book cover

Why have human beings, in many different cultures and time periods, looked to nature as a source of norms for human behaviour? From ancient India and ancient Greece, medieval France and Enlightenment America, up to the latest controversies over gay marriage and cloning, natural orders have been used to illustrate and reinforce moral orders. Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike have appealed to nature to shore up their causes. In her new book "Against Nature" (MIT Press), Lorraine Daston, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, asks why we continue to seek moral orders in natural orders, instead of looking to human reason.

What drew you to this subject?

Some years ago I co-edited a volume about the moral authority of nature, which included essays on how nature’s authority had been invoked in the most diverse contexts – from ancient Greece to Enlightenment Europe to modern China and Japan (Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal, eds., The Moral Authority of Nature, University of Chicago Press, 2004). My colleagues and I focused on how nature was endowed with moral authority in these diverse contexts, but the why question continued to nag me. The very diversity of the historical and cultural contexts deepened the question: why was this phenomenon so pervasive and apparently immune to refutation? In the 20th century, philosophers have given the phenomenon a name – the “naturalistic fallacy” – and criticised its many manifestations as both logically flawed and politically pernicious. Yet the phenomenon persists: why?

You write about the human urge to seek moral order in nature. How is this invoked in the modern context?

One need only look as far as the daily press to find examples. In debates over homosexual marriage, genetically modified organisms, and environmental disasters, the term “unnatural” regularly appears as a moral judgment, and a highly negative one at that. Even when the topic is relatively free of religious associations, as in the case of natural disasters, the phrase “Nature’s Revenge” is a favorite headline of editorials covering such events, from Hurricane Katrina in the United States to the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan.

In all of these cases, those who enlist nature’s authority in their cause conflate moral and natural orders – and disorders. The modification of the genome of one species by inserting snippets of the DNA of another species crosses a natural boundary and therefore, in the eyes of the critics of such procedures, also a moral boundary. (Think of the horrified reactions to the hoax image of a human ear apparently growing out of a mouse’s body that circulated on the Internet a few years ago.) Wildfires in California or avalanches in the Swiss Alps are often blamed on human greed and hubris, upon which nature takes its just “revenge.” In these and many other cases, the reproach “unnatural” is not merely a neutral description of something that is not found in nature; it is a term of strongest condemnation.

What about historically?

The most interesting thing about the ways in which natural orders have been used to represent and/or justify moral orders is the sheer number and diversity of examples, which run the gamut from the far left to the far right of the political spectrum. The stately rounds of the stars modelled the good life for Stoic sages; the rights of man were underwritten by the laws of nature in revolutionary France and in the newborn United States during the the Enlightenment; appeals to nature have grounded both apartheid-style racism and Green Party environmentalism. Nature has been used to defend both human equality and slavery. Nature can be made to march under almost any political banner.

The idea of looking to nature for answers has been widespread across time periods and cultures? Why is it so appealing?

To answer this question, it is helpful to distinguish between finding support for specific moral or political values in this or that aspect of nature and finding support for values in general – any kind of moral order – in the natural order. It is a notorious fact that specific norms differ, both cross-culturally and cross-historically. What one culture finds shocking – lending money at interest, a glimpse of a woman’s ankle, eating beef, slavery, cremation of the dead – another may consider standard practice, and vice versa. Since ancient times, this diversity of specific norms has been an argument for relativism. The diversity of appeals to nature to support causes from the reactionary to the revolutionary reflects that diversity of specific norms.

But there is no known human culture without any norms. A culture with no norms whatsoever would be as much of a contradiction in terms as nature without regularities. The precondition for norms of any kind is some kind of order, just as order is the precondition for any kind of regularity in nature. A situation that is so volatile and uncertain that what happened yesterday is no guide for today and today is no guide for tomorrow can support neither promises nor predictions. Imagine that everything from traffic regulations to the security of your neighbourhood changed constantly. Where you walked yesterday without a second thought as to your safety is today a war zone. Or imagine that the seasonal snows that fill the reservoirs stop. No one and nothing can be relied upon. Unfortunately, these chaotic conditions are all too familiar to people caught in civil wars or suffering the results of climate change. In a world in which neither promises nor predictions hold, neither cultural norms nor natural regularities have traction.

This is the deep analogy that links moral and natural orders. There remains the question as to why nature – as opposed to technology or art or other human-made orders – should serve as the predominant source of models for moral orders. There are some examples of models drawn from the human world to represent natural orders: for example, clockwork as a model of the Newtonian solar system. But nature offers advantages that even the largely built world of late modern societies cannot surpass: nature is the repository of almost all conceivable forms of order, everywhere and always on open display, and for the most part more durable than human artifacts. This is why natural orders have so long and so often served as an irresistible resource with which to represent moral orders.

Why shouldn’t we do this? What is obscured or lost when humans look to nature for answers?

There is an important distinction between using nature to represent versus to justify specific norms. Philosophers have rightly protested against turning nature into an oracle that allows humans to shirk responsibility for their own values and decisions. Furthermore, appealing to nature to justify specific norms is not only morally evasive; it is rhetorically doomed: just because nature is so rich in orders of all kinds, whatever example you choose to justify your preferred norm (say, the monogamy of swans to argue for marital fidelity as nature’s way), your adversary can come up with an opposing and equally natural example (say, the polygamy of baboons).

But using nature to represent moral orders is a different matter. Human sensory and cognitive organization seems to require that even the most abstract entities be made palpable to the senses: for our species, even mathematical models must be represented in symbols and graphic images. The elusive quality of the moral order cries out for such representations in order to make them real and publicly shared (recall Margaret Thatcher’s skeptical question, “Where is society?”). Because nature is the most abundant, available, and enduring source of orders of all kinds, it is inevitable that it should be a resource for representing moral orders. This is why I describe the use of natural orders to represent moral orders as not a simple case of mass irrationality but a very human form of rationality.

Can any form of reason be transcendent across cultures and epochs?

My book is a tentative exercise in philosophical anthropology: can anything be learned about the nature of the reason of our species by examining our very human tendency to conflate human and moral disorders? This is of course only one aspect of the many-splendored thing that is human reason, and my analysis can therefore only be suggestive. I can certainly imagine empirical refutations: for example, cultures that do not make use of natural orders in order to represent moral orders and instead have recourse to technological analogies, such as computers. What I cannot imagine is a human culture without a moral order and a representation of that order in some form. So my claim is that this latter form of human reason is universal for our species – a weak form of transcendence, and by no means a title to the uniqueness of our species.

But I am not claiming transcendence in the sense traditionally conceived by philosophers: a form of reason that would hold not only for our species but for Martians, angels, or any of the other epistemological thought-experiments that have for centuries populated philosophical speculations about the nature of rationality. This philosophical version of reason is transcendent in a much stronger sense: reason is reason regardless of sensorium or cognitive organisation or physical form (or, as in many such thought-experiments about angels or brains-in-a-vat, lack thereof). My argument opposes this strong transcendence: it matters to human reason what kind of beings we are.