Total synthesis and the cult of the natural

"Unaltered" food is a big selling point

Yesterday, I got into a discussion about genetically modified crops. My perspective was that while one might have ethical concerns about the practices of companies such as Monsanto, this is different from having an issue with genetic modification (GM) itself. This apparent blurring of lines between the science of GM and the corporatisation of GM products was most clearly evidenced in July 2011, when Greenpeace activists whipper-snipped a GM field trial in Canberra. Despite CSIRO publicly stating that they have no known links to Monsanto, Greenpeace defended their actions on the basis of possible dangers to humans.

But it seems to me that there is a fear underlying the GM debate that is about more than concerns for human health. In a time when many people are anxious over the future fate of the planet,  it seems we’ve also developed a fetish for the natural. On the surface of things, this doesn’t sound bad. In fact, words that might spring to mind when we think of “natural” include healthy, normal, organic, green and well being, not to mention those mental images of makeup-less women standing under waterfalls in luscious rainforests. This is probably somewhat due to the plethora of advertisements that claim their products are good for you because they are “100% natural“. Ironically, by definition something can be deemed all-natural, even if produced through an entirely synthetic process (chemical synthesis of organic molecules).

But chemicals aside, how can we ever grasp a rigid definition of the natural?

Railing against the purportedly unnatural is often brought up in arguments against bodily modification such as plastic surgery, including sex affirmation surgery. In these debates, surgery is posited as a mutilative act. Apart from the religious idea that the “body is a temple“, I’m not sure where this idea of the sanctity of the body comes from. We alter our bodies and appearance on a daily basis- we put makeup on, we cut our hair, we wear different clothes, do or don’t exercise, eat different foods, pierce our ears, or even put coloured contacts in our eyes. While these effects may not be as skin deep as surgery (with tattooing as a modificatory middle-ground), our appearance and the way that we intentionally shape it are an important part of who we are in the world- who we show ourselves to be, for others to perceive.

Corsets: body modification back in the day

The differences between GM soybean crops and having a mastectomy for sex affirmation are obviously very very vast.  Some people may have radically different opinions about GM versus surgery. Granted, there are also ethical considerations to be made on these subjects that warrant discussion. However, I think that public reactions to these issues often reveal deep-seated sentiments about what is natural (and whether that is good), which need to be acknowledged as separate biases.

One day I imagine that we will be able to grow our own spare body parts, making modifications all that much easier. And perhaps by definition, through this act of synthesis we will consider it natural…

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One thought on “Total synthesis and the cult of the natural

  1. Pingback: The Trouble with “Natural Beauty” | BINARYTHIS

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