Of course, all chemicals come from nature. We are part of the natural environment. There is no going “outside” of nature. What would that even look like? Opening a portal to another dimension and bringing back chemicals from there? All chemicals come from nature, but there is a distinction between “natural” and “synthetic” chemicals.
But where do you draw the line? And why?
Distinguishing “natural” from “synthetic” usually implies that the former is superior to the latter. But is that true?
Synthetic Chemicals vs Natural Chemicals
If you’re injured, would you prefer “synthetic” modern medicine or for someone to rub all-natural poison ivy over you? Tuberculosis comes from nature. And the treatment for it is synthetic. So clearly, there’s some nuance here. And it’s unclear where the line from “natural” crosses over to “synthetic.” Take almonds, for example. Almonds are delicious, all-natural treats, right?
Wrong. In nature, wild almonds are poisonous and take a lot of preparation before we can eat them. That is until we bred the poison out of them and created the standard edible almond you’ll find in the store. So are modern almonds synthetic or natural? Same with baked goods. They’re essentially synthetic grains. We’ve bred and manipulated grains so you can eat a sandwich without destroying your stomach. So is bread synthetic? All chemicals come from nature, so this distinction between synthetic and natural chemicals needs a clear definition.
But one is not superior to the other. A natural chemical, like botulinum, is far more toxic than synthetic chemicals like 4-HO-MET or 2-FDCK.
All Chemicals Come From Nature – So Where Do We Draw the Line?
All chemicals come from nature because humans are part of the natural environment. Birds find resources to create their nests just as beavers transform tree trunks and branches into dams. Humans are much more intelligent than birds and beavers. We’re able to manipulate the planet’s resources at their molecular level. This is how we’re able to create Lysergamide analogues from rye fungus.
All chemicals come from nature. Some have evolved over millions of years, and human hands have purposefully changed others. So we can distinguish between natural and synthetic by referring to human intervention. Natural chemicals are a product of evolution. Synthetic chemicals are made by humans using the resources nature has gifted us.
But what about synthetic chemicals derived from natural chemicals? If all chemicals come from nature, why draw the line at human intervention? Aren’t humans a part of nature? Aren’t manipulating natural chemicals part of the natural process of human intelligence and evolution? Perhaps we can draw a more precise line. The difference between natural and synthetic chemicals has more to do with the biological activity of the chemical than its origin.
But what does that mean?
All Chemicals Come From Nature, But Some Are More Natural Than Others
A risk assessment review looked at natural and synthetic chemicals and suggested a better understanding of the difference between the two. They concluded that “the biological activity of a chemical is a function of its structure rather than its origin.” But what does that mean, exactly? This review looked at the relative safety of synthetic and natural chemicals.
For example, melatonin is a popular sleep aid. The product can contain viral microbes if “naturally derived” from animal pineal glands. Synthetic melatonin is the exact same on a molecular level, but it’s much safer to take. Likewise, LSD blotters are popular, but quality control is always an issue due to their legal status, as with psilocybin mushrooms. Many people enjoy them, but what about mould or other toxic elements that may be present? That’s why many people will prefer liquid LSD and droppers.
Not only does it help with volumetric dosing, but its quality provides peace of mind. And that is the real difference between natural and synthetic. You can define it as “human intervention,” but application should also count. All chemicals come from nature. If you placed natural and synthetic chemicals in a Venn diagram, you might find you have one large circle instead of two circles overlapping around the edges.
Categories Are Useful to a Degree
When all chemicals come from nature, how does a chemical go from natural to synthetic? When do humans get involved? That’s most people’s definition. Others, like the study mentioned above, are more concerned with the efficacy and safety of a chemical rather than if it’s truly “natural” or “synthetic.”
Perhaps a good way of thinking of it is in terms of self-interest and altruism. An altruist may forgo a meal so a hungry child can eat. It’s not in their self-interest to starve, but they’d rather benefit someone else. But isn’t everything we do in our self-interest? The altruist who sacrifices their life for the greater good still acts in what they perceive to be their best interest. Otherwise, they wouldn’t act. But framing the debate like that doesn’t get us very far.
“All chemicals come from nature” is technically accurate. But fails to distinguish synthetic from natural chemicals in the same way “all action is in self-interest” fails to distinguish self-interest from altruism. All chemicals come from nature, but the distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals is not black and white.
Some claim any chemical involving human intervention or manipulation is synthetic. Others may simply look for a carbon structure and deduce from there. (All organic chemicals consist of carbon compounds and their polymers. However, one of the most natural chemicals of all – H2O – contains no carbon at all). We can separate chemicals into natural and synthetic categories in the proper context. But, as should be evident, not all synthetic chemicals are harmful or toxic.
In fact, a lot of natural chemicals are toxic to humans. While chemists have created some genuinely horrifying synthetic chemicals in their labs, they’ve also created medicines and research chemicals that have benefited the human race. Nothing is “unnatural” because we are just as much part of the environment as the chemicals we manipulate.
All chemicals come from nature because we are nature.
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