Thursday, November 22, 2007

Not natural?
[Here’s a book review I’ve written for Nature, which I put here because the discussion is not just about the book!]

The Artificial and the Natural: An Evolving Polarity
Ed. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and William R. Newman
MIT Press, Cambridge, Ma., 2007

The topic of this book – how boundaries are drawn between natural and synthetic – has received too little serious attention, both in science and in society. Chemists are notoriously (and justifiably) touchy about descriptions of commercial products as ‘chemical-free’; but the usual response, which is to lament media or public ignorance, fails to recognize the complex history and sociology that lies behind preconceptions about chemical artifacts. Roald Hoffmann has written sensitively on this matter in The Same and Not the Same (Columbia University Press, 1995), and he contributes brief concluding remarks to this volume. But the issue is much broader, touching on areas ranging from stem-cell therapy and assisted conception to biomimetic engineering, synthetic biology, machine intelligence and ecosystem management.

It is not, in fact, an issue for the sciences alone. Arguably the distinction between nature and artifice is equally fraught in what we now call the fine arts – where again it tends to be swept under the carpet. While some modern artists, such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, address the matter head-on with their interventions in nature such as the production of artificial rainbows, much popular art criticism now imposes a contemporary view even on the Old Masters. Through this lens, Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari’s astonishment that Leonardo’s painted dewdrops “looked more convincing than the real thing” appears a little childish, as though he has missed the point of art – for no one now believes that the artist’s job is to mimic nature as accurately as possible. Perhaps with good reason, but it is left to art historians to point out that there is nothing absolute about this view.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that ‘art’ has not always meant what it does today. Until the late Enlightenment, it simply referred to anything human-made, whether that be a sculpture or an engine. The panoply of mutated creatures described in Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627) were the products of ‘art’, and so were the metals generated in the alchemist’s laboratory. The equivalent word in ancient Greece was techne, the root of ‘technology’ of course, but in itself a term that embraced subtle shades of meaning, examined here in ancient medicine by Heinrich von Staden and in mechanics by Francis Wolff.

The critical issue was how this ‘art’ was related to ‘nature’, approximately identified with what Aristotle called physis. Can art produce things identical to those in nature, or only superficial imitations of them? (That latter belief left Plato rather dismissive of the visual arts.) Does art operate using the same principles as nature, or does it violate them? Alchemy was commonly deemed to operate simply by speeding up natural processes: metals ripened into gold sooner in the crucible than they did in the ground, while (al)chemical medicines accelerated natural healing. And while some considered ‘artificial’ things to be always inferior to their ‘natural’ equivalents, it was also widely held that art could exceed nature, bringing objects to a greater state of perfection, as Roger Bacon thought of alchemical gold.

The emphasis in The Artificial and the Natural is historical, ranging from Hippocrates to nylon. These motley essays are full of wonders and insights, but are ultimately frustrating too in their microcosmic way. There is no real synthesis on offer, no vision of how attitudes have evolved and fragmented. There are too many conspicuous absences for the book to represent an overview. One can hardly feel satisfied with such a survey in which Leonardo da Vinci is not even mentioned. It would have been nice to see some analysis of changing ideas about experimentation, the adoption of which was surely hindered by Aristotle’s doubts that ‘art’ (and thus laboratory manipulation) was capable of illuminating nature. Prejudices about experiments often went even further: even in the Renaissance one could feel free to disregard what they said if it conflicted with a priori ‘truths’ gleaned from nature, rather as Pythagoras advocated studying music “setting aside the judgement of the ears”. And it would have been fascinating to see how these issues were discussed in other cultures, particularly in technologically precocious China.

But most importantly, the discussion sorely lacks a contemporary perspective, except for Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent’s chapter on plastics and biomimetics. This debate is no historical curiosity, but urgently needs airing today. Legislation on trans-species embryology, reproductive technology, genome engineering and environmental protection is being drawn up based on what sometimes seems like little more than a handful of received wisdoms (some of them scriptural) moderated by conventional risk analysis. There is, with the possible exception of biodiversity discussions, almost no conceptual framework to act as a support and guide. All too often, what is considered ‘natural’ assumes an absurdly idealized view of nature that owes more to the delusions of Rousseau’s romanticism than to any historically informed perspective. By revealing how sophisticated, and yet how transitory, the distinctions have been in the past, this book is an appealingly erudite invitation to begin the conversation.


Noah said...

For some reason this topic also seems to be somehow unappealing to Americans. I think our history in the U.S. is so wound up in it that any discussion of it feels threatening. Better to rely on oddballs like Leon Kass to come up with the answers.

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