Skip to main content

Untrammeled Nature: Should We Ever Leave the World Alone?


Gregory E. Kaebnick is a research scholar at The Hastings Center and the editor of the Hastings Center Report, a bioethics journal.

Even a cursory scan of movie and book titles over the last couple of decades would establish that the growing power of science and technology—the ever-expanding capacity they give to alter the natural world in unexpected ways—is accompanied by growing moral uneasiness. Contemporary social debates in which this uneasiness is present include those about the genetic modification of crops and livestock; the possibility of synthesizing microbes for specific industrial, medical, or other social goals; the likelihood that some extinct species might be recreated and perhaps even reintroduced into the wild; sports doping; and the more-distant prospect of enhancements to human nature that confer advantages in intelligence, memory, or lifespan. All of these debates involve questions about risks to health, safety, or human welfare generally, but concerns about risks do not fully explain the moral unease many feel. There is, additionally, a fairly common sense that some alterations to nature are intrinsically undesirable, regardless of the possible consequences for human welfare.

But does that uneasiness make any sense? Often, those who feel it convey it obliquely rather than address it head on. In the debate about GM organisms, for example, it is conveyed through leading questions about where the work is going, insidious labels for those doing the work, and cartoons in which the organisms themselves appear as inherently evil. Meanwhile, those who want to defend science and technology sometimes dismiss this uneasiness entirely. It is derided as an irrational sentiment or a religious worry about “playing god,” and it is seen as depending on an indefensible distinction between alterations to nature that can be achieved through emerging technologies and alterations to nature that have long been practiced and accepted in agriculture, medicine, and industry.

In a book published this year by Oxford University Press, I give a qualified defense of that uneasiness. I argue that concerns about the human alteration of nature can be legitimate and serious, but also that they are complex, contestable, and limited. In this essay, I will touch on a few key points of that analysis and close by drawing out a handful of lessons for debates in which that uneasiness is at play.

Why Care about Nature?

One fundamental philosophical problem in trying to make sense of moral unease about altering nature is the difficulty of giving a compelling answer to the question, “Why should anyone care whether human beings change nature?”

This question has been taken up in various literatures within practical ethics—on human enhancement, agricultural biotechnology, and synthetic biology, for example—but these discussions are often ad hoc and disconnected from each other. For example, critiques of human enhancement sometimes seek to show how moral values depend on human nature as it is now or why human enhancement conflicts with the value of authenticity, but those arguments have no bearing on GM organisms in agriculture. Objections to agricultural biotechnology sometimes rest on claims about the value of preserving “animal integrity” or “species integrity”—special claims about species norms—but those objections might have no bearing on using genetic modification and reproductive technologies to achieve the “de-extinction” of a species, since de-extinction is in principle guided precisely by species norms.

On the face of it, however, the reservations many people have about agricultural and medical biotechnology appear to be analogs to some degree, given that they are all about the value of accepting natural states of affairs, of resisting or at least containing the urge to re-engineer nature. It is well worth looking for an account that recognizes the underlying similarities.

Comparing moral unease about the reach of science and technology to environmentalist sentiment—to moral unease about the human-caused extinction of species or destruction of ecosystems—is helpful in this connection. Environmentalist concern is also about the value of naturally occurring states of affairs, but it is more widely shared than are misgivings about the reach of science and technology. Indeed, many scientists and technology-lovers are environmentalists. To the extent that one finds the loss of wild species or places intrinsically morally troubling, that person has reason at least not to dismiss misgivings about science and technology as irrational.

Also, the comparison suggests a simpler and more direct way of articulating the moral unease about altering nature. In environmental ethics, a preservationist stance toward nature is sometimes accepted as a fundamental ethical concern in and of itself, similar to other fundamental moral concerns such as respect for autonomy and the advancement of human happiness. Thus, instead of constructing ad hoc arguments about species integrity or authenticity to explain why altering nature is troubling, one who is concerned about the extent of human alteration of nature might appeal more directly to the value found in leaving nature alone. This person might even agree with the critics that the concern about alteration should be understood as, at bottom, a kind of sentiment, even as irrational in the limited sense that it is not proven true by reasons, while maintaining that much the same must be said about other kinds of fundamental moral concerns. Indeed, deeply grounded sentiments can be part of what motivates scientists and technologists: scientists and technologists are propelled by a desire to understand, add to knowledge, build, and create, and these goals can be valued not just because they improve human lives but also as goals in their own right—as intrinsically valuable goods that orient lives in ways similar to how the preservationist impulse orients nature-lovers.

Note, however, that the point of these comparisons is about our ability to give reasons to support a moral concern about altering nature, not about whether that concern is of the same weight as concerns about human autonomy and happiness. It would be quite possible to rank order them. It is also important to recognize that reasons might still be given to challenge a concern about human alteration of nature. If one takes a different moral view of apparently similar situations, one might be asked to explain the difference. Conversely, if one takes a similar view of apparently different situations, one can be challenged on that score as well. Indeed, comparing the concern about, for example, the genetic modification of organisms to an environmental concern may well lead to reassessments in just this way. For example, environmentalism focuses on the destruction of existing phenomena rather than on the creation of artificial ones. Gardens are not problematic in and of themselves; they become problematic only if they generate too much pressure on wild species or places.

