What is natural? An indictment of the vitalist resurgence

by Heather McNamara

Our globe is warming. Polar ice caps steadily drip into the ocean and wash up on the shores of Miami. Beijing’s air quality is so poor that its non-smoking citizens develop lung cancer at nearly the same rates as smokers. Human beings are increasingly dependent upon technology – the production of which increasingly harms our environment and by proxy, ourselves. The desire to eschew unnecessary luxuries like plastic grocery bags, processed foods, straws, paper cups, etc. is an understandable one. Unfortunately, this distrust of technological progress has come hand in hand with a distrust of science and has led to a resurgence of vitalist thought. This resurgence sometimes manifests in a mostly harmless fashion: leading people to paleo dieting and unpasteurized milk. Unfortunately, however, it has also wormed its way into medical discussions and anti-trans discourse.

What is vitalism? Vitalism is a school of thought that goes as far back into our history as ancient Egypt. It is the idea that living things and the products thereof are different from non-living things owing to a “vital force” present in life. It may seem kind of nice and romantic to think that we all have some kind of special energy within us and we can alter the otherwise unremarkable components of which we are made. These beliefs are an important part of most religions and spirituality which claim that we have “souls” and can “send energy” or hear “spirits” or communicate via “prayer.” Souls and spirits are words for life force while energy and prayer are the imagined transfers of said life force.

Without naming it, many products are sold to us by appealing to vitalist thought. How many times have you seen soaps, medicines, and everything else under the sun marketed as “natural?” How many times have you seen dietitians recommend not eating things with ingredients that “you can’t pronounce?” Vitamin sales people insist that their products, made from “natural ingredients,” are *wink, nudge* superior to vitamins made of unnatural ingredients. They contain… something different. Even if they never tell you what. You may further recognize this anti-modernist backlash in the dangerous anti-vaccination movement which insists that chemicals inside of vaccines harm children in unknown, ephemeral ways and therefore should be avoided lest they somehow cause autism. The pro-life crowd likes to argue that fetuses contain “souls.” If you’re trans, you’ve undoubtedly heard the claim that a second X chromosome contains “womanhood” or a Y chromosome “manhood” in some unstated, undefined but definitely important-because-we-say-so manner.

In 1828, a German chemist named Friedrich Wöhler heated ammonium cyanate in an oxygen-free environment and created urine. It was no different from urine that came out of people’s bodies. No matter how much people wanted it to be different from manmade urine, it simply wasn’t. In fact, the only difference between organic and synthesized compounds is the ability to carbon date them. Synthesized compounds have lower levels of radioactive 14C and therefore seem to be older than organic compounds when they’re carbon dated. That’s right. Synthesized compounds contain less radiation. How does that jive with what you’ve been led to understand about “natural” products? Discoveries like his ushered the age of enlightenment into the miraculous world of modernism. It seemed that vitalism was over.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Modernism was absolutely not without its problems. The idea that technology was always better than natural processes was sometimes equally as nonsensical as vitalism and often excessively wasteful. One way this was particularly obvious was in the politics of childbirth and breastfeeding. Anything associated with women was distrusted as always and there always seemed to be some kind of an attempt to tame and replace those processes with something technological (read: masculine). 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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One Response to What is natural? An indictment of the vitalist resurgence

  1. Fuzzy says:

    Is there more of this article? It seems like it kind of ended in the middle.

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