About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Crankitude: A Quick Glossary | Main | Laboratory Sabotage? »

March 23, 2011

More Crankitude: All Natural This Time

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

I managed to do a whole post on medical/pharma cranks without mentioning one of the biggest factors of all. As many people pointed out in the comments, look out for any therapy that makes a big point of being "all-natural".

There are several interesting mental attitudes behind the success of that marketing ploy. One of them is the appeal to primitivism. I'm reading Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, and that's one of the persistent philosophical currents he identified in Western culture. Back to the basics! Shed the corrupting influences of modern life! In medical terms, this shows up as a constellation of beliefs: that people were truly healthier back in the good old days, that, correspondingly, there's something about modern civilization that's making us all sick, and that remedies for such ills are not to be found not among the fruits of that industrial civilization. Why would they? It's like a drunk reaching for an eye-opener to cure a hangover, right? No, you want to go back to the simple, natural remedies, because only those can cancel out what's been done to you.

I should mention up front that these beliefs are not totally insane. One of the things that I took away from an earlier book that I recommended here, A Farewell to Alms, is that life expectancies and general human health actually took a bit of a dive as cities began to grow in importance. Dietary and sanitary standards were lower for the mass of people in London, say, than they were for the farmers in the countryside, and it showed. And even today, some of the less-developed countries are in even worse shape than they were before the modern world ran into them.

But those aren't the customers for pricey natural remedy come-ons, are they? No, those go to well-off first-worlders with disposable income and high life expectancies. Industrial and urban civilization, although it got off to a pretty dirty start, has in fact led to a great upsurge in human health and productivity. And that's given people the time and wherewithal to respond to ads on their large flat-screen TVs or their satellite radios, and to pay money for shaken vials of distilled water or ground-up plants shipped from the other side of the planet.

Speaking of those ground-up plants reminds me of one more mental attitude. Among people who are big herbal medicine believers, there can be a sort of teleology, a view of the world as if it were more rationally constructed than I think it is. I've seen people asking questions like "I have Condition Y, what's the herb for that?" This every-disease-has-a-plant-for-it view is quite odd to me, because I don't see any reason why it should possibly be true. Plants make medicinally active substances for reasons of their own, and they only overlap with our needs once in a while. And for that matter, most of the really active compounds found in nature are things that will mess you up, rather than help you, just like most of the really active compounds made by humans. There are simply more ways for our biochemistries to be interfered with than for them to be improved.

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil


1. Virgil on March 23, 2011 10:15 AM writes...

"This every-disease-has-a-plant-for-it view is quite odd to me, because I don't see any reason why it should possibly be true."

Of course, it's true if you subscribe to the magical sky fairy view of the universe (also known as religion), in which case the plants were put there specifically to help us.

On the "all natural" comment, I find it always helps to remind people that gasoline is all natural - and you wouldn't want to drink that!

Permalink to Comment

2. GladToMoveToProcess on March 23, 2011 10:29 AM writes...

While waiting to see one of the company's lawyers:
Receptionist: Would you like some coffee?
Me: Why yes, thank you!
R: Cream? Sugar?
M: Just some sweetener if you have it - pink stuff, blue stuff; I prefer the taste of those.
R: But sugar is natural!
M: So is cholera.

Haven't been offered coffee since....

Permalink to Comment

3. Argonel on March 23, 2011 10:29 AM writes...

I always recommend large doses of Atropa Belladonna as an all natural 100% cure for any disease except zombieism. It obviously will not make you better, but it completely remove any affliction of disease. I hope you don't mind the minor side effect of death.

Permalink to Comment

4. GC on March 23, 2011 10:48 AM writes...

I also think the every-disease-has-a-plant-for-it has this romantic view of some intrepid explorer with an English accent and a pith helmet wandering through the Amazon until he spies some plant and goes "Look, Watson! The cure for cancer!"

That's probably the idea people have of drug discovery, honestly.

Permalink to Comment

5. Luysii on March 23, 2011 10:52 AM writes...

Mormons living in the west are big herbalists. Face it, when Joseph Smith and his brother were probably murdered while in jail in Nauvoo Illinois and those left migrated to Utah, all they had for their various ailments were the plants they found out there.

Not consonant with the idea that the modern way of life is killing us, male life expectancy in 1900 was 46, female 48. It continues to lengthen and is now 78 and 2 months, despite the fact that we are getting fatter and fatter as a nation. For details see

Permalink to Comment

6. Geo guy on March 23, 2011 10:56 AM writes...

My favorite all-natural material is plutonium.

Crude oil is all-natural too. So is hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydroflouric acid... they are all emitted in various concentrations from volcanoes and fumaroles.

Hell, lava is all-natural too. Earthquakes are all natural... gosh this list gets long... tsunamis...

Permalink to Comment

7. Anonymous on March 23, 2011 11:17 AM writes...

I once had a close friend who got sick with AIDS in the era before any reasonable medical treatment; so, he treated himself religiously with Chinese herbs and a vegetarian diet. I expressed my skepticism at the time (something I'm still of two minds about as to whether it was appropriate, or just unhelpful.

