The historian’s curse, naturally

I am so tired of reading books by people whose historical frame of reference is <100 years.  (I am not thinking of peer-reviewed histories here.  I’m talking about general-interest non-fiction, which is my usual “just for fun” bedside table reading.  But I’m of the firm belief that non-fiction should be based on research and grounded in research and a reasonable perspective.  Even polemics must be based in fact.)  What has my brassiere in a twist now, you may well ask?

I just read a book by an environmental journalist in which I found myself, much to my surprise, cheering enthusiastically for old-fashioned, highly patriarchal allopathic medicine and the folks who brought you Better Living through Chemistry in the twentieth century.  (I know!)  The author of this book portrays the modern human body as a victim of its environment, uniquely permeable by compounds and synthetic hormones invented only during or after World War II.  Whereas of course the real history of public health in the U.S. going back to the beginning of the republic is one of tremendous success, this author can see only the BPA, the DDT, and the endocrine disruptors that our bodies now harbor, as though “natural” bodies were the only things that existed up until 1945.

Lead is all-natural.  So is arsenic.  Black lung disease is a very natural consequence of coal mining.  And don’t forget our friends, the dysenteric diseases that probably still kill more children than any other causes globally, naturally!

If more of us are dying of cancer and heart disease, it’s because many, many fewer of us are dying from diptheria, scarlet fever, measles, mumps, rubella, plague, influenza, malaria, common bacterial infections, polio, typhus, childbirth, “childbed” (puerperal) fever, malnutrition, scurvy, &c. &c. &c.  I don’t know if anyone before the invention of our modern battery of vaccines felt their bodies to be invulnerable, or impermeable by the environment.  (I don’t know too many people who feel this way now–after all, isn’t being permeable and open to external manipulation exactly how vaccination works?  I’m not sayin’–I’m just sayin’.)

Can we please give up the fetish of the natural?  I don’t happen to believe that there is any such thing as the natural, except for a lot of misery I’m thrilled that I don’t have to deal with, like high rates of infant and maternal mortality, just for example, or life before anesthesia.  (Now, that was “all natural,” friends!)  Invoking “nature” or the natural is purely an ideological move.  It may serve an end with which I sympathize, or it may serve an end with which I completely disagree, but let’s just recognize that the natural is an ideological construct.  The natural does not exist outside of the human mind.

I’m not thrilled about hormones in the water, or BPA in my water bottle, or severe neurotoxins in my body fat, but I won’t let it keep me up at night.  The more I learn about the distant past, the happier I am that I never had to live there.  I feel like I won the f^(king lottery every day of my life to have been born when and where I was born, a middle-class American in the late middle of the twentieth century.  Think about how lucky that was, to come of age after polio and (mostly) before the AIDS crisis!  I will probably live to die of heart disease, or cancer, or kidney disease, or sclerosis of the arteries.  Hooray!  I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I must acknowledge how relatively fortunate I have been to have survived this far.  A long life is toxic, friends, and downright unnatural when you look at the sweep of history.  You won’t get out alive.

34 thoughts on “The historian’s curse, naturally

  1. Seconded. Race and income too: consider mosquito-killing pesticides in Africa. Chemicals like DDT worked pretty well for a while, saving lives by reducing malaria vectors.

    I feel like I won the f^(king lottery every day of my life to have been born when and where I was born, a middle-class American in the late middle of the twentieth century.



  2. The word natural has taken on mythical meanings and proportions. It’s a name of a religion, an adjective, a noun. Hope, change and natural are political words. As food, natural means nothing. An organic (über-natural) tomato in the frig tastes like cardboard or natural plastic.

    I would use: fresh, non hormones, no chemicals. Even that is qualified, After all we don’t raise chicken on Mars and our air is not natural at all.


  3. I love this phrase: “the fetish of ‘the natural.'” We know so much now and are frightened by magnified images of disease and bacteria we see on a daily basis. It must have been worse when there was limited scientific knowledge and all the unknowns were unseeable, or, grossly seeable with no explanation.

    I was lucky to attend your blogging panel at ASA. Thank you so much for being honest, and for talking about the hidden positives of blogging for your overall brand (for ex. the royalties check for your book).

