Nature Essay for Students and Children

500+ words nature essay.

Nature is an important and integral part of mankind. It is one of the greatest blessings for human life; however, nowadays humans fail to recognize it as one. Nature has been an inspiration for numerous poets, writers, artists and more of yesteryears. This remarkable creation inspired them to write poems and stories in the glory of it. They truly valued nature which reflects in their works even today. Essentially, nature is everything we are surrounded by like the water we drink, the air we breathe, the sun we soak in, the birds we hear chirping, the moon we gaze at and more. Above all, it is rich and vibrant and consists of both living and non-living things. Therefore, people of the modern age should also learn something from people of yesteryear and start valuing nature before it gets too late.

nature essay

Significance of Nature

Nature has been in existence long before humans and ever since it has taken care of mankind and nourished it forever. In other words, it offers us a protective layer which guards us against all kinds of damages and harms. Survival of mankind without nature is impossible and humans need to understand that.

If nature has the ability to protect us, it is also powerful enough to destroy the entire mankind. Every form of nature, for instance, the plants , animals , rivers, mountains, moon, and more holds equal significance for us. Absence of one element is enough to cause a catastrophe in the functioning of human life.

We fulfill our healthy lifestyle by eating and drinking healthy, which nature gives us. Similarly, it provides us with water and food that enables us to do so. Rainfall and sunshine, the two most important elements to survive are derived from nature itself.

Further, the air we breathe and the wood we use for various purposes are a gift of nature only. But, with technological advancements, people are not paying attention to nature. The need to conserve and balance the natural assets is rising day by day which requires immediate attention.

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Conservation of Nature

In order to conserve nature, we must take drastic steps right away to prevent any further damage. The most important step is to prevent deforestation at all levels. Cutting down of trees has serious consequences in different spheres. It can cause soil erosion easily and also bring a decline in rainfall on a major level.

nature essay definition

Polluting ocean water must be strictly prohibited by all industries straightaway as it causes a lot of water shortage. The excessive use of automobiles, AC’s and ovens emit a lot of Chlorofluorocarbons’ which depletes the ozone layer. This, in turn, causes global warming which causes thermal expansion and melting of glaciers.

Therefore, we should avoid personal use of the vehicle when we can, switch to public transport and carpooling. We must invest in solar energy giving a chance for the natural resources to replenish.

In conclusion, nature has a powerful transformative power which is responsible for the functioning of life on earth. It is essential for mankind to flourish so it is our duty to conserve it for our future generations. We must stop the selfish activities and try our best to preserve the natural resources so life can forever be nourished on earth.

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What is Nature Writing?

Definition and Examples

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Nature writing is a form of creative nonfiction in which the natural environment (or a narrator 's encounter with the natural environment) serves as the dominant subject.

"In critical practice," says Michael P. Branch, "the term 'nature writing' has usually been reserved for a brand of nature representation that is deemed literary, written in the speculative personal voice , and presented in the form of the nonfiction essay . Such nature writing is frequently pastoral or romantic in its philosophical assumptions, tends to be modern or even ecological in its sensibility, and is often in service to an explicit or implicit preservationist agenda" ("Before Nature Writing," in Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism , ed. by K. Armbruster and K.R. Wallace, 2001).

Examples of Nature Writing:

  • At the Turn of the Year, by William Sharp
  • The Battle of the Ants, by Henry David Thoreau
  • Hours of Spring, by Richard Jefferies
  • The House-Martin, by Gilbert White
  • In Mammoth Cave, by John Burroughs
  • An Island Garden, by Celia Thaxter
  • January in the Sussex Woods, by Richard Jefferies
  • The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin
  • Migration, by Barry Lopez
  • The Passenger Pigeon, by John James Audubon
  • Rural Hours, by Susan Fenimore Cooper
  • Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, by Henry David Thoreau


  • "Gilbert White established the pastoral dimension of nature writing in the late 18th century and remains the patron saint of English nature writing. Henry David Thoreau was an equally crucial figure in mid-19th century America . . .. "The second half of the 19th century saw the origins of what we today call the environmental movement. Two of its most influential American voices were John Muir and John Burroughs , literary sons of Thoreau, though hardly twins. . . . "In the early 20th century the activist voice and prophetic anger of nature writers who saw, in Muir's words, that 'the money changers were in the temple' continued to grow. Building upon the principles of scientific ecology that were being developed in the 1930s and 1940s, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold sought to create a literature in which appreciation of nature's wholeness would lead to ethical principles and social programs. "Today, nature writing in America flourishes as never before. Nonfiction may well be the most vital form of current American literature, and a notable proportion of the best writers of nonfiction practice nature writing." (J. Elder and R. Finch, Introduction, The Norton Book of Nature Writing . Norton, 2002)

"Human Writing . . . in Nature"

  • "By cordoning nature off as something separate from ourselves and by writing about it that way, we kill both the  genre and a part of ourselves. The best writing in this genre is not really 'nature writing' anyway but human writing that just happens to take place in nature. And the reason we are still talking about [Thoreau's] Walden 150 years later is as much for the personal story as the pastoral one: a single human being, wrestling mightily with himself, trying to figure out how best to live during his brief time on earth, and, not least of all, a human being who has the nerve, talent, and raw ambition to put that wrestling match on display on the printed page. The human spilling over into the wild, the wild informing the human; the two always intermingling. There's something to celebrate." (David Gessner, "Sick of Nature." The Boston Globe , Aug. 1, 2004)

Confessions of a Nature Writer

  • "I do not believe that the solution to the world's ills is a return to some previous age of mankind. But I do doubt that any solution is possible unless we think of ourselves in the context of living nature "Perhaps that suggests an answer to the question what a 'nature writer' is. He is not a sentimentalist who says that 'nature never did betray the heart that loved her.' Neither is he simply a scientist classifying animals or reporting on the behavior of birds just because certain facts can be ascertained. He is a writer whose subject is the natural context of human life, a man who tries to communicate his observations and his thoughts in the presence of nature as part of his attempt to make himself more aware of that context. 'Nature writing' is nothing really new. It has always existed in literature. But it has tended in the course of the last century to become specialized partly because so much writing that is not specifically 'nature writing' does not present the natural context at all; because so many novels and so many treatises describe man as an economic unit, a political unit, or as a member of some social class but not as a living creature surrounded by other living things." (Joseph Wood Krutch, "Some Unsentimental Confessions of a Nature Writer." New York Herald Tribune Book Review , 1952)
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nature essay definition

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Emerson opens his 1836 edition of his essay “Nature” with an epigraph from the philosopher Plotinus, suggesting that nature is a reflection of humankind. The rest of his essay focuses on the relationship between people and nature.

In the Introduction, Emerson suggests that rather than relying on religion and tradition to understand the world, people should spend time in nature and intuit answers for themselves. But people shouldn’t just observe nature—they should also actively consider “to what end is nature” (that is, what nature means or does). To Emerson, all forms of science try to answer this question and find a “theory of nature.” And though it might sound unscientific, Emerson thinks that seeking “abstract truth” through firsthand experience in nature is the best way to craft such a theory.

Emerson then defines some of the terms that he’ll use throughout the rest of the essay: Nature/nature, the Soul, and art. First, he suggests that the universe is comprised of two parts: Nature and the Soul. He uses Nature (capital “N”) in the philosophical sense to refer to everything that is “NOT ME”—that is, everything that isn’t the Soul. Emerson then breaks down Nature into smaller parts: nature (lowercase “n”), art, other people, and our own physical bodies. The common use of the word nature (lowercase “n”) refers to the natural world—non-manmade things like trees and the wind. But when people combine their human will with elements of the natural world, they create art.

In Chapter 1, Emerson advocates for spending time alone in nature. By looking up at the stars, a person transcends this world and comes in contact with the sublime . Most people take the stars for granted, since they shine nightly. But if a person opens him- or herself up to nature’s influence and adopts an attitude of childlike curiosity, nature will captivate and awe them. Part of seeing nature clearly is realizing that it is one integrated whole. To illustrate this point, Emerson recalls looking out at the land and seeing between 20 and 30 farms. And while each farm is separate from the next, and a different man owns each one, all of the farms form one unified landscape. Most people struggle to view nature holistically like this, but poets, children, and people who love nature all can.

Emerson explains that when he’s in the woods, he turns into a “ transparent eyeball ” that allows him to see everything. In this state, Emerson connects with God and even becomes part of God. Likewise, when people connect with nature, they’re also connecting with themselves, because “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” If a person feels somber, for instance, nature will look and feel somber, too.

In Chapter 2, Emerson focuses on nature as a commodity, or the ways in which nature is useful and valuable to humankind. While nature’s status as a commodity is less important than all of its other qualities (which each successive chapter will cover), Emerson nevertheless underscores that all of nature’s various forms (e.g., fire, stones, vegetables, animals) work together to support human life.

In Chapter 3, Emerson turns to beauty—the idea that something can produce delight in the viewer in and of itself, and not for the usefulness it can provide. Living and working in society can sap people of their vitality, so being immersed in nature’s beauty invigorates the soul. Emerson points out that every season has its own unique kind of beauty—even the depths of winter are beautiful in their own way. Part of what makes nature so beautiful, though, is that it’s imbued with the divine. Beauty also stimulates the intellect and generates creativity. The creation of beauty is called art, and all art is either the product of nature or the expression of it.

Emerson explores how nature shapes language in Chapter 4. All words represent natural objects, which in turn represent spiritual truths. (For example, “a cunning man is a fox, […] a learned man is a torch.”) Emerson argues that people who have been corrupted by their various desires use corrupted language. But a person with good character, who’s grown up close to nature, has a skillful grasp of language and is more creative.

In Chapter 5, Emerson suggests that nature is a discipline: every aspect of it teaches us moral, spiritual, and intellectual truths. But Emerson points out that nature is also meant to serve humankind. In this chapter, he also underscores nature’s unity: even though nature takes many forms, they’re all interconnected.

Chapter 6 is about idealism. Here, Emerson contemplates how it’s impossible to prove that anything is real. But to Emerson, it doesn’t really matter whether there is an external reality or whether everything we perceive to be real is just an illusion. He suggests that most people consider themselves as permanent, while nature is in flux, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Through words and particularly through symbols, the poet is the one who is able help the reader see the world from new angles and perspectives. In contrast, both religion and ethics disregard, demonize, or undervalue nature.

