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One | Words and Things

An immediate problem with the word ‘nature’ is that it has multiple and overlapping meanings. If I were to write, ‘A Gifford lecturer might naturally be expected to talk about the nature of Nature, given the lectureship's emphasis on natural theology, even though mere human nature is not equal to the task,’ any sensitive reader would rightly be repelled by the apparent conceptual muddle. Nevertheless it should not be too difficult to grasp my meaning, despite the fact that ‘nature’ is used in five different senses in the same sentence. Context can tell us a great deal about the shade of meaning intended, but it cannot do so, or filter out unintended associations, unless there is some initial clarity about what the different meanings are. So let me begin with a brief look at these five.

What a Gifford lecturer might ‘naturally’ be expected to talk about is something which clearly fits in with the intention of the lectureship itself. ‘Natural’ in this context means ‘obvious’, ‘appropriate’, ‘what might be expected in the circumstances’. These are all variations on a more general sense of the word in which the ‘natural’ is what belongs to the ordinary world, or to in ordinary way of life, and is hence customary. In short, what we have here is an extension of the concept of the natural in the direction of ‘common usage’, until it becomes virtually indistinguishable from what is culturally familiar. Thus ‘doing what comes naturally’ may hint at some deep relationship with reality, or it may just mean following the fashion.

The next phrase, ‘the nature of Nature’ is a literary monstrosity, but it illustrates the point that there needs to be a clear contrast between meanings. To ask about the ‘nature’ of something is to ask what kind of a thing it is, what are its essential characteristics. Those who enjoy tracing links between words can note how ‘kind’ comes from ‘kin’, and ‘nature’ from ‘natus’ or birth. Thus, according to this meaning, the nature of a thing is what is innate to it, what makes it what it is.

The other half of the phrase, the Nature whose nature we are considering, refers not just to a quality or kind, but to a wide variety of other things. At one extreme it can include everything that exists, the whole natural world; sometimes this ‘everything’ is held to include humanity, and sometimes not. In other contexts it might mean country rather than town, or the environment, or the world as left to itself in contrast with the world as shaped by humanity. It can also describe a force or guiding principle, Nature doing this or that, Mother Nature operating her own laws and thus determining the way things are.

My fourth use of the word, as in ‘natural theology’, picks up some of these meanings, and contrasts what can be known by reflection on the evidence of the senses with what claims to be revealed by God. There are similarities here to the contrast between the natural sciences and the human sciences, where ‘natural’ refers to what is claimed to be objective and universal, as opposed to what is subjective and personal.

The fifth meaning, as in ‘human nature’ might seem a repeat of the second, when I referred to the ‘nature’ of Nature. But in fact there is a subtle difference. Usually when people talk about human nature they have in mind particular quirks and characteristics which make people interesting. They are not so much concerned with what kind of thing an individual human being is, but with what human beings are like, and how they behave, and why it is normal, for instance, for most ordinary human beings to become restive during discussions about mere words.

So there we have it—five meanings in one rather unnatural sentence. An American scholar is said to have identified more than a hundred shades of meaning. But five is perhaps enough, and if one really tries, one can reduce the main variants to three, all of which had their origin in ancient Greece.1

Classical Beginnings

The most primitive meaning of ‘nature’ in both Greek and Latin seems to have been ‘the character or quality of something’. It is the answer to the question, what kind of a thing is it? In Greek the word is ‘phusis’ and in Latin ‘natura’. Phusis is the origin of our word ‘physics’, the study of the nature of things, and like natura, seems to have been derived from the word for being born. Hence it can carry the meaning ‘the way things are by virtue of their coming to be’. This is the first meaning, and it is still much in use. It can be extended in the direction of ‘ordinary’ to include the idea of ‘doing what comes naturally’ referred to earlier.

The second meaning represents a move in the direction of generalisation. It is not difficult to see how the idea that each thing has its own nature might lead to the coalescence of these various natures into a single nature, or endowment, or directive force, which is common to them all. It is a movement of thought which was more likely to take place in a literate culture with the beginnings of an educational system, than in a non-literate one. Literacy makes it easier to build on individual experience, and thus to draw together multiple stories, insights and experiences into an ordered whole.2 One of the great achievements of classical Greece was to pioneer these more systematic ways of thinking by developing concepts which had some claim to be universal. Hence ‘nature’ in its second sense no longer referred simply to the concrete natures of actual things but could become the subject of natural philosophy, the study of that which makes everything what it is. This is a more abstract and generalised concept of nature, suitable for being dignified with a capital N.

It is plausible to suggest a parallel with what happened in the emergence of ideas about God, since it was not only in Greece that the growth of literacy changed the way people thought. Religions, too, during the widespread intellectual ferment of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., began to become more systematised. Encounters with the god or spirit of this place or that place, or this event or that event, tended to give way to a more unified experience in a more unified cosmos. People might still refer respectfully to individual gods, but these began to be overshadowed by awareness of a reality transcending time, place, and particularity, God as a proper name, with a capital G. In the biblical tradition the great prophetic assertions about the transcendent unity of God belong to the time when the words of the prophets actually began to be written down, and were part of the process whereby numerous myths, stories, and sayings began to be incorporated into a literary tradition.3 It is perhaps no coincidence that it was also an age of great empires, in which people had to live and think under the pressure of events which impinged on much more than their own tribe, nation or locality.

Whatever the precise reasons, the Classical Age began the search for intellectual coherence, and the concept of Nature as a unifying force, an energising ground of things, was one way of expressing the intelligibility of the universe. It became possible to talk about Nature doing this or that, and even to personify it, as in the phrase ‘Mother Nature’ which clearly has religious overtones, albeit pagan ones. When centuries later Marcus Aurelius expressed the typically Stoic thought, ‘since the universal Nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another… he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety towards the highest divinity,’ it was this personification of the natural order of things which he must have been assuming.4 At a still later stage the idea of Nature as somehow the underlying reality or cause of things could undergird the concept of the laws of nature, whether scientific or moral. ‘Nature teaches us…’ we say, the assumption being that it is indeed a unity. Or when Byron wrote, ‘The fault was Nature's fault not thine, which made thee fickle as thou art’,5 it is this second sense of some directive or pervasive force he seems to have had in mind.

The third meaning of ‘nature’ is simply ‘the entire physical world’. As I have already pointed out, it is not always clear whether human beings are to be included in this or not. Obviously our bodies are part of the physical world, yet in certain respects we also stand outside it, able to observe and study it, and to characterise it as physical. In fact there is plenty of room for confusion here, as there seems to have been in the origin of the notion itself.

The Greeks are said to have been the first to give the same name, phusis, to the whole of physical reality, as well as to the unifying power which they saw as underlying that reality, and to the particular character of each part of it. However, it is only in the last few centuries that this sense of ‘nature’ as the whole physical world has become predominant, largely coinciding with the rise of the natural sciences. How and why the extension of meaning originally occurred in classical thought cannot be pinpointed precisely. It may nevertheless be useful to look back in a little more detail at some of the key factors in the emergence of all three concepts of nature, and especially of this most comprehensive meaning.

Aristotelian Science

Aristotle tells us how the earliest Greek philosophers, the Ionians, drew the distinction between things human beings had made, and things which occurred by themselves—in other words, between artefacts and natural objects. They assumed that what was common to all natural things was that they were made of a single substance. As Aristotle later saw it, the universal substance was differentiated into countless natural forms, each according to its own phusis. This was a clear use of the first sense of phusis as essence, or more precisely, phusis as those characteristics of a thing on which all its other properties depend. To have the phusis of a bird, for instance, is to have feathers, wings, two legs, etc., in fact all those observable features by which we can recognise that what we are encountering is actually a bird.

The efforts of these early philosophers, though, were directed, not towards investigating these individual natures, which might have spelt the beginnings of natural science, but in speculations about what the single universal substance underlying them might be.6 Whereas Aristotle asked what everything was for—as in his oft-repeated remark ‘whatever Nature makes she makes for some purpose’7 (or ‘Nature does nothing in vain’)—their primary question was ‘What is it made of?’ As Aristotle himself put it,

Some hold that the nature and substantive existence of natural products resides in their materials… this is why some have said that it was earth that constituted the nature of things, some fire, some air, some water… for whichever substance or substances each thinker assumed to be primary, he regarded as constituting the existence of all things in general…8

Their speculations led nowhere, because all suffered from the fatal defect that if the underlying universal substance was already known in its basic form, how could one explain its differentiation into other forms totally unlike it? If everything is ultimately made of water, how can one explain the difference between water and rocks? If we then ask why they pursued this hopeless quest, the answer must surely lie in the strength of the new awareness that there must be some kind of underlying unity beneath the dazzling multiplicity and complexity of the world as experienced. But their conviction was premature. The only thing they succeeded in demonstrating was that there are no short cuts to discovering what the underlying unity might be.

Their successors, the Pythagorean philosophers, took a huge step forward by explaining the differences between things in terms of their structure. Curiously enough, it was music which provided the clue. They reflected on the fact that the differences between musical notes from a single vibrating string depend on the length of the string. There is a simple mathematical relationship between them; the shorter the string the higher the note. Here then was a difference in quality which could be accounted for by a difference in quantity. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in this mathematical discovery lay the seeds of all future science. If the ultimate nature of things depends on mathematical relationships, then it follows that the world as perceived by our senses must be as logical and intelligible as mathematics. Reality, in short, is rational. To discern this rationality we need to know what things actually exist, and to distinguish their different natures. This was one of Aristotle's great contributions. It is to him that we owe the first detailed study of what we now call the natural world, which was for him essentially a living world. ‘Some things exist, or come into existence, by nature; some otherwise. Animals and their organs, plants, and the elementary substances—earth, air, fire, water—these and their likes we say exist by nature… the common feature that characterises them all seems to be that they have within them a principle of movement and rest…’9 Nature, in other words—the sub-lunary world of movement and change—was to be contrasted with the heavens which were unchanging, as well as with those unchanging elements which underlay all change in the world, namely matter or substance. The potentially changeable form of each thing, was its phusis.

In his Metaphysics Aristotle further explored seven possible definitions of phusis,10 and finally declared its fundamental meaning to be ‘the essence of things which have a source of movement in themselves’. All living moving things, animals in short, and to a lesser extent vegetables, are natural and have their own phusis. The non-living elements of the world, mountains and rocks and houses for instance, have no source of movement, or internal organising principle, within themselves, but have had their form imposed on them by some external agency, as in human artefacts. A bed, for instance, may be made of wood, which has its own inner organisation or form, and is to that extent natural. But the bed as such has no organising principle within itself, nor will it move by itself, and if planted in the ground will not sprout baby beds. If it were capable of sprouting anything it would sprout a tree, because what persists is the essential natural quality of a thing, in this instance the wood of which it was made.

Given his definition of nature as essentially organic, we can see why Aristotle was not so interested in the material constitution of things, in fact was notoriously vague about the meaning of matter and substance. As an example of the confusion, he casually remarks at one point ‘… the term phusis is used rightly in two senses (a) meaning “matter” and (b) meaning “essence”…’.11 The implication here seems to be that the nature of something is the substantial existence of the thing itself, as well as the form and characteristics which make it what it is. It would be unfair to blame him too much for not being clear. The concept of substance is notorious for the intractable problems to which it gives rise—problems which, as we shall see in the next chapter, are no less intractable when pursued with all the armoury of modern physics. It is often the simplest questions which are the hardest, and the question, What is matter? is one of them.

Be that as it may, what really interested Aristotle were the causes of things. From his definition of phusis as ‘the essence of things which have a source of movement in themselves’ it is but a short step to believing that natural processes are inherently directed towards goals. Living things move for a purpose. Hence to explain their behaviour it is necessary to think in terms of so-called ‘final causes’, i.e. causes which specify goals and purposes, as well as the, to him, less interesting ‘efficient causes’—efficient because they have knock-on effects, as when one billiard ball hits another.

There is a famous example of the relationship between final and efficient causes in Aristotle's description of human hair.

Man has the hairiest head among all animals. There are two reasons for this: 1. The brain is fluid, and the skull has many sutures. A large outgrowth is bound to appear where there is a large amount of fluid and hot substance. 2. On purpose to give protection; that is the hair affords shelter both from excessive cold and from excessive heat. The human brain is the biggest and most fluid of all brains: therefore it needs the greatest amount of protection. A very fluid thing is very liable both to violent heating and violent cooling.12

The passage is interesting, first because it was picked on by Sir Francis Bacon in his tirade against final causes, but secondly because, while the efficient cause suggested by Aristotle is clearly absurd, the final cause appears to make a good deal of sense. Hair does indeed protect the head, though not for the precise reason Aristotle suggests. But though it has a purpose, in a Darwinian world we now know that the idea of purpose is not necessary in order to explain its existence.

For a less bizarre example, consider a salmon trying to reach its spawning ground, as it persistently tries to jump up and over seemingly impassable obstacles, even to the jeopardy of its own life. It may seem obvious to a spectator that the salmon is pursuing a goal. Its behaviour can be understood in terms of a final cause, its desire to reproduce. Modern reductionist biological orthodoxy, however, would be highly suspicious of any such form of explanation. The salmon is not consciously or unconsciously pursuing anything. It is thrashing about responding to chemical signals in the water itself, which have the effect of causing it to move upstream. The salmon's movements, it is claimed, can be explained wholly in terms of efficient causes, a pattern of chemical reactions which, after evolving in a fairly stable environment, have resulted in a successful, albeit complex, method of breeding. The appearance of goal-directed behaviour, from this perspective, is as illusory as the idea that a billiard ball deliberately seeks its pocket. Within a reductionist understanding of science, which seeks to explain all phenomena in terms of the behaviour of their most fundamental constituents, only efficient causes are acceptable. While this may be a helpful approach in the study of salmon, given what is now known about the mental limitations of fish, it may not seem to give much insight into the various moves and counter-moves as a lion stalks it prey, and still less into our own intentional activities, when we are conscious of having a goal clearly in mind. It is therefore worth digressing a little to look more closely at how far sophisticated goal-directed behaviour can actually be explained away as something else.

For a much less ambiguous example than that of hair or salmon, think of a robot designed to search for water on Mars. Its behaviour is undoubtedly goal-directed, yet also fully explicable in terms of the multiple operations taking place within its electrical circuitry.13 Goal-directed behaviour, in other words, does not require the existence of a mysterious extra something in the machine itself. It does, however, imply that at some point somebody has made a decision about what the machine is for. Similar appearances of goal-directed behaviour in animals, and even in human beings, may likewise be explicable in terms of what is happening in the circuitry of the brain, though the possibilities of being able to tease out in any detail precisely what is going on at this fundamental level are exceedingly remote. In the absence of such detailed demonstration, or even of the serious prospect of it, the assertion that, despite appearances, there is nothing more to thinking and deciding than a huge number of highly complex physical events, is sustained by the assumption that such explanation is in principle possible. Maybe so. But even with a relatively simple robot, it is doubtful whether an explanation at the level of circuitry can supersede other types of explanation in terms of what the robot was designed to do. Even to understand the circuitry, there needs to be some inkling of how and why it is supposed to operate, quite apart from its larger purpose in the human scheme of things. In fact all discussion of goals, and goal-directed behaviour, assumes a context more extensive than that of the individual animal or machine whose inner workings are under investigation. Or to put it in Aristotelian terms, the concept of final causes still has relevance at the level at which life is actually lived, and hence by implication also for systems at a lower level of being. Thus even in a robot it may not be necessary to regard final and efficient causes as mutually exclusive.

As an example of a goal-directed system, Aristotle invites us to consider the human hand. The purpose of fingers, he says, is incomprehensible apart from the purpose of the whole hand. The point can be generalised by saying that the understanding of the whole of a system may be necessary for an understanding of the operations of its parts. Indeed it is possible to go further and say that just as the whole depends on the operation of each of its parts, so each part depends on the operation of the whole. Thus the movements of each finger, though individually controlled, are also interdependent and have to relate to what the hand as a whole is doing. Causality, in other words, even at this relatively simple level, has to be interpreted in a wider context, which takes into account the purpose of the whole system.

While this may be true as far as it goes, Aristotle's example is likely to sound strange to modern ears. In describing the purpose of hands and fingers, a more usual starting point these days might be to set them in an evolutionary context, just as one might describe human hair as an evolutionary left-over. One could trace the way in which hands and fingers evolved together with no clear goal in view, as the paws and claws from which they developed gradually acquired new uses. But Aristotle was surely right to see that, as they now exist, hand and fingers can only be understood in relation to one another, and that on a much larger scale the purposeful combination of different functions is found par excellence in the human person as a whole. Our human experience of highly co-ordinated and goal-directed activity is fundamental to what we are. If it is dismissed as an incidental and insignificant epiphenomenon in a universe which does not need the concept of purpose, we may be losing a vital category for understanding the nature of things as a whole. The point is not that final causes have somehow to be smuggled back into science; rather that different types or levels of explanation are appropriate for different purposes, and can happily co-exist. But this is to anticipate. It is a difficult and contentious subject, to which I shall be returning in the next chapter.

Meanwhile the point of this digression has been to suggest that if we are to understand what Aristotle meant by phusis, it is essential not to dismiss his concept of final causes too summarily, particularly when thinking about complex organic systems. As he saw it, the nature of each living thing could only be understood in terms of the goals for which it existed. For him it was inherent in the phusis of each thing that it should go through a process of development until it reached the final and perfect phusis for which it was intended—a quasi-theological idea which also has moral implications, as we shall see in Chapter 4.

One important practical consequence of this belief was the collection of huge quantities of apparently unrelated biological facts, as part of an attempt to identify the essential nature and purpose of each species. The particular characteristics of birds, for instance, can only make sense in terms of a bird's ability to fly, and its whole process of development may be seen as directed towards that end. One of Aristotle's more famous studies was a day-by-day observation of hens’ eggs during the process of incubation, probably the first ever systematic study of embryology.14 He concluded from it, erroneously as it turned out, that the heart is the first organ to be formed, and that this must be so because it is the seat of life itself. Many other conclusions were similarly mistaken, a hardly surprising result in view of the fact that he was the first to undertake any such attempt at systematic classification. But in the context of the development of ideas about nature it is significant for two reasons. First, it was a pioneering attempt to study the natural world in detail and as a whole, and hence an important step in the extension of the meaning of ‘nature’ to include everything. Secondly, despite its manifold deficiencies, it paved the way for what we now call Natural History, which in turn became the essential foundation on which modern biological knowledge is built.

Aristotle's dictum ‘nature does nothing in vain’ was also capable of bearing unexpected fruit. He implied by it that, in addition to the purposiveness of individual organs and organisms, there is a more general purposiveness in the natural world as a whole. ‘Nature’, he wrote, ‘like an intelligent human being, always assigns each organ to something that is capable of using it…’15 Only intelligent creatures, for instance, have hands, because only intelligent creatures can use them appropriately. This wider use of phusis as a force or guiding principle points to ‘nature’ in our second sense, as energising and perhaps directing the world towards that fullness and vitality within which each individual nature is to be realised. It was an idea with deep roots in Greek culture, in which it was common to think of the natural world as a single organism, and even to ascribe to it some sort of soul. In a later Christian context it gave birth to natural theology, in particular the argument for God's existence from the evidence for design in the natural world—only, as it was then thought, capable of being explained by some directing intelligence.

Alternatively, read in a slightly different way, the dictum ‘nature does nothing in vain’, rather than expressing Aristotle's belief in final causes, might almost be a statement of Darwinian principles. The very basis of evolutionary theory is the belief that the various organs and capacities of living things have developed only because they promote survival. In Aristotelian terms one might say that survival is the final cause of the nature of all that evolves. The theory of evolution sets each individual life within the context of all the interactions between living things as a whole, and it is this widening of context which, as we have seen earlier, may give at least the appearance of purposiveness. Furthermore the forces which have shaped the hugely complex biological world are intelligible, if not intelligent, and it is not absurd to think of natural forces as somehow geared to the evolutionary emergence of intelligence itself. Absurd or not, this is the assumption which fuels the expectations of those who nowadays hope to find intelligent life in other parts of the universe. It is an article of faith among them that, if life once starts, more complex forms of it must inevitably follow, wherever there is a physical environment capable of sustaining them.

Whether or not it is possible to rescue Aristotle from being of merely antiquarian interest by such Darwinian reinterpretation may seem like an academic irrelevance. In terms of the development of the concept of nature, however, the relevant point is that his, and our, second use of the word ‘nature’, as a force or principle, was clearly implicit in the idea that nature has goals. For the goals to be achievable, there have to be reliable, consistent, and hence rational, laws controlling the mode of operation of nature's forces. Furthermore, as I have indicated previously, in order to identify the goals there has to be systematic study of all aspects of the living, moving, world. Thus if the moving force within the world is a rationally comprehensible phusis, and if everything has its own phusis, or essence, and if sometimes even the basic substance of things is phusis, the question arises, how should one describe the world as a whole? The unity and rationality of the whole was already safeguarded by Aristotle's idea of God as the prime mover in whose activity all the different forms of moving things have their logical ground. For some of his successors it must have seemed but a short step from describing particular things in terms of their phusis, to describing everything as phusis. But Aristotle himself seems not to have used the word in this comprehensive sense.

Whatever the route by which it happened, the step was taken, and this third all-inclusive meaning of ‘nature’ came into use, and now predominates. In its wake have followed all manner of subsidiary questions about the different senses in which phenomena can properly be described as part of nature. In common usage today the word frequently refers to the living world as opposed to the non-living, as in the phrase ‘natural history’. Or it can mean the natural world, supposedly unsullied by human interference, in contrast with the artificiality of human culture. This is a selling point for so-called natural products, from yoghurt to non-GM foods. The permutations are endless. The main point, though, is that, unless some distinctions are made, ‘nature’ as a description of everything ceases to have any significant meaning, except as an assertion that there is nothing which cannot be included under the same general description. If nature is everything, nothing can be unnatural, still less supernatural, and even the artificial only seems to be so because we wrongly regard our own actions as falling within a special category. Thus the way is open to a thoroughgoing naturalism, in which everything can be included within the same kind of study, and made subject to the same kind of explanation.

Nature—Given Or Constructed?

I have said enough about ancient uses to prepare the ground for some of the themes which will follow later, and I have suggested how they might have been related. It seems to me that the common thread running through all the meanings of nature I have been describing is a sense of givenness. Thus, according to the first meaning, the essential nature of a thing comprises all those qualities and characteristics which always belong to it, simply given in the way things are. In a world which knew nothing of evolution, such natures could be regarded as fixed.

Nature in its second meaning, as a principle or force, describes the way things happen, and this too is fixed. True, there are ways of speaking, as when people describe struggling against the forces of nature, or when environmentalists claim that we should go with the grain of nature, which might seem to imply that nature in this sense is somehow malleable. But in strict logic this cannot be so. If the laws of nature are fixed, there is no alternative to going with its grain; its laws can be harnessed by us, but not broken by us. Nevertheless there is a looser sense in which people speak of pitting natural forces against one another, and a further sense in which the ‘nature’ whose forces are to be respected, refers to what was there before human beings started interfering with it. Different forms of complementary and alternative medicine, for instance, appear to use language about the grain of nature, in both our meanings of the word. Much is made of the idea of the wisdom of the body, and the balances within nature which need to be maintained. Indeed there are good scientific grounds for supposing that such balances are important. One of the earliest pioneers in physiology, Claude Bernard, coined the word ‘homeostasis’ to refer to the complex means by which our internal environment, i.e. the fluids in which all our cells are bathed, is maintained in a constant state despite huge variations in the environment external to our bodies. The maintenance of body temperature in mammals is an obvious example. In fact life itself is only possible because natural forces can be harnessed against one another to maintain islands of stability in a sea of change. But in recognising and seeking to support such natural balances, complementary and alternative forms of medicine also characteristically reject what is deemed to be artificial. They are commonly promoted through phrases like ‘going with the flow’, ‘using nature's remedies’, avoiding ‘chemicals’, etc. Different concepts of what might be meant by the givenness of natural forces underlie these two meanings of nature, and this is why the appeal to what is ‘natural’ in these particular forms of medicine, as in many other spheres of life, can be a source of confusion.

