People are increasingly concerned about the extent to which technology enables us to alter nature: causing the extinction of plants and animals, genetically modifying crops and livestock, using synthetic biology to engineer organisms for human benefit, and enhancing athletic performance and other aspects of human nature.
Underlying each of these concerns is an intuition that a natural state of affairs should be preserved for its own sake because it has intrinsic moral significance. Does it? How far should public policy go to preserve nature? And is there even an agreed-upon definition of "natural?"
These questions are central to Humans in Nature: The World as We Find it and the World as We Create It, a new book by Gregory E. Kaebnick, a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. The book was published by Oxford University Press.
Debates about nature are highly polarized. On one side are those who believe that concerns about altering nature are profoundly important; on the other side are those who argue that such concerns are irrational, even incoherent. This book marks out a middle way – "to provide a way of thinking about the human relationship to nature that neither leaves all objections to altering nature standing nor wipes them all off the table as illegitimate."
The book begins by exploring the question, "What is natural?" The answer is not as simple as it seems. "The world as found and the world as created or altered can be hard to tease apart," Kaebnick writes. "Is the tallgrass prairie 'natural,' or does the fact that human beings maintain it by regularly setting fires establish that the entire ecosystem we associate with the American Midwest was actually a kind of human artifact?"
"The difficulty of understanding how to think about the concept of nature is possibly the most fundamental problem in getting clear on whether leaving nature alone can ever be morally desirable," he writes.
The first half of the book isolates the philosophical arguments about the human relationship to nature and their bearing on public policy. The second half conducts a comparative analysis of four specific debates: arguments about preserving the environment, genetically altering livestock and crops, synthetic biology, and human enhancement. Setting these seemingly diverse problems alongside each other can be illuminating. For example, the literature on environmentalist concerns might suggest new ways of thinking about human enhancement, since concerns about enhancement have foundered on the difficulty of identifying a natural state of affairs or explaining why it can have intrinsic value, topics that are explored in environmental philosophy. "These arguments should be in dialogue with each other," he writes.
Kaebnick concludes that nature need not be entirely distinct from that which is caused by humans. The challenge is to determine where to draw the line between "natural" and "unnatural." In many cases, there will be no consensus on where to draw that line; individuals will have different views, based on their personal values. Kaebnick also concludes that moral perspectives about nature may legitimately be taken up in public policy, but in a way that "carves out room" in which citizens can live by their own values.
He offers the debate over genetically modified foods as an example of how this recommendation might be put into practice. "Where food comes from and what has happened to it along the way, whether it seems natural, matters to people," he writes. "At stake, then, in the decision to avoid GM foods (or, for that matter, in a decision actively to seek them) is a feeling about the kind of relationship to the natural world one wants to stand in."
The policy response to GM foods "should make it possible for people to uphold their commitments but should not force others to conform to them," he writes, citing labeling as one way to accomplish this.
"Humans in Nature is an exceptionally wide-ranging and fair-minded exploration of the concept of nature and its role in practical issues," writes William A. Galston, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
"Kaebnick's discussion is nuanced, wide-ranging, and persuasive," writes B. Andrew Lustig, Holmes Rolston III Professor of Religion and Science at Davidson College. "The book will be of immense value to both academic and policy audiences."
"Greg Kaebnick has fearlessly traveling into hotly contested debates," says Mildred Z. Solomon, EdD, president of The Hastings Center. "In true Hastings Center spirit, this important book finds a way to respect seemingly incommensurable values and to walk forward together."