is the title of my new column here on Scientific Blogging as well as the title of my new book. Since the idea of challenging nature may seem heretical to some, I will provide a brief explanation here of both the rationale for my argument and the opposition it faces. 

    The word "nature" and its cognate "natural" are typically imagined as metaphors for what is good and right in the world -- natural things are God's creations, not to be tampered with unduly by humankind. In opposition stand the unnatural, artificial, and synthetic -- the imagined profane creations of human intellect that despoil the world. Advertisers are well aware of the subliminal effects that these potent words have on people. 

    Food items, in particular, are routinely promoted as "all-natural," and "without any artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives."

    What is so remarkable is how disconnected this world-view is from reality. In the fall of 2006, 204 Americans became seriously ill after eating freshly packaged spinach contaminated with a toxic bacteria found "naturally" in cow and pig manure. Ironically, the company that grew the tainted spinach was named "Natural Selection Foods."

    Thousands of other Americans are striken every year in smaller outbreaks of fresh produce contamination.  Meanwhile, every year, additional thousands suffer severe allergic reactions to certain foods including soy, peanuts, and shrimp, and more than a hundred, mostly young, children are killed.  As I will detail in an upcoming post (Click here to see the article now), molecular biologists have already exploited the process of RNA interference to create a variety of soy that is 65% less allergenic than "natural" soy.

    Unfortunately, the public-at-large (and organic food advocates) are so afraid of the "unnaturalness" of genetically modified organisms that research toward a commercially viable product is greatly hindered.

    The organic food industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years because consumers equate organic with "natural," and "natural" with healthy and safe. But organic food is just as likely (if not more so) to be tained by pathogenic bacteria, and and organic peanuts and soy are just as likely to cause allergic reactions that lead to death. The main selling point of organics is that they are grown without "synthetic" pesticides, unlike conventionally farmed food.  (Actually, a little publicized fact -- organic farmers are allowed to use some toxic chemical pesticides.) But, the total number of negative health consequences to American consumers from synthetic pesticides and "artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives" is --by all estimates -- zero.

    As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences explains,
    while pesticides may be found in many products, the levels at which they are present fall far below the levels known to not cause any health effects. The fact that they are found at all is only due to the significant advances in analytical chemistry. The tests are now so sensitive that the detection level that can be easily reached is equivalent to detecting one teaspoon of salt in one million gallons of water. Levels even lower than that can sometimes be detected.

    Certainly, humankind has done much to harm the biosphere at-large.  Over the last 10,000 years, we wiped out 38% of land-based ecosystems and replaced them with farms.  The original Australian settlers wiped out numerous marsupial species (that had been around for eons) when they arrived, and it's very likely that early Americans did the same to the mammoths, sabertooth tigers, giant sloths and most of the other large animal species that used to be in North America.  

    Throughout history, we have polluted many areas of the earth, on land and in the waters.  And today, humanity seems to be greatly influcencing the global climate. So what should we do?

    Many people think that if we just "let nature be" to the greatest extent possible, everything will work out for the better. But nature doesn't give a damn about any individual, any species, or even any ecosystem -- they all go extinct eventually.  

    The vast Sahara desert was a luxuriant forest with large animals and sophisticated human civilizations until just 8,000 years ago.  Then "natural" changes in the earth's orbit plunged it into an arid abyss in less than a century and a half. "Natural" cycles also caused all of Canada to be covered in glaciers numerous times in the past.

    Unlike "nature," humanity does seem to care about the future of both human and non-human systems of life on earth. And we will soon have the technological ability to guide whole-earth systems in a manner that could maximize the health of the biosphere.  Why let Mother Nature throw the dice when we can place them on the table with the most desired number. Not every placement will be a win. Indeed, losses are a certainty. But they will be far fewer in number compared to those imposed by randomness, or a faith in transcendent non-randomness.  

    In further posts, I will elaborate on these ideas.


    I live in California and I've always been vaguely suspicious of the requirement that we show our "green" credentials at every turn.

    For my part, if I had my way, I would kill, clean and cut or grow everything my family eats, so you would think I fit right in - but I have been concerned that there is increasing pressure to not optimize food sources because it is "unnatural."

    I'm no biology expert but weren't tomatoes the size of my thumb before we optimized them? Roses weren't as pretty.

    I believe given the choice between not having food and having food that can be optimized to grow in less-than-perfect conditions, or a lot more of it, people will take it.

