Today I learned about Terrain Theory

I’m so sorry. I stumbled into a den of rabid naturopaths who were just oozing this malarkey to justify their beliefs, and now I’m exposing you to it. It’s just a quick exposure, you’ll develop resistance quickly enough.

First I have to point out that calling something a theory doesn’t make it true. A valid theory has to be supported by a wide base of observation and experimental evidence — you don’t get to label something as a theory because you think it would dignify your brain fart. I will point out that Haeckel’s recapitulation theory was a theory, too, which was built on nothing but speculation and misinterpretation, and it collapsed thoroughly.

Secondly, theories are not sanctified by attaching a 19th century scientist’s name to it, allowing you to ignore all work ever since. Haeckel was, I think, a pretty good guy, but that doesn’t make his ideas valid. Likewise (and this is a common creationist mistake), Darwin wasn’t the be-all and end-all of evolutionary thinking, and glorifying or trashing Charles Darwin has no effect on whether evolution is true or not.

I mention these two things because they are the totality of the evidence for Terrain Theory: it is called a theory, therefore it is a theory, and it was formulated by a 19th century scientist named Antoine Béchamp, a rival of Louis Pasteur, and Pasteur was a fraud who recanted Germ Theory on his deathbed, therefore Béchamp wins. That’s kind of it. It’s an archaic hypothesis that did not survive the testing grounds of science a hundred years ago, but now it’s been resurrected by anti-vax loons who are waving the banner of Béchamp and Terrain Theory, never mind the evidence.

So what is it? Here’s one definition from a Dr Karen (note: linking to her site is not an endorsement. She’s a kook who sells nutritional supplements and cleanses and superfoods, all the latest grifter buzzwords).

Terrain theory states that diseases are results of our internal environment and its ability to maintain homeostasis against outside threats. Terrain theory believes if an individual maintains a healthy terrain, it can handle outside invaders or threats which cause diseases. When terrain is weak, it favors the microorganisms. Hence, the health depends on the quality of an individuals’ terrain.

She’s understating it. Most scientists and doctors wouldn’t find the overall idea objectionable: your ability to resist disease is going to be affected by your general health, that poor nutrition will impair your ability to fight off bacteria and viruses, and hey you, get out and exercise more and eat a healthy diet. That aspect is fine. Where Terrain Theory goes off the rails is when it becomes a complete denial of the role of microorganisms in disease. Polio, for instance, isn’t caused by a virus, the virus is just a symptom of the lousy condition your body is in. Cancer isn’t caused by mutations in cells that lead to overproliferation, it’s a product of your pH. You’ve probably seen garbage like this — cancer cures that are all about eating the right foods to adjust your body chemistry, or purging yourself of toxins with magical cleanses.

Here’s another quack, “Dr” Young (again, linking is not an endorsement, Young is an evil creep. See Gorski’s take-down as a “cleanse”).

Béchamp was able to see bacteria, and other nano materials emerge from the cell, as opposed to coming
from outside the cell, like most people have been taught.

Dr. Young doesn’t believe that corona, ebola, or zika can infect a human being, let alone exist at all.
“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” Genesis 3:19

Béchamp proposed that the environment of the body, determines what can live and not live. Young says that the source of common disease, is chemical poisoning, which can come in many forms, such as pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified foods, and vaccines. All of which, do not come from nature. They are produced by the military – industrial – pharmaceutical complex.

There’s a lot of familiar tropes in Young’s “work”. There’s the referring to himself in the third person, the false authority of a title (he has a doctorate from a diploma mill), the irrelevant Biblical reference, the pretense of idolizing a long-dead scientist, the denial of all contemporary evidence, and the choice of convenient scapegoats, the military–industrial–pharmaceutical complex and Louis Pasteur. He also cites this weird claim that Pasteur recanted germ theory on his deathbed. What is it with these people? They also claim Darwin recanted evolution on his deathbed (he didn’t), as if any of that would matter. Both Pasteur and Darwin died quietly in their old age after long illnesses; they had more important things on their mind, and weren’t busily marshaling arguments for an academic debate. They were busy dying. The people who cite Béchamp are quacks.