In Chapter 7, Emerson suggests that nature is a manifestation of God’s Spirit, or the Supreme Being, and that nature is the means through which God connects with people. Emerson then questions what kind of matter nature is made out of, where this matter came from, and why. In this section, Emerson suggests that people are simultaneously separate from nature and part of it.

The essay’s final chapter centers around how to best study nature. Different branches of science (e.g., geology) use observations, measurements, and calculations to study nature, and they also isolate different elements of nature (like rocks and minerals) to study instead of considering those parts within the larger whole of nature. Emerson advocates for a more holistic, intuitive approach to studying nature. But he suggests that there is value in the kind of observation that scientists use (he calls this observation “Understanding”), because people need to understand, or observe, the world before they can use their intuition to interpret those observations (he calls intuition “Reason”).

Closing his essay, Emerson suggests that we once lived in a utopian society where humankind and nature lived in harmonious unity. But over time, we stopped paying attention to the spiritual truths that nature teaches, and we grew distant from nature. To remedy this, people must spend time in nature and use their intuition to understand it—this will unify humankind with nature again.

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  • Nature Essay


Essay About Nature

Nature refers to the interaction between the physical surroundings around us and the life within it like atmosphere, climate, natural resources, ecosystem, flora, fauna, and humans. Nature is indeed God’s precious gift to Earth. It is the primary source of all the necessities for the nourishment of all living beings on Earth. Right from the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the house we live in is provided by nature. Nature is called ‘Mother Nature’ because just like our mother, she is always nurturing us with all our needs. 

Whatever we see around us, right from the moment we step out of our house is part of nature. The trees, flowers, landscapes, insects, sunlight, breeze, everything that makes our environment so beautiful and mesmerizing are part of Nature. In short, our environment is nature. Nature has been there even before the evolution of human beings. 

Importance of Nature

If not for nature then we wouldn’t be alive. The health benefits of nature for humans are incredible. The most important thing for survival given by nature is oxygen. The entire cycle of respiration is regulated by nature. The oxygen that we inhale is given by trees and the carbon dioxide we exhale is getting absorbed by trees. 

The ecosystem of nature is a community in which producers (plants), consumers, and decomposers work together in their environment for survival. The natural fundamental processes like soil creation, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, and water cycling, allow Earth to sustain life. We are dependent on these ecosystem services daily whether or not we are aware.

Nature provides us services round the clock: provisional services, regulating services, and non-material services. Provisional services include benefits extracted from nature such as food, water, natural fuels and fibres, and medicinal plants. Regulating services include regulation of natural processes that include decomposition, water purification, pollution, erosion and flood control, and also, climate regulation. Non-material services are the non-material benefits that improve the cultural development of humans such as recreation, creative inspiration from interaction with nature like art, music, architecture, and the influence of ecosystems on local and global cultures. 

The interaction between humans and animals, which are a part of nature, alleviates stress, lessens pain and worries. Nature provides company and gives people a sense of purpose. 

Studies and research have shown that children especially have a natural affinity with nature. Regular interaction with nature has boosted health development in children. Nature supports their physical and mental health and instills abilities to access risks as they grow. 

Role and Importance of Nature

The natural cycle of our ecosystem is vital for the survival of organisms. We all should take care of all the components that make our nature complete. We should be sure not to pollute the water and air as they are gifts of Nature.

Mother nature fosters us and never harms us. Those who live close to nature are observed to be enjoying a healthy and peaceful life in comparison to those who live in urban areas. Nature gives the sound of running fresh air which revives us, sweet sounds of birds that touch our ears, and sounds of breezing waves in the ocean makes us move within.

All the great writers and poets have written about Mother Nature when they felt the exceptional beauty of nature or encountered any saddening scene of nature. Words Worth who was known as the poet of nature, has written many things in nature while being in close communion with nature and he has written many things about Nature. Nature is said to be the greatest teacher as it teaches the lessons of immortality and mortality. Staying in close contact with Nature makes our sight penetrative and broadens our vision to go through the mysteries of the planet earth. Those who are away from nature can’t understand the beauty that is held by Nature. The rise in population on planet earth is leading to a rise in consumption of natural resources.  Because of increasing demands for fuels like Coal, petroleum, etc., air pollution is increasing at a rapid pace.  The smoke discharged from factory units and exhaust tanks of cars is contaminating the air that we breathe. It is vital for us to plant more trees in order to reduce the effect of toxic air pollutants like Carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, etc. 

Save Our Nature

Earth’s natural resources are not infinite and they cannot be replenished in a short period. The rapid increase in urbanization has used most of the resources like trees, minerals, fossil fuels, and water. Humans in their quest for a comfortable living have been using the resources of nature mindlessly. As a result, massive deforestation, resultant environmental pollution, wildlife destruction, and global warming are posing great threats to the survival of living beings. 

Air that gives us oxygen to breathe is getting polluted by smoke, industrial emissions, automobile exhaust, burning of fossil fuels like coal, coke and furnace oil, and use of certain chemicals. The garbage and wastes thrown here and there cause pollution of air and land. 

Sewage, organic wastage, industrial wastage, oil spillage, and chemicals pollute water. It is causing several water-borne diseases like cholera, jaundice and typhoid. 

