In some circles, I have been accused of not being “holistic” (or, even, “holistic enough”). Frankly, I’m not sure what that means. It must be important, however, because some folks proudly say they are holistic, and some other folks (like me) may get criticized for not being holistic (mostly by the same folks who say that they are holistic), and lots of products get sold based on their being holistic, so I figured that I should try to figure it out if for no other reason than because I’d like to know what it is that I may or may not be missing.
When I graduated from vet school, pretty much no one claimed to be holistic. That’s probably understandable, because, after all, “holistic” is a pretty new word, and it wasn’t in common usage at the time. It’s only fairly recently that one could even be holistic, since the term “holistic medicine” wasn’t even used until 1960 (according to the On-Line Etymology Dictionary). But no matter when it was invented, the word has got to mean something, right?
First place to start – the dictionary!
Here are some definitions – you can CLICK HERE to see where I found them.
“3. 1926, coined, along with holism, by Gen. J.C. Smuts (1870-1950), from Gk. holos “whole” (see safe(adj.). In reference to the theory that regards nature as consisting of wholes. Holistic medicine is first attested 1960.”
DR. RAMEY, really scratching his head now, asks: “Who the heck is J.C. Smuts?”
J.C. Smuts was a famous South African politician, who, among other things, was instrumental in the formation of the League of Nations. He was also a dedicated white supremacist. According to a biographer: “Small units must needs develop into bigger wholes, and they in their turn again must grow into larger and ever-larger structures without cessation. ”
DR. RAMEY says, with some assurance: Clearly, when it comes to medicine, “holism” is not that.
These definitions seem not to be clearing things up much. “Holistic” has to mean something, right? It can’t be like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (paraphrasing from his decision that obscenity is not protected speech): “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“holistic”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the doctor involved [me?] is not that.”*
To further see if I’m “holistic,” I figure that I’ll go to the source. The website of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. They have an entire website about being “holistic.” And what do they say?
“The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association explores and supports alternative and complementary approaches to veterinary healthcare, and is dedicated to integrating all aspects of animal wellness in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.”**
Hmmmm. I may be on to something. Is it “alternative and complementary approaches” that must be the key to holism, right? But if that’s the case, what does “alternative and complementary” mean?
Back to another definition. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “The theoretical bases and techniques of CAVM [DWR Note: That’s an abbreviation for “Complementary and Alternative Medicine] may diverge from veterinary medicine routinely taught in North American veterinary medical schools or may differ from current scientific knowledge, or both.”
So, if “holism” looks at the whole patient (as I do), and takes care of the entire patient in all aspects (as I do), and considers nutrition important (as I do), what we’re pretty much left to differentiate “holism” from “partialism” (or whatever) is “outside the mainstream of medicine.”
My guess is that, as far as proponents go, being considered outside of the mainstream isn’t a bad thing. If you’re outside the mainstream of medicine, you can talk about how bad antibiotics, vaccinations, surgery, drugs, etc. are, and you can set your self-up as a counter-establishment maverick. People have pretty much always liked being “rebels,” heck, being outside of the mainstream, you could even portray yourself as avant-garde. If you can paint the mainstream as bad/closed-minded, etc., then you get to say, “Well, we’re certainly not that.”
DR. RAMEY notes: And you can advertise that, too! Think that could be it?
The working’s of the horse’s body are mysterious. Veterinary medicine doesn’t have the answer for every question, or the solution for every problem. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with exploring treatment options, but keep in mind that it’s possible that when someone from the medical mainstream dismisses someone for not knowing what he or she is talking about, it’s possible that the person really doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Or, to quote to late Carl Sagan, “… the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
This question of what “holistic” means is really a very serious issue. Because the border of where “holistic” ends and where “quackery” starts is pretty blurry. I am personally inclined to give people a great deal of latitude how they want to treat their animals, but there has to be some way to define the limits of that latitude. We need new therapies, but there has to be some sort of guideline regulating their development, as well as their use. Of course, this system already exists – it is called the scientific method – but if you hung your hat on that, you’d be right back in the mainstream of medicine, which, I think, is precisely where people who claim to be holistic don’t want to be.
I, however, fit most of the relevant criteria to be holistic, except that I like science.
Wait. I’ve got it – I’m an “alternative” holistic practitioner!
* CLICK HERE to read more about Justice Stewart’s famous phrase.
** I’m not sure about this environmental and social responsibility stuff. For example, “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is supposed to be “holistic,” but it uses stuff like bear bile, tiger parts, and rhino horn. How the heck is using that stuff supposed to be socially and environmentally responsible?