Nature in its third and most comprehensive sense, meaning the whole physical universe, also has the quality of sheer givenness. It is simply there, the given reality within which our lives have to be lived. ‘The world is everything that is the case,’ wrote Wittgenstein.16 But are we who observe it also part of ‘the case’, or do we at least in some sense stand outside it? Even if we include ourselves wholly within it, we have to reckon with the fact that human beings have never been content with things simply as given. The world we inhabit is to a large extent a humanly constructed world, both physically and mentally. We have changed the face of nature, but we have also interpreted it, in all three meanings of the word, in ways which conform to our own beliefs and desires.

Bishop Butler who wrote perceptively about human foibles and the misunderstandings to which the concept nature can give rise, famously went on to say ‘Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?’17 But, of course, we do. Or if not to be deceived, at least to exercise our own judgement, to ask our own questions, and if need be to make our own mistakes. It is small wonder then that a concept with such a broad and ambivalent range of applications should have spun off out of control, proliferating into a hundred or more shades of meaning, some of them fortunately now obsolete.

Take a few extreme examples. Sir Leicester Dedlock in the novel Bleak House was a Baronet surpassing all others in the length of his lineage and the sense of his own importance. Dickens wrote of him, ‘He would on the whole admit Nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families.’18 For Sir Leicester, Nature was precisely what was not given, but what had been suitably refined for refined natures like his own. In similar fashion, when we admire nature nowadays, much of what we admire is what we or our forebears have cultivated.

A second example. In the period immediately after the First World War the most vicious attacks on Einstein's theory of relativity came from a group who called themselves German Natural Philosophers. Their diatribes against him centred on the ‘Jewish nature’ of relativity. Thus when Hitler came to power in 1933, a former Nobel Prize winner wrote in the official Nazi newspaper:

The most important example of the dangerous influence of Jewish circles on the study of nature has been provided by Herr Einstein with his mathematically botched up theories consisting of some ancient knowledge and a few arbitrary additions. This theory now gradually falls to pieces, as is the fate of all ideas that are estranged from nature.19

‘Nature’ in this last sentence carries clear overtones from the kind of nature philosophy which was part and parcel of the folk mythology of blood and soil, on which Nazism fed. Here then is a racial interpretation of how ‘nature’ is to be understood, politicised to confirm some deep-rooted prejudices. There was an equally notorious politicisation of science in the post-war Soviet Union, when orthodox genetics was overthrown in order to promote the highly contentious belief that acquired characteristics can be inherited—in conformity with Marxist theory. Nature was supposed to behave as scientific Marxism said it should, but failed to do so. Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet biologist whose falsified experimental results led to this debacle, presided over a disaster for Soviet agriculture between 1948 and 1964. This was done with the full backing of the Central Committee which had decreed his theory's correctness, and had dismissed or liquidated his scientific opponents.

I take a third example from Hamlet, whose father's ghost describes his own murder as ‘most foul, strange, and unnatural’. One wonders what a natural murder would be. We are obviously moving here in the realm of social convention where a murder within a family is deemed to be especially shocking, despite the fact that a high proportion of murders do actually take place within families. ‘Natural’ in this context presumably has overtones of natural affection, natural loyalties, and natural duties. As with Sir Leicester Dedlock, it has become an almost wholly cultural concept.

Thus in each of these uses of the concept there is a strong element of social conditioning. One could cite hundreds more in which the three basic meanings of ‘nature’ are moralised or politicised. Nature is invoked to support a claim that there is some kind of givenness or constraint operating in the moral or political sphere in which the user of the word wants to exercise control. That nature has been tamed by Dickens's great land-owner, is visible evidence of his power. In Nazi philosophy nature will not yield up her secrets to the alien theories of a man whose race marks him off as essentially sub-human, not a natural member of the German people. In Soviet agriculture a natural process of generation had to be made to conform to Marxist dogma, because Marxism is the ultimate, all-embracing science. In Hamlet the givenness of a human relationship has been foully set aside at the behest of pathological lust and ambition.

There is certainly a common thread, tending to imply a degree of givenness, in the use of the word ‘nature’ in these examples. But it is overlaid, at least in the first three examples, by the use of language as an exercise of power. To suppose that by constant alertness to similar misuses, one might be able to strip away the envelope of social conditioning, and thereby return to the pure essence of the meaning of nature, free of all confusions, would be seriously to misunderstand the way language works. It would be to mistake the clarity of a concept for the untidy and ambivalent reality to which it is intended to refer.

In fact what is usually meant by nature is precisely this confused array of overlapping experiences and types of experience, through which the awareness of a reality ‘out there’ impinges on us and resonates with some of the things we know about ourselves. What those things are that we have to come to terms with as given, and how they are affected by the way we understand them and treat them, will be the subject of the chapters which follow.20 Meanwhile I end this chapter with a question. Why, despite such ambivalence, does it still matter that we should try to be clear what we mean when we invoke the concept of nature, or react to what we deem to be natural or unnatural?

Why Clarity Matters

The short answer is that when a concept is so multi-faceted, as well as being so heavily loaded with moral and political baggage, it can merely compound the problems its use is intended to address.

I can attempt a longer answer by describing briefly one of the tasks which I have on hand, and which raises a multitude of questions about how far it is right to go in adapting the natural world to our own ends.

For the past four years or so I have been Chairman of a Department of Health committee charged with responsibility for overseeing all matters to do with xenotransplantation.21 This is an, as yet, largely untried method designed to meet the increasing shortage of human tissues and organs for transplant surgery, by the use of animal tissues and organs—notably those from pigs. It is a complex subject, involving animal welfare, the safety and effectiveness of radically new procedures, and the unquantifiable risks of unleashing new forms of infection which, if HIV/AIDS and BSE are any guide, might spread to epidemic proportions. All this is set against a background of people dying, or living miserable lives, say, on kidney dialysis, for lack of suitable transplant organs. I will not go into details, except to spell out a further factor in the equation—the so-called yuk factor. Many people, and not just those who are repelled by the subject of animal experimentation in general, feel that it offends deeply ‘against nature’ to contemplate using animals, and especially pigs, for transplantation into human beings.

There are two main aspects to this yuk factor. They can both be illustrated by one of the techniques which, it is hoped, could eventually make the transplantation of animal organs into human patients feasible. Animal organs or tissues transplanted directly into a host of another species are almost immediately rejected by the host's immune system. But if the source animal is genetically modified by the insertion of the appropriate human gene, this immediate and violent rejection can be prevented. Other forms of immunological reaction may follow, but at least the first hurdle has been overcome. The technique has been successfully developed, and those commercially interested in providing organs for xenotransplantation have bred many generations of immunologically humanised pigs. But even this first stage of the process induces some ethical qualms. The genetic modification of any animal is a serious business. Although it is now widespread in agriculture, there are questions to be asked about the ethical justification for it, and how far such interference with ‘natural’ life forms might properly be taken. These are matters to which I shall be returning in Chapter 5.

My immediate concern is with the problem of what should happen to humanised pigs when they are no longer needed. If the breeding programme is to be maintained in order to produce a supply of young pigs for experimental purposes, the vast majority of those bred have to be killed and destroyed. They are not allowed to pass into the food chain, though they are to all intents and purposes perfectly normal pigs, indistinguishable from others except in the highly specialised context of this particular immunological reaction. The result is that many thousands of pigs have lived wasted lives and died wasted deaths. There is a minuscule possibility that the genetic modification might cause adverse effects if eaten, but the overwhelming reason why they are excluded from the food chain is the yuk factor. What would the public reaction be to the possibility of eating humanised pork? Leave aside the fact that modern pigs are the end product of centuries of selective breeding. Emotion would be likely to centre on the difference between pigs as nature intended them, and what might be felt as an abuse of the natural order of things, the dangerous crossing of a species barrier, even if only to the extent of a single gene. The fact that we already share most of our genes with pigs would probably not alleviate public concern. The whole scenario was nicely represented in a newspaper cartoon depicting a white-coated scientist saying to an apprehensive pig, ‘We are moving you from research to catering.’

The other aspect of the yuk response is the reverse of this—not a reaction to humanised pigs but to porcinised humans. Xenotransplantation, whether of cells or whole organs, inevitably leads to a phenomenon known as chimerism. Individual cells from the transplant detach themselves, enter the blood stream of the human host, and are likely to end up in every organ of the body, thus becoming a permanent part of that person's physical make-up. The word ‘chimerism’ comes from chimera, the mythical monster made up of parts from several different animal species. Opponents of xenotransplantation make much of the idea, and cartoonists have had fun drawing pictures of people with pig's snouts and pricked-up ears. There is, of course, a medically serious side to chimerism, in that the circulating foreign cells might carry, and possibly transmit, infection. But there is also a deep, if irrational, fear that chimerism in some sense threatens human identity. Are we still truly human if parts of our body have been derived directly from a pig? It is the same fear which in the nineteenth century fuelled vigorous opposition to vaccination, on the grounds that ‘innoculation with fluid from cows would result in the “animalisation” of human beings’.22 There are reports of patients receiving human transplants, who have been disturbed by thoughts of the person whose organ they now possess. How would they feel with a pig's heart? Possible psychological reactions have been seriously discussed, but the brutal answer is that most people would almost certainly prefer to suffer minor psychological disturbance than be dead.

