I admit I don’t always have the greatest amount of patience when it comes to encountering the appeal to nature. A great deal has been written concerning this most common of human logical errors. In case you’re not familiar with the term, the appeal to nature is the generalised assumption that something that is natural (term poorly defined) is always going to be better (term poorly defined – better for physical health? For mental health? For long-term job security? For basic rhythm? For syncopated rhythm and a 3/4 time signature?) than something that is unnatural (term poorly defined).
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not just a scientist – I’m a marine biologist. I have a deep love for the natural world. I love bushwalking. I love watching David Attenborough documentaries. I am a fan of the carefully-researched-for-appropriate-ethical-practices eco-tourism par excellence. I am quite happy to spend several hours underwater with a tank of air (although for reasons of not wanting to die, I’ll have to take a few breaks throughout that period). I am sometimes slack on my slacktivism, but I do care, and nature is important.
I just don’t happen to think that that nature is there to help me personally. As glorious as nature is, it’s glorious in a terribly chaotic and amoral way; or, to put it another way:
Study evolution for five minutes and you quickly realise that Nature Is A Douche.
And as a consequence of this, the “appeal to nature” is pretty easy to knock over.
When the home birthing crowd start crowing about how medical intervention in childbirth is unnecessary because women have been doing it for millennia, just point out maternal and neonatal mortality rates over recorded history, i.e., say, “Yes! We’ve been doing it for millennia. We’ve also been dying the whole freaking time.”
When people start blathering about chemicals as ingredients in food, it’s a quick moment only to point out that water is a chemical. As is oxygen. And sugar. And, alright, every molecular structure ever. This is how we define chemicals: “a distinct compound or substance.” Then people say, “I mean unnatural chemicals. That didn’t come from nature.” And then you have to point out that all chemicals ultimately came from this poorly defined concept of nature. Even if the end product was synthesised under laboratory conditions, the ingredients were no doubt extracted and refined from natural resources. Or perhaps the ingredients were synthesised from other ingredients extracted and refined from natural resources… and then we quickly run into definitional problems. Yes, to a certain extent, that’s a naive argument from the other end as well – but we really need to address why some additives could be a problem without saying “They’re unnatural!” because that misses the point entirely.
But that’s all fine. Really. It’s when we start to get into the anti-vaccine, anti-medications-especially-antibiotics crowd that I start to take the whole thing very personally indeed.
And I start to ask, why do you want me dead?
When I was about eighteen months old, my mother noticed that I was having difficulty breathing. I don’t have any more details about how the rest of that day went because she flatly refuses to talk about it. My mother loves drama, so this is very telling. My father gets very grim as well, and my father doesn’t generally do grim, as a concept. He runs the emotional gamut from jolly to furious, but grim is not in his repertoire. The memory of that day still apparently scares them both shitless.
This is because I nearly died.
Here’s how: we have a little flap of flesh in our throats that stops us from inhaling our food. It divides your oesophagus (stomach tube) from your trachea (breathing tube) and is called the epiglottis. When functioning correctly, it’s a nifty little structure. Mine was swelling up and blocking my throat, essentially choking me, and it wasn’t just doing this for shits and giggles. In 95% of cases, this response (epiglottitis) is caused by a bacterial disease called Haemophilus influenzae B. Surgical medical intervention was required to stop me from essentially choking on my own throat.
This particular disease has a high mortality rate in children. If epiglottitis is not caught in time, it is generally lethal. Then a vaccine was developed, and in 1993, it became part of the regular schedule of vaccines for infants in Australia. Then – and this may shock you – children stopped dying from it. There was a 95% reduction in reported infections, meaning that less children died from epiglottitis and other resulting complications like meningitis and pneumonia.
I know. Colour me stunned. If there had been a vaccine when I was a baby, I wouldn’t have nearly died. And if I hadn’t had surgical medical intervention as a choking infant, I would have died. Guaranteed. To paraphrase Dr House, “Oxygen is so important to a developing brain, don’t you think?”
So when people talk about how bad and evil and poisonous vaccines are, I want to ask them if they prefer that doctors have to cut into the throat of an 18 month old infant to save their life, or, if they’re really not a fan of that level of medical intervention, if they wouldn’t perhaps prefer the aforementioned infant to choke to fucking death.
And then I want to say, “So that infant was me. Why do you want me dead?”