To his credit, he told me once he'd chuck the whole herbal thing in a second if there was some treatment, *any* treatment, that was clinically shown to work. Shame he didn't make it to the AZT era... but it did make me reflect later on the enthusiastic sharing of my (sadly correct) opinions of his alternative choices.

Permalink to Comment

8. Vader on March 23, 2011 11:23 AM writes...


"This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." -- Attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh as he examined the axe that was about to take his head off.


[i]Some[/i] Mormons are big herbalists. The ones I'm acquainted with are not much more inclined towards herbalism than the general population, which is admittedly still too much. But given Hatch's sponsorship of the massive regulatory loophole for "dietary supplements", this impression is understandable.

Geo guy,

Plutonium is hardly all-natural; the vast majority of it is produced synthetically in reactors. But your basic point is still sound even if this one example isn't.


Stuff a sock in it. Religion is not the source of all stupidity, nor would its abolition usher in the millenium. I should think you'd appreciate the irony in that.


The naturalism movement (if that's the right word for it) is a relatively modern development. Ancient peoples felt something close to horror for unsettled wilderness, perhaps because they had all seen unspoiled Nature close up and personal and didin't much care for it. The earliest writing I know of in the West that lauds unspoiled Nature is Petrarch's Mont Ventoux, which dates to 1336 or so. Even then, it was largely an elite view, which didn't catch on with the masses until the last century or so -- perhaps because it wasn't until then that the masses were sufficiently insulated from real Nature to entertain such conceits.

Permalink to Comment

9. Greg Hlatky on March 23, 2011 11:47 AM writes...

A century ago, it was an insult to be referred to as a "root-and-branch" doctor. Now it seems a virtue in some circles.

Of course if natural remedies really cured all ills, drug companies would fire their entire R&D departments. Before lunch.

Permalink to Comment

10. johhnyboy on March 23, 2011 11:48 AM writes...

As an interesting digression, there is some evidence that early humans (say around 20000 years ago) were actually a lot physically bigger (and presumably healthier) than humans have been in more recent modern times (say, up to 50 years ago). The reason appears to be the shift from the meat-eating, hunter-gatherer way of life to agrarian societies. This shift did not occur because people got all lovey-dovey about wheat germ, but basically because the large prey species were becoming hunted to instinction, and people had to eat something - and nutritionally, maize and cassava can't quite do what mammoth meat does. Just one more reason why the natural/herbal/vegan/tofu sandals way of thinking about health is so misguided...

Permalink to Comment

11. Curryworks on March 23, 2011 12:14 PM writes...

Skepticism has its place but there are some true drugs in the traditional medicine world. A current project of mine is working with a tribal healer from a village in India to isolate natural products from his mixes and test them in a modern lab setting. Current results show selective toxicity to breast cancer models in vitro and in vivo.

More importantly when a pharma company tells me it has an efficient therapy for ADHD and they need to run 5 clinical trails to find a difference vs placebo several companies have earned there mistrust.

Permalink to Comment

12. CMCguy on March 23, 2011 1:22 PM writes...

Isn't Traditional Chinese Medicine largely a "every-disease-has-a-plant-for-it" view? I know situation has changed significantly and there is now a big push to open the huge potential of China as Drug Consumer Market but I recall discussions with Chinese lab mates many years ago who indicated mistrust with modern medicine being ingrained in culture so declined a pill vs. a "tea".

On the other hand I lament the (perceived?) lack of current discovery effort towards "Plants make medicinally active substances for reasons of their own, and they only overlap with our needs once in a while." It seems that there is untapped valuable resource as pendulum has swung far away from natural product drugs/active leads to largely synthetic libraries in Pharma. NCI/NIH used to have substantial efforts in this area also but my impressions is no longer well supported field in academia so has been abandoned as a tool (unless ones categorizes Genomics that way).

Permalink to Comment

13. In Vivo Veritas on March 23, 2011 2:54 PM writes...

Hey johhnyboy. I call BS.
Please show some scientific references besides a Taubes book.

Permalink to Comment

14. In Vivo Veritas on March 23, 2011 2:57 PM writes...

Hey johhnyboy. I call BS.
Please show some scientific references besides a Taubes book.

Permalink to Comment

15. Steeeve on March 23, 2011 2:59 PM writes...

I always answer an "all natural" comment with "and so is rattlesnake venom".


Just because someone is mining traditional remedies, doesn't lend any credibility to the "there's a plant for that" concept. It just means that MAYBE after thousands of years, the folk healer might have accumulated some useful pharmacological knowledge, though I bet the stuff that they don't do because it kills people is of more interest than the day to day "we grind up a ram's horn for that, can't hurt".

Permalink to Comment

16. Mr. Obvious on March 23, 2011 3:20 PM writes...


Our dentition suggests that we have been omnivores our entire evolutionary lifespan. Carnivores don't need no stinkin' molars.