The use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in agriculture adds to soil pollution. Due to the mindless cutting of trees and demolition of greeneries for industrialization and urbanization, the ecological balance is greatly hampered. Deforestation causes flood and soil erosion.

Earth has now become an ailing planet panting for care and nutrition for its rejuvenation. Unless mankind puts its best effort to save nature from these recurring situations, the Earth would turn into an unfit landmass for life and activity. 

We should check deforestation and take up the planting of trees at a massive rate. It will not only save the animals from being extinct but also help create regular rainfall and preserve soil fertility. We should avoid over-dependence on fossil fuels like coal, petroleum products, and firewood which release harmful pollutants to the atmosphere. Non-conventional sources of energy like the sun, biogas and wind should be tapped to meet our growing need for energy. It will check and reduce global warming. 

Every drop of water is vital for our survival. We should conserve water by its rational use, rainwater harvesting, checking the surface outflow, etc. industrial and domestic wastes should be properly treated before they are dumped into water bodies. 

Every individual can do his or her bit of responsibility to help save the nature around us. To build a sustainable society, every human being should practice in heart and soul the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. In this way, we can save our nature.  

Nature Conservation

Nature conservation is very essential for future generations, if we will damage nature our future generations will suffer.

Nowadays, technological advancement is adversely affecting our nature. Humans are in the quest and search for prosperity and success that they have forgotten the value and importance of beautiful Nature around. The ignorance of nature by humans is the biggest threat to nature. It is essential to make people aware and make them understand the importance of nature so that they do not destroy it in the search for prosperity and success.

On high priority, we should take care of nature so that nature can continue to take care of us. Saving nature is the crying need of our time and we should not ignore it. We should embrace simple living and high thinking as the adage of our lives.  


FAQs on Nature Essay

1. How Do You Define Nature?

Nature is defined as our environment. It is the interaction between the physical world around us and the life within it like the atmosphere, climate, natural resources, ecosystem, flora, fauna and humans. Nature also includes non-living things such as water,  mountains, landscape, plants, trees and many other things. Nature adds life to mother earth. Nature is the treasure habitation of every essential element that sustains life on this planet earth. Human life on Earth would have been dull and meaningless without the amazing gifts of nature. 

2. How is Nature Important to Us?

Nature is the only provider of everything that we need for survival. Nature provides us with food, water, natural fuels, fibres, and medicinal plants. Nature regulates natural processes that include decomposition, water purification, pollution, erosion, and flood control. It also provides non-material benefits like improving the cultural development of humans like recreation, etc. 

An imbalance in nature can lead to earthquakes, global warming, floods, and drastic climate changes. It is our duty to understand the importance of nature and how it can negatively affect us all if this rapid consumption of natural resources, pollution, and urbanization takes place.

3. How Should We Save Our Nature?

We should check deforestation and take up the planting of trees at a massive rate. It will save the animals from being extinct but also help create regular rainfall and preserve soil fertility. We should avoid over-dependence on fossil fuels like coal, petroleum products, and firewood which release harmful pollutants to the atmosphere. We should start using non-conventional sources of energy like the sun, biogas, and wind to meet our growing need for energy. It will check and reduce global warming. Water is vital for our survival and we should rationalize our use of water. 

7. Literary Nonfiction

Charcoal drawing of Emerson's head. He is a young man, smiling off to the left of the page, wearing a high collar and no facial hair

Within the essay, Emerson divides nature into four usages: Commodity, Beauty, Language and Discipline. These distinctions define the ways by which humans use nature for their basic needs, their desire for delight, their communication with one another and their understanding of the world. Emerson followed the success of “Nature” with a speech, “The American Scholar,” which together with his previous lectures laid the foundation for transcendentalism and his literary career.


OUR age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature. We have theories of races and of functions, but scarcely yet a remote approach to an idea of creation. We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other, and speculative men are esteemed unsound and frivolous. But to a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical. Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena. Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable; as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex.

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE. In enumerating the values of nature and casting up their sum, I shall use the word in both senses;—in its common and in its philosophical import. In inquiries so general as our present one, the inaccuracy is not material; no confusion of thought will occur. Nature , in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.

TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.

When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet. The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says,—he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances,—master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For, nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it. Then, there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

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Nature Writing Examples

by Lisa Hiton

nature writing examples

From the essays of Henry David Thoreau, to the features in National Geographic , nature writing has bridged the gap between scientific articles about environmental issues and personal, poetic reflections on the natural world. This genre has grown since Walden to include nature poetry, ecopoetics, nature reporting, activism, fiction, and beyond. We now even have television shows and films that depict nature as the central figure. No matter the genre, nature writers have a shared awe and curiosity about the world around us—its trees, creatures, elements, storms, and responses to our human impact on it over time.

Whether you want to report on the weather, write poems from the point of view of flowers, or track your journey down a river in your hometown, your passion for nature can manifest in many different written forms. As the world turns and we transition between seasons, we can reflect on our home, planet Earth, with great dedication to description, awe, science, and image.