What Counts as Natural

The problem of counterexamples raises another philosophical problem for the moral concern about altering nature. This is the difficulty of identifying nature in the first place. What dispositions or capacities are “natural” to human beings, for example, and what should be ascribed instead to culture or individual creativity? Is creating new strains of an organism through breeding natural, and if it is, then in what sense is genetic modification not natural? Is the Amazonian rainforest, which has been altered by humans for millennia, genuinely one of the world’s last “pristine wildernesses,” as is often said?

The difficulty of identifying what is natural is partly a practical problem. We may not know whether or in what ways a thing has been altered. But it is also a philosophical problem, insofar as it depends on whether a concept like “natural” should be clearly defined in order to be used in moral reasoning. Many assume that the distinction between natural and artificial is marked out by fairly straightforward definitions—something is artificial when its existence depends on human intentions, and natural when its existence is independent of human intentions—and that, in principle if not in practice, these definitions allow for a clear sorting of things into the two categories. Natural things should, like “pristine wildernesses,” be entirely free of human interference. Many other morally significant concepts, however, are delineated only somewhat fuzzily, in the manner of a scatterplot: how they apply to things, what counts as falling under them, is not clear. Examples of such concepts include personhood, adulthood, competence, and voluntariness.

Similarly, perhaps the notion of “independent of human intentions” is not in fact crystal clear, and that what counts as natural is also a kind of scatterplot. There are comparatively clear cases, such as microbial ecosystems deep underground (on the natural end of things) and nuclear reactor cores (on the artificial end). But between such paradigms would be many less clear cases, and probably even indeterminate cases. Is a section of log artificial if it was found in the forest, then shorn of its bark, placed on one end, and smoothed off on the other end so it could be used as a seat? This problem is even greater when the thing in question is itself a collection of other things, each of which may be natural or artificial (or something in between). Is the forest in the Amazon natural? We now know that it has undergone much greater alteration than had been understood until recently (this discovery exemplifies the practical point), and yet many sections still contain a great variety of native species, interacting with each other and with the land in age-old relationships.

The assumption that the natural/artificial distinction is clear may depend partly on a further assumption that the distinction maps onto an even more fundamental distinction, namely, a metaphysical divide between the material world (whose existence does not depend on human intentions) and the realm of the mind. This distinction is purportedly between different kinds of being and hence should be very clear, and therefore any distinction that tracks it should also be clear. But the distinction between natural and artificial might be a causal point rather than a metaphysical one. It would then be a matter for scientists and historians: in the story or stories we might tell about how a thing came to be the way it is, how important are human beings? This view will tend to support a fuzzier understanding of the natural/artificial distinction. Arguably, humans may have some role in the stories told about things that we nonetheless count as “natural.” Perhaps even wildernesses need not be pristine; perhaps they need only be, in the language of the Wilderness Act of 1964, “untrammeled”—unbound or unimpaired.

That the distinction between natural and artificial is fuzzy does not mean that the distinction is nothing but smoke and mirrors. On the contrary, because it asks us to tell causal stories, there will be much room for reasoned argument. There may not be much possibility that a crisp argument will quickly settle a debate, however, given that some of the key concepts are more like contestable ranges on a dial than like on-off switches.


There are practical lessons to be drawn from these rather abstract points.

First is a lesson about what it is we are debating when we debate moral concerns about altering nature. Characterizing the concerns in terms of metaphysical or religious language may be useful insofar as it conveys the felt importance of what’s at stake, but very unhelpful insofar as it encourages mistakes about the relevant concepts. We should be discussing the facts on the ground and attending to their nuances and complexity, and metaphysical or religious language pushes us in the wrong direction.

"We should be discussing the facts on the ground and attending to their nuances and complexity, and metaphysical or religious language pushes us in the wrong direction."

Gregory E. Kaebnick, The Hastings Center

Another lesson is about disentangling different kinds of moral concerns. Those with concerns about the alteration of nature sometimes submerge them in very different moral language: those opposed to GM organisms, for example, may well be motivated in good measure by the intrinsic value of nature, yet they often focus on claims about health risks for consumers. Hence the cartoons. This sort of misdirection is not true to the underlying concerns and does not encourage clarity of thinking.

Third is a lesson about moderation and deliberation. What we are debating calls for give and take, both among scholars and with the public, occurring over time. Absolutist, unnuanced ways of rendering the concerns make this conversation more difficult.

Finally, there is a lesson of tolerance. Often, dismissing those who worry about the reach of science and technology as irrational is to misunderstand the thinking that goes into their concerns. That thinking is in fact shared by scientists.

Suggested Readings

  • William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon, New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995, 69-90.
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, Humans in Nature: The World As We Find It and the World As We Create It, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, ed., The Ideal of Nature: Debates about Biotechnology and the Environment, Baltimore, MD.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick and Thomas H. Murray, eds., Synthetic Biology and Morality: Artificial Life and the Bounds of Nature, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2013.
  • Thomas H. Murray, “Enhancement,” in The Oxford Handbook of Bioethics, ed. Bonnie Steinbock, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Erik Parens, “ Toward a More Fruitful Debate about Enhancement,” in Human Enhancement, ed. Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2009, 181-97.
  • Mark Sagoff, “Genetic Engineering and the Concept of the Natural,” in Genetic Prospects: Essays on  Biotechnology, Ethics, and Public Policy, ed. Verna V. Gehring, Oxford, U.K.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, 11-25.

This article is part of the Winter 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.