What do you mean ‘it’s unnatural’?

Nature is important to us. Most people agree we need to take care of the natural environment and it is only the hardest of hearts that finds themselves unmoved by the beauty and complexity of the natural the world.

Caring about naturalness might be different though. Everyone enjoys a stroll in the outdoors but how much should we care about how natural our food is, say? What difference does it make if something we eat has been modified genetically or has come from a cloned animal? Is it better to conceive and give birth using only natural means? And how much should we care about looking natural? Or ageing naturally?

These are some of the questions we’re looking at as part of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics project on naturalness. Our work is exploring the ways that public and political bioethics debates – like those on GM, cloning, IVF, cosmetic procedures and others – are influenced by ideas about naturalness and how this correlates with thinking on the topic from within philosophy, the social sciences and biosciences.

Understanding why people care about naturalness is important because some people really care about it. Thinking that a new scientific or medical technology, like the use of mitochondrial replacement or growing genetically modified rice for instance, is unnatural can make people wary or suspicious, and may even make them think that others shouldn’t be allowed to use it. People might feel that way even if these technologies could cure debilitating diseases or enable people to grow food in developing world.

Some of the examples we found from within media, civil society and political debate illustrate how strongly people feel about this kind of thing:

 “The creation of hybrid embryos undermines our dignity and is fundamentally disrespectful of the boundaries of naturethere is a sense that it blurs the distinction between animals and humans, creating unnatural entities.”

“….[there’s] debate over sperm banks and “designer babies”. It’s selfish and unnatural, say the critics. It’s treating babies like puppies and handbags…”

“embryonic stem cell research is unethical, unnatural…”

However persuasive or not we might find these arguments, they show that naturalness matters to people.

Once you start to probe these ideas a bit more deeply though it becomes clear that the thoughts underlying these views about naturalness – about what makes something natural and why that is good – are varied and complex.

To inform our work we’ve been looking at  academic research exploring the different ways that members of the public view nature and naturalness. This work suggests there is actually a host of associations and connections made by people who express views about the natural and unnatural. People use these terms in quite different ways to express a variety of ideas.

Some people for instance see nature as wise and to be trusted, a Mother Nature figure, who ‘knows best’ and looks after her own. Nature is seen by others as essentially pure – something that should be sanctified, revered and that is untainted by human interference. Further ideas connect with nature with the idea of tradition and a slower pace of life or with the idea of balance and harmony, that can be disrupted by people’s ‘unnatural’ interventions. Others perceive nature as powerful and dangerous, as a warrior or fighter that will defend itself if threatened by human activity.

These views are often an important part of why people care about naturalness and what concerns them about ‘unnatural’ science and technology. The full review which explores these ideas in greater depth can be read on our website here.

These ideas tie in with our own work examining how naturalness features in media and political debates where we’ve encountered claims that “nature doesn’t make mistakes”, fears about “upsetting the fine balance of nature” alongside worries relating to “nature’s revenge”. Our work identifying themes within these sources of debate is underway and we are organising a public dialogue event to discuss and test the findings of our work in October.

We’re looking forward to sharing and discussing what we’ve uncovered when we launch our findings at the end of the year.

This blog post has also been published on the Royal Society of Biology Blog at https://blog.rsb.org.uk/naturalness/

Comments

  1. I think its high time we stopped trying to justify our unnatural ambitions by twisting the debate about interpretations of ‘naturalness’ and how things are perceived by the masses. It matters not whether we consider something natural or not. The fact remains that Humans cannot ever invent something that is altogether ‘Natural’. It is inconceivable that an entity that has evolved from nature should at some stage deem itself superior to its creator (Evolutionary Theory and not religious nonsense here) nature and thus more ‘Natural’ in and of itself and with regards to everything it does to enhance its own unnatural vanity. That is what humans, and this survey are trying to achieve and justify here and its so very wrong and vain. Aside from that it is also very stupid and dangerous.
    For example where GM technology is concerned the deciding factor here is simply that we already produce twice as much food as is needed to feed the entire population on the planet. We waste 50% of that food. So what is the point in producing food stuff using dodgy technology that we subsequently waste? It simply proves how little we really care about nature and the natural world. It also proves how little you and your mad scientist friends really care about your fellow humans to ever consider that we would be your laboratory rats in some grand experiment that merely gives someone a PhD or even a Nobel Peace Prize. Is that all we are worth to you?
    Take Synthetic biology. We create some completely new and never before evolved entity which we have never encountered on the planet before and then we release it into the big wide world without a thought for just how damned stupid an act that really is. That is why I think the scientists that do these crazy experiments with genetics are basically totally and utterly barking bloody mad! They need locking up for the sake of the greater good before their stupidity kills every living thing on the planet.
    In a nutshell your wasting your time trying to gather evidence to support some fancy new interpretation of ‘Naturalness’ because to me nature is everything and humans are only a small but dangerously destructive part of nature and we really do need to stop trying to be clever because it doesn’t save the planet nor prevent our forthcoming demise by thinking we can invent our way out of the mess we are in right now and every other mess we put ourselves in the firing line of.
    We would be far better occupied spending our scientific efforts on tackling why we cause such planetary destruction and how to reverse it without inventing another problem far greater than the ones we currently have that needs to be later solved. Far better to educate the masses to be less wasteful and more conservation minded rather than on what is in effect a PR exercise to find a ‘really clever way’ to con those same people into believing that you create ‘natural’ things in laboratories. Its all just another take on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Every way you dress it up the truth is still the same. Nature is natural. Humans are a part of nature, not separate from nature.

    1. Hi Kevin, thanks for your comment. Part of what we’re exploring in our project is how useful the idea of what’s natural /unnatural really is within debates about GM, synthetic biology and other bioethics topics – including whether people might mean different things from one another when they use these terms, and how helpful ideas about naturalness are in making decisions about what’s acceptable or unacceptable, so it’s really interesting to hear your perspective on that.

  2. My main area of focus is GM food.
    In this respect, could it be said the Nuffield is extremely naive despite very honourable intentions?
    I believe, the information broadcast to children regarding GM food was badly informed.
    I asked the Nuffield questions regarding Demanding Dilemmas which fell on deaf ears. I wondered who wrote the script?
    I would urge anyone on the fence regarding the GM debate to read Steven Druker’s book, do what they can to STOP TTIP and fight tooth and nail for satisfactory safety regulation of emerging and existing technologies (or banning) and consider supporting boycotts as appropriate !
    One can start with boycotting GM cooking oil…… http://www.toxicsoy.org/toxicsoy/impact.html.
    All that said, I have not as yet read about the project, I’ll take a deep breath and fix myself a drink. Ho hum.
    These are sad and frustrating times.

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