There once was a time when everything was natural; it sucked!


There once was a time when all food was organic and no pesticides were used. Health problems were treated with folk wisdom and natural remedies. There was no obesity, and people got lots of exercise. And in that time gone by, the average lifespan was … 35!

That’s right. For most of human existence, according to fossil and anthropological data, the average human lifespan was 35 years. As recently as 1900, American average lifespan was only 48. Today, advocates of alternative health bemoan the current state of American health, the increasing numbers of obese people, the lack of exercise, the use of medications, the medicalization of childbirth. Yet lifespan has never been longer, currently 78 in the US.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]All the existing scientific evidence shows that the myriad claims of alternative health are flat out false.[/pullquote]

Advocates of alternative health have a romanticized and completely unrealistic notion of purported benefits of a natural lifestyle. Far from being a paradise, it was hell. The difference between an average lifespan of 48 and one of 78 can be accounted for by technology including modern medicine and increased agricultural production brought about by industrial farming methods (including pesticides). Nothing fundamental has changed about human beings. We are still prey to the same illnesses and accidents, but now they can be effectively treated. Indeed, some diseases can be completely prevented by vaccination. Childbirth is just as dangerous as it has ever been, but now most serious pregnancy complications can be handled easily with routine childbirth interventions.

So why are advocates of alternative health complaining? They are complaining because they long for an imagined past that literally never existed. In that sense, alternative health represents a form of fundamentalism. Obviously, fundamentalism is about religion and the analogy can only go so far, but there are several important characteristics of religious fundamentalism that are shared by alternative health advocacy. These include:

  • The desire to return to a “better” lifestyle of the past.
  • The longing for a mythical past that never actual existed.
  • An opposition to modernism (in daily life and in medicine).
  • And the belief that anything produced by evolution (or God, if you prefer) is surely going to be good.

Advocates of the natural bemoan the incidence of diseases like cancer and heart disease without considering that they are mainly diseases of old age. That both cancer and heart disease are among the primary causes of death today represents a victory, not a defeat. Diseases of old age can become primary causes of death only when diseases of infancy and childhood are vanquished, and that is precisely what has happened.

Alternative health as a form of fundamentalism also makes sense in that it has an almost religious fervor. It is not about scientific evidence. Indeed, it usually ignores scientific evidence entirely. All the existing scientific evidence shows that the myriad claims of alternative health are flat out false. None of it works, absolutely none of it. That’s not surprising when you consider that it never worked in times past; advocates of alternative health merely pretend that it did, without any regard for historical reality.

The veneration of the natural reflects a profound misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution operates on the principle of “survival of the fittest.” That means that in every generation, the fittest for that specific environment are most likely to survive; many of the rest die. It does NOT mean that everyone currently alive is fit for the present environment. Moreover, the environment constantly changes. That’s why most animal species that have ever existed are currently extinct. The environment changed and the fit were no longer the fittest.

That also means that those who were fittest for hunter-gatherer society might not be fit at all for the highly technological society in which we live. In hunter-gatherer societies, nearsightedness was a serious affliction; it impeded both the ability to hunt and the ability to gather. In contemporary societies, nearsightedness is easily corrected and those who are nearsighted can rise to the pinnacle of achievement in any endeavor.

In hunter-gatherer societies women who grew neurologically mature babies with big heads were often doomed to die along with those babies when their heads couldn’t fit through the maternal pelvis. Today, those babies are born by C-section, potentially fitter than babies with smaller heads who are less neurologically mature at birth.

When you live in nature, natural advantages count for a lot. When you live in a highly technological society like ours, most natural advantages are meaningless.

Venerating the natural is not science; it has nothing to do with science; and it merely reflects wishful thinking about the past while ignoring both historical and present day reality.


Adapted from a piece that first appeared in July of 2009.