A Healthy Natural Environment

Parasites are good for you—and I don’t mean unwanted houseguests. Last week the New York Times carried an article titled “The Worm Turns.” Today the Times published another titled “The Worms Crawls In.” They describe research on how round worms elicit an immune response that protects against diseases of inflammation. In addition to conferring protection against allergies, these parasites promote immune protection against inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.

One of the originators in this field, Joel Weinstock at Tufts University, noticed two decades ago that in populations where the incidence of round worm infestations decreased the incidence of inflammatory bowel disease increased. Researchers have had some clinical success in curing inflammatory diseases by exposing patients to these parasites.

Dr. Weinstock “foresees new worm-based drugs.” But Dr. Weinstock also says, “We’re part of our environment; we’re not separate from it.” The journalist writing the article then says, “You are a community of interacting organisms”—showing a profound lack of understanding. You aren’t a community. You’re part of a community of interacting organisms. Please keep the drug companies away.

Twenty-five years ago, Edward O. Wilson published a book titled Biophilia. His hypothesis is that humans have an innate attraction to other organisms, whether plant or animal. A limited amount of research sprang up around this idea, from which emerged the concept of biophobia—humans’ innate aversion to other organisms. So in its full-blown version, the hypothesis is that we’re naturally drawn to some organisms, naturally repulsed by others, and indifferent to still others because these adaptations confer an evolutionary advantage. Those who learned quickly to approach or avoid certain plants or animals had a better chance to survive and pass on that disposition.

Out of this scientific literature a trail emerged that connected biophilia to health outcomes. One of the earliest was conducted in a hospital post-operation ward. Some beds looked out at a grove of trees. Other beds looked out on a brick wall. Patients who looked out on trees took less medication and were in the hospital one day less than patients who looked out on the brick wall.

Subsequently, the research has gone principally down the road of psychology: the beneficial, stress reducing effects of having direct or indirect contact with natural environments. It makes good sense to me that stress reduction would have a beneficial health effect. Yet I wonder whether there are natural environments that confer health benefits directly—like a natural environment that includes round worms that train our immune system to ward off inflammatory diseases. No one seems to be asking that question directly. The round worm researchers are dancing around it without really recognizing it.

It’s likely that a big reason no one’s asking about the direct health effects of natural environments is that a community of organisms isn’t easily replicated by a pharmaceutical or medical device.

Another reason is a weakness that the biophilia research shares with the round worm research. They see natural environments as objects to which we are exposed. There’s talk in the biophilia literature about the effect of landscapes and habitats and animal or plant “encounters.” That perspective leads to a search for better health through better stage management of the theatre in which we perform. Think of it as environmental mood music. The perspective that’s needed would ask how we can best make our way in the community of organisms of which we are members.