Ridding ourselves of our molecular bigotry may help us to become one with nature.
We should judge by behavior, not by country—or herb—of origin. Studies show that molecules from red clover and those from soy end up becoming the same thing in your body. Yet some still worry that the molecules they turn into are different, because of their origin. People also fret about whether synthetic vitamins coming out of a lab are different from ones isolated from plants. We ideally don’t judge people based on their origin, who raised them, or what country they came from. We ideally judge them by their behavior. Why is it so hard for us to do the same, for molecules?
On a gut-response level, natural molecules are assumed more virtuous than synthetic ones, but a quick glance at some toxic mushrooms, snake venoms, and a multitude of plants that are not in this book will convince you this is not true. The truth is, whether a molecule is from a plant, a lab bench, or a rock, it can’t be judged until we know how it behaves, so we must be more open-minded. Like people, some good ones can act badly under certain circumstances, too. A molecule’s source won’t tell us what it does, so we have to be ready for anything.
There used to be a doctrine called “vitalism”, which held that natural (organic) molecules couldn’t be made by man, because they contained some mystic essence or “vital force” that we could not duplicate. In 1828 Friedrich Wohler, a German chemist, used inorganic ammonium cyanate crystals (basically a rock,) to make urea, which is something that organisms make prolifically (it’s in urine). Although this disproved vitalism, the notion that synthetically derived molecules are identical to natural ones is still difficult for people to trust.
Modern chemists can make a copy of a naturally occurring molecule, with the exact same structure, in a laboratory. We know the exact, unambiguous structure of the desired molecule, and can duplicate it unerringly. And according to every imaginable test, both in vitro and in vivo, the synthetic version behaves in precisely the same way as a naturally occurring molecule, and this has been verified innumerable times over, since Wohler’s discovery in 1828. A molecule has no “memory” of where it came from, and truly is the same molecule.
So why are we so inclined to trust natural molecules over synthetic ones? Food labelers know this, brandishing the term “natural” on a multitude of products, even though it has no legal meaning. Some have suggested we’re soft on natural molecules because we have philosophically isolated ourselves from nature. Especially in western religious cultures, man is considered inherently sinful, ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, so anything we make in a lab gets the same sinful taint. Our subconsciously collective decision to separate ourselves from nature not only confuses our understanding of herbal therapeutics but provides us with a rationale for destroying nature.
This unconscious mental separation of “man” and “nature” has invaded our language and thought. I have even had students ask if humans are really animals. According to taxonomy, there are 4 other choices: bacteria, plants, pond organisms, and fungi. What do you think?
Most people want to feel part of nature, but of course we already are, but don’t know it! We just have far more elaborate “nests”. (We act like bower birds on steroids!)
The molecules we make are no less natural than the molecules other animals make. Some of the most feared industrial toxins made by man are also made by plants, and humans have cleverly learned how to make many of the same beneficial molecules plants make, too.
I feel this ideological and scientifically incorrect separation of man and nature has had an unfortunate side effect of justifying our destruction of something we believe we are safely separate from. But humans are never separate from nature. We are part of it.
So, the next time you ask yourself which is better, natural or synthetic, remember that it is not the origin of the molecule that matters but how it behaves in your body, because natural and synthetic are really the same. Perhaps if enough people discuss this issue, we can start looking at nature in a whole new way, and become part of it. We might treat our natural world more kindly if we did.