    Looking forward to your future posts!


  4. I had a similar reaction to the hyping of the “Paleo diet” and people bragging how it presents the food we are meant to eat, naturally. I was like WTF? You think paleolithic peoples had a life expectancy of 25 because their diet was so awesome? Disease and death by animal/warfare, yes. But also, malnutrition. These were not healthy people.


  5. @Perpetua: Not to mention that the “Paleo diet” does not represent how humans ate 10K+ years ago and that most humans have evolved the capacity to digest a wider range of foods over the past 10k years!


  6. In addition to vaccines and antibiotics, I’d like to put in a plug for plumbing and sewers and water treatment!

    Whenever I hear someone go on about the glories of the middle ages (which, okay, are fascinating and amazing historically), I think of the smells and want to retch.


  7. Yeah, it was all so much simpler when we were hunter-gatherers in caves. Awesome!!! The Paleo diet was a lot of grass, a little bit of dead animal, a lot of giardia, and then you die. All of that new “unnatural” stuff that Profane mentions humans learned to make and digest–we call that culture, and I call it the application of human intelligence to make most of the things I enjoy best: bread, wine, cheese, and salted/cured meats. Hooray for civilization!!!

    Thanks for commenting, Julia, and for your compliments. I hope you’ll comment again. And it’s great to hear from the rest of my regulars, too! I really should do this blogging thing more often.


  8. Oh man, I feel this too, and I could make a whole list of things that bug me in popular non-fiction! I’d add the assumptions that ideas Americans take for granted are culturally universal, that contemporary racial distinctions are “natural” and ancient, and that the behavior of western college students in experimental settings is good evidence of universal, evolved tendencies. The Paleo diet cracks me up too – if you’re modeling your diet off of cavemen you probably shouldn’t act like eating several pounds of meat per week that you picked up at Stop & Shop counts.


  9. As a gay man, I am predisposed to be suspicious of anybody who invokes humans doing what is “natural.” We almost always end up on the short end of the Darwinian stick (or get relegated to being “helpers in the heterosexual nest.”).

    It’s also the case that for most of the past, people struggled to get even the basic number of calories they needed for the day. Starvation, though, is so natural.


  10. GayProf: funny you should mention same-sexers. That’s another possibility that never came up in this book. All women = mommies, and the issue of environmental health was always constructed as a *family* health issue (where families = daddy, mommy, +2 children). And you’re exactly right: it’s another reason to suspect the discourses on “the natural.”


  11. That point about the family, though, gets me thinking that one place where the natural is invoked is child birth. It’s been some years since our kids were born, and I don’t remember all the debates about the problems of anesthesia, but my wife was happy to accept an epidural. I remain agnostic on this one — and I understand some women choose to go natural — but it strikes me that it’s important not to romanticize natural child birth given the deaths and complications when it was handled in the home.


  12. re: paleo diet, when I was pregnant this last time and couldn’t eat wheat because it made me throw up and also couldn’t eat refined carbs because of insulin problems I got a paleo cookbook in the hope to find something different I could eat without vomiting. It had the most bizarre ingredients… you cannot tell me that Paleo people had Coconut amino acids.

    re: natural childbirth, it does decrease the c-section rate for various reasons (and yes, I’ve read about a zillion articles on the topic and am qualified to judge their scientific worth), including speeding up the birth in many cases (though in some cases an epidural will speed up a stalled labor). And honestly my second childbirth (which lasted about an hour from the time they broke my water) was almost 100% painless– but I was also technically in labor for 3 weeks without feeling a thing. The first birth (5 hours after my water spontaneously broke) was fine after I started doing my Bradley breathing. Natural childbirth is not the same thing as home birth or eschewing any medical intervention. Epidurals aren’t evil, but there are valid reasons to try not to use them, one of which being complications from the epidural itself if they go wrong (migraine headaches that last days, only half your body being numb, inability to move, etc.). It’s a decision that should be made knowing true pros and cons without romanticism on either side.


  13. While I entirely agree with the general theme of the post, it is crucial not to make the all-too-common error of attributing the substantial decreases in mortality and morbidity in the modern era to magic-bullet high technology medical advances.

