Synthetic Switch: What If “Natural” Is Bad?

Nature isn't all pretty flowers. It's also full of risks. Could synthetics be better?

Natural isn’t always good, and synthetic isn’t always bad. 

At my heart, I’m a hippy. I prefer organic forms of pretty much everything. I like the way nature makes things more than how laboratories make things. I’m not here to attack natural things, and I’m not here to promote synthetic things. 

The truth is that nature exerts a beautiful and powerful force. Its creations are engineered from millions of years of evolution. The complexity is mind numbing. Humans have been studying the complexity for thousands of years, and we still have more questions than answers. 

Nature presents two challenges. 

One, we don’t know everything about its complexity. We know some natural compounds work, but we don’t always know why or how they work. There is a little mystery as to what’s going on, and in that mystery there is risk of things not going as expected. 

Second, nature creates things to procreate and replicate. Think about a plant’s life. They’re stuck where they’re born. If a predator tries to kill them, they can’t run away. If they want to reproduce, they can’t stroll over to their local bar and strike up a late-night conversation.

Plants need to attract help and repel threats. They need an arsenal of chemicals to manipulate the world around them. These chemicals need to be powerful enough to seduce other animals and organisms into helping them make babies, and they need to be powerful enough to stop predators from doing them harm.

Plant chemicals are the real fucking deal.

It’s not just plants. Everything nature makes must survive long enough to produce the next generation. Protective attributes are engineered into all of nature’s creations. Threatening an organisms’ existence will probably do you some degree of harm, but some of these protective qualities can have therapeutic benefits for humans too. You just need to be careful about the dose.

Natural isn’t always safe. 

Alternatively, you have synthesized versions of nature’s creations. The hippy in me is skeptical of synthetic creations. Thousands of years of human use is a big safety endorsement. Especially compared to a creation that’s practically brand new. How do we know this version of nature’s creation will produce the same results without doing me harm? Nature’s complexity is barely understood. What if this compound is missing something we don’t see in nature’s version? Again, with synthetics there is a mystery and uncertainty, and that uncertainty can create a degree of harm. Most synthetics are scrutinized and tested for efficacy and safety. They are carefully vetted. Synthetics should be fine, and in the majority of cases they are fine. 

In some cases, synthetics are even better. Nature produces amazing creations, but nature isn’t on the same timeline as humans. When we like something, we want a lot of it, and we want it now. The spike in demand for help compounds can put pressure on nature’s supply. Market demands can destroy ecosystems and drive species into extinction. If we can synthesize a version of nature’s creation, doesn’t it make more sense to support the synthetic version? Think of what we lose when harvesting from nature faster than nature can produce. We sacrifice ecological diversity – which we know cascades into bigger problems. We also lose millions of years of evolutionary data that disappears when a species is extinct. It’s easier to recover from an unexpected reaction than it is to resurrect an extinct species. 

The world isn’t black and white. Context matters. Every choice offers nuanced consequences. When you’re choosing what to buy, take the time to consider all the facts. Don’t blindly consume natural products because they seem safer. Don’t necessarily reject synthetics because they seem inferior. Make your choices wisely and responsibly. 

Also published on Medium.

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