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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

What's unnatural?

Ken MacLeod is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

On Tuesday evening I went to the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum's second debate, Natural v Unnatural: The Strange Business of Making People. Held in the Speigeltent beneath roaring downpours and above a rising miasma from the mud under the floorboards, the event was packed out. Chaired by Sarah Parry, the panel featured the Forum's Director Steve Yearley, science writer Philip Ball, and designer, writer and artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. (Last year, Daisy and her colleague James King took a week-long Visiting Fellowship at the Forum, amazing us all with their imaginative designs for future applications of synthetic biology.)

Philip Ball, who had spoken at the Festival earlier that day on his new book Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People, kicked off the discussion by pointing out that 'natural versus unnatural' is not a dichotomy of categories but a moral judgement with its roots in the medieval concept of 'natural law', as expounded by Thomas Aquinas. In antiquity, contra naturam was a neutral term for anything, good or bad, that forced an object or process to go against its natural course: a hoist was unnatural becuase it countered that natural inclination of weight to fall. The moral concept that contravening 'natural law' was wrong is still the basis of Roman Catholic opposition to assisted conception including IVF, as well as to contraception and homosexuality - all of which separate the sexual act from its 'natural purpose' of procreation.

But today 'unnatural' can also express a secular condemnation, of disturbing 'the balance of nature' as well as of new reproductive technologies. God has been reimagined as Nature. Although few now see IVF as 'unnatural' in this sense, old anxieties continue to haunt our debates.

Daisy Ginsberg explained that she she was an architect, who had at first investigated genetic engineering because she felt uncomfortable about it. Since then she has taken part in several sci-art projects, including actual genetic engineering of bacteria, but she still feels some of that unease. We need, she said, a new cultural and design language to to classify life that is the product of human design, and even a special place for them on the tree of life: The Synthetic Kingdom. We need to evolve the idea of design as we prepare to design evolution.

Steve Yearley argued that while both Philip and Daisy had referred to the notion of unnatural as a conservative force, and one that becomes outflanked and outdated by experience (as with IVF), it has had a different and more succesful dynamic in environmental debates. We've now reached the stage where the unintended consequences of human action are a greater source of fear than the forces of nature, and we don't have 'moral experts' to call on. In a secular society we may think bishops are nice to have around, but they aren't the founts of moral guidance they once were - and bioethicists can be just as ungrounded in their pronouncements as the bishops.

A lively discussion followed, to the sound of rain hammering on the roof. One final question was whether we should be sceptical of climate change, and Steve answered that by saying that the sceptical arguments are repetitious and don't add new and surprising knowledge, whereas the climate scientists keep coming up with unexpected and powerful discoveries.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation

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