Concepts of nature and the ‘natural’ order of things form a central anchor in public discourse about human, animal and plant biotechnology. The very complexity of the word ‘nature’ contributes to its rhetorical power. As a powerful ideological anchor, ‘nature’ is often used to appeal to what is ontological, God-given, the proper order of things, untainted by humans, primordial. Appeals to nature or to natural qualities invoke genuine, eternal and non-negotiable qualities, with the result that disagreements about the proper treatment of nature tend to be heated and tinged with moral indignation.
With the elevation of ‘nature’ comes the denigration of whatever is seen as not natural, which, by implication, is regarded as questionable, immoral, unethical, dangerous, or simply ‘unknown’. Nature thus elevated is “pure” and the non-natural a form of pollution. In this view, mixing of the natural and the unnatural upsets the harmony and balance in nature, opening up a Pandora’s Box of runaway reactions.
The unnatural is generally associated with human artifice and imposition. Materials and substances fabricated by humans are often considered unnatural and potentially harmful to the natural order, as with the use of man-made fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture. For some, tinkering with nature through genetic engineering is especially reprehensible and if allowed unchecked would unleash a plague of ills upon humanity and the planet.
The risk of genetic engineering is often presented not in terms of specific predictable consequences but as a lack of knowledge of consequences: potentially disastrous unknown unknowns. For these critics of genetic engineering, t he precautionary principle holds: in the absence of scientific consensus that an action is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. Those more open to genetic engineering may ask: which scientists? And how much agreement constitutes a “consensus”?
So let’s talk about how we view nature and tinkering with nature. What does the word ‘nature’ evoke for us? What are the implications of our view of nature?
We’ll meet at the entrance (where there is parking) and take the Preserve’s 1.7-mile loop, which descends into a mature bay forest, follows the contour for about half a mile, and then ascends to the botanically rich upper trail. For a less strenuous walk, we’ll stay on the upper trail, which begins on the right fork. The walk takes about 2 hours. Bring water. No dogs or bikes. Afterwards we’ll have a picnic near the trailhead - bring something to eat/drink.
Readings (about 100 pages):
Ignorance, the Precautionary Principle, and Sustainability
Tinkering with Nature by Anders Hansen
Faking Nature (in the Files section; login to Meetup required)
The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature
The Nature of Artifacts
Click for directions to Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve.