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Debating the nature of 'natural'

Copyright: iStock

To facilitate public engagement, Bioscience for Society Working Group explores unease surrounding technologies.

Public engagement can be a rich and rewarding experience for all participants – researchers from many avenues of science can discuss everything from their own projects to the issues of the day, or even tomorrow, with people at schools, institute open days, science festivals or just in the pub.

Many of these conversations, even if they begin on a certain realm of science, often develop into a more philosophical debate about the notion of nature and naturalness, and whether certain technologies and lines of research can be considered 'natural'. For instance, discussion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nanotechnology, or cloning and stem cell technologies, can lead to people making the assertion "it's unnatural".

Copyright: Adelia DePaula
It’s good to talk. How can we do it better? Copyright: Adelia DePaula

However, ideas of what is, and isn't, natural differ from person to person. Whilst this in itself is no bad thing (and can lead to interesting discussions with friends over dinner and plenty of wine), for the purposes of a healthy debate at a public event the issue can become a sticking point – participants become locked into their alternative ideologies and the common ground is lost (and it's not always fun to watch two people argue.) On the other hand, asserting "it's unnatural" could express feelings of unease that are hard to articulate in any other way and should be explored.

Ask the panel

The Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel (BSS) is an independent panel of researchers, social scientists, ethicists and others that provides BBSRC with critical and objective advice on societal issues and concerns, and public engagement strategy. BSS formed a Working Group which took a look at this one issue, nature and naturalness, and how people think about it, in order that BBSRC can take steps to facilitate effective and influential public engagement.

The Working Group produced a fascinating treatise (see 'What is natural?' below). Three practical and pertinent questions were also answered.

The first question asked how, in the context of its public engagement strategy, BBSRC could respond to the idea that a person's feeling of unease is behind the assertion "it's unnatural". The group recommended that a workable response would be that BBSRC does not see contentious issues in terms of 'scientific reason' versus 'public emotion' and to recognise that "both thought and feeling are engaged on both sides" (ref 1). A timely reminder, then, that thoughts and feelings are experienced together in all people, regardless on which side of the fence they sit on any issue.

Copyright: BBSRC
BBSRC has a remit to engage the public. Copyright: BBSRC

The second question asked if the concept of naturalness should be explored with the public, and how. The group responded that this is not best done in abstract, philosophical terms, but is engaged on an issue-by-issue basis. So, rather than debate the notion of nature itself, engaging with topics such as genetic engineering via programmes such as the Synthetic Biology Dialogue, which provides a context for discussion about naturalness.

The third question asked how BBSRC-funded researchers might better engage with someone who says "it's unnatural" and find out more about exactly what makes them uneasy about certain technologies. Here, the group pointed out that researchers themselves have very different ideas on this matter (ref 2). And that first, researchers should be encouraged to discuss these ideas with each other so as to gain more perspectives on the rationale and belief behind the "It's unnatural" assertion. The group recommended that scientists could be given opportunities to engage in such discussions, and assured that raising issues about certain aims, methods and ethics of biotechnologies will not be perceived as disloyal, nor a threat to their own status or funding, and that asking healthy questions can lead to greater understanding between scientists and the public.

As a result of the BSS Working Group's recommendations, BBSRC has developed public engagement training which will build in opportunities for researchers to explore and discuss their ideas around nature and naturalness and the other issues raised by the recommendations.

What is natural?

The BSS Working Group summary of discussions contains a number of salient points.

"If 'natural' is contrasted with 'artificial' or 'man-made', the notion of 'unnatural' seems incoherent. If humans are part of nature, no human intervention in nature can be unnatural; if humans are distinct from nature, all human interventions in nature are unnatural. But the latter would make cooking, agriculture and medicine unnatural, while the former would make even the most environmentally destructive human interventions natural. Hence, If ideas of what is natural or unnatural are to be comprehensible therefore, they cannot be understood in terms of a clearly defined natural/artificial distinction."

Copyright: Adelia DePaula
Human notions of ‘nature’ have changed over the ages. Copyright: Adelia DePaula

"Distinctions between the natural and unnatural however may be more comprehensible if they are understood as moral judgements. What humans have in common with other animals, Darwin argued, are 'the social instincts', but what distinguishes humans from other animals is that humans, 'from the activity of [their] mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection' on their past and present moral experience. What is seen as natural or unnatural in one historical or cultural context may not seem so in another, but underlying all such distinctions is the uniquely human need to work through the uneasy tensions and conflicts of moral experience in an attempt by individuals, social groups and societies to achieve what has been called 'reflective equilibrium' about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate."

"In this moral context, different individuals, social groups and societies may mean a variety of different things when they refer to an entity or activity as 'unnatural'. To say something is 'unnatural' may be, for example, some people's way of articulating their sense of unease 'when science moves faster than moral understanding', or is felt to be driven inappropriately by commercialisation or professional ambition or arrogance. Or again, it may that that science is felt to be moving faster than its own scientific understanding of the effects of its interventions on the environment, on future generations, or on the entities it creates (for example genetically modified disease animals as human disease models, or hybrid embryos) - or even that biological science may be methodologically mistaken, for example by employing 'engineering' approaches to manipulate 'building blocks', rather than by achieving a deeper scientific understanding at the level of the organism; and this in turn may be associated with a sense that there are more and less 'natural' ways for science and technology to proceed - for example, the traditional idea that they should act in the way nature would act if it could produce their products, acting 'with' rather than 'against' nature. (The use of stem cells in regenerative medicine might be an example of this.)"

"These complex, context-dependent and in some cases contradictory understandings of natural and unnatural, clearly make it difficult if not impossible to achieve reflective equilibrium on what in principle is morally right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate in contemporary bioscience and biotechnology. In some cases, the feeling that an entity or activity is 'unnatural' may lose its force as safety concerns are satisfied and the process or product becomes more commonplace. In other cases however, doubts may remain, and even strengthen. It is likely therefore that the age-old debate about the natural and the unnatural will continue to reappear in new contexts and reflective equilibrium will, if possible, be achieved only on a case-by-case basis through scientific and ethical dialogue between different scientists and different publics."


  1. Midgley M, 'Biotechnology and Monstrosity' Hastings Center Report 30, no 5 (2000), 7-15
  2. The Moral Considerability of Invasive Transgenic Animals