    This has been pretty decisively refuted by Thomas McKeown, Gerald Grob, Simon Szreter, and a host of other demographic and public health historians. While organized public health activities like sanitation and pasteurization likely did have a substantial effect, the evidence is quite poor that better living through chemistry (i.e., pharmaceuticals and the like) is one of the prime determinants of improved population health in the last 150 years or so.

    So this is not to differ with your main point; I entirely agree that the naturalist fetish is misguided for a wide variety of reasons. But the best evidence strongly suggests that the prime determinants of health and its distribution in human societies are in fact the social conditions in which we live, work, and play. And it is primarily because, for the middle and upper classes, these conditions improved so dramatically during the last 150 years as compared to the prior “howeverlongyouwanttolookintheWest” that we are on balance so much healthier. And — shameless self-promotion alert — as I try to suggest in my work, the historical evidence is an important part of the substantial evidence base for this claim.

    But of course, the dark side of these advances is the grievously inequitable distribution of these gains. The fact that so much of the GD world — including in the global North — subjects ever-increasing proportions of its populations to deleterious social and economic conditions, many of whom belong to groups already bearing the weight of histories of oppression, racism, and structural violence, underscores the awesome power we have to socialize health and its absence.

    And it’s really important, IMO, both in terms of getting the history right and in terms of deciding what kind of people we want to be, to understand that while giving people good medical care is indeed important, it is simply not the paramount means of determining health and its distribution. Even if they both matter, ‘better living through social policy’ is significantly more important than ‘better living through chemistry.’ And IMO understanding and doing good history shows us this.
    Or so I believe. 😉


  14. Daniel, thanks for your expert intervention here. I absolutely take your point, and thank you for the bibliography you suggest.

    I didn’t mean to give all of the credit to allopaths or DOW Chemical–“better living through social policy” is a great phrase. I guess I felt defensive of medicine and pharma given the way in which the book I was reading took all of their advances for granted.


  15. I am willing to guess that I am the only person commenting here that has actually lived for an extended time in the third world. But, you usually get a mixed bag of the continuation of diseases like malaria and modern medicine to treat it. Wiping out malaria in Africa is probably impossible. Even if Ghana managed to drain all the stagnant water and prevent mosquitoes from breeding here they would still fly across the border of Togo and infect people. Honestly the easiest way to deal with malaria is to get tested every so often (we have socialized medicine) and take the three day course of pills (they are subsidized by the state and cost about $1.50 in total) if you test positive. The medicine made me feel worse than the actual malaria the first time I was infected. Contrary to beliefs in the West, malaria very rarely kills otherwise healthy adults in the modern age. It can kill small children and people that have HIV, TB, and other additional health problems, but traffic accidents are a far, far more prevalent cause of death among adult Africans.


  16. Otto–thanks for that intel. I know a lot of people who have traveled or lived in India or Africa recently who have refused to take the malaria prevention pills in advance b/c of their psychosis-inducing tendencies in some people. Instead, they’ve opted to get treated for the disease after catching it. (A neighbor of mine and I were visiting a few years ago in our yards, and she commented, “I think I’m coming down with malaria.” She just goes to her doctor to get a shot or a course of pills as you mention, as she has had the disease a few other times & knows the warning signs.)


  17. Of course, Historiann — and many apologies for the insufferable pedantry. And I actually agree with your defensiveness. Western medicine unquestionably saves lives.

    But it’s just important to maintain clarity on the difference between health and health care in terms of population health, and to be aware of the ways in which the latter has become medicalized and pharmaceuticalized.

    Whoops — pedantry again.

    /steps off soapbox


  18. I think the constructedness of “natural,” should be approached from two points of view, one social and one physical. These are different but, of course, related. I spent the whole of year teaching around this idea but just a few thoughts here:

    All organisms modify their environments to one degree or another, humans included. Ecologists use the term niche construction to describe manipulations of the environment that persist and improve survival. Some constructions are more stable than others, though it can take a long time to figure that out. Turning the north american short grass prairie into cropland is not the most stable ecological transformation, for example, but we are still figuring that out a hundred years on (thanks to water wells, reservoirs, and federal farm supports). Hunters manipulate ecosystems too, setting fires to produce meadows, selecting younger members of a prey population to drive reproduction up, and moving prey species across the landscape. Horticulturalists concentrate food plants in places they plan to visit repeatedly. Conservationists do the same thing in designating and managing protected lands. Humanity has a long and rich history of constructing that which we call nature in a tangible, physical way.

