Farmer in field during sunset

From Bioethics Briefings

Nature, Human Nature, and Biotechnology

  • Moral views about nature—claims that nature or a natural state of affairs has value—are important in contemporary debates about biotechnology.
  • Three kinds of biotechnological interventions involve moral views about nature: alterations to human nature, alterations to plants and animals in human settings (such as agriculture, industry, and the home), and alterations to wild organisms in the shared environment.
  • Disagreements arise over both the meaning of “nature” and whether views on it are really about something else—such as keeping the status quo.
  • Examples drawn from the natural world and from the history of scientific and technological progress show that moral views about nature are complex and qualified.
  • Moral views about the environment have led to policy aimed at environmental protection and preservation.
  • Incorporating moral views moral views about nature in public policy requires balancing citizens' different opinions and belief systems.

Framing the Issue

From genetically modified foods to assisted reproduction to gene drives, an increasing number of social debates feature moral views about nature—claims, that is, that a naturally occurring state of affairs has value, such that we may (as individuals and perhaps as a society) want to protect and preserve it, restore it, or at least leave it alone. Moral views about nature take a variety of forms and are deeply contested, however. There are debates, for example, about whether the meaning of “nature” is clear enough to play a role in moral thinking, about whether nature really has any value, and about whether moral views about nature can legitimately be taken up in public policy.

Appeals to Nature in Public Debate

The idea of nature has enduring power in everyday discussion. There are three large social debates that feature moral views about nature.


One debate that involves moral views about nature concerns alterations people might someday be able to make to human nature—to themselves or to others—using medical technology. For example, philosopher Michael Sandel argues that using gene transfer technologies to enhance ourselves or our children represents “a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires.” The President’s Council on Bioethics, formed by President Bush in 2001 to address the ethical and policy ramifications of biomedical innovation, argues that reproductive cloning would “represent a challenge to the nature of human procreation and child-rearing.” The environmentalist Bill McKibben followed up his book on environmentalism, titled The End of Nature, with a book arguing that human genetic engineering and other technologies will bring about “the end of human nature.”

Moral views about human nature have long been cited in some nonmedical contexts, especially concerning sexuality. Many also think that biological parents should be recognized as a child’s “true” parents over, say, adoptive parents. The use of in vitro fertilization to bring a baby into the world was initially met with some objections that by replacing the role of sexual intercourse it might damage humans’ understanding of the value of human beings. Although this objection has largely fallen away, others have held up. Many commentators think, for example, that we should not use performance-enhancing drugs in sports and that we should die natural deaths, neither hastening them with doctors’ assistance nor indefinitely prolonging them with tomorrow’s “antiaging” technologies. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees the enforcement of programs to limit the biotechnological enhancement of athletes, maintains that doping is contrary to the “spirit of sport”—a concept that is sometimes interpreted as referring, in part, to the values that athletes and fans attach to natural talents such as strength, speed, and coordination. (See “Sports Enhancement.”)

Agriculture and Industry

Another high-profile social debate concerns biotechnological interventions into nonhuman organisms that are found and maintained in human settings, such as agriculture, industry, and the home. Many of these organisms have been significantly altered over many hundreds or thousands of years through breeding and grafting, but new forms of genetic engineering arguably allow for a greater level of control and for combining traits across radically diverse taxonomic categories (adding a jellyfish trait to mammals, for example).

The most common agricultural examples are varieties of crops engineered either to resist insect pests (allowing farmers to use less insecticide) or to tolerate herbicide (allowing farmers to use more herbicide). In 2015, a salmon modified to grow faster was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Industrial examples include many genetic modifications to algae and bacteria to cause them to produce fuels, medicines, and other chemicals. These examples fall into the category of biotechnology known as “synthetic biology.” (See “Synthetic Biology.”)  A genetically modified fish originally developed for industrial purposes is known as the Glofish (it grows red or green in the dark) and is now widely available for sale as a pet.

Many of the objections to these interventions are couched as concerns about risks, both to human health and to the environment. Objections grounded in moral views about nature have been harder to express, but they are recurrent. When the Glofish was introduced, a California Fish and Game commissioner expressed his misgivings about it by saying, “For me, this is a question of values, not a question of science. I look at this and ask myself, ‘So what’s next? Pigs with wings? Pink horses?’” -Some philosophers have argued that genetic modifications would violate an organism’s “species integrity.” And some of the objections couched as concerns about risks may incorporate underlying moral views about nature. One objection sometimes offered to corn that has been modified to be insect-resistant is that it harms monarch butterfly larvae that may feed on milkweed near the corn.


