By Anna Wilkinson, Programme Officer, Nuffield Council on Bioethics
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 nature…there 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. The fact that these technologies are taken to be unnatural is important, and not in a good way.
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 the Nuffield Council on Bioethics website.
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 what we uncover and hearing more from the public when we launch our findings at the end the year.
This blog post was also published on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics blog.