The Moral Authority of Nature
edited by Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal
University of Chicago Press, 2003
Cloth: 978-0-226-13680-6 | Paper: 978-0-226-13681-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-13682-0
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.001.0001


For thousands of years, people have used nature to justify their political, moral, and social judgments. Such appeals to the moral authority of nature are still very much with us today, as heated debates over genetically modified organisms and human cloning testify.

The Moral Authority of Nature offers a wide-ranging account of how people have used nature to think about what counts as good, beautiful, just, or valuable. The eighteen essays cover a diverse array of topics, including the connection of cosmic and human orders in ancient Greece, medieval notions of sexual disorder, early modern contexts for categorizing individuals and judging acts as "against nature," race and the origin of humans, ecological economics, and radical feminism. The essays also range widely in time and place, from archaic Greece to early twentieth-century China, medieval Europe to contemporary America.

Scholars from a wide variety of fields will welcome The Moral Authority of Nature, which provides the first sustained historical survey of its topic.

Danielle Allen, Joan Cadden, Lorraine Daston, Fa-ti Fan, Eckhardt Fuchs, Valentin Groebner, Abigail J. Lustig, Gregg Mitman, Michelle Murphy, Katharine Park, Matt Price, Robert N. Proctor, Helmut Puff, Robert J. Richards, Londa Schiebinger, Laura Slatkin, Julia Adeney Thomas, Fernando Vidal


Lorraine Daston is the director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She is the author of Classical Probability in the Enlightenment, coauthor of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150 1750, and editor of Biographies of Scientific Objects, the last published by the University of Chicago Press.

Fernando Vidal is a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. He is author of Piaget before Piaget and the forthcoming Analyse et sauvegarde de l'âme au siècle des Lumières.


- Lorraine Daston, Fernando Vidal
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0001
[nature, social constructionism, realism, ideologies, boundary crossings, human realm]
This book is about how humans use nature to think about standards of the good, the beautiful, the just, and the valuable. The chapters concentrate less on the question of whether nature is or should be used in this fashion than on the how, why, and what of nature's authority in the human realm. The book examines how nature's authority works in different times and places, why it is a force to wield or to escape, and to which domains it does (or does not) apply. It aims to advance discussion about the interactions of the natural and the human beyond controversies over social constructionism versus realism, questions of transgressive boundary crossings between the categories of nature and culture (or society, nurture, civilization, artifice), and exposures of ideologies and fallacies (naturalistic, pathetic). Key to this project is understanding what “nature” means and has meant in a range of contexts, and what kinds of authority these meanings exert. (pages 1 - 20)
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Part One: Values

- Laura M. Slatkin
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0002
[kinship, family exchanges, pre-Socratic philosophy, mythological personae, natural philosophy, celestial operations]
If in Greek tragedy the Furies pursue human beings who violate the laws of kinship—of family exchanges properly conducted, taboos properly observed—in Heraclitus's discourse they pursue the potentially transgressive sun. Fragment 94 of this pre-Socratic philosopher (ca. 500 BCE) offers an apparent paradox, not so much in its use of mythological personae to formulate a theory of cosmic structure (a practice common to all surviving sixth-century natural philosophy) as in its account of the relations among these figures. Throughout early Greek literature, the all-seeing and all-revealing sun bears witness to every action in both the human and the divine domains, functioning as the ultimate monitor of events that even the gods wish to conceal. Here, however, the sun's own celestial operations are themselves subject to the scrutiny of the shadowy, chthonic Furies, irascible informants whose realm lies deep within the earth. (pages 25 - 49)
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- Katharine Park
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0003
[nature, Renaissance, European literate culture, persona, authority, European culture]
In the context of medieval and Renaissance European literate culture, to write of nature's authority was already to engage in personification, for ideas of authority, as the word suggests, were closely tied to ideas of authorship. “Authority”—auctoritas in Latin—referred to the words of an author (auctor): one of the chain of especially revered and trusted writers or teachers, from the ancients to near contemporaries, whose texts established the framework within which questions in the learned disciplines were debated and explored. By extension, it was the defining characteristic of these writers: they might be mistaken on small points, but it was understood that if they appeared to contradict one another or to have missed the mark on important matters, the error lay with the interpretation placed on their words by careless or ignorant readers and listeners. Thus authority implied not only a high degree of credibility but an individual persona; to confer authority on an abstraction was to confer on it a face, a figure, and a voice. (pages 50 - 73)
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- Danielle Allen
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0004
[Fable of Bees, human nature, natural conduct, pre-Christian texts, Christian period, political order]
This chapter analyzes the scandal provoked by Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees among eighteenth-century readers in terms of the “cunning” that disguises the second nature of upbringing as the first nature of inborn human nature. For those who excoriated and burned his book, Mandeville's crime lay not so much in reducing virtue and good manners to self-interest, but rather in exposing allegedly natural conduct as in fact acquired. In pre-Christian Latin texts, bees are as industrious as ever, but they are also loyal, capable of perfect concord, and chaste: Virgil thought they fetched their young from olive trees, or that they arose, without copulation, from the rotting flesh of oxen carcasses. In the Christian period the chastity of bees is especially important—indeed, issues of gender and sexuality are never far from the image's symbolic surface—but Christian writers also compared the nectar gathered by bees to divine grace and honey to god's great goodness. In all periods, the bees' hive was used to exemplify perfect political order, whether that was taken to be monarchic (Virgil), communitarian (Christian writers), or egalitarian (some French revolutionaries). (pages 74 - 99)
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- Lorraine Daston
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0005
[natural history, value in nature, scientific study, Enlightenment, self-evident reality]
This chapter focuses on the ways in which value in nature was created in eighteenth-century natural history, with an emphasis on practices rather than theses: how certain regimens of experience (rather than proofs and arguments) established nature's values in an age that looked to nature as its guide in every realm, from the fine arts to weights and measures. Two aspects of how nature served as a source of value are in play here. First, how specific domains of the natural were redeemed as worthy objects of scientific study and personal dedication: because insects were deemed trivial or even disgusting, the efforts to elevate their status within natural history were attempts to turn dross into gold, to create value out of the least promising materials, hence the focus on Enlightenment entomology. Second, the mechanisms by which this value in specific naturalia was not merely asserted, but made into a felt, even a self-evident reality: the disciplines of attention practiced by the naturalists beatified even the most inauspicious objects. (pages 100 - 126)
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- Robert J. Richards
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0006
[rights of nature, Goethean morphology, divinity, humanity, creative nature, southern travels]
Goethe had been confirmed in his defense of the rights of nature during his travels to Italy in 1786–88. After his return to Germany, he set out to develop a science that would recognize nature's autonomy and authority. In this reconfiguration, though, nature would come to exhibit features distinctively altered from those of her earlier incarnation. Goethean morphology would not reinstate nature as emissary of an aloof, divine power. Nature would no longer stand apart from human beings, designed for their instruction, but would encompass the authority of both divinity and humanity: fecund, creative nature would replace God; and man would find himself an intrinsic part of nature and able to exercise, in the role of the artist, her same creative power. This transition in the conception of nature would ultimately lead to the kind of evolutionary theory that Goethe himself would introduce and Darwin would later cultivate. The hinge of this great transition was, for Goethe, the experience of his southern travels, when so much depended on an Italian girl. (pages 127 - 154)
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- Eckhardt Fuchs
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0007
[pedagogical naturalism, educational theory, nature and science, natural education, neohumanistic philosophers, nineteenth-century Germany]
Despite the discursive and institutional hegemony of neohumanistic philosophers, educationalists, and school officials in the nineteenth century, a subversive discourse aiming at incorporating the “natural” and the sciences into educational theory and practice never ceased to exist. This discourse is called “pedagogical naturalism,” the common theme of which was child education and school reform, although one has to keep in mind that it encompasses a variety of meanings. The entries in pedagogical encyclopedias and dictionaries reflect these differences. This chapter suggests dividing pedagogical naturalism into two main strands: first, there is the romantic strand, with its concept of the natural as the original, naturally grown form of life and education; second, the rational strand that aimed at an empirical foundation of natural education. (pages 155 - 181)
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- Matt Price
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0008
[value of nature, natural goods, John Locke, theory of value, human activity, modern economics]
This chapter explores a specifically twentieth- (and now twenty-first) century conundrum: how to assess the value of nature and natural goods, and to weigh that value against other goods in a moral calculus. The contemporary obsession with nature's value reopens a question that John Locke thought he had solved in the seventeenth century. Indeed, modern economics begins with his all-but-categorical denial of the value of nature's works. The labor theory of value required it: Locke needed to show that human activity was the true source of all value, thereby grounding his theory of property, his liberal version of the social contract, and his arguments on political authority. If the lands untouched by human toil, and their value, had to be sacrificed on the altar of property, that was hardly controversial in an era when “wilderness” was a term of abuse. But ever since the hedonic theory of utilitarianism captured political economy from the dismal scientists, economists have rejected toil in favor of pleasure, and spaces once called wastelands are now more often named wetlands. (pages 182 - 204)
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Part Two: Necessity and Freedom