Journal Examples: Keeping Track of Your Tracks

One of the many lost arts of our modern time is that of journaling. While keeping a journal is a beneficial practice for all, it is especially crucial to nature writers. John A. Murray , author of Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide , begins his study of the nature writing practice with the importance of journaling:

Nature writers may rely on journals more consistently than novelists and poets because of the necessity of describing long-term processes of nature, such as seasonal or environmental changes, in great detail, and of carefully recording outdoor excursions for articles and essays[…] The important thing, it seems to me, is not whether you keep journals, but, rather, whether you have regular mechanisms—extended letters, telephone calls to friends, visits with confidants, daily meditation, free-writing exercises—that enable you to comprehensively process events as they occur. But let us focus in this section on journals, which provide one of the most common means of chronicling and interpreting personal history. The words journal and journey share an identical root and common history. Both came into the English language as a result of the Norman Victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. For the next three hundred years, French was the chief language of government, religion, and learning in England. The French word journie, which meant a day’s work or a day’s travel, was one of the many words that became incorporated into English at the time[…]The journal offers the writer a moment of rest in that journey, a sort of roadside inn along the highway. Here intellect and imagination are alone with the blank page and composition can proceed with an honesty and informality often precluded in more public forms of expression. As a result, several important benefits can accrue: First, by writing with unscrutinized candor and directness on a particular subject, a person can often find ways to write more effectively on the same theme elsewhere. Second, the journal, as a sort of unflinching mirror, can remind the author of the importance of eliminating self-deception and half-truths in thought and writing. Third, the journal can serve as a brainstorming mechanism to explore new topics, modes of thought, or types of writing that otherwise would remain undiscovered or unexamined. Fourth, the journal can provide a means for effecting a catharsis on subjects too personal for publication even among friends and family. (Murray, 1-2)

A dedicated practice of documenting your day, observing what is around you, and creating your own field guide of the world as you encounter it will help strengthen your ability to translate it all to others and help us as a culture learn how to interpret what is happening around us.

Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide by John A. Murray : Murray’s book on nature writing offers hopeful writers a look at how nature writers keeps journals, write essays, incorporate figurative language, use description, revise, research, and more.

Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium of All the Flowers, Fruits, Herbs, Trees, Seeds, and Grasses Cited by the World’s Greatest Playwright by Gerit Quealy and Sumie Hasegawa Collins: Helen Mirren’s foreword to the book describes it as “the marriage of Shakespeare’s words about plants and the plants themselves.” This project combines the language of Shakespeare with the details of the botanicals found throughout his works—Quealy and Hasegawa bring us a literary garden ripe with flora and fauna puns and intellectual snark.

  • What new vision of Shakespeare is provided by approaching his works through the lens of nature writing and botanicals?
  • Latin and Greek terms and roots continue to be very important in the world of botanicals. What do you learn from that etymology throughout the book? How does it impact symbolism in Shakespeare’s works?
  • Annotate the book using different colored highlighters. Seek out description in one color, interpretation in another, and you might even look for literary echoes using a third. How do these threads braid together?

The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland by Nan Shepherd : The Living Mountain is Shepherd’s account of exploring the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. Part of Britain’s Arctic, Shepherd encounters ravenous storms, clear views of the aurora borealis, and deep snows during the summer. She spent hundreds of days exploring the mountains by foot.

  • These pages were written during the last years of WWII and its aftermath. How does that backdrop inform Shepherd’s interpretation of the landscape?
  • The book is separated into twelve chapters, each dedicated to a specific part of life in the Cairngorms. How do these divisions guide the writing? Is she able to keep these elements separate from each other? In writing? In experiencing the land?
  • Many parts of the landscape Shepherd observes would be expected in nature writing—mountains, weather, elements, animals, etc. How does Shepherd use language and tone to write about these things without using stock phrasing or clichéd interpretations?

Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear : Even memoir can be delivered through nature writing as we see in Kyo Maclear’s poetic book, Birds Art Life . The book is an account of a year in her life after her father has passed away. And just as Murray and Thoreau would advise, journaling those days and the symbols in them led to a whole book—one that delicately and profoundly weaves together the nature of life—of living after death—and how art can collide with that nature to get us through the hours.

  • How does time pass throughout the book? What techniques does Maclear employ to move the reader in and out of time?
  • How does grief lead Maclear into art? Philosophy? Nature? Objects?
  • The book is divided into the months of the year. Why does Maclear divide the book this way?
  • What do you make of the subtitles?

Is time natural? Describe the relationship between humans and time in nature.

So dear writers, take to these pages and take to the trails in nature around you. Journal your way through your days. Use all of your senses to take a journey in nature. Then, journal to make a memory of your time in the world. And give it all away to the rest of us, in words.

Lisa Hiton is an editorial associate at Write the World . She writes two series on our blog: The Write Place where she comments on life as a writer, and Reading like a Writer where she recommends books about writing in different genres. She’s also the interviews editor of Cosmonauts Avenue and the poetry editor of the Adroit Journal .


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Interesting Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Nature’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Nature’ is an 1836 essay by the American writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). In this essay, Emerson explores the relationship between nature and humankind, arguing that if we approach nature with a poet’s eye, and a pure spirit, we will find the wonders of nature revealed to us.

You can read ‘Nature’ in full here . Below, we summarise Emerson’s argument and offer an analysis of its meaning and context.