    The number of hunter-gatherer and forager-horticulturalist groups without connection to modern medicine is declining but where comparisons can be made, life expectancy is not very different with and without access to modern medicine. The archaeological record bears similar tidings. Another interesting conclusion you can draw from global databases of societies’ resource strategies is that farming tends to be an all-in endeavor. Most societies either do a little farming or a lot of farming; few do some farming. It is a radically different ecological management method than the others.

    Farming has its benefits, for sure, but those come at some cost. Settling down and starting to farm boosted fertility but it also required (at least for a while) higher fertility. It cured some causes of deprivation and yielded others. I think people have recognized this for a long time. “Cursed is the ground for your sake, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” didn’t come from nowhere. Yet most of the world made that transition (and this is pretty interesting too).

    Anyway, my notion is that what we think of as the bad old days of pestilence and disease are the days of growing population density that went with farming as food production but without much notion of public health. We may also be mistaking post-colonial pre-agrarianism for the bad old days. Humans absolutely benefit from pharmacology and public health protocols but I think these are are modern solutions to modern problems.


  19. As a person who teaches a course in Environmental History, the first task is demolishing people’s conception of “the natural world” and “human nature”. I’m feeling ya, today.


  20. I’m with you H’ann, whenever my students want to know if I’d like to live back then. I will take my indoor plumbing, and when I lived in more northerly climes, central heating. Sanitation too. My take on diet is that the early modern diet was relatively healthy, but BORING.

    As for public health, my assumption has always been that the biggest improvements came from sewage and water, and with drugs, basic antibiotics. The only fancy drugs I know are cancer drugs, and some of the “really successful” new ones prolong life 6 months. I’m sure others actually are more successful, but checking out the life expectancy information made me deeply skeptical.


  21. Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, one valid point could be that the older ways of dying (that didn’t involve direct human action) were caused by ignorance or exogenous factors. Open sewers weren’t seen as dangerous, but merely smelly, and dysentery wasn’t spread on purpose because it made money for someone.

    I think maybe “unnatural” is being used to mean “on purpose,” “by conscious human agency.” Pollution doesn’t just materialize. People put it there because it’s easier and cheaper than worrying about the other people who get sick.

    The loose thinking leaking out of the natural/unnatural dichotomy may be an attempt to avoid the real issue. It’s easier to “return to nature” as per irritating author’s definition than to reconfigure our economies and industrial processes into something healthy for humans.


  22. Can I agree with this post as well as all of its comments? The ‘fetish for the natural’ drives me nuts, and always ends up seeming like another form of conspicuous consumption. And the stupid Paleo diet misses the point, even though it is true that we are largely evolved for a hunter-gatherer diet: we don’t actually run around all day long gathering vegetables or hunting animals like actual hunter-gatherers, and if our bodies are also evolved to eat that way, we’re also evolved to wear out and die by the age of 40, max.

    The entirety of human history, Neolithic and Paleolithic prehistory, and even earlier is of humans consistently doing their best to get away from a state of nature and alter the environment to suit their purposes. We enjoy long lives and expect to die from diseases of old age because the entire concept of reliable old age is a violation of what Paleolithic people would have sadly recognized as ‘natural’.


  23. Just last Wednesday, as I lay in bed with an (as-yet) undiagnosed kidney stone, vomiting, quivering from chills, and barely able to stand, I though about my nineteenth century dissertation subjects who had to live like that with no hope of recovery…..and I THOUGHT THE SAME THING.


  24. Although I write about women in the past, I myself agree with you. I’m always troubled by “time travel” films in which one or another character decides to stay in the past for love. Really? Love is more important than antibiotics?


