By: Dr Robert Verkerk, Executive and Scientific Director of ANH-Intl
Those of us who are passionate about all things natural, whether it’s the food we put in or on our bodies, or the air we breathe, should probably carefully think about what what we mean by ‘natural’. This is particularly important now that technological processes interact with almost every facet of nature.
The word ‘natural’ of course means lots of different things to different people. The term is much used by food, cosmetic and personal care companies, but how natural is natural? In this feature, our executive and scientific director, Rob Verkerk, grapples with the concept. He takes us on a multidisciplinary journey, through physics, chemistry and biology, and, ultimately, perhaps he raises more questions than he answers!
- A description of ‘natural’ is reliant on individual perception. Any examination of it comes with numerous limitations due to knowledge base, perception of reality, limitation of the English language, and, in our society, a general lack of public acceptance of ideas that don’t hold a robust scientific base
- Base proposal: Natural means that which exists without intervention of the human species. But the concept is entirely anthropocentric, so it is seen only from the perspective, and with the attitudes and values, that are specific to the human species
- It is useful to evaluate the concept through the lens of major scientific disciplines. Dr Verkerk has done this using physics (e.g., gamma rays in relation to our interaction with outerspace vs human-engineered nuclear devices), chemistry (e.g., primordial elements that have existed in one form or another prior to the creation of planet Earth vs new-to-nature molecules) and biology (e.g., exchange of genetic material among species vs genetic manipulation by humans)
- It isn’t possible to categorise things neatly as natural or unnatural. The extent and type of our intervention over things that pre-date the evolution of our species means that there is actually a continuum begween things that are 100% natural and those that are 100% synthesised by humans
- Our concern about whether something is natural or not may be down to our innate sense of responsibility for our activities in the world around us. Many of us are ‘naturally’ suspicious of things that are not natural. But this suspicion is perhaps little more than a reflection of our need to impart a sense of responsibility over that for which we are accountable.
What is ‘natural’?
Multiple, parallel realities. Multiple universes. Multiple histories. Multiple opportunities. Over 10 dimensions. These are among the concepts we need to take on board if we are to accept some of the most current explanations for ‘what is’, as presently mapped by M-theory. M-theory, like string theory that preceded it, helps us to better understand reality. But these theories remind us of the limitation of human perception. And let’s remind ourselves that our reality is limited by our individual perception—and that our perception is, in turn, linked to the picture given to our conscious and subconscious mind from information gathered by our senses. These pictures are of course not only conditioned by the environment from which these data have been issued, they are also affected by our individual genetic and epigenetic landscape.
Our one and only home
With this ‘super-scape’ in our mind’s eye, this essay seeks to explore the meaning of the word ‘natural’. There are numerous limitations to any examination of this subject, not least of all the limitation of our knowledge base and our perception of reality, the limitation of the English language (and the author’s use of it) and the lack of public acceptance—in contemporary western society—of ideas that do not hold a robust scientific base. While it might be just as appropriate to use a metaphysical or even spiritual or religious approach to investigate the subject matter, a more broadly scientific approach will be used, if for no other reason that this approach befits the multidisciplinary scientific background of the author.
Natural: an anthropocentric concept
In the barest of terms, I would like to propose that natural means that which exists without intervention of the human species. But categorisation between natural and unnatural will often be blurred, given that the extent and type of human intervention will need to be considered. As such, we must accept that the concept of ‘natural’ is in itself anthropocentric, meaning our perception of it is seen exclusively from the perspective of our own species, and typical human values and experience.
Humans represent just one of the multiple millions of species—both discovered and yet undiscovered—that exist, or have existed, on planet Earth. Strangely, while we regard the honey made by bees or the cyanide within apple seeds as natural, we might think differently about a toxic green slime made by an extra-terrestrial being. For the time being, let’s not only be anthropocentric, let’s also be focused primarily on those elements of our reality that most have come to accept as the human perception of reality, as experienced on planet Earth through our limited senses, awareness and intelligence. We will make this journey by considering the concept of ‘natural’ through lens of the three major disciplines of science: physics, chemistry and biology, as well as through the borders between them.
In some respects, the separation of these, and indeed of all other, scientific disciplines is a form of artificial reductionism used by humans to aid our understanding of complex processes. It is our limited intelligence that requires such reductionism, and it is reductionism that complicates our perceptions of the extent to which something is natural.
So, while studies of distinct types of atoms and specific combinations of particular atoms in the form of molecules constitutes the foundation of chemistry, the physics of sub-atomic particles can be equally important. For instance, the nature of an atom’s electron configuration, or the behaviour of sub-atomic particles in relation to each other and, in turn, their relationships with other factors, can be explained, even if only partially, both in terms of physics and chemistry. The way in which these atoms, and various configurations of bonded atoms as molecules, then interact with the biotic environment can be explained, not only in terms of physics and chemistry, but also in biological terms. And, as practitioners of the metaphysical would be likely to be among the first to ask, who is to say that these three scientific disciplines, at their current level of development, are sufficient to allow us to understand reality? That’s probably why the Theory of Everything, which aims to unify or explain through a single model the theories of all fundamental interactions of nature, is still such a topic of hot debate and is unlikely to emerge from the realms of theory any time soon.
With these limitations recognised and appreciated, how might we categorise substances or processes in relation to their naturalness? Should we, for example, regard a chemical molecule that exists naturally in the environment as unnatural if the very same chemical structure is assembled by human beings within a laboratory? Or should we give such chemicals a special classification, such as ‘nature-identical synthetic’? It probably makes sense to do so, as any form of sub-categorisation tells us additional information about the origins of a substance that would otherwise be lacking. And what if a naturally occurring microorganism is forced to metabolise nature-identical substances in a laboratory, producing metabolites or by-products not normally found in the natural environment? Shall we call these ‘bio-synthetics’? For the reason given above—it probably makes sense.
Perfectly white cut apple
The same rationale can be applied to an F1 hybrid of dahlia that you may have cultivated in your garden. Or it could be applied to a variety of apple that doesn’t readily go brown after being bitten or cut? In the latter case, such apples, commonplace in today’s supermarkets, have been ‘selected’ by plant breeders because of their low content of the peroxidase, the enzyme which causes the familiar browning reaction following the exposure of the fruit tissue to oxygen. Retailers and consumers are said to prefer apples that don’t brown readily, but most don’t realise that the enzyme exists to protect the apple from attack by opportunistic pathogens. But if growers are ready with their arsenal of agro-chemicals, why should they be concerned with the peroxidase content?