“Nature” We kicked off discussion today by examining a plastic Godzilla toy. We were asked, are we looking at nature? Some of us argued that it is nature because the creature arose from nature. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, so it has to be from nature regardless of whether we are talking about the toy or Godzilla itself. Conversely, others in the group argued that it was not nature because humans interfered. Humans are the ones synthesizing plastics from oil and splitting atoms, and is that part of nature?
After this fascinating introduction, Professor Matthew Klingle in the environmental studies department led our group discussion on the following readings:
- The Problem with Purity by Richard White
- History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value by Julia Adeney Thomas
Objective categories are pretty much impossible. White argued that adhesion to purity is a problem. But why? When we start to define what is “pure” and what is not, we forget the social context that these definitions carry. For example, we talked about the problematic view that gender is biologically determined. The societal norm is that the XX chromosome combination will result in a male and XY chromosome combination will result in a female, and those who do not fall into either of those categories are “unnatural.” But if it is genetically possible, i.e. through nature, for people not to fall into those categories, is that really against nature? This reminded me of Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was put under scrutiny over her gender. And also Dutee Chand (click here for more information–the person who wrote that gave a talk in a class I took two years ago), the teenage Indian runner who was banned from competition for having too much testosterone. It is not like she was taking steroids; that is what her body produces. There was just some policy put in place to define what it means to be a woman (under the notion that having more testosterone means better athletic performance, which is actually not that well-correlated.*) The people who make these policies use biology to sound objective but really it is laced with social implications.
Think about scale and value. Using Thomas’s paper, we focused on agency, structure, and power.
- Agency: acting on our own behalf
- Structure: ideology, norms, etc that are in place
- Power: the extent an individual can exercise agency or put structure in place (prevent or do something)
Does nature have agency? Is it historically significant?
It was especially interesting to see the connection between biology and history. Science always exists in political and cultural contexts, though scientists sometimes fail to see that. Actually, it probably would not be too much of an assumption to say that all disciplines fall into the trap of ignoring the influences they do not focus on.
All in all, this was a great first day! These readings tie in nicely to each of our projects, and they made me think critically about definitions and categories while also highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary work.
*Karkazis K, Jordan-Young R, Davis G and Camporesi S (2012) Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes. The American Journal of Bioethics 12(7):3-16