  25. I keep thinking about a novel I read back in (whatever) school in which a probably graduate student-level paleontologist time travels as a member of a research group back to the Gobi Desert in the Age of the Dinosaurs. In a fit of diligence that would probably bring in OSHA today, he gets too close, and is trampled by a stampeding herd of Brontosauri. Which in addition to being a total bummer, I think probably throws off all the metrics around “typical ways to die” in different aeons. But the conceit of the work was that if you get killed before you were born, and you could ever somehow get out of there and make your way back to where you were born, you weren’t actually born, because…. well, because that’s what the author said and my critical thinking tool was still in development in those days. On the “which time would you choose” question, I think that now that we’re beyond astroturf I’d go with the modern, natural or not. At least we have JSTOR. I think the author ended up naming a sub-species of Brontosaur after that all-in research associate who quite literally left it all on the playing field.


  26. Love the post and all the comments! (I suspect I know of which book you speak!) Re. the instrumentalising / fetishishing of the “natural” as “stand-in for totally socially constructed heterosexual nuclear family,” there’s some great work happening in Queer Ecology which addresses this head-on (Catriona Sandilands, Stacey Alaimo).

    As for maternity as a “natural” mandate, well, barf. I have to say I agree with Elisabeth Badinter’s widely-derided book in this respect: the glorifying of “natural” motherhood actually creates more domestic, unpaid work for women (handwashing diapers, hand-mashing organic beets, pressure not to work outside the home). And it often goes hand-in-hand with ignorant, racist stereotypes of non-Western mothers as “more natural”.


  27. Years ago one of my American history professors detailed for the class how much alcohol the early American colonialists drank, and I can’t recall the amounts now but I can recall being really shocked by the quantities. His point was that with drinking water so compromised, people drank alcohol because it was safer. It’s always made me smile a bit when people glorify the “founding fathers” — to think that many of them at many a time were half-plowed. But whiskey is natural too.


  28. Thanks for those references, LouMac. Your comment reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read The Conflict/Le Conflit for 2-1/2 years now. I checked the library catalog just now, and was thrilled to find that we have the English translation ON THE SHELF!!! so I just now ran over to check it out. (I was going to just break down and get the French edition, because the last time I checked there weren’t any English versions in our state intralibrary system.)

    I wrote a post on Le Conflit when it first came out, and thought that yes, I was probably going to be nodding my head throughout.


  29. Shelley: If its for Hugh Jackman, then yes.

    As a historic preservationist, I always crack up when I hear words like wilderness and natural, as if the built environment isn’t a “natural” part of human existence.


  30. Man, what a relief to read your post. But why would I be surprised: it’s the historian’s curse to take the long view and given that most people aren’t historians … Well, ya know, mostly what we historians read we interpret as hooey.

    So. Thanks for the post and thanks, too, to all these terrific commenters. I’ve spent the last decade writing about the histories of “food” (beer and meat) and am thoroughly sick of being told how great the good old days were re. beer, meat.

    “Natural,” my ass. Onward!


  31. H-ann – love your post on Le conflit, and the comments. Thanks! I hope you enjoy reading the book. It is not without significant blind spots (class, privilege), but I think it’s an important book nevertheless. Her chapter on the super-conservative social agenda of La Leche League is great. Most powerfully for me, she gives voice to the active choice *not* to mother, seeing it partly as a response to the middle-class pressure to be an Ueber-mummy and to give up all non-child-related identities in order to do so – to say nothing of economic independence. She argues this with respect to German women (using decent data, I think), but it rings true for me too as an Anglo woman who has chosen non-parenthood. Back when I thought I was straight and sort-of required to have children, I already saw it as a prison sentence largely because I was absorbing all these messages about breast-is-best, attachment parenting, feeding on demand, interacting with your child all the time to develop every possible brain cell, etc etc etc. (Luckily I realised I was neither – i.e. not straight and not required to have children – before creating mini-humans who would certainly have suffered greatly from my resentment.)

    Here’s a link to a critique of the book by a colleague I respect a lot – I don’t agree with a lot of what she says but it’s perhaps the best, most philosophical critical reading in English that I’ve seen.

    Hope you report back when you’re read it 🙂


  32. Pingback: Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio

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