    Great article. Welcome to Scientific Blogging!

    Lee Silver

    You're on the right track Cash in thinking about where our domesticated crops come from, but it's even more extreme than you suggest.  Tomatoes were cultivated thousands of years ago by South American native people from poisonous berries of the nightshade family, like those shown on the left below. Although the poison was bred out of the fruit, it is still present in the leaves and sometimes kills pets who chew on home-grown plants.  The tomato didn't exist in Europe until it was brought back there by explorers. So whatever Italians were eating in 1491, it wasn't spaghetti with tomato sauce or pizza.

    Even more striking is the creation of corn by native Central Americans from a tiny inedible weed (teosinte, shown to the right) that only grows in a single valley of Mexico.  Corn is now the most invasive plant in the world, spread by people across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

    Field of biotech corn in Vietnam (with my family)

    Field of biotech corn in Togo

    a bigger concern is why people are suddenly so much more allergic to natural things. if continued exposure to fake foods means we become more allergic to natural foods that have been okay for millions of years, something is wrong.

    Lee Silver

    Actually, Vincent, as I suggested in my response to the post above, your ancestors and mine were not exposed to the vast majority of foods we eat today. No ancestor of Europeans, Africans, or Asians had ever eaten tomatoes, potatoes, corn, or chocolate until European explorers brought these and other "New World" foods back to the "Old World" in the 16th century. Similarly, native Americans had never eaten wheat, rice, barley, and other Old World foods. And until 10,000 years ago, none of these foods had ever been part of the human diet in any part of the world. 

    The question of whether more people express food allergies today than in the recent past is not easily posed or easily answered. Here are some of the problems raised in a scientific analysis published in the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization {EMBO reports 7, 11, 1080–1083 (2006)}

    Assessing the incidence of food allergies is easier said than done. Societal and scientific definitions differ, and diagnosis can be problematic. Without firm figures on the number of people affected, it is difficult to track the changes in prevalence over time, and to trace the underlying causes of food allergy.  .  .

    The situation is made more complex by differing perceptions of food allergy . . . "the term used by common people is clearly different from how it is defined by medical people," . . .

    Medically, an allergic reaction is defined as an IgE-mediated response to an allergen, usually a food protein. This strict definition separates food allergy from food intolerance and hypersensitivity—metabolic conditions, such as lactose intolerance and coeliac disease, which do not involve the immune system.  .  .  People also tend to overestimate the extent of food allergies: the rates of perception of food allergies are often up to four times greater than the rates of true food allergies, because people confuse allergy with intolerance or even cases of mild food poisoning .  .  .

    Although the influence of a Western diet could explain some of the increases in food allergies worldwide, this cannot account for the increase in allergies within the USA itself. Peanut allergies in US children doubled from 1997 to 2002 (Sicherer et al, 2003), but there is no indication that the consumption of peanuts—or the awareness of food allergies—increased as significantly during the same period. Instead, changes in food manufacturing might be to blame. Dry-roasting peanuts, common in the USA, UK and Australia, increases allergenicity compared with boiling or frying peanuts, as is common in China (Beyer et al, 2001; Chung et al, 2003; Schmitt & Maleki, 2004). "The Chinese eat the same amount of peanut per capita as we do, they introduce it early in a sort of a boiled/mushed type form, as they do in many African countries, and they have very low rates of peanut allergies," said Sampson. This also suggests that allergy rates might have as much to do with how and when the food is introduced as with the food itself. . .  .

    This is our current understanding: (1) The molecules responsible for eliciting most allergies haven't changed over time. They are still contained within 8 particular food groups -- milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. In a number of cases, the actual genes that encode natural allergens have been identified, and scientists are working to engineer them out of the plants they are in. (2) It is not clear whether or not the number of people expressing allergies has increased in recent times. (Well-designed studies are now underway to test this hypothesis.) (3) If the rate of allergies has increased, it is not yet clear what might be responsible.


    I think that a lot of what's going on with these reactions to many foods is because of scientific testing, education, awareness and communication. I believe that people always fell ill from different food stuffs, but they didn't have any idea as to what caused it.

    Now we have scientific testing that can confirm that yes, the food item that you ate yesterday definitely made you extremely ill, rather than guessing what it was. The finger pointing is now able to zoom right in on the target with much greater accuracy. Great article.

