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The Age

Getting to grips with unnatural urges

Date: 30/04/2011
Words: 831
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Life & Style
Page: 27


By Philip Ball

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IT'S comforting to know one's beverage is part of the cosmic blueprint. My wife's soymilk is "made from the whole soy bean as nature intended". This is more than an industrial product: nature itself wants the beans cooked, sterilised and homogenised, then packaged in easily stacked boxes.

At the heart of this fluffery is a simple moral equation: nature equals goodness. Importantly, this equation was not invented by ad men. It is an ancient and enduring belief, at home in classical philosophy, Christian theology and today's bioethics debates. Stoics such as Seneca believed that the highest good was a life lived according to nature. Contemporary critics of stem-cell research defend what's natural against technological perversions.

As this suggests, naturalness also has its negative complement: unnaturalness. If nature is primordially good, then what's against nature is bad or evil. When something new does not fit into our neat categories  a test tube baby or cloned bacterium  we don't always rethink the categories. Instead, we call it unnatural: unethical, sinful, monstrous.

This process is explored in Philip Ball's excellent Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People. Ball, a science writer and former Nature editor, examines the history of "people making", what he calls anthropoeia. As he demonstrates, there is something profoundly unsettling about creating or recreating human life  except by the old-fashioned way. In this, Ball is not interested in a perfect definition of nature. Instead, he shows how enduring, unconscious ideas of naturalness guide our opinions and decisions. They colour literature, influence newspaper reports and guide policy.

To begin, Ball discusses what the Greeks called techne: craft. For Aristotle, techne realised certain possibilities, which weren't realised by nature, or physics, alone. Nature makes grapes, but not wine  so we finish the job. Nature and craft weren't radically different for Aristotle: both moved towards certain ends, and they complemented one another. Techne might make natural things such as shelters. The products of craft, such as boiling water, might be used to understand physics. In general, the Greeks distinguished between nature and craft, but their conceptual edges were fuzzy, and often without moral condemnation. Something might be created unnaturally without being immoral.

Mediaeval theologians took up many of Aristotle's ideas, but not without conflict. For Aristotle, nature's departures from the norm  deformed children, for example  were like a craftsman's mistakes: regrettable but not immoral. For Christian theologians, nature was ruled by God's law. And with God came morality: perfect goodness, infallibility, omniscience. Errors became proof of some sin. Children born with disabilities were monstrous, and evidence of transgression against natural law: witchcraft, sodomy, bestiality.

More than a millennium later, the Catholic Church opposes in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Why? Chiefly because it is unnatural: it makes babies without heterosexual intercourse sanctified by marriage. In this way, Christian morality is smuggled into nature, which is then used to authoritatively reject new beliefs and practices. But if we want to challenge IVF, cloning, stem-cell research or other biotechnologies, we need hard evidence of actual harm done, not deference to unquestioned tradition.

Ball is not on an anti-Christian crusade. He is equally critical of foggy ideas in literature, journalism and science. Some newspaper commentary on biotechnology is certainly more fictional than Battlestar Galactica, for example, with its uncanny, human-like robots. His timely passages against genetic determinism  the idea that DNA determines our physical and psychological fate  pack scholarly punch. For Ball, biologists and physicists have shibboleths too. "Myths and taboos exist for a reason," he writes, "but that reason is not about predicting the future. They are apt to . . . seduce us with grand narratives when the really important issues are rooted in the particulars of our times and cultures."

Ball's basic outlook is both Socratic and Delphic. It is Socratic because it concerns the examined life. Each new advance in biotechnology can challenge our prejudices. For those who thought test tube babies would be soulless, infertile things, we have Louise Brown, and the millions of IVF babies born since her birth in 1978. Her humanity was not stolen by artificial conception. Life changes, and our ethical debates must keep up  we cannot rest on our moral laurels.

Ball's vision is also Delphic: "know thyself" is his counsel. His catalogue of historical fantasies is a primer on the capricious human mind. To live intelligently, we have to be mindful of our fears and desires, and the demons they feed in our psyche's catacombs.

Because he's neither a religious nor scientific fundamentalist, Ball's ideas may draw flak from both. Conservatives might baulk at his conception of the soul, and biologists at his ideas of irreducibility. But his archaeology of the unnatural is a clear-headed and timely contribution to contemporary debate. It is also an enlightened book of ideas, which makes intelligent writing look deceptively natural.

Dr Damon Young is a philosopher, and the author of Distraction. He is writing a book of essays on philosophy and the garden.

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