- Joan Cadden
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0009
[medieval freedom, political reality, American feminists, nature, Christian culture, medieval culture]
In medieval Europe, “necessity” had close ties to the dynamics of nature, and “freedom” had close ties to the dynamics of the moral sphere, concepts which embodied specific historical meanings peculiar to their particular contexts. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, nature wielded considerable powers, often expressed in terms of necessity, but the rule of nature, whether construed in prescriptive terms (as its order) or in executive terms (as its dominion) was not absolute. Thus infractions against its rule were not subject to the sort of inexorable retribution by nature itself that Fernando Vidal explores in his essay concerning eighteenth-century medical opinions about the fate of masturbators. Nor did medieval freedom involve the option of choosing, much less creating, one's own personal or political reality in ways that became imaginable to moderns—whether the American feminists discussed by Michelle Murphy, who were determined to alter nature, or the Japanese political philosopher discussed by Julia Thomas, who was determined to transcend it. (pages 207 - 231)
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- Helmut Puff
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0010
[Nature, Greek philosophy, Christian theology, Middle Ages, personification, standard of behavior]
Nature is a mighty figure. At least this is how theologians, philosophers, and poets presented Her in the wake of Greek philosophy and its resonance in Christian theology of the Middle Ages. According to the twelfth-century theologian Alain de Lille, Nature acts as God's representative (Dei auctoris vicaria). After Bernard Silvestris (d. after 1159), Her rank is often assumed to be that of a goddess, God's divine helpmate, though other writers introduced Her personification more modestly as a lady or a queen. In all Her allegorical emanations, however, Nature's task is identical: to act as God's intermediary and defend the order enshrined in His creation. Her grip on the world is predicated on prohibitions and rules—rules that subject both animals and men to an immutable standard of behavior. (pages 232 - 253)
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- Fernando Vidal
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0011
[idea of nature, French Enlightenment, Samuel Tissot, counternatural sexuality, natural order]
Like a Freudian dream, the idea of nature was made up of displaced and condensed elements, its meaning overdetermined and variable, its interpretation subject to endless and undecidable debate. Its huge success in the French Enlightenment came from its capacity to unite opposites and apparently answer every possible question about the world, humanity, and the place of the latter within the former. The Swiss physician Samuel Tissot, whose work is examined in this chapter, made imagination responsible for counternatural sexuality. Imagination obviously belonged in human nature, but its exercise frequently counteracted the purposes of human life, also defined by nature itself. As in the medieval context studied in this book by Joan Cadden, although nature remained associated with moral conduct and social order, natural processes themselves could corrupt natural order. (pages 254 - 281)
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- A. J. Lustig
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0012
[ants, Auguste Forel, Erich Wasmann, William Morton Wheeler, social behavior, human freedom, social insects, modern biology]
Social behavior naturalized in ants conveys complex messages about the naturalness of social behavior in humans, with ramifying implications. If ants divide their labor, communicate, cultivate crops, gather their harvests, raise cattle, wage war on one another, prey on one another, parasitize one another, even support arrays of unrelated, sometimes detrimental species, then how far can similar behaviors be unique products of human nature rather than natural nature in humans who have likewise evolved? How natural, in short, a category is society? And is human freedom within societies a product of nature, or a human attempt to deny it? The biologists Auguste Forel, Erich Wasmann, and William Morton Wheeler each grappled with these problems, finding different tensions and resolutions. The three premier “pure” myrmecologists of their day (as opposed to applied entomologists whose interest in ants lay primarily in devising ways of stamping them out rather than celebrating their marvels), they laid down a foundation of observations, terminology, and theory on the social insects that continue to shape modern biology. (pages 282 - 307)
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- Julia Adeney Thomas
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0013
[Maruyama Masao, nature, Japanese fascism, national community, Japanese culture, modernity, Japanese ideology]
Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Japanese political theorist Maruyama Masao attacked the tyranny of nature in the name of political emancipation. In contrast to Frankfurt School intellectuals who traced German fascism to the ruthless mastery of nature, he blamed Japanese fascism on enslavement to nature, understood as the dead hand of tradition and the indolence of sensual pleasures. Central to Maruyama's criticism of Japan's totalitarian system was the idea that Japan had not yet escaped nature's hegemony. Indeed, prewar and wartime ideology made the Japanese nation the embodiment of nature, equating the existing national community with nature itself. In such a system, Maruyama argued, autonomous individuals could never hope to flourish because of the extraordinary difficulty of imagining their world other than how they found it. If nature was defined as Japanese culture and Japanese culture as nature, there was no authority for challenging the status quo unless one turned, subversively as Maruyama did, to resources outside Japanese tradition, resources suspect as unpatriotic as well as lacking the justificatory force of either nature or culture. In short, according to Maruyama, nature still dominated Japanese ideology, deforming the modernity and the freedom for which he somewhat ambiguously yearned. (pages 308 - 330)
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- Michelle Murphy
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0014
[radical feminism, political freedom, twentieth-century feminists, reproductive biology, liberation, sex]
Sometimes nature's all-too-oppressive authority is confronted by another, such as that of political freedom. This chapter shows how twentieth-century feminists sought control over women's reproductive biology as the sine qua non of their liberation. So vigorous was the language of control that nature came to be seen as more malleable than culture, sex more readily alterable than gender. The twentieth-century call for women to control their bodies has been historically structured by a paradox that runs through Western feminist thought: a feminist must speak as a woman, thereby invoking a supposed “natural” difference, while at the same time seeking to undermine that difference. In the most contradictory articulation of this paradox, feminists spoke as women in order to make the category “woman” disappear. At the other extreme, another tradition of feminism affirmed a positive value for womanness, thereby reinstantiating the difference between male and female. Both positions, as well as a panoply in between, can be found in radical feminism. (pages 331 - 356)
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Part Three: Boundaries

- Valentin Groebner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0015
[nature of individuals, Renaissance, Hippocrates, physical qualities, Scholastic learning, administrative protocols]
This chapter explores the background and the uses of some Renaissance notions of the nature of individuals and the boundaries they were placed within, with particular attention to the frameworks of visualization that surrounded and shaped these notions. By what outward signs could the “nature” of an individual be recognized, and by what categories were these signs linked to a person's body and its physical qualities, embodied or incorporated in the literal sense? For this, the chapter focuses on the notion Hippocrates uses and describes its journey from the medieval centers of Scholastic learning in Italy and Paris to the sixteenth-century printing presses north of the Alps. Derived from learned Renaissance discourse, it has, to our days, a certain prominence in administrative protocols of a person's outward appearance, a piece of history of science in the identity documents. (pages 361 - 383)
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- Londa Schiebinger
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0016
[human experimentation, moral authority, human nature, drug testing, social rank, experimental subjects]
This chapter explores how drugs were tested in the eighteenth century, looking specifically at how human subjects were chosen for experiments, and at notions of uniformity and variability across living organisms. Did physicians imagine a natural human body that, once tested, held universally? Were tests done on male bodies thought to hold for female bodies (and vice versa)? Were white and black bodies considered interchangeable in this regard? Which of these distinctions were considered a product of cultural artifice and which were thought to be jealously guarded by Dame Nature herself? What role did the “moral authority of nature” play in the choice of subjects? The choice of experimental subjects in the eighteenth century responded to both natural and social imperatives. In the early modern period, Europeans made exacting distinctions in social rank, allowing only persons of the highest rank to wear fine ermines or scratch with a fingernail grown for the purpose at the king's chamber door, yet in this same period physicians assumed far-reaching unity across basic human nature in the matter of drug testing. (pages 384 - 408)
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- Fa-ti Fan
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0017
[Chinese nationalism, political thinkers, nature, nationalist discourse, Western learning, intellectual enterprise]
This chapter examines an influential strand of discourse of Chinese nationalism in the first decade of the twentieth century, whose major voices included some of the foremost political thinkers of the time. It shows how the historical actors defined and redefined history, tradition, and nationhood in relation to the transmutations of the concept of nature. The intense political controversies during that tumultuous decade, in which the nationhood of China was heatedly contested, contributed to the founding of republican China in 1912, but the historical significance of this nationalist discourse was not only political. Activist Chinese intellectuals in the late Qing faced many challenges, not the least that of Western learning. It was a moment in Chinese intellectual history that has been seen as a transition, a response, and a crisis. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Chinese intellectuals frequently had to revise their conceptual framework and invent new language to accommodate the foreign ideas—an intellectual enterprise full of political implications. (pages 409 - 437)
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- Gregg Mitman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0018
[ragweed, natural boundaries, modern civilization, public health, biomedical research, cultural geography]
This chapter investigates the shifting geographies of place, disease, and moral authority of nature in ragweed's nomadic wandering across the boundaries of rural and urban, native and immigrant, pure and polluted, nature and civilization. In transgressing its natural boundaries, ragweed had become, in the urban spaces it inhabited, a symptom of the moral depravity and waste brought about by modern civilization. Neither wild nor domesticated, it merited no place in the cultivated spaces of the city. Through great effort and expense, public health officials, sanitary engineers, and biomedical researchers sought to control or eliminate ragweed from the urban environment, to push it back to its benign, even valued, place in nature. (pages 438 - 465)
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- Robert N. Proctor
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136820.003.0019
[human recency, human origins, Statement on Race, human nature, racism, humanness]
This chapter explores some of the lines of evidence leading to the idea that humanness in the cultural sense is a relatively recent phenomenon—no more than 100,000 years old, and perhaps even more recent than this, since that is when you get the first clear signs of representational art, kindled fire, deliberate ritual, compound tools, and other things perceived as signs of human intelligence. Reporting on current research on human origins, it detects the lingering influence of the 1952 UNESCO Statement on Race in the reluctance of paleoanthropologists to admit the existence of multiple coexisting species of humans. On this view, the unity of human nature, tragically shattered by a now discredited racism, must be preserved at all costs—although the definition of humanness flits from criterion to criterion: upright posture, language, tool use. Each quiddity of the human becomes a standard to uphold, not only with respect to other species, but also within our own: that which is essentially human becomes the trait to promote, be it crafty intelligence or a handy thumb. (pages 466 - 490)
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