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Naturalistic Fallacy – Plants are nature’s pharmacy

Posted by Don McLenaghen on June 16, 2011

Naturalist or those who practice herbalism often make the claim that nature is our pharmacy (a pitch line equally used by big Pharma); that natural remedies provided by plants are innately much better than those created by chemical laboratories.

This is a classic case of the naturalistic fallacy; that is if it is in or from nature it must be better.

First, I am not going to deny that there are a number of chemicals created by plants that have beneficial properties for medicine (aspirin for example). What I am addressing is the bifurcated claim that these remedies were in some way created FOR us and that they are somehow safer and better than man-made chemicals.

This issue was directly addressed earlier this year in a speech given by Dr Henry Oakeley, the garden fellow at London’s Royal College of Physicians at the opening in Dublin of the medicinal garden at Trinity College[1].

Dr. Oakeley at the opening of the medicinal gardens

Oakeley raised a few eyebrows when he stated that “PLANTS HAVE been trying to kill us, not cure us”. When asked why herbalism has persisted for over 3000 yrs. he responded that “Because they believed in the tooth fairy. They had no concept of illness or of chemistry or biochemistry. They believed all plants had been put on the earth by the creator for mankind’s use. So if the plant had a particular shape, it indicated that the creator had put it on the planet for a particular use.”

Now, I mentioned that current medical research uses the similar rhetoric…’nature is our pharmacy’. However the methodology is completely different. Medical research is based on modern scientific techniques and the scientific method. Herbalist believed that the powers-that-be, be they gods or sprites, left clues as to the ‘intended’ purpose of plants. An herbalist job is to decipher the code.


Sometimes herbalists get lucky; Ginseng[2] looked like a human figure and has been interpreted as a symbol of divine harmony on earth. It is used in ‘traditional medicine’ to improve sexual dysfunction, anti-agent, fight fatigue, boost the immune system and more[3]. It also has a number of compounds that medical research has shown actually does seem to help in reproduction[4] and other positive effects.

Sometimes it’s ridiculous, for example it was…sadly still is believed, that ground tiger penis in a soup[5] or tonic would increase a man’s virility. This of course is the best example of symbolic herbalism; tigers are strong and ‘virile’, therefor eating their ‘male essence’ will imbue that power to the consumer. This continued insanity has in no small way helped make Asian tigers an endangered species.


Sometimes it’s dangerous, for example, blue liverwort was once cultivated as a liver tonic because its three-lobed leaf mirrored the shape of the human liver. However, this tonic was in fact a toxin that produces jaundice[6]. More commonly seen “Aloe Vera Juice” can cause stomach cramps and is a suspected carcinogen[7].

Let us not forget either that cocaine, caffeine, hemlock, tobacco and pot are all natural herbs. However, most herbs are just medically inert and if they provide any benefit it is purely a placebo…an effect that can be the quite dangerous if it delays proper medical treatment.

Now to be fair herbalism is not completely limited to this sympathetic magic view. Over the years a certain degree of trial and error has ‘advanced’ herbalism beyond the simplistic symbolic notion of nature however until recently it has not been possible to extract, when present, the effective chemicals from the chemical stew that a plant may contain. I am not trying to imply that Chinese or native healers are inferior or that somehow westerners are smarter, no; what we have is a confluence of happenstance. Until the adoption of the scientific method, modern chemistry and technological advancements of the late 18th century, ‘western medicine’ was on the same methodological footing I am here criticising.

The scientific method allowed for a systematic reductionist view of the world allowing the identification of specific compounds/chemicals that are the true source of medicine; modern chemistry (and later biology and bio-chemistry) provided a framework for interpreting the results of experiments…showing links between cause and effects; and technology provided the tools to identify, purify and manipulate the compound with the aim of making them better.

Thus, if we continue with the pharmacy metaphor, modern medicines are like opening a bottle of aspirin and popping a pill to cure a headache. Herbal medicines are like pouring all your pills into a bucket, adding in your kitchen spices and maybe some random plants from outside; then taking a handful of this mix in the hopes you get the one pill that will reduce our headache.