Permalink to Comment

17. Anonymous on March 23, 2011 4:00 PM writes...

Yeah, all those natural nuts really bug me too. It's not like you see some big pharmaceutical company trying to develop megadoses of some crap they found in fermented grape juice claiming that it will cure cancer, diabetes and aging, and then selling it on the side without any evidence of efficacy, right? The pharmaceutical industry would never do anything unscrupulous like that.

Permalink to Comment

18. brian on March 23, 2011 4:35 PM writes...

Does anyone think this is separate from the anti-intellectual movement in this country? So many of these ads feature some "Experts would have you believe..." line in there somewhere. It could be that these are two sides of the same coin, but it could also be that the "all-natural" trend is just a "don't tell me what's best for me" symptom of a more general mechanism.

Permalink to Comment

19. johnnyboy on March 23, 2011 4:46 PM writes...

@16: I know humans are omnivores, and I don't see your point. I didn't say we had carnivore dentition, only that humans were larger when their diet favored meat rather than grains.

@13: I believe I took this fact from anthropologist Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. Obviously, as this is a book for the general population, I don't think it includes detailed citations for every statement, but as you seem keen to peruse the literature I can always look if he included a bibiography.

Permalink to Comment

20. drug_hunter on March 23, 2011 5:31 PM writes...

How to skewer homeopathy in three minutes:

Permalink to Comment

21. Dale DeWitt on March 23, 2011 6:59 PM writes...

The "All Natural" designation originates from "Synthetic" preparation verses "Natural" extractions. It is in the extraction process whereby possible beneficial material is found. It's no guarantee since there are no differences at the pure level obviously. Let's spare the intellect with these gasoline drinking quips. Murder is natural. So.

Permalink to Comment

22. Geo Guy on March 23, 2011 7:08 PM writes...


Yes, I know that most plutonium is man-made. But there is naturally-occuring plutonium too.

Permalink to Comment

23. In Vivo Veritas on March 23, 2011 8:40 PM writes...

johnnyboy - you missed the part of the book where Diamond goes on a hunt with a "primitive" PP-NG tribe and is struck by their poor success. His further digging reveals that the mighty hunters of 20k years ago likely ate only 5010% of kcals from meat.

I'm no vegetarian, but the idea that "paleo" man ate all meat and therefore we should all belong on a "paleo" diet is just not evidence based, and rubs me the wrong way.

And as for bigger = healthier: what was their life expectancy again?

Permalink to Comment

24. johnnyboy on March 23, 2011 10:09 PM writes...

I'm not sure why you think I'm trying to sell something, I was just making an observation which I think is interesting. The point I was trying to make is that restricting a diet to things misguidedly considered more "natural", like vegeterianism, is far from necessarily leading to better health.

Permalink to Comment

25. Matthew on March 24, 2011 4:28 AM writes...

The modern world doesn't cause cancer. The modern world and medical technology let us live long enough to get cancer.

Permalink to Comment

26. Donough on March 24, 2011 4:39 AM writes...

Dara O'Briain puts it well.

Permalink to Comment

27. To Johnyboy on March 25, 2011 5:19 AM writes...

Johnyboy, why vegetarian dinosaurs were larger than meat eating ones, ...sure they were not humans...hmmm

Permalink to Comment

28. Monte Davis on March 25, 2011 10:39 AM writes...

On the stature/health hit among early agriculturalists: the sparse data support just as well the speculation that they were easier targets for disease and subclinical stunting associated with

(1) sanitation issues: aettling down increases odds of feces too near to water sources

(2) transitions from hunting to herding: more opportunities for animal pathogens to cuddle up to new hosts

(3) density dependence: however stunted, farmer/villagers did form larger aggregations than hunter-gatherers could. When endemic pathogens with epidemic potential notice that -- well, nothing fails like success!

And of course -- per McNeill, Jared Diamond et al -- (3) would prove great training for clearing the New World of troublesome indigenes.

Permalink to Comment

29. Joe Thompson on March 25, 2011 11:02 AM writes...

Geo guy: "Crude oil is all-natural too."

Crude oil is effective for treatment of many ailments -- the ancient Persians told me so.

Permalink to Comment

30. dstar on March 28, 2011 8:00 AM writes...

The key to understanding the success of 'natural' marketing is to understand that a very large proportion of the population truly, honestly believes that 'natural' things can't hurt them (and they don't consider gasoline or, say, plutonium to be natural, because you can't just go out and pick them; this view of 'natural' seems to be limited to plants, for some reason).

My wife once had a nasty argument with someone about the risks of using belladonna (!) to get their 6-month-old baby to sleep. The sole counterargument was 'but it's naaaaatural!' Never _mind_ that it's also known as 'Deadly Nightshade' -- it's 'naaaatural'. I guess everyone but us knows that plants are incapable of hurting people....

Permalink to Comment

31. Anonymous on March 29, 2011 6:39 PM writes...

dstar on March 28, 2011 8:00 AM writes...
I guess everyone but us knows that plants are incapable of hurting people....

Now I know why castor bean plant, angel's trumpet, datura and foxglove are so popular as ornamental plants in the US

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry