November 9, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Defining Nature Produces a Dilemma

The evolution wars often revolve around the word “nature.”  Evolutionists insist that science must use natural instead of supernatural explanations.  It seems obvious that before arguing such issues, one must first define nature.  That is not easily done, wrote a scientist at the University of Bergen in a letter to Nature.1
    Fern Wickson’s point was closer to the mundane than to any realm of angels.  She asked how we define nature for purposes of environmental stewardship.  Specifically, what role do human beings play?

Your Editorial ‘Handle with care’ (Nature 455, 263�264 2008)2 notes that many people define ‘nature’ as a place without people, and that this would suggest that nature is best protected by keeping humans far away.  You question the value of this negative definition, arguing that “if nature is defined as a landscape uninfluenced by humankind, then there is no nature on the planet at all”.
    This may be true.  However, if we define nature as including humankind, the concept becomes so all-encompassing as to be practically useless.

We have a problem here.  Wickson explained that as an ecologist, she views humans as “embedded” in nature rather than separate from it.  Even in the city, the food we eat and the products we consume are intertwined with the planet and other organisms.  This view creates other problems, though, as she thought more about it: nothing humans do can be considered unnatural:

In this case, an atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill.
    A dilemma therefore arises.  If nature is somewhere that humans are not, we lose sight of the fact that we are just another species intimately intertwined in the complex web of biological systems on this planet.  However, if we place ourselves within a definition of nature, the definition then becomes essentially meaningless by extending to everything on Earth.

Wickson could think of no answer to this dilemma.  She ended her letter with a question: “Is there a better definition of nature?”


1.  Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456029b.
2.  Editorial, “Handle with care,” Nature 455, 263-264 (18 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455263b.

How about “Nature is everything that God created.”  For a word that gets bandied about recklessly assuming intuitive comprehension, for a word that forms the crux of debates about whether creationism should be excluded from schools, “nature” is as slippery as an eel in greased hands.  Wickson has pointed out a delicious dilemma that undermines not only the environmental movement, but materialism itself.  What is the place of the human observer?  If nature is what humans are not, this destroys evolutionism, because it makes humans somehow special.  If nature is what humans are embedded in, then nothing in the universe is “un”natural.  We would have no choice but to accept the evil humans do.
    Do you see how this dilemma can be extended all the way into the so-called supernatural realms?  Excluding humans from nature puts our concepts and philosophies into a higher plane than mere existence: the realm of the intellectual, spiritual and eternal – things that cannot be circumscribed by matter in motion.  But including humans in the definition of nature washes away all moral categories.  This frustrates the daylights out of the environmentalists and anti-nuclear protestors who want to chasten humans for their transgressions.  What meaning would such protestations have if not to an immaterial conscience?
    Genesis has the solution.  We were created along with all of nature and given physical bodies like the animals, but God breathed into mankind the breath of life, and man became a living soul.  That is why only humans even think about environmentalism, stewardship, right and wrong.  To the materialist we say: you will never escape the horns of your dilemma without acknowledging your Creator.  Stewardship implies moral categories like understanding and responsibility.  Submit to God; then, and only then, we can rationally discusses how best to fulfill our responsibilities to Him and His creation.

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