I expect we’ll hear more about Terrain Theory now and in the future. The anti-vax brigade will rush to endorse anything that sounds sciencey, while doing their damnedest to ignore 150 years of good, solid, evidence-based science that shows that germ theory is still valid.

Sheesh. If you’d told me 40 years ago that in the far future, in the 2020s, I’d have to defend the germ theory of disease, of all things, I’d have to ask what cataclysmic disaster had destroyed civilization and reduced us to a post-apocalyptic wilderness. But no! All it took was Fox News and the Republican party to shatter the public understanding of science.

By the way, at least Robert Young was convicted of multiple counts of grand theft and conspiring to practice medicine without a license a few years ago. So I guess some vestiges of justice still linger in our desolation.

Also, not this Robert Young.


  1. hemidactylus says

    I’ve heard recapitulation reimagined several ways. One is that Haeckel didn’t think adult stages were recapitulated. I think Mayr took this line. Embryonic stages (or vaguer states?) are recapitulated. Or not recapitulated stages, but characters. The jaw to ear bone shift may apply somehow (hand wave). Von Baer got it kinda wrong too do to early embryonic adaption (Haeckel had a term for this…cenogenesis???). Hence the hourglass.

    Good bacteria get gutted by antibiotics so yogurt replenishes the terrain of the microbiome? Duck and cover…incoming!!!!

    Robert Young promoted uncaffeinated coffee substitutes. So wrong as with nonalcoholic beer. Grrrr. Ok too much coffee for me 🤣

  2. specialffrog says

    If you listen to any of Bill Maher’s anti-vaccine rants it is clear that he subscribes to terrain theory.

  3. hemidactylus says

    As for Haeckel’s own character or legacy I guess that depends on whether one follows Gasman or Richards. I haven’t deep dived that enough.

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    Terrain theory believes if an individual maintains a healthy terrain, it can handle outside invaders or threats which cause diseases. When terrain is weak, it favors the microorganisms. Hence, the health depends on the quality of an individuals’ terrain.

    Note how this (ahem) “theory” fits nicely into the Christo-fascist narrative about “personal responsibility.” Disease isn’t caused by outside forces that are largely beyond your control. NO! That’s just a cop-out. People only get sick if they sitting in front of a computer all day and not eating what we quacks nutritionists deem health. COVID, cancer, tuberculosis, are all YOUR FAULT! Now get your ass into the cross-fit gym I just bought, and take my IMMUNO-MAX 3000 supplements before you kill yourself, fatty!

  5. raven says

    Young says that the source of common disease, is chemical poisoning, which can come in many forms, such as pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified foods, and vaccines.

    Guy is a quack. And wrong.

    A century ago in the USA, before all those pesticide, herbicides, genetically modified foods, and vaccines, the average US life span was 47. We’ve gained 30 years of life span thanks to modern medicine with our antibiotics and…vaccines.

  6. christoph says

    I think they’re using the word “theory” when they mean “hypothesis,” and the idea doesn’t quite qualify as a hypothesis.

  7. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 6

    At this point, the alt-med cultist will claim that the increase in life expectancy during the last century was due to “improved hygiene and sanitation” rather than any actual medical innovation.

  8. raven says

    …was due to “improved hygiene and sanitation”

    Which is also a product of modern science and medicine.

    And, what does improved hygiene and sanitation do, how does it work.
    It keeps the microbial pathogens away from us.

    You won’t get typhoid, cholera, or pathogenic E. coli from uncontaminated water that is sterilized with chlorine.

  9. felixmagister says

    Do these clowns have any explanation for contagion (which, after all, we knew about in the middle ages, never mind the 21st century), or do they just deny it exists?

  10. davidc1 says

    A lot of wackaloon anti-vaxxers on faceache say they don’t need no stinking vaccine ,they have perfect
    immune systems .

  11. Morgan says

    I understand this is partly just an expression of naiveté on my part, but I would have thought that Pasteur was still enough of a household name that boldly proclaiming your movement as founded on rejecting the guy who’s credited for keeping your milk from making you sick would be an immediate non-starter.

  12. felixmagister says

    There’s people around who denounce pasteurization. Basically, we’ve benefited from modern medicine for so long that memory of what things were like before is starting to die out.

