Upsetting the balance of nature

Michael Cook
January 22, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

It's not surprising that a report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an influential independent British bioethics think tank, has received almost no publicity since its release last November. " Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine " is not a title which sets the pulse racing.

Perhaps they should have christened it "Unnatural Acts". That would have guaranteed it blanket coverage in the London tabloids. (Summary here . Full report here .)

But this study of why people call some things "natural" or "unnatural" could be one of the most important position papers of the decade. It is fundamentally an attempt to deconstruct and then to outlaw what US bioethicist Leon Kass called "the wisdom of repugnance".

A new medical technology encounters the most resistance when voters describe it as "unnatural". If you nailed a placard to a door with the words "plague within", politicians could not run away fast enough. So one strategy to secure government approval for controversial new technologies is to reframe the debate -- either to make the technologies look natural or to send the word "naturalness" to Coventry. The latter is the approach favoured by the Nuffield Council.

As the report points out: "People's ideas about naturalness may influence the degree to which advances in science, technology and medicine are embraced or opposed by the UK public." So it sets out to deconstruct the word, to make it meaningless, and so to bury it as a term of intellectual discourse. If people can be taught to distrust their own moral intuitions, securing regulatory approval for the most far-fetched projects will be a snap.

The British scientific establishment, which is fond of white papers, has a lot of experience in massaging public opinion. In recent years, it has shepherded through Parliament laws permitting "unnatural" technologies like IVF, mitochondrial donation, hybrid embryos, GM foods, animal experimentation, cloning, surrogacy, and gamete donation.

The most famous of all British white papers, the 1957 Wolfenden Report on Homosexuality , covered much the same ground when it concluded that homosexuality was neither a disease nor a crime. (A decade later the UK repealed its ban on homosexual offences.) Nor was homosexuality "unnatural", the committee argued, for the same reasons that the Nuffield Council was to employ 60 years later:

Similarly, we have avoided the use of the terms "natural" and "unnatural" in relation to sexual behaviour, for they depend for their force upon certain explicit theological or philosophical interpretations, and without these interpretations their use imports an approving or a condemnatory note into a discussion where dispassionate thought and statement should not be hindered by adherence to particular preconceptions. (paragraph 36)

There in a nutshell is the Superior Man's case against the Common Man's wisdom of repugnance: only a philosopher can muddle this out and we are not the philosophical kind; the only good reason is: does it do harm?

Since philosophers have been debating naturalness for at least 2,400 years old, yet another committee of British panjandrums was unlikely light up the sky with intellectual fireworks. But their report has a more limited purpose: to give the government an arsenal of arguments to justify potentially controversial policies.

There is no better strategy for dismissing a moral argument than to say that it is meaningless, ambiguous and confusing. The words "human dignity" have already been expelled from the vocabulary of most bioethicists after being subjected to this sort of analysis. It also works for "naturalness".

The report sets out five understandings of naturalness that show the different ways in which the terms "natural" and "unnatural" are used:

Neutral: a neutral/sceptical view that does not equate naturalness with goodness.

Wisdom of nature: the idea that nature has found the correct or best ways of doing things and should not be "tampered" with.

God and religion: the idea that certain technologies distort God's creation or go against the will of God.

Natural purpose: the idea that living things have natural purpose, essence or functions which is linked to what is good for them and which science shouldn't seek to change.

Disgust and monstrosity: a response of disgust, revulsion or fear prompted by novel technologies.

"It is too simplistic to suggest that natural things are good and unnatural things are bad, yet we see many examples of this being implied through the media, in advertising and on the packaging of many products we buy. Our findings show that people use the terms nature, natural and unnatural to express a range of values, beliefs, hopes and fears," said Roland Jackson, the chair of the naturalness project.

Amongst the recommendations made by the committee is some Orwellian finger-wagging at journalists, politicians, policy-makers, manufacturers and advertisers to mind their language. Tom Shakespeare, member of the Council's Steering Group, said: "The use of these words by journalists, politicians and others to convey a good or bad view of science is lazy and clichéd. People often have genuine concerns, beliefs and values which should be answered, not just dismissed. Everyone involved in key debates about science should avoid using these terms, unless they are willing to explore and engage with the hopes and fears that lie behind them".

From now on, in other words, the term "natural" is to be regarded as "doubleplusungood", as they used to say in 1984.

Although the report concludes that more precision in the use of the word "natural" will help people communicate more effectively, it's hard to escape the feeling that the British government has something up its sleeve. After all, it is not in the business of lexicography.

And it does. While the report is cautiously phrased, it prepares the ground for an official government stand that the word "natural" is so ambiguous and confusing that arguments based on "naturalness" carry no weight whatsoever. It's hard to imagine what cannot be approved in the new bio-technologies if this happens.

The same argument can be deployed in public policy arguments about sexual morality, just as the authors of the Wolfenden Report did 60 years ago. If "naturalness" is banned from public discourse, how can homosexuality, gay marriage or transgenderism be called wrong? Or, for that matter, incest or bestiality? Or human enhancement or genetic engineering? Or genetically modified animals or geo-engineering the climate?

The goal of Newspeak, the official language in George Orwell's 1984, was to make negative thoughts literally unthinkable: "This was done partly by the invention of new words," he wrote, "but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever."

Is this what the Nuffield Council has in mind?