    Lee Silver

    Great article, and you're spot on. Nature is calous and cruel, and has no motive at all. It's probably one of the most over-rated things in society, ever. The only good thing about it is that it's all we've had to go on until very recently, and we're still here. But unlike nature, humans have motives (to continue to exist, to optimise...) and intelligence, which means that on the whole we should be able to do a better job than nature, and do it quicker.

    Of course, nature has been around a lot longer than we have, and we can learn a lot from it an get a great many ideas from it, but not to try and improve ourselves and our surroundings, due to fear of the unknown, when we have the ability doesn't make any sense.

    It is a great article and I completely agree that doing 'unnatural' things can be good.

    What I disagree with is the idea that what humans do is not natural.

    If we evolved, we are natural. If we are natural, what we do is natural.

    Yes we have something called consciousness and yes it is natural. It is here because of our genetics.

    Yes we have something called intelligence and yes it is natural. It is here because of our genetics.

    Yes we have something called artificial sweetener and yes it is natural. It is here because of our genetics. (our genetics and our environment provided everything needed to 'create' aspartame - there is nothing alien about it.)

    We are not the first species on earth to take chemicals from our environment and use them to our advantage but we don't call that 'artificial.'

    The cell domesticated the mitochondria/chlorophyl long before the human domesticated the cow or pig.

    We are not the first species on earth to join a symbiotic relationship with another species. Why is it only 'artificial' when we do it?

    We are not the first species to directly influence the evolution of another species. The evolution that has happened to the K9 over the last 100,000 years is not 'artifical' selection. It's actual selection playing out in the arena called Earth.

    We are not unnatural. We are not artificial.

    Gerhard Adam
    "Unlike "nature," humanity does seem to care about the future of both human and non-human systems of life on earth. And we will soon have the technological ability to guide whole-earth systems in a manner that could maximize the health of the biosphere."

    I'm sorry, but this statements seems more like wishful thinking than an honest assessment of humanity.   I think humanity is behaving exactly as any dominant species would for good or ill, but I'm not prepared to assess them as better qualified, or more interested in saving anything beyond themselves. 

    For every "benefit" that humans have developed there are a corresponding number of "ills" that have plagued people.  The fundamental problem is that people do not behave rationally, so to suggest that we will have the technology to guide whole-earth systems is woefully optimistic and (in my opinion) a complete fantasy.  Despite having the means to do so, humans are unwilling to control their reproductive proclivities, so they will reproduce until they exceed the resources available, thereby incurring more suffering.  Does this sound rational?  Whereas all species must deal with the variables that can occur in nature and thereby some will starve or go extinct, only humans with their superior intelligence can cause such events to occur because of their own "improvements". 

    I suspect that many people adhere to the concept that "natural" is better than artificial is because "artificial" has been the root of too much lying and manipulation in the past.  People are naturally suspicious when we can see that the majority of problems are ignored because of greed or self-interest, it's hard to rationalize granting trust to those with an agenda or something to sell.

    There's no question that many people assign far too much significance to the mere fact of being "natural", but in many ways it represents a baseline that many people feel they can trust (even with the inherent risks that it may contain).  The sad reality is that human beings have NEVER improved the lot of the majority of people.  While many individuals may live significantly better lives because of technology, the vast majority do not and never will.  About 2.8 billion people live on less than $2/day and almost 1 billion are illiterate.  This doesn't suggest a human society that knows much about caring for its own let alone the world at large.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis

    Your final point is a crucial one Gerhard. We in the developed economies are living in an artificial world, completely oblivious to the situation for most of humanity. We take for it granted that if we get an education and work our way even a modest distance up the ladder, then we will enjoy a lifestyle that was unimagineable just a century ago, while the bulk of humanity lives a life of constant struggle with no prospect of improvement.
    The cruel irony is that many of those living in poverty are the ones who by careful selective breeding over generations, developed the very foods such as tomatoes, corn, etc, that form the basis of modern agri-business and which generate obscene levels of wealth for those involved. Why obscene? Because despite intellectual property rights being central to developed economies, the intellectual property rights of indigenous farmers are never recognised. They would not be struggling now if they were paid the royalties that are rightfully theirs.
    One of the great lies put about by the GMO lobby is that genetic modification will feed a starving world. What a joke. We already produce enough for all, it's not production that's the problem, it's distribution.