Oakeley said “Herbalists say these things are pure and don’t have the same side effects as Prozac, [but] they have other side effects . . . That’s the problem with herbal medicine, there is no proper long-term check on the side effects. The thousands of years of plants being used as medicines have actually taught us very little. The basic concept that most people have missed is that [many] plants are poisonous. We just have to find a way of using the poisons in plants to our advantage”.

This I think lies at the heart of the naturalist fallacy for herbalism. It’s not that there are not useful chemicals to be found in nature but that these chemicals were ever intended to be medicinal. The term used is nature’s pharmacy, a more accurate description is a chemical armoury…a cornucopia of chemical weapons we extract as a kind of chemical waste product and re-task to a useful role for humanity. The chemicals we find in plants are there for a purpose, that is true, but for the plant’s ends not our own.

Plants create chemicals in an effort to provide for themselves an evolutionary advantage. Many times these efforts are aggressive; that is the plant benefits at the expense of its cohabitants…an example when a plant grows thorns it reduces the ability of herbivores to graze on them, what benefits the plant (less leaf loss) harms the grazer (less food). Many times these efforts are symbiotic…that is a benefit to the plant and its cohabitant…an example of this is the fig and fig wasp[8]. It’s also important to remember when plants do have these symbiotic relationships they are very species specific relationships; nectar is a common bribe for animals to pollinate plants but even this is very exclusive because the shape of the flower and the proboscis of the nectar eater are so extreme only one (or a limited set) animal can actual access the nectar. The plant does this to ensure that the bribed animal visits similar plants and thus increases the chances of successful pollination.

The chemicals we extract fall into three broad groups. First are those the plant produces to promote its own health…compounds that make the plant itself healthy and which coincidently we find useful as well; such as salicylic acid i.e. aspirin. If these compounds are useful to humans it is merely accidental/coincidental.

Second compounds created to make the plant more attractive to animals for the purpose of seed dispersal and rarely predation (ie Sundew plant); such as nectar, fruit and aromatics. These compounds are often useful to humans but their PURPOSE IS NOT FOR OUR WELL-BEING but merely a bride or scam to get animals to help the plant.

The last category, the one ironically we have found most useful, are those intended to attack…compound a plant used to fend off fungal infections (terpenes) or make itself unfit for animal consumption plant predators (capsicum i.e. pepper). These compounds are not only not intended to be beneficial they are created by the plant explicitly as a hostile act.  None of these were intended for humans nor are they specifically ‘safer’ for us than man-made chemicals. In fact the opposite is true.

Current research is done by extracting chemicals, testing their properties and interactions, attempting to tweak the chemistry to remove ‘side-effects’ and strengthen the desired property. Once this is done the resulting, naturally derived but whole-ly man-made, compound becomes a drug…no longer a herbal remedy (with dubious efficacy but medicine with empirical evidence of its effectiveness). Because we have a purer form of the active ingredient which has been stripped of the superfluous chemicals along with their potential side-effects; we can say that on a equal footing the man-mades are innately safer.

Last note, although I think scientific medical medicine is innately better than herbalism; I am not saying that ‘big pharma’ should be blindly trusted…they make errors as well. That is why I always and consistently support rigorous and thorough regulation and independent oversight of any industry (that would include the herbalist industry as well, as ineffective as i may think it…remember it is a MULTI-billion dollar a year industry[9])

Big Herbal Pharma...

[4]  Murphy and Lee Ginseng, sex behavior, and nitric oxide, Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2002 May;962:372-7 PMID

[6] IrishTimes

[7] Elvin-Lewis M., “Should we be concerned about herbal remedies”. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 75 (2001) 141-164.

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9 Responses to “Naturalistic Fallacy – Plants are nature’s pharmacy”

  1. This has nothing to do with the Naturalistic Fallacy. Please reread Hume.

    • First the quick non-philosophers answer….

      I, as is apparent in the context, was referring to it in a colloquial sense (yes, a sin for technical philosophy). I could have used “nature-ist fallacy” or the “appeal to nature” or maybe (suggestions welcome). The meaning of course I am using (again, I don’t think it was ambiguous) is that “if it’s natural or ‘from nature’ it must be good” and in a stronger sense “things not found/created by nature are inferior to natural products”. This also ignores the other elephant in the room, how you define natural in the first place. I used aspirin (salicylic acid) as an example of a ‘natural’ medicinal, but it is usually served as a tea or tonic and this is a form of ‘post-production’ which one could argue removes it from the category of ‘truly natural’ (raising the Scotsman specter).


    • Thanks for the input Brian, again you are both right, wrong and pedantic. (As every good philosopher should be)

      Some people, erroneously think that Hume created (if not coined the term) the Naturalistic Fallacy, this is a fallacy. The term, and definition, was created by G.E. Moore in his work “Principia Ethica”. Moore was pointing out that it is a fallacy to claim that what is pleasant is necessarily good and what is good is necessarily pleasant; even if it may be such the two are always conjoined. This is not a comment on normative ethics (ethical precepts) but meta-ethics (what constitutes ethics) .

      “Consider yellow, for example. We may try to define it, by describing its physical equivalent; we may state what kind of light-vibrations must stimulate the normal eye, in order that we may perceive it. But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to shew that those light-vibrations are not themselves what we mean by yellow. They are not what we perceive. Indeed, we should never have been able to discover their existence, unless we had first been struck by the patent difference of quality between the different colours. The most we can be entitled to say of those vibrations is that they are what corresponds in space to the yellow which we actually perceive.
      Yet a mistake of this simple kind has commonly been made about good. It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, just as it is true that all things which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration in the light. And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good. But far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not other, but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the naturalistic fallacy” Principia Ethica, G.E. Moore (

      Some erroneously, but again common enough to perhaps be seen as an acceptable definition, confuse the Naturalistic Fallacy with ‘Hume’s Law’, the “Ought-IS” distinction. This is ethical view that what “is” does not necessarily imply what “ought” to be. Put in another way, just because this “x” IS,does not necessitate that the way things are; that it OUGHT be that way. A practical example, just because it is true we have “violent reactions to losing” does not mean that this makes “violent reactions to losing” what we OUGHT to prescribe (or do) as a moral precept. Most ethical philosophers would argue that we should be using our intellectual faculties to go beyond the IS to find a better OUGHT.

      “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume


      • So you agree that your use of the phrase is erroneous and misleading, regardless of whoever coined the term/first meant it in this way.

        I look forward to your correction.

      • I would disagree that the term was erroneous and strongly disagree it was misleading. I understand that some people see the English language as an immutable entity; I however believe (as does the Queen) that English is organic and evolves over time. In the context of the blog (i.e. I do explain what I mean by the term in the first few lines) my meaning is obvious and far from misleading. Given time and popular acceptance this particular usage it may become Oxford included. If this blog post were a scholarly paper for a philosophical or ethical journal perhaps confusing matters more by inventing a new term would be appropriate; it is not so I am not. Hope you learn language can evolve with time.

      • “This is a classic case of the naturalistic fallacy”

        If something is to be a “classic case”, then that usage is necessarily common to begin with.

        But hey, going for this whole “evolution of language” bullshit is highly convenient: whenever you mangle some terms, you can just dismiss any criticism as just someone seeing “the English language as an immutable entity”. I mean it’s not like misrepresenting their position is some sort of Strawman Fallacy.

        It also neatly sidesteps any issues of ever admitting error. Plus, of course, cabbage fruit chiken omlette purple. That made *perfect* sense, if you simply allowed for evolution of language.

        Alternatively, if you dropped the pretentious bullshit, you’d happily admit that the evolution of language is a *social* phenomenon, and that it is both egotistical and erroneous to claim that your own aberrant use of a term is an instance of ‘evolution’. By definition, evolution is a process of change, there are no ‘instances’.

        I’m done here. If this constitutes the extent of Radio Freethinkers intellectual honesty and aptitude, then it’s a waste of electricity.

      • And just before I head to bed, the key piece of blatant double-standards:

        “Some erroneously, but again common enough to perhaps be seen as an acceptable definition, confuse the Naturalistic Fallacy with ‘Hume’s Law’, the “Ought-IS” distinction.”

        When other people do this, they’re confused, but when you do it, it’s ‘language is organic’. Nothing but narcissism.

  2. KC Reynolds said

    This article is ridiculous. The article was titled “Plants as Nature’s Pharmacy” however then refers to tiger penis’. Last I checked, this wasn’t a plant. We all know that plants have been giving us what we need for centuries, however, we are only just beginning to realize the horrible implications of modern drugs. More people die every day on this earth because of drug reactions, interactions, misuse, and side effects. How many people do you see dying from medicinal herbs? This article is very narrow minded and one-sided. Integrative medicine is the new, emerging way of being and the author would do well to get with the program.

    • First, yes…tiger penis’ are not plant but the logic in their use is identical to herbal medicine.

      Second, you make a number of logical errors…or at least poor arguments.
      You state “More people die every day on this earth because of drug[s]“…if you mean more people die as a gross number this is true and meaningless. More people die this year than a 100 yrs ago because there are more people in total. If you meant because we use more drugs, more people RELATIVE to population are dying i would like to see some proof…drug standards are better than 100yrs ago (although as i have ranted often on the show, we need better and more effective (independent) government regulation. I have strong issues with the level of corporate control over our society…including the MegaCorps that promote herbal lines of ‘medicine’.

      On this line, you also ask how many have died from herbals drugs (yes, they are drugs as well)…i will for the moment ignore those who die from poison mushrooms, opium overdoses or the like…i will restricted my self to the western ‘image’ of ‘natural’ herbal drugs. So, how many have died? Lets reverse the question and get to the heart of the debate…how many have been saved? Compare that number to how many have been saved by non-herbal drugs? It is estimated that hundreds of millions have been saved by one drug alone – penicillin. ONE! multiply that by the plethora of drugs out there…for modern drugs to be seen as a negative of modern life, the would need to be billions to have died to out way the benefits. It is estimated that up to 10% of people are allergic to penicillin…lets assume they all died. You still have a 10:1 benefit; that is 10 people are alive that would be dead were it not for the drugs.

      Okay, maybe i am misunderstanding your point. I was not saying that just because something is an “herbal drug” means it automatically must be bunk…no, some do have genuine benefits irrespective of the claims to nature. An herbal drug that is scientifically proven to have prescribed benefit is medicine…In fact, as i tried to get across, a number (most?) modern medicines have there origin in natural agents…the active ingredient i removed from the natural soup (which in most cases was created to harm or kill) and improved to provide the best curative – penicillin can be an example (or acetylsalicylic acid from willow bark).

      Now, those herbal drugs that are medicine, you asked how many people have died from these? I would respond by asking how many been cured (beyond the placebo effect)? How many would have died if they had done nothing?

      Finally, you say “plants have been giving us what we need for centuries”…when you say give, you mean we have TAKEN what we wanted…with perhaps a symbiotic relationship to some fruits, are relationship to ‘natural’ plants is at best parasitic and worst extermination. The chemical agents that are so useful were created in spite of us (even penicillin was created in nature to kill off competition, not to help humanity)… aspirin and quinine are bitter and help plants defend themselves from predation.

      PS: i was confused, is herbal medicine old knowledge or new? You make reference to “Integrative medicine” as new but have not really defined what you mean. If you mean that various methods of proven treatment should/could be used to help the ill; that seems obviously a good thing. If you mean that instead of real medicine we should use ‘alternative’ treatments (defined as those that have either failed empirical testing or have yet to be scientifically proven effective); that seems obviously a bad (and immoral) thing. If you mean we should use both real medicine and alternative treatments…that would have to be a case by case issue. The only way for alternative treatments to ‘cross-over’ to become real medicine is through scientific trials…that said, SCAM is a billion dollar a year industry, remember that when (or if) you decry ‘industrial modern pharmaceutics’. I reiterate, i am a strong believer in regulation and scientific standards…both for the pharmaceuticals as well as herbal/naturalistic remedies.

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