I have called such fears irrational because there is no scientific evidence that animal cells in a human body make the slightest difference to that person's humanity, any more than artificial limbs somehow render a person less than fully human. But the fear can feed on a philosophical question lurking in the background. How far can you go? How many organs can be replaced before a person's identity is threatened? What about a face transplant, for instance? And if the techniques for implanting foetal nerve cells in the brain to counter various degenerative conditions were to be greatly expanded, how much new brain tissue could one receive while still remaining the same person? No attempt to be clearer about what we mean by ‘human nature’ will by itself give us a final answer to such questions. Nevertheless it is worth trying to discern whether there are indeed given elements in human nature, and natural limits to what human beings should do and be, even if only as a safeguard against muddled thinking.

More general questions about how we are to recognise and respond to the givenness of nature in general become increasingly urgent as our powers to override it seem set to increase beyond our ability to assimilate the changes. Current controversies over GM foods, for instance, are only the tip of a very large iceberg. The question whether Mother Nature might take her revenge on those who trifle with her, is not as fanciful as it might seem.

These and other questions will be the subject of future chapters. But preceding them, in the next chapter, is the larger question raised by the concept of nature as everything there is. Is there a given reality, labelled ‘nature’, which is somehow analysable by beings which form part of it? Words do not necessarily correspond to things. Whether philosophical naturalism by itself is adequate to account for the world as we actually experience it, is inseparable from questions about how far our concept of nature is itself a social construct. So what is this givenness we seem to encounter? And does a proper insight into the givenness of things require that our description of it as ‘given’ should be more than just a metaphor? All these questions, and many more, are reasons why an exploration of the concept of nature is worth undertaking. But for me, as I suspect it was for the late Lord Gifford, the final question, whether givenness implies a giver, is the most significant of all.

  • 1.

    The three areas of meaning discussed in this chapter correspond to those identified by Raymond Williams in Keywords (Fontana, 1976) C. S. Lewis has a rather different classification in Studies in Word. (Cambridge University Press, 1961). His main interest was in the many different nuances of meaning in English literature. Among more modern treatments of the subject, to which I owe much, are Kate Soper, What is Nature? (Blackwell, 1995), and Phil Macnaughton and John Urry, Contested Natures (Sage Publications, 1998).

  • 2.

    Michael Horace Barnes, Stages of Thought (Oxford, 2000) pp. 89–90.

  • 3.

    Jeremiah Chapter 36 is evidence of written prophecies. Isaiah Chapters 40–55 express what is probably the first fully monotheistic faith. Both belong within this crucial period.

  • 4.

    The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book IX, 1.

  • 5.

    ‘To a Youthful Friend’, from Occasional Pieces.

  • 6.

    R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford, 1945) pp. 29ff. The book is particularly helpful on the Greek origins of the idea.

  • 7.

    Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 741b 13.

  • 8.

    Aristotle, Physics, 193a.

  • 9.

    Physics, 192b.

  • 10.

    Listed in Collingwood, op. cit. pp. 80–81.

  • 11.

    Aristotle, Parts of Animals, 641a.

  • 12.

    Parts of Animals, 658b.

  • 13.

    G. Sommerhoff, Analytical Biology (Oxford, 1950) pp. 66–70.

  • 14.

    Aristotle, History of Animals, 561a–562a.

  • 15.

    Aristotle, Parts of Animals, 687a.

  • 16.

    The famous opening words of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922). They need to be balanced by a very different thought near the end of the book: ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.’

  • 17.

    Joseph Butler, Sermon VII, 16.

  • 18.

    Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 2.

  • 19.

    Ronald W. Clark, Einstein. The Life and Times (Hodder and Stoughton, 1973) p. 443. See also p. 249.

  • 20.
    I take a guiding principle from an illuminating comment in Fergus Kerr's Theology after Wittgenstein (SPCK, 1997) pp. 104–5.

    Things do not reveal their properties to us as if we were totally passive recipients, with no contribution of our own to make. Nor are we absolutely free to impose whatever grid we like upon the raw data of sensation… There is no getting hold of anything in the world except by a move in the network of practices which is the community to which we belong.

  • 21.

    The name of the committee is the United Kingdom Xenotransplantation Interim Regulatory Authority. At the time of writing no xenotransplantation procedures have been authorised within the UK.

  • 22.

    Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World. Changing attitudes in England 1500–1800 (Allen Lane, 1983) p. 39.

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