Beavers build dams on rivers birds build nests chimpanze use sticks for fishing termites or ants. Nature speaks for itself. But when people build dams or use tools to feed themselves, our products, though being not much more complicated, are considered unnatural. This distinction is rooted very deeply. Entire fields of thought, research and engineering confirm this their names: synthetic biology or artificial intelligence. It seems as if human inventions are separated from nature. But how to distinguish the natural from the unnatural, natural from unnatural? How is this even a useful distinction?
At first this question seems simple. But it’s not. For this reason Bertrand Russell were great: “Everything is vague to a degree you don’t realize this until trying to clarify”.
In the dictionary the definition of “unnatural” means “different from things that are normally available in the physical world or nature.” Therefore, we need to define what “usually”, but nothing is more vague than that. Each person has their own concept of “normal”, depending on its conditions of existence and life experience. We can replace “normally” with the word “average”, but then will be faced with the need to collect statistics. If we reduce the diversity of the world by “average”, there will be no specific examples.
And even if we think of the word “usually” seriously: the stars, the planets, the signs of life — all consisting of matter, will be far from normal for us. Almost the entire natural universe is empty space. But who would describe the earth, the Sun or the tree as something unnatural?
If you look at the bigger picture and say that everything in our Universe is natural — unnatural, then everything will be impossible by definition. It can exist, but we will never face it because it is beyond our experience.
Perhaps technology of the people is just as natural as the tools that are found throughout the animal Kingdom all of them are natural, like the planets, stars and galaxies.
From this point of view, technology is a natural consequence of physical laws. And the feeling that it is something distant from nature, more related to morality. Apparently, invention or technology offend the feelings of some people.
A good modern example of genetic engineering.
Currently, we have little use genetic engineering on plants (except making genetically modified foods), but a new powerful technology to edit the genes quickly simplify the process of working with individual genes. We can put a jellyfish gene in the other genome and to make the plant, rabbit or kitten to glow green. Isn’t it strange?
In the not so distant future we may regularly engage engineering everything, from bacteria to the human genome, even to create entirely new forms of life. But the idea of genetic engineering we have strong aversion and denial. Usually genetic engineering is called unnatural for a man, far from natural designs, “playing God”.
But genetic engineering is as old as life. After all, it is the engine of evolution.
From primeval mud to the teeming oceans of the Cambrian and the living world as we know it today, genetic mutations and sexual recombination has led to unimaginable diversity of creatures — deep-sea monsters, fragile flowering plants, extremophiles, higher primates. And people deliberately carried out genetic experiments for a long time, watching the live populations and using selection.
Admittedly, it’s a spectrum. But not from the natural to the unnatural. On one end you have the evolutionary chance, and the other directed evolution. Sexual selection is a kind of directed evolution, in the sense that some individuals instinctively choose partners for their genes on distinct physical characteristics. But directed evolution will be possible only thanks to people. From the point of view of geological time, is a novelty.
Being a relatively new acquisition of evolution, we are afraid of the power, which is concentrated in our hands, and a backlash against technology also makes sense because we see the Earth because of our presence. If you look from space, the planet literally glows at night.
But the world outside of the people do not have such moral evaluations and judgments. Ancient volcanic activity has radically changed the Earth’s atmosphere the asteroid killed the dinosaurs and if they were given a chance, animals would quickly processed the environment and its resources.
Even “natural” genetic selection is ethical or even practical from the standpoint of experiments. Changes occur thousands or millions of years. The animals stay with useless, vestigial remnants of previous generations. Genetic diseases and conditions of life lead to suffering, death and extinction of species.
Genetic engineering, which deals with people, on the other hand, is not random at all. And this idea is both scary and encouraging. There will be mistakes along the way, there will be malevolent creation — certainly — but mostly, genetic studies share a common goal: to improve the lot in life of mankind.
This may mean treatment of genetic disease or the reduction of failed harvests. It can also include fun or frivolous like the glowing rabbits — or terrible — like designer babies.
Whether the result of our experiments with genetic engineering and other advanced technologies good or bad? We don’t know. A new Cambrian explosion, including from the point of view of the diversity of opinions and results. But when discussing the future, we more clearly defined what is worth fighting for, and what should be abandoned. We define boundaries that would not or could not cross.