(un)natural: Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine


Published 30/11/2015

Booklet cover
Naturalness quotes

Summary of findings

When people describe science, technology or medicine as natural, unnatural or linked to nature, they can be making moral claims about it being good or bad, or right or wrong. We hear these terms every day and they appear when new technologies are being discussed in the media and in Parliament. People’s ideas about naturalness may influence the degree to which advances in science, technology and medicine are embraced or opposed by the UK public.

In 2015, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics decided to delve deeper into what people really mean when they talk about naturalness. We enlisted poets to help us to explore these ideas in a creative way.

We found many examples of the terms natural, unnatural and nature being used by journalists, Parliamentarians, campaigning organisations, manufacturers and members of the public to convey something good or bad about science, technology and medicine.

These examples are found in discussions about genetically modified food, assisted reproduction, cosmetic procedures, cloning, stem cell research, mitochondrial donation, sports science, alternative medicine and death and dying, and in descriptions of food, cosmetics and other products.

Many other words are used to convey ideas about naturalness, such as normal, pure, real, organic, unadulterated and unprocessed, and artificial, fake, abnormal and synthetic.

What is considered to be natural or unnatural can change over time. Things that were criticised for being unnatural in the past, such as heart transplants, are now widely seen as normal and acceptable.

It is not easy to define exactly what is a natural or unnatural thing or process. Equally it’s not obvious we should classify natural things as good and unnatural things as bad For example, vaccines and contraception – arguably unnatural, man-made interventions – are thought by many to be good, and there are plenty of examples of poisonous or dangerous natural plants and diseases.

Some believe that the terms natural or unnatural do not carry any real meaning or value and tend not to use them. Organisations representing scientists, for example, rarely use these terms to convey a moral judgment.

However, we found the terms natural, unnatural and nature are often used as placeholders for a range of different values or beliefs that are meaningful and important to people.