Emerson begins his essay by defining nature, in philosophical terms, as anything that is not our individual souls. So our bodies, as well as all of the natural world, but also all of the world of art and technology, too, are ‘nature’ in this philosophical sense of the world. He urges his readers not to rely on tradition or history to help them to understand the world: instead, they should look to nature and the world around them.

In the first chapter, Emerson argues that nature is never ‘used up’ when the right mind examines it: it is a source of boundless curiosity. No man can own the landscape: it belongs, if it belongs to anyone at all, to ‘the poet’. Emerson argues that when a man returns to nature he can rediscover his lost youth, that wide-eyed innocence he had when he went among nature as a boy.

Emerson states that when he goes among nature, he becomes a ‘transparent eyeball’ because he sees nature but is himself nothing: he has been absorbed or subsumed into nature and, because God made nature, God himself. He feels a deep kinship and communion with all of nature. He acknowledges that our view of nature depends on our own mood, and that the natural world reflects the mood we are feeling at the time.

In the second chapter, Emerson focuses on ‘commodity’: the name he gives to all of the advantages which our senses owe to nature. Emerson draws a parallel with the ‘useful arts’ which have built houses and steamships and whole towns: these are the man-made equivalents of the natural world, in that both nature and the ‘arts’ are designed to provide benefit and use to mankind.

The third chapter then turns to ‘beauty’, and the beauty of nature comprises several aspects, which Emerson outlines. First, the beauty of nature is a restorative : seeing the sky when we emerge from a day’s work can restore us to ourselves and make us happy again. The human eye is the best ‘artist’ because it perceives and appreciates this beauty so keenly. Even the countryside in winter possesses its own beauty.

The second aspect of beauty Emerson considers is the spiritual element. Great actions in history are often accompanied by a beautiful backdrop provided by nature. The third aspect in which nature should be viewed is its value to the human intellect . Nature can help to inspire people to create and invent new things. Everything in nature is a representation of a universal harmony and perfection, something greater than itself.

In his fourth chapter, Emerson considers the relationship between nature and language. Our language is often a reflection of some natural state: for instance, the word right literally means ‘straight’, while wrong originally denoted something ‘twisted’. But we also turn to nature when we wish to use language to reflect a ‘spiritual fact’: for example, that a lamb symbolises innocence, or a fox represents cunning. Language represents nature, therefore, and nature in turn represents some spiritual truth.

Emerson argues that ‘the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.’ Many great principles of the physical world are also ethical or moral axioms: for example, ‘the whole is greater than its part’.

In the fifth chapter, Emerson turns his attention to nature as a discipline . Its order can teach us spiritual and moral truths, but it also puts itself at the service of mankind, who can distinguish and separate (for instance, using water for drinking but wool for weaving, and so on). There is a unity in nature which means that every part of it corresponds to all of the other parts, much as an individual art – such as architecture – is related to the others, such as music or religion.

The sixth chapter is devoted to idealism . How can we sure nature does actually exist, and is not a mere product within ‘the apocalypse of the mind’, as Emerson puts it? He believes it doesn’t make any practical difference either way (but for his part, Emerson states that he believes God ‘never jests with us’, so nature almost certainly does have an external existence and reality).

Indeed, we can determine that we are separate from nature by changing out perspective in relation to it: for example, by bending down and looking between our legs, observing the landscape upside down rather than the way we usually view it. Emerson quotes from Shakespeare to illustrate how poets can draw upon nature to create symbols which reflect the emotions of the human soul. Religion and ethics, by contrast, degrade nature by viewing it as lesser than divine or moral truth.

Next, in the seventh chapter, Emerson considers nature and the spirit . Spirit, specifically the spirit of God, is present throughout nature. In his eighth and final chapter, ‘Prospects’, Emerson argues that we need to contemplate nature as a whole entity, arguing that ‘a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments’ which focus on more local details within nature.

Emerson concludes by arguing that in order to detect the unity and perfection within nature, we must first perfect our souls. ‘He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit’, Emerson urges. Wisdom means finding the miraculous within the common or everyday. He then urges the reader to build their own world, using their spirit as the foundation. Then the beauty of nature will reveal itself to us.

In a number of respects, Ralph Waldo Emerson puts forward a radically new attitude towards our relationship with nature. For example, although we may consider language to be man-made and artificial, Emerson demonstrates that the words and phrases we use to describe the world are drawn from our observation of nature. Nature and the human spirit are closely related, for Emerson, because they are both part of ‘the same spirit’: namely, God. Although we are separate from nature – or rather, our souls are separate from nature, as his prefatory remarks make clear – we can rediscover the common kinship between us and the world.

Emerson wrote ‘Nature’ in 1836, not long after Romanticism became an important literary, artistic, and philosophical movement in Europe and the United States. Like Wordsworth and the Romantics before him, Emerson argues that children have a better understanding of nature than adults, and when a man returns to nature he can rediscover his lost youth, that wide-eyed innocence he had when he went among nature as a boy.

And like Wordsworth, Emerson argued that to understand the world, we should go out there and engage with it ourselves, rather than relying on books and tradition to tell us what to think about it. In this connection, one could undertake a comparative analysis of Emerson’s ‘Nature’ and Wordsworth’s pair of poems ‘ Expostulation and Reply ’ and ‘ The Tables Turned ’, the former of which begins with a schoolteacher rebuking Wordsworth for sitting among nature rather than having his nose buried in a book:

‘Why, William, on that old gray stone, ‘Thus for the length of half a day, ‘Why, William, sit you thus alone, ‘And dream your time away?