A third debate, focusing on environmental protection and preservation, is about the modification of plants and animals in the wild. Some proposals to modify the shared environment in this way are similar to the modification of plants and animals in agriculture, except that large numbers of modified individual specimens would be released into the shared environment. The American Chestnut Foundation supports work, for example, to create a blight-resistant American chestnut tree by inserting a wheat gene into the tree’s genome; volunteers could then be enlisted to plant the trees in the wild. A similar approach has been proposed to recreate and reintroduce extinct species such as the passenger pigeon and wooly mammoth. A variation on this strategy involves the use of “dominant lethal” genes, also known as “self-limiting” genes, which cause premature death in host organisms. If insects with dominant lethal genes mate with wild-type insects, then the offspring will inherit the dominant lethal gene and die as larvae. Successive releases of large numbers of modified insects can reduce the local population of that species. The company Oxitec is running trials of this method.

Another approach makes use of gene drives, which are processes that increase the likelihood that a gene and the trait it confers will be passed to offspring. If the transmission rate is high enough, the trait can, in principle, be “driven” from a single modified organism through a reproductively connected population, perhaps a whole species. The discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system has led to rapid advancements in gene drive science. Gene drives might be used to modify a population; perhaps, for example, the mosquitoes that transmit malaria could be modified in ways that interrupt transmission. Gene drives might also aim to suppress or eliminate a population, perhaps by biasing the population’s sex ratio.

U.S. environmental policy already recognizes that natural phenomena can have value. For example, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 implies that human beings should avoid driving naturally occurring forms of life into extinction, even if the human activities that endanger them bring other social benefits. Likewise, the Wilderness Act of 1964 presupposes that it is morally desirable to preserve some spaces that are, in the language of the act, “untrammeled by man,” even though those spaces might be put to other socially beneficial uses. Similar impulses probably lie behind the creation of the federal national park system, the idea for which is sometimes credited to the artist George Catlin and his hope that some of the West might be “A nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their natures’ beauty!” Finally, some environmental policies that are also aimed at public health, such as the clean air and water acts, may be partly motivated by appeals to nature. The public service advertising in the 1970s that portrayed an American Indian reacting disconsolately to the sight of litter along a roadside assumed that combating pollution is not only about public health; it is at least partly about a moral attitude toward the environment.

Thinking through Appeals to Nature

Moral views about nature have been contested on a number of grounds by philosophers and others. The critics argue that such arguments are muddy because nature is not a straightforward concept. Or they contend that those who appeal to what’s natural as a reason not to embark on some path may actually be concerned with change itself and a desire to keep the status quo. So-called counterexamples give these objections some teeth—but also highlight the complexity of the debate.

Disagreement Over What “Nature” Is

“Nature” is a famously complicated term, employed to make a variety of different points at different times. Some critics doubt that “nature” can be meaningfully used in a moral argument. In its 1982 report Splicing Life, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical Research dispensed with all appeals to nature by arguing that they lead to a dilemma: Under one common definition, “nature” refers to the fundamental laws of nature. Under this definition, however, everything humans do must be regarded as natural, and therefore humans cannot harm nature. Under a second common definition, “nature” is what is free of human interference. But in that case, everything humans do is unnatural. Either way, then, the commission concluded, “nature” alone cannot help make any moral distinctions.

In the moral and policy debates described here, “nature” and “natural” refer to a state of affairs free of human interference. To answer the commission’s objection, the understanding of “nature” must be left somewhat fuzzy, allowing some but not any level of human interference. Perhaps “free of human interference” can be given the (rather complicated) definition “not under human domination” or “not under ongoing human control.” Or perhaps it refers to the overall degree of human interference. In this approach, a wilderness need not be pristine in order to be counted as a wilderness. A national park might be considered “natural” because, at least compared to clearly “artificial” phenomena like industrial facilities, many things within it—species, places, and processes, for example—are largely free of human interference. Similarly, perhaps modification through breeding is consistent with something’s being “natural” while genetic modifications are not, and an athlete whose body is sculpted only by traditional interventions such as diet, sleep, and training is “clean,” while one who employs pharmaceutical agents is “doping.”

If we take this approach, we will have some clear examples of what is widely accepted as natural or unnatural, and we will also have many hard cases somewhere in the middle that cannot be decisively resolved. Arguably, however, many other morally relevant concepts—such as freedom of the will and informed consent—are beset by similar problems of vagueness.

Can Moral Views about Nature Ever Be Justified?

A second kind of objection to moral views about nature is that they are not morally compelling. Critics hold that valuing nature is sheer sentimentality—perhaps disgust or fear of change, in particular— rather than a well-grounded rational principle. Some also argue that the very point of morality is precisely to change or counter human nature—to restrain natural human urges and to compensate for the natural evils that befall people.