  13. NitricAcid says

    I heard that being spouted as “the new pleomorphic theory” by the local naturopath in town about ten or so years ago. The bacteria, viruses, and parasites we find in sick people aren’t the cause of their illnesses, but symptom of the disease.

  14. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I wish it was as easy as repeating the chicken broth in glass tubes experiment to convince these willfully ignorant fools that they’re wrong. I don’t know what to do regarding people who are so profoundly willfully ignorant.

    To the person above who tied it to Christianity. Yes. Don’t forget the other angle: God can’t have made an evil world, eg the problem of evil, and so they have to blame sick people for being sick rather than admit it’s random chance. It’s the just world fallacy which is their implicit counter to the problem of evil.

  15. PaulBC says

    Reading that explanation of “terrain theory” what came to mind was:

    As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden. … In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

    This is about as useful a theory.

    Also, the “homeostasis” bit just makes me wonder if someone is trying to revive the idea that disease is caused by an imbalance of humors, but trying to make it sound scientific.

  16. robro says

    christoph @ #7

    I think they’re using the word “theory” when they mean “hypothesis,” and the idea doesn’t quite qualify as a hypothesis.

    Is that your theory or your hypothesis? :-)

    I think for the average yokel the technical uses and distinctions of these terms is not clear, nor easy to fathom. That’s why the “evolution is just a theory” argument resonates with them. Although I’ve read about the scientific use of these terms here and other places, I still find them difficult. (I have a similar problem with “strategy” versus “tactic” and I work in a content strategy organization. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing.)

  17. mandrake says

    Am I the only one around who stills goes to the barber when my bodily humours are out of whack?

  18. raven says

    Raw milk has a cult following. It is sometimes sold under the counter to people who like to live dangerously.
    Raw milk can spread diseases to humans which is why legal milk is pasteurized. One of the diseases is bovine tuberculosis. This is still occurring today.

    Raw-milk cheese implicated in 35 TB cases | CIDRAP › 2005/03 › raw-milk-che…

    Mar 17, 2005 — The cases occurred from 2001 to 2004 and were caused by Mycobacterium bovis, which can be found in raw milk from infected cattle, the New York …

  19. raven says edited for length
    The Dangers of Raw Milk: Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose a Serious Health Risk

    But raw milk, i.e., unpasteurized milk, can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1993 through 2012, there were 127 outbreaks linked to raw milk or raw milk products like ice cream, soft cheese, or yogurt. They resulted in 1,909 illnesses and 144 hospitalizations.

    Raw milk can carry dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and others that cause foodborne illness, often called “food poisoning.”

    These bacteria can seriously injure the health of anyone who drinks raw milk or eats products made from raw milk… especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems (such as transplant patients and individuals with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and diabetes), children, older adults, and pregnant women.

    Raw milk can spread bovine tuberculosis and also…Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and others.

  20. davidc1 says

    Over here in good old Blighty ,the govts answer to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis is to slaughter all the badgers .
    An Alpaca was recently put to sleep because it had it .

  21. blf says

    @11, “Do these clowns have any explanation for contagion”?
    No idea, but since they’re (roughly speaking) recycling old nonsense, that suggests perhaps miasma. Or blaming teh magic sky faeries (e.g., it’s a punishment for abortion†), or that long-time standby, Teh Other™ (e.g., Republicans Are Trying to Blame the Delta Surge on — You Guessed It — Immigrants).

      † I should make clear I have no recollection of anyone bellowing that abortions cause Covid-19, but I presume there’s some nutters somewhere claiming Covid-19 is the wrath of some magic sky faeries because of something the nutter doesn’t like or doesn’t profit from.

  22. PaulBC says

    blf@24 I think a lot of current quack medicine is simply nonsense dating from antiquity. As I said in @17, “Terrain theory” sounds a little like humorism. The raw milk cult probably gets its support from a belief in vitalism. Some people are just certain that pasteurizing the milk will remove the élan vital. How do you even counter beliefs like this?

    There is a reasonable intuition that living things are not like non-living things. Indeed, living things can carry out self-repair and reproduction, which non-living things do not. The fact that they’re all based on the same kind of matter is only believable with an understanding of very complex processes. I really wonder if it’s possible to get universal (or close) acceptance. Clearly it does not help when religious beliefs go against it.