On the nature of nature – A study on the use and meaning of nature and (un)naturalness in the literature on genetic modification

Research reports | 01.02.2022 | CGM 2022-01

Whether or not something is ‘natural’, plays a role in numerous societal debates, e.g. on animal caretaking, on taking down trees in the context of nature conservation or on the use of corona-vaccines. In the societal debate on the desirability of genetic modification, as well, whether or not genetic modification is ‘natural’ is a central topic of debate. According to some, genetic modification is undesirable because it is ‘unnatural’. On the other hand, others argue that genetic changes also occur in ‘nature’ or that humans ‘by their nature’ strive for innovation. That is, different meanings of the term ‘nature’ are being used in parallel, which can obscure or stall the debate. Utrecht UMC and Erasmus School of Law have untangled the different meanings of ‘nature’ in the context of genetic modification in this research report, that was commissioned by the COGEM.

The different meanings of ‘nature’ are described in the report on the basis of a literature analysis of research and policy reports, positive law and scientific literature. Three overarching concepts of nature are identified, where ‘nature’ refers to 1) everything that is free from human influence (the ‘non-human’); 2) the totality of everything around us, including humans (‘entangled nature’); 3) the essential characteristics of a thing.

In the report, the authors distinguish between value-neutral and value-laden references to ‘nature’ and ‘(un)naturalness’. Value-laden references to ‘nature’ or ‘(un)naturalness’ in the context of genetic modification are linked to a judgement about its desirability. The authors make a plea for taking the underlying values and concerns that might be voiced by references to ‘nature’ or ‘(un)naturalness’ seriously, even though the meaning of the concept itself can be hard to grasp.

This report also includes a set of questions to trace which meaning of the terms ‘nature’ or ‘(un)natural’ plays a role in a specific context.

Overall, this report offers nuance and provides further insight into an argument that is used in many societal debates, and offers the possibility to reflect on its underlying values and concerns.

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