Those who defend moral views about nature have taken various tacks to put those views on an acceptable foundation. Some maintain that a fixed understanding of human nature is important for other moral values. For example, Francis Fukuyama contends that an understanding of species-typical human needs and abilities is necessary in order to make arguments in support of human equality: it is what makes equality possible. Sometimes, too, an understanding of species nature is said to be part of the ideas of “integrity” or “dignity”—an idea that has been employed both in agricultural ethics and in human rights theory.

Environmental philosophers in the “Deep Ecology” movement have argued that nature can have “intrinsic value,” by which they mean that it is valuable all by itself rather than merely because it contributes to some other valuable thing. The Deep Ecology account of intrinsic value is not easily defended, however. Another, simpler way of thinking about the intrinsic value of nature is to say that it is valued for itself, not that it is valuable all by itself. This account might dispense with ultimate justifications for why nature is valued. Human beings, rationality, and happiness are other common candidates for intrinsic value, and maybe—as the philosopher David Hume argued—there is ultimately no argument for why they should be so valued, either.

Is Biotechnology Bad? Some Provocative Examples

Claims about the value of nature can lead into difficult philosophical debates. Possible counterexamples help make these issues concrete.

  • Is gene transfer “unnatural” even if genes are sometimes transferred from one species to another “in nature” —without human involvement?
  • People have been genetically modifying crops and livestock for thousands of years simply through breeding and grafting; is today’s biotechnology different?
  • Many landscapes and ecosystems regarded as natural turn out to have been influenced to some degree by humans; does that make them “unnatural”?
  • When analgesics were first given to women in labor, they were opposed by some as unnatural; is it a mistake that today, denying analgesics would be considered unacceptable?
  • What is medicine but an ongoing effort to overcome nature?

To critics of moral views about nature, these examples show decisively either that the idea of “nature” is incoherent (because purportedly nonnatural phenomena occur in nature) or that it lacks any real moral force (because people have long been altering nature without censure). To those who defend moral views about nature, these examples complicate rather than counter their position. From their perspective, the examples show the complexity of the idea of “nature” and its limits as a moral basis for action. Other moral considerations—human well-being, rights of self-determination, and property rights, in particular—must also be borne in mind and might in some cases outweigh moral views about nature. The defenders also sometimes hold that whether nature or human nature should be preserved depends on the circumstances. Thomas Murray, for example, argues that while natural talents are celebrated in sports, enhancement can still be fine for surgeons and soldiers.

Policy Implications

In a liberal society, a variety of philosophical, moral, and religious views coexist, and public policy is supposed to navigate a line of some sort through the differences. This view of public policy may generate both a rationale for allowing public policy to reflect moral views about nature and a constraint on doing so. Moral views about nature are indeed part of many citizens’ world views and seem no less reasonable than many other philosophical and religious beliefs. Many other citizens are not moved by such appeals, however. And while views about nature constitute a powerful moral ideal for many people, public policy is often reticent to require that citizens uphold ideals, even when those ideals are agreed upon. We do not require that citizens treat each other kindly, for example. Arguably, then, liberal government should adopt a cautious stance toward moral views about nature—not imposing them on all citizens, yet creating the possibility that citizens who hold them can live by them.

As already noted, environmental policy incorporates moral views about nature in a limited way, through protections for certain species and designated places, for example. Views about nature have also led to public policy through nongovernmental channels, such as sports governing bodies. In recent years, prominent commentators have called for special mechanisms to engage and protect public opinion.  In the agricultural domain, food labeling that informs consumers about the use of genetic modification might provide a mechanism that respects different perspectives about nature without enforcing any of them. Reports on gene drives and human gene editing issued in 2016 and 2017 by two committees of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine call for processes of public deliberation by which the public can collectively assess the merits of proposals to use biotechnologies and decide how to move forward with them.

Gregory E. Kaebnick, PhD, is a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. His most recent book is Humans in Nature: The World As We Find It and the World As We Create It. He was a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Gene Drive Research in Non-Human Organisms: Recommendations for Responsible Conduct.

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Further Reading
  • Ronald Bailey, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, Prometheus Books, 2005.
  • Enhancing Human Capacities, ed. Julian Savulescu, Ruud ter Meulen, and Guy Kahane, Wiley-Blackwell 2011
  • Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
  • John Harris, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, Humans in Nature: The World As We Find It and the World As We Create It, Oxford, 2014
  • Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Times Books, 2003.
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values, National Academies Press, 2016
  • Erik Parens, Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking, Oxford, 2015.
  • President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, 2003. Report available at
  • Michael Sandel, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in an Age of Genetic Engineering, Belknap Press, 2007.