Appeals to nature — anti-vax, natural childbirth, lactivism — are inherently conservative: why do liberals fall for them?

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Anyone whose read the Skeptical OB for any length of time knows that I am a proud liberal.

I strongly believe in equal rights for all, justice for the downtrodden and hold the conviction that the future is usually better than the past. Most liberals seem to share those views, with one important exception: many liberals imagine that nature is better than technology, hence they oppose vaccination, are terrified by “toxins,” and unthinkingly promote natural childbirth and lactivism.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]They’ve been manipulated by charlatans who play on their fears to convince them that the past was better than the present.[/pullquote]

What’s going on here?

Appeals to nature are inherently conservative. They look back to a glorious (often mythical) past, lament the technological present and fear the future. It’s not hard to understand why conservatives are backward looking. Religious conservatives in particular view nature as the product of the divine and loving wisdom of a God who created the world especially for human beings. It stands to reason that the state of nature (“Garden of Eden”) is the state that God intended for us. We screwed up and we were banished. It’s not surprising that conservatives want to go back to that perfect past (even if it never actually existed).

But why would liberals desire a conservative past? I suspect that in most cases they don’t. They’ve been manipulated by hucksters and charlatans who play on people’s fears to convince them that the past was better than the present.

Take anti-vaxxers. They are buffoons with a perfect record. In the entire 200 year history of anti-vaccination advocacy, they’ve never been right even once. They are the Donald Trumps of the scientific world: ignorant, pathological liars who perpetually rewrite the past — vaccine preventable diseases weren’t that bad; they were disappearing before the advent of vaccines; vaccines cause autism — in order to manipulate people’s behavior in the present. Anti-vax advocacy is the scientific equivalent of the Republican tax plan: it promises improvements and it brings only misery. And just like Republican donors are the only ones who benefit from Republican tax legislation, professional anti-vaxxers are the only ones who benefit from anti-vax; they get rich while the people they conned get sick.

The food phobes are no different. They, too, imagine a glorious past where Paleolithic peoples cavorted amid food pyramids — no famines, no vitamin deficiencies, no food borne illnesses — and lived forever. The truth is that Paleolithic peoples died young in droves; some of them, the Neanderthals, actually became extinct. A graphic of world population growth makes the argument in no uncertain terms. It demonstrates that those who promote back to nature conservatism because we were limited to nature for tens of thousands of years and “we are still here” are ignorant, illogical or both.


Who benefits from food phobia and toxin phobia? The only people who benefit are those who bleat about “toxins” so they can profit from quack “detoxes,” books and TV shows. There’s no evidence that even a single person’s health has been improved (let alone entire populations) by “detoxing.”

Natural childbirth advocacy and lactivism also hark back to a past that never existed. Advocates either don’t know or don’t care that childbirth in nature is deadly, a leading cause of death of young women and the leading cause of death of children. They either don’t know or don’t care that breastfeeding has a high failure rate leading to infant brain damage and death.

Indeed, natural childbirth and lactivism are even more conservative than anti-vax and toxicophobia. That’s because both recapitulate the sexism and misogyny which has been a feature of all human societies until relatively recently. Biological essentialism has always been the standard justification for misogyny: women are weaker and designed only for reproduction; therefore they can and should be excluded from everything else. Both natural childbirth advocacy and lactivism rest on the principle that women are designed for reproduction; they must be controlled by their bodies and should never be allowed to control those bodies.

It’s hardly surprising that many religious conservatives (e.g. Bill and Martha Sears of attachment parenting) teach that biology is destiny for women. What’s surprising is that many women who claim to be feminists are susceptible to that old canard. Paleolithic times were most certainly not a paradise for women; they were hell, with widespread death of women and their children, widespread sexual violation and widespread and profound oppression. What’s feminist about that?

Appeals to nature are inherently conservative. So explain it to me, liberals: why have so many of you fallen for the conservative nonsense of anti-vax, toxicophobia, natural childbirth and lactivism?