Getting back to nature seems to be increasingly important to many people. Wander about health advice on the internet or in print and you’ll soon find stories about how eating, living and parenting like our wilder ancestors will make us happier and healthier. That we can, if we learn from them, get back to a time when our lives were simpler and free from the fatigues and stresses of the world we now inhabit. Take a detour to the more judgey end of parenting advice and you’ll be told that failing to be natural, to breast feed, baby wear, co-sleep etc, will lead to irreparable physical and psychological harm. These are powerful promises and they breed powerful desires. When faced with a medical system that often can’t explain, never mind cure, our maladies, alternative remedies and restrictive diets offer the tantalising promise of control. Of actually being able to do something for ourselves.
Although there is little, if any, good scientific evidence for many of these claims they do feel desperately appealing and intuitively correct. The lack of cold, hard, modern science, if anything, seems like further proof that these alternatives are better, kinder and more holistic. I keep seeing articles and comments which assume that science (and often modern medicine too) is divorced from nature. That we scientists have set ourselves apart by obsessing over percentages, chemical formulas and our own powers and in so doing we’ve become blind to the simple truths offered by nature.
But that’s not how I see it. It was a love of nature that drew me to science in the first place. As a child I devoured BBC natural history programs that brought biology into my home through innovative technologies and presented it like works of art. I was fascinated by dinosaurs, owls and strange, exotic animals. I learned how these creatures interacted, how ecosystems depended on impossibly intricate webs of connection, containing everything from tiny insects to giant predators. I dreamed of going on pilgrimage to the Amazon rain forest or Galapagos Islands so I could see these wonders first hand. As I got older I also found that sense of wonder in the human body. It seemed (it still does) that every time I learned something new it only revealed another layer of complexity, another set of questions that I had no idea existed. Once you understand the organs of the body – what about the cells that make them up? Then there are the different components of those cells – what do they do? How are they powered? What are the individual molecules involved? The atoms?
I am a scientist, not because I deplore nature, but because I am in awe of it. Learning something new about how our bodies work is, to me, like experiencing a great work of art. It can be emotional and beautiful, it can teach us truths about life and humanity, while also challenging us with new questions. Physicists may search for the Theory Of Everything but in biology it’s the very fact that we are no where near understanding even a fraction of everything, that makes it so fascinating.
This doesn’t, however, mean that I see or seek perfection in nature. Working in medical research it’s easy to find examples of what can go wrong. The complex DNA blueprints in our cells are copied and repaired perfectly, billions of times in our life, but it takes just a handful of little errors, a few misspellings, to set off a fatal disease process. Sometimes those errors are the result of our modern way of life, tobacco smoke for one, is undoubtedly dangerous. But more often these little mistakes are utterly random. Nothing, not even nature could create something as complex as a human being and make it flawless. To get back to this blog’s pet topic for a moment, that’s why I hate it when people say we humans are “perfectly designed for childbirth”. We aren’t perfectly designed or even perfectly evolved for anything. We are a fantastical compromise, a phenomenally intelligent mammal which can run for hours on just two legs, yet still get our babies’ enormous heads through the twists and turns of our altered pelvises. Evolution, nature, does not require that compromise to work for everyone, it doesn’t produce perfect finished products. The benefits to our species of being clever and keeping our hands free for tools are so great that nature is happy to sacrifice the mothers and babies whose unusual pelvis/ big brain combination just doesn’t work. Nature is ok with a bit of collateral damage.
Of course I don’t speak for all scientists, or even all biologists. There are scientists who show little empathy for other people or the natural world, who cheat and fake results to get to the top, who act unethically or just aren’t very nice human beings but that is true in any large enough group of people. It is, sadly, human nature. But speaking for myself, nature is not this scientist’s enemy. It is flawed and complex and much of it is beyond my comprehension but this is why I am a scientist. Because I never want to stop asking why? how? and what went wrong?
Like most people I would love to get rid of the lingering fatigue of modern life. I am tired and sometimes things hurt. I wish I were slimmer, happier, more energetic, less stressed and a dozen other things. I wish I could achieve all that by tapping into ancient wisdom, by eating like our caveman ancestors or breastfeeding my toddler. But as a scientist I reluctantly concede that it just isn’t that simple, nature isn’t that simple. So I will continue on, dressed in my health and safety protection gear, surrounded, unnaturally, by millions of pounds worth of droning and buzzing high tech equipment and maybe I will contribute just a tiny bit to our understanding of nature. There are no simple cures, there was no golden era before science, when humans bursting with vitality lived joyfully at one with nature. But Science is not nature’s opposite or opponent. Science glorifies nature and in so doing, in slow tentative steps, we might come to understand what ails us and perhaps how to fix it.
Most scientists are just ordinary people. We juggle work and family, try to follow our passions and leave the world a little better than we found it. Sometimes we wish life were simpler or we felt healthier and sometimes we just wish that we could get away. That we could stand alone on a beach, with the sun on our skin and stare out at the mysterious depths of an ocean. Or sit in a forest surrounded by the sounds of birds and trees. Just like our ancient, natural, ancestors did.
PS I did go to the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands. They were even more amazing than I’d imagined.