At present the creationists seem to be having a ding-dong battle with the Darwinists. Nevertheless there’s one thing on which both warring factions agree: that the world and everything in it is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ The biosphere is self-regulating to an awesome extent. The creationists say this is because it was created by an omniscient God; the Darwinists because it was the product of natural selection. What is the essence of this debate?
Thirty years ago James Lovelock, the English chemist and polymath, wrote a book called ‘Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth’. In this seminal work he marshalled evidence to show that the earth’s biosphere acts as a single living system which has extensive powers of self-regulation. He called this superorganism Gaia, because that was the name of the Greek goddess of the earth. Whatever catastrophes the earth suffers – whether volcanoes, tornadoes, floods, meteor impacts or changes in the level of sun spot activity – Lovelock demonstrated how Gaia worked to maintain the stability of the chemistry of the cosmic environment: the oxygen concentration of the air and the salinity of the sea. A century or so earlier the French physician Claude Bernard had made a similar observation regarding the human body. This he showed was also capable of maintaining the fixity of its ‘milieu intérieur’. Without any conscious effort on our part, our bodies are capable of regulating their core temperature, heart rate, oxygen intake and blood pressure according to the needs of the moment. This endless balancing act was later referred to as homeostasis, a term devised by the American physician Walter Cannon in 1922.
Bernard’s discoveries led to the formulation of the principle of the ‘vis medicatrix naturae’, the healing power of nature. This concept had been around for many years, but now took on a new life as the foundation stone of the nascent nature cure movement. The wound healing process is a perfect example of the body’s powers of self-regeneration. This was recognised by Ambroise Pare, the famous sixteenth century French surgeon. Despite being the official surgeon to three French kings, Pare had the modesty to admit: ‘I dressed the wound, God healed the patient.’ Going back even earlier, when medicine was primitive in the extreme, and sometimes positively brutal, it was invariably better to rely on Doctor Nature rather than the local barber surgeon. This was certainly the belief of Petrarch, the great Renaissance humanist scholar, who wrote a letter to a friend in 1364 saying: ‘I solemnly affirm and believe, if a hundred or a thousand men of the same age, temperament and habits, together with the same surroundings, were attacked at the same time by the same disease, that if one half followed the prescriptions of the doctors of the variety of those practising at the present day, and that the other half took
no medicine but relied on Nature’s instincts, I have no doubt as to which half would escape.’ Years later a wealthy English land owner decided to put this advice to the test. He badly cut both his legs in an accident, and decided to carry out the experiment of leaving one leg untreated, while employing a local apothecary to doctor the other. The untreated leg healed a fortnight earlier.
Today we face a totally different problem, because we now have the benefit of a medical profession which commands powers of life and death. Doctors, by virtue of their training, are interventionists. We, their patients, have also been brought up to believe that there’s a pill for every ill. We’d lose confidence in our GPs if they didn’t supply us with a prescription for our routine aches, pains and sniffles. But there are times when the correct medical prescription is reassurance, advice and masterful inactivity. There’s one thing above all else that keeps today’s doctors in business – the failure to accept that most diseases are self-limiting. If left alone, they disappear like snowflakes on a heated window pane. Antibiotics do little to cure the symptoms of a sore throat, and yet they’re still prescribed for infections of the upper respiratory tract. The doctors who prescribe them, to please their patients, are merely encouraging the medicalisation of a self-limiting illness. By intervening, they weaken our trust in the vis medicatrix naturae, undermine the development of our immune systems and increase the risk of iatrogenic illness. The more powerful the medical armamentarium, the greater this risk becomes.
Somehow we must strike an appropriate balance between total reliance on the healing power of nature, and utter reliance on medical intervention. I am alive today, and likewise several of my immediate family and many of my close friends, through the intervention of medical treatment. Nature doesn’t always offer the finest therapy. The Faith Assembly Sect in Indiana rejects all forms of medical treatment, and practices natural childbirth even when their pregnant womenfolk are faced with obstetric complications. As a result these mothers suffer a perinatal mortality rate which is over ninety times higher than in the rest of Indiana. If we want to take care of our health, we need to learn a great deal more about the way our bodies work. The shame is that most of us know more about the mechanics of our cars, than the operation of our bodies. This was the view of Robert Boyle, the English philosopher and scientist, who affirmed over three hundred years ago: that it was : ‘highly dishonourable for a Reasonable Soul to live in so divinely built a Mansion as the Body she resides in, altogether unacquainted with the exquisite structure of it.’ The prime function of this blog is to provide this information. The natural healing force is always available for our use, but like all other powers – atomic, economic or political – it must be used with care. This was the message of Milton, who wrote: “Accuse not Nature, she has done her part, do thou but thine.”