Why do we value naturalness? A lively discussion on biotechnologies

Last Thursday I took the train from Paddington to Bristol to speak at an evening discussion event in the city’s harbourside arts cinema, the Watershed. The debate, titled ‘Nature after Nature: the value of being natural in the age of marvellous technologies’ and organised by the multidisciplinary synthetic biology research centre BrisSynBio, was a discussion on how ideas about the value of nature and naturalness fit into debates about emerging biotechnologies.

As Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ recently announced project on naturalness, which is exploring how ideas about what is natural and unnatural affect what people think about bioethics topics across the board, I was (naturally) keen to take part in the event and find out more about what people think about these issues. I travelled over with Anna Wilkinson, the Council’s researcher on this project, whose notes from the evening were helpful in putting together this blog.

The event was a part of Bristol’s ongoing Festival of Ideas and succeeded in drawing a full house on a sunny evening. The debate’s organiser, Dr Darian Meacham, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of the West of England and researcher in ethics and responsible innovation, had sourced panellists from a diverse range of fields with speakers from the applied sciences, philosophy and science policy bringing distinctive views to bear on the topic.

Nima Yeganefar, Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Poitiers, defended a particular conception of naturalness, connected with views expressed on his blog on pseudo-science, which he suggested undermined the significance of the distinction between natural and unnatural things. The natural, he said, included everything fit to be studied by science, excluding only the supernatural or religious realm, making the notion effectively useless in debates about the ethics of new technologies.

Alison Assiter, Professor of Feminist Theory at the University of the West of England accorded greater significance to the notion of naturalness, defending the view that nature has an inherent value, beyond any instrumental usefulness it may have for people. Her talk cited the ideas of philosophers David Hume and GE Moore on the fact-value distinction and James Lovelock’s ideas about Gaia theory, the hypothesis that the biosphere forms a self-regulating system which maintains a balance of conditions necessary for life on earth.

The Council’s naturalness project aims to review of how the term ‘natural’ is used in media, policy and political contexts, so I took the opportunity to ask the audience about their own views of naturalness, posing two questions:

1) what do you think ‘natural’ means?

2) how does this affect your ideas about whether certain applications of science are right or wrong?

The resulting discussion was lively. A quick poll established that the audience contained few bioscientists (only four or five out of more than 100). A widespread view was that nature does have a high intrinsic value, which a number of audience members suggested should be better recognised by those in Government and industry. Many raised issues relating to sustainable living and the negative impact of the drive for commercialisation in the sciences and stressed how important they felt these ideas were within any discussion of nature and its value. People thought these topics should be debated more widely.

On the idea of naturalness itself, one member of the audience argued that the notion has a legitimate role to play in moral discourse and may serve as a ‘repository for everything we see as good that has not been created by humans’. Another said that as well as exposing ‘false’ or incoherent conceptions of what is natural, we should try to assign them ‘sensitive positive meanings’ that are able to capture what we take to be important and valuable about nature.

On the other hand, one proposed that we may be drawn to what is natural simply because it is reassuring to us, more familiar or safer, and that this may be at the root of why people value naturalness. ‘Anti-science’ complaints about unnaturalness may sometimes veil what may be genuine concerns about the safety of a given technology. One person implied that debates about naturalness were superfluous add-ons and what really mattered was the ethics of a situation, and what we should and should not be doing, and allowing, with respect to the natural environment.

The strength of feeling about some of these issues was palpable at the Watershed and shows how strongly the participants valued the natural environment and what is seen as natural more broadly. As one person asserted forcefully towards the end of the debate, certain kinds of IVF techniques may have implications for ‘the future of humanity as we know it’ and it is interesting to reflect on how our view of ourselves, and humanity’s position in nature, may bear on how we see the ethics of new biotechnologies and other areas of science.

We are looking forward to finding out more about these ideas over the course of the year.

Find out more

The Council’s project on naturalness will be exploring how ideas about what is natural and what is unnatural influence public debates about bioethics topics across the board and is due to conclude at the end of 2015.

Sign up for updates on this project

If you are interested in contributing to the project please contact Catherine Joynson, Programme Manager cjoynson@nuffieldbioethics.org

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