Naturalness: A helpful or hopeless concept?


2013.02-402-294a_Pearl_millet,breeding,selfing_ICRISAT,Patancheru(Hyderabad,Andhra_Pradesh),IN_wed20feb2013In the public debate about agricultural biotechnologies and their acceptability, we often hear the claim from critics that these technologies are “not natural”. Such claims are typically dismissed by supporters of the technology who claim that agricultural practices have always involved human intervention into nature and the use of new technologies (be it plough, pesticide or irrigation system). In academic circles, the concept of naturalness has very much fallen out of fashion and is rarely invoked as a legitimate argument either for or against new technologies.

The problem seems to stem from the word ‘nature’ as it is commonly understood and employed today. If human beings are seen to be separate from ‘nature’, then anything they do can arguably be understood as “unnatural”, including all agricultural practices. If, however, we are seen to be a part of nature, then everything we do becomes “natural”, including all technological inventions such as plastic, nuclear weapons and transgenic organisms. This means we seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place in which the concept of naturalness appears completely useless for debating the desirability and virtues of different agricultural technologies. And yet, an implicit use of a concept is found throughout environmental debates because without it, concepts like pollution, contamination, the anthropocene, pristine nature etc would have little meaning. The concept of naturalness is therefore often invoked but rarely defined in environmental debates concerning new and emerging technologies. A new book published this year seeks to change this though. It does so by reimagining and redefining the idea of naturalness in ways that may allow it to have a legitimate place in debates about agricultural biotechnologies.


Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking naturalness” by environmental philosopher Assoc. Prof. Svein Anders Noer Lie  lays a foundation for reclaiming the idea of naturalness in scientific, public and policy debates. Critiquing the dual view of our modern world in which on the one hand nature can be legitimately used and treated, taken apart and rearranged in any way humans prefer, and on the other hand, that the best way to protect nature from abuse is to create a separation from human interaction (i.e. we can either do anything and everything, or nothing), the book works to carve out a kind of third way by reclaiming the ancient idea that biological entities have ‘a nature’ that human beings can identify, respect and work together with.

As Assoc. Prof. Noer Lie writes in the preface, “When things are seen to have natures, there are good and bad ways to manipulate them – and because things have natures, it eventually becomes clear that there are good and bad consequences. Finally, it is because things have a nature that we can have an ethics regarding those things or beings in the first place.” The problem from his perspective is therefore that within the currently dominant ontology (or way of seeing the world) biological entitites are not seen to have any inherent nature. To counter this ‘passivist’ view, Noer Lie carefully outlines an alternative view – a dispositional ontology – in which entities are seen to have particular defining dispositions (i.e. powers, potentials or characteristics). This ontology proposes that the behaviour of beings is not entirely determined by outside factors (i.e. the being has no internal nature), nor is it entirely determined by inherent characteristics (i.e. the being is static in its expressed characteristics), but rather that beings have a set of dispositions (or range of possibilities) that become manifest in relationship with particular others and external conditions. As a simple illustrative example of this idea, a glass has the disposition to shatter, but this only becomes manifest when it meets the floor. Arguing that biological entitites have particular dispositions that they have historically evolved in relationship with ecosystem interactions, Noer Lie proposes that we can act in accordance with a being’s nature by identifying and taking these dispositions into account.


In reclaiming the concept of naturalness through using a dispositional ontology to argue that biological entities have a nature that we can respect or disrespect, Noer Lie does not adopt the position that human beings should therefore acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature and leave it alone. Having previously acknowledged problems with the concept of intrinsic value in a relational worldview, he rather talks about the need to rethink the way we instrumentally use nature and proposes that we can actually do this most efficiently and ethically by working with rather than against the natural dispositions that a biological organism or system has.

This work aligns with arguments I have made elsewhere concerning the problem with calls to  ‘protect the environment’ and my argument that we should instead focus on the cultivation of our ecological Self. It also supports my argument that opposition to biotechnology (and other life technosciences) need not only be focused on the consequences of those technologies for human and environmental health, or on a defined set of universal ethical principles, but can also be ontologically derived, i.e. stemming from a different view of how the world works and the role of humans within it.

While Noer Lie uses most of the book Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking naturalness to focus on presenting a detailed philosophical grounding for his views and arguments, the final chapter takes up the question of what his concept of naturalness may mean for the stewardship of wilderness. It is also interesting for us to now consider, what could this approach mean for the stewardship of agriculture and the governance of emerging technologies?