Why does thinking about nature matter?

In this post, we will explore two questions: What is nature? and, Why does this question matter?

Nature, and the adjective natural, are some of the most widely used words in the English language. Backpackers hike and camp in nature to escape the city and suburbs. Natural disasters strike in the form of tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Loggers, miners, and prospectors extract natural resources. Conservationists protect natural areas and conserve nature. Natural scientists poke, prod and observe nature to know about the world. Orators base arguments upon what is natural or what is true by nature. Farmers both battle nature’s caprices and cultivate its fruits. Despite the near endless variety of uses for the concept of nature, all build off of three basic meanings[i]:

  1. The essential character or quality of a thing.
  2. The force which directs the physical world.
  3. The physical world itself.

Each meaning is related to and inseparable from the others. For example, consider the term wilderness[ii], which many people associate with nature. Wilderness is a physical place, “a wild or uncultivated region…uninhabited or inhabited only be wild animals” according to the dictionary definition. Wilderness is nature, in a physical sense, because it is a place where the forces of nature rule completely. Here, organisms, ecosystems, and biophysical processes are said to exist in their natural state because no human cultivation, settlement, extraction, or other use interferes. In summary, nature refers the essence of things, the way they are and will tend to be if we don’t interfere. A natural process unfolds through things acting according to their essential character. Nature as a place encompasses a group of things acting together through natural processes.

This seems simple enough, so why is it important to ask what nature is? Because, through the implicit contrast of nature with people that is common to all three meanings, we can see a fourth meaning for nature: that which should be (and would be if we didn’t artificially interfere and muck up the works). However, we humans live and work in nature at the same time that we alter it to produce man-made things. This blurs the distinction between nature and artifice. At what point does the block of marble cease to be a natural deposit of sediments compressed by heat and pressure over millions of years and become Michelangelo’s David? This ambiguity means that using nature to draw a hard line between what should and should not be is more difficult than it might seem. Let’s think about another example.

References to nature are common in debates over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic engineering directly inserts genetic material from one organism into the DNA of a different organism, allowing for combinations that are not possible with conventional breeding techniques. Common GMOs include Bt cotton, the DNA of which has been augmented with a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium that causes the plant to produce its own insecticide, and Roundup Ready Soybeans, the DNA of which has been augmented with a gene granting it resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (trade name Roundup).

Proponents of GMOs argue that genetic engineering is simply a new way of combining genetic material already found in nature. The only difference is that while breeding is limited to combining genetic material randomly from two organisms capable of sexual reproduction with one another, genetic modification can predictably combine genetic material from any organisms. GMOs are merely an extension and acceleration of natural genetic combination. Therefore genetic modification is no more unnatural or unsafe than any other practice in agriculture[iii].

Opponents of GMOs, on the other hand, argue that such crops are not natural at all, giving them names like “frankenfoods”[iv]. The naturalness of the process of combination, not the things combined, matters most. Even if the genes are natural, i.e. found in nature, the process of inserting a gene from a bacterium directly into a plant’s DNA is thoroughly artificial. Such a thing could not happen without people, they argue. Therefore genetic engineering is unnatural and should not happen. We have made plants like cotton and soy do things that are not part of their essential character, and we deviate from nature at our peril[v].

Representations of nature do not merely describe the world as it is. They also serve as a guidepost for imagining the world as it should and should not be. People on both sides of the GMO debate use different meanings of nature to mark the boundary between the safe and the dangerous. Western society tends to treat nature as a source of concrete, objective truth. However, as the GMO example shows, this guidepost is ambiguous in practice. It is important to ask what is nature, because the meaning can change with every use.


[i] Williams, Raymond. “Nature,” Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.

[ii] See also, Cronon, William. “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” Environmental History 1.1 (1996): 7-28.

[iii] See, for example, the website of Monsanto, a key developer and patent owner of GMOs: http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/Pages/our-role.aspx, http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/Pages/our-role.aspx, or http://www.monsanto.com/products/Pages/biodirect-ag-biologicals.aspx all touch on the arguments I have paraphrased here.

[iv] For an in-depth discussion infused with the humanities, see also, Francois, Anne-Lise. “’O Happy Living Things’: Frankenfoods and the Bounds of Wordsworthian Natural Piety,” diacritics 33.2 (2005) 42-70. Online: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/diacritics/v033/33.2francois.html.

[v] In the words of Prince Charles, a long-standing skeptic of GMOs, “manipulating nature is, at best, an uncertain business.” In Shiva, Vandana, Ed. Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press. 2007. 26-27.


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