Not long after that, I developed juvenile asthma – I never actually suffered a wheezing attack and was always able to get the minimal air in, but my asthma attacks presented as severe coughing fits and often led the way to secondary lung infections. Bronchitis episodes were scattered regularly throughout my childhood, and were best treated with antibiotics. Without these, I would quite likely have ended up with scarring in my lungs. There’s a lot that I wouldn’t have been able to do, not the least of which is SCUBA diving.
And it’s even possible that, again, I would be dead.
When I was fifteen, I began to present symptoms of a very unpleasant condition called hidradenitis suppurativa. It’s a pretty unattractive thing, so don’t click the link unless you have a really strong tolerance for pus. It’s a poorly understood autoimmune condition with a genetic component, and I have perhaps the mildest possible presentation of it.
This means I am only hospitalised for it – on average – once every two years. And I probably need medical treatment for it in a GP clinic about – rough guesstimate – once a year. Regardless of whether I end up being surgically treated or whether we can avoid this with the application of copious amounts of broad-spectrum antibiotics supplied in pills the size of which would send your average donkey wandering off for a large glass of water, intervention of some sort is ultimately required.
It’s not a lethal condition. Really, it isn’t. It can be excruciatingly painful, really exhausting (a massive infection site puts a drain on the immune system), extremely gross, and quite embarrassing to deal with, but it won’t kill you… not now, anyway.
However, the main symptom is abscess formation. If an abscess is untreated, then it could burst outwardly and leak infected pus everywhere – which is painful and gross, but manageable – or it could break internally and then you end up with septicaemia, a.k.a. sepsis, i.e. blood poisoning, and you die in considerable pain.
Wow. Guess we hate those evil antibiotics. Guess those bastards are just sooooo bad to have because they’re unnatural. Guess I should have just taken some fucking echinacea.
And died of sepsis.
Here’s another one! A few years ago, I managed to slip on a wet floor, go flying through the air, and land spectacularly on my back. It was hilarious and sore and a bit embarrassing, but I wasn’t worried until the next afternoon when I started peeing blood and passing out.
Lo and behold, someone (who may have been me) thumped their kidney, busted something, and ended up with a kidney infection. I spent the night in hospital on intravenous antibiotics and heavy painkillers, vowing never again to run across a wet kitchen floor, no matter how much I might want to get the shampoo from the shopping bag and then get back in the shower.
But a kidney infection without antibiotics? Why, it’s your old pal sepsis again!
I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve been on antibiotics for a condition that might otherwise have killed me, but it’s at least fifteen.
I don’t have a genetic predisposition to any of these things other than the HS. They were just bad freaking luck. They couldn’t be prevented with echinacea, St Johns wort, or a few more gallons of breastmilk. This is real shit that happens, and before we had the antibiotics and other various medications, we died from these things. We died in large numbers, and we died in pain.
People who subscribe to these appeals to nature and natural treatment seem to believe that none of these bad things could ever happen to them, because they’re just so very healthy. These diseases don’t happen to them, or anyone down the street. No-one gets sick. No-one needs antibiotics or vaccines, according to them, because they’re so healthy.
I assure you, measles can cause encephalitis in very healthy people, and then they are not healthy anymore. There’s a cause and effect problem here: you are healthy because you lack disease. You don’t lack disease because you’re so healthy. It’s the wrong way around. It’s true that there are some less robust pathogens that are opportunistic and will only really get on board if you’re immunocompromised or a little bit run down, but we don’t vaccinate against those. Measles, pertussis (whooping cough), chicken pox – these are not those diseases. Those can and will kill formerly healthy adults, children and babies, no matter how much breastmilk was provided in childhood.
I’m here now because of these unnatural interventions. I’m here, and I’m relatively healthy. I like to go to gym five or six days a week. I do weights. I run (admittedly not well). I swim. I SCUBA dive. I’m an active person in spite of all those things I’ve been through, and it’s due solely to the wide availability of basic medical care.
Nature is a beautiful, amoral killing machine. It is not better for us. It’s been trying to kill us for a very long time, and we’ve been simultaneously trying to thwart it. So when I run into someone who doesn’t believe in vaccinations or antibiotics, I take it personally. I want to know what I ever did to them, and why they want me dead.
And if they don’t want me dead, and they don’t want other people who get sick to die, maybe a little more thought is in order.