‘Where are your books?—that light bequeathed ‘To beings else forlorn and blind! ‘Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed ‘From dead men to their kind.

Similarly, for Emerson, the poet and the dreamer can get closer to the true meaning of nature than scientists because they can grasp its unity by viewing it holistically, rather than focusing on analysing its rock formations or other more local details. All of this is in keeping with the philosophy of Transcendentalism , that nineteenth-century movement which argued for a kind of spiritual thinking instead of scientific thinking based narrowly on material things.

Emerson, along with Henry David Thoreau, was the most famous writer to belong to the Transcendentalist movement, and ‘Nature’ is fundamentally a Transcendentalist essay, arguing for an intuitive and ‘poetic’ engagement with nature in the round rather than a coldly scientific or empirical analysis of its component parts.

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Defining Nature and our Relationship to Nature Definition Essay

Introduction, our relation to nature.

Nature describes natural things as well as its relation to the causes of laws of nature. Wide ranges of views have been postulated to understand the impact and meaning of nature. The theme aimed at understanding significance of nature as well as its meaning has traversed centuries in the fields of theology, science, epistemology and metaphysics.

Moreover, the need to understand nature has brought about major debates in the field of philosophy. This paper will try to explore and define nature. The paper will also examine our relation to nature (Oelschlaeger, 1991).

Nature refers to the things, which are natural. Additionally, it refers to the laws of nature. In the ancient Greek, the term nature was utilized to refer to natural growth of plants. However, in philosophical terms, nature refers to the ways in which things happen naturally, that is, things happen by themselves. Additionally, human nature refers to an individual’s natural self. That individual is influenced entirely by genetic inheritance.

In this regard, those who argue for nature believe that everything that occurs in human being is inborn. In this regard, the theory posts that every mannerism, whether monstrous or good is acquired naturally. This has posted several arguments as other theorists think otherwise.

It can be observed that nature encompasses everything that grows naturally. In essence, understanding nature tries to explore origin of both plants and animals. Humans are therefore closely tied to nature in many ways namely growth and origin, among others (Callicott & Roger,1989).

According to nature belief, human beings are controlled by their inborn contributions. Nature, therefore, emphasizes that fact that people reflect only their biological factors throughout their lives. This belief has brought about numerous debates. These included debates on nature versus nature, the role of nature in human growth, among others.

However, on my part, I believe that the environment as well as nature has a role in human development. Nature exposes the natural, which we have less control over while the environment presents a sphere in which we can control. For instance, some behaviors are inborn while others are acquired through interaction with the environment.

Nonetheless, nature plays an important role in our lives because it explains our natural self. To this extent, nature can be defines as a term that defines laws of nature as well as the causes of laws of nature. From this definition, it is observable that we rely on nature to define ourselves (Gruen, Jamieson & Schlottmann, 2012).

The world we live in today is composed of mass tourism and virtual reality. Most people have been made to think and believe that they can live their lives as they want. In this regard, they have forgotten that a hidden force controls their lives. A number of cultural traditions have been utilized to define people’s origin as well as their reason for existence.

In the process, there has been an ecological crisis since people tend to forget the influence of nature on them. Our relation to nature has been affected by diverse cultural beliefs brought about by dominant traditions. Some theorists have also postulated that philosophies and religions were created to rationalize our actions concerning politics and economics.

In essence, theories such as Oelschlaeger, among others, argue that religion and history have been forefront in making people believe in virtual reality. Nonetheless, Oelschlaeger believes that ecological factors are influential in humans (Gruen, Jamieson & Schlottmann, 2012).

There has been mixed reaction on the need to card for our environment. While some theorists think that conserving nature is voluntary, others think that it is compulsory since nature has its direct influence on how we live, grow and survive on earth. For instance, it has been suggested that every generation has its characteristics from the kind of environment they live in.

For instance, humans have been observed to become shorter and shorter as generations come and go. Additionally, humans have been observed to become smarter and smarter as new technologies emerge. In essence, obvious changes are noticed in every generation hat comes by. Additionally, these changes are closely linked to the environment in which the generation lives.

However, historically myths have also come up to explain various changes in human life. Additionally, they have been utilized to explain origin of man. The relationship between nature and humans has also brought about big debates. For instance, Aristotle believed that plants exist to support animals while animals exist to support humans (Gruen, Jamieson & Schlottmann, 2012).

This view considered humans as the pinnacle of nature. Moreover, Western legal and political thought has fronted for this argument in their arguments for nature. However, this argument was dismissed by Charles Darwin in the 19 th century when he showed the essence of biological processes in bring life.

He postulated that these biological processes, which operated over a given geological time, produced life as well as life, which had previously seemed miraculous. In this regard, Darwin put aside the view drawn from Judeo-Christian religion, which argued that God made man the pinnacle of nature. Moreover, Darwin dismissed the fact that God created an immutable species in a hierarchical order, which placed humans at the top.

In essence, Darwin argued that life was continuous. Another theorist who mocked the ideas that nature is in place to serve humans was John Muir, an environmentalist. According to Muir, there would be no poisonous animals like mosquitoes as well as poisonous plants if God had made nature to serve us (Gruen, Jamieson & Schlottmann, 2012).

Another theorist, Leopold, explored values of nature and argued that relationship between man and nature is ethical. He envisioned a world in which people will increase in morality to consider themselves citizens of land community as opposed to being conquerors of land. In essence, he argued that people would start appreciating nature and consider its value to them, which would inherently lead to conservation of nature.

Leopold’s philosophy is in the process of utilization since nowadays people have resorted to moral views of nature. However, it should be noted that focus on nature and its conservation has been mainly because of global warming which has caused severe damages to human life.

In essence, Leopold’s philosophy has just been fulfilled in part as a larger part of the population still stick to other variant views (Gruen, Jamieson & Schlottmann, 2012).

Most theorists define nature as things that come to being by them as well as govern themselves by laws of nature. In this regard, most theorists like Leopold and Muir consider nature important in life. There are two main arguments in exploring the relationship between humans and nature. One argument states that God made humans the pinnacle of nature.

The other argument tries to postulate that humans and nature are equally served in a continual life series. Moreover, Leopold argues that there would come a time when people will realize the essence of nature to appreciate its benefits. On my part, I support the fact that God created man and made him the pinnacle of nature.

I draw this fact from religious circle which states that we were made by God’s very own hands in a in his own likeness. Moreover, God gave us dominion over every other thing created by a word of mouth. In essence, even through creation, we were made more important than plants and animals.

However, this does not give us the right to dominate and hence destroy nature. In fact, God brought us to be good stewards in caring for nature (Gruen, Jamieson & Schlottmann, 2012).

Nature defines the existence of plants, humans and animals. Humans are closely linked to nature. Theorists such as Darwin, Muir and Leopold, among others, argue against human dominion over nature. However, I support the belief that humans were created superior at the beginning by God.

Callicott, B. & Roger, A. (1989). Nature in Asian Traditions and thought: Essays in Environmental philosophy . Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Gruen, L., Jamieson, D., & Schlottmann, C. (2012). Reflecting on Nature: Readings in Environmental Ethics and Philosophy (2 nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Oelschlaeger, M. (1991). The idea of Wilderness prehistory to the age of ecology . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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IvyPanda. (2019, July 4). Defining Nature and our Relationship to Nature.

"Defining Nature and our Relationship to Nature." IvyPanda , 4 July 2019,

IvyPanda . (2019) 'Defining Nature and our Relationship to Nature'. 4 July.

IvyPanda . 2019. "Defining Nature and our Relationship to Nature." July 4, 2019.

1. IvyPanda . "Defining Nature and our Relationship to Nature." July 4, 2019.


IvyPanda . "Defining Nature and our Relationship to Nature." July 4, 2019.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry to pursue a career in writing and public speaking. Emerson became one of America's best known and best-loved 19th-century figures. More About Emerson

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"Every man has his own courage, and is betrayed because he seeks in himself the courage of other persons." – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What Are Nature vs. Nurture Examples?

How is nature defined, how is nurture defined, the nature vs. nurture debate, nature vs. nurture examples, what is empiricism (extreme nurture position), contemporary views of nature vs. nurture.

Nature vs. nurture is an age-old debate about whether genetics (nature) plays a bigger role in determining a person's characteristics than lived experience and environmental factors (nurture). The term "nature vs. nature" was coined by English naturalist Charles Darwin's younger half-cousin, anthropologist Francis Galton, around 1875.

In psychology, the extreme nature position (nativism) proposes that intelligence and personality traits are inherited and determined only by genetics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the extreme nurture position (empiricism) asserts that the mind is a blank slate at birth; external factors like education and upbringing determine who someone becomes in adulthood and how their mind works. Both of these extreme positions have shortcomings and are antiquated.

This article explores the difference between nature and nurture. It gives nature vs. nurture examples and explains why outdated views of nativism and empiricism don't jibe with contemporary views. 

Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty Images

In the context of nature vs. nurture, "nature" refers to genetics and heritable factors that are passed down to children from their biological parents.

Genes and hereditary factors determine many aspects of someone’s physical appearance and other individual characteristics, such as a genetically inherited predisposition for certain personality traits.

Scientists estimate that 20% to 60% percent of temperament is determined by genetics and that many (possibly thousands) of common gene variations combine to influence individual characteristics of temperament.

However, the impact of gene-environment (or nature-nurture) interactions on someone's traits is interwoven. Environmental factors also play a role in temperament by influencing gene activity. For example, in children raised in an adverse environment (such as child abuse or violence), genes that increase the risk of impulsive temperamental characteristics may be activated (turned on).

Trying to measure "nature vs. nurture" scientifically is challenging. It's impossible to know precisely where the influence of genes and environment begin or end.

How Are Inherited Traits Measured?

“Heritability”   describes the influence that genes have on human characteristics and traits. It's measured on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0. Very strong heritable traits like someone's eye color are ranked a 1.0.

Traits that have nothing to do with genetics, like speaking with a regional accent ranks a zero. Most human characteristics score between a 0.30 and 0.60 on the heritability scale, which reflects a blend of genetics (nature) and environmental (nurture) factors.

Thousands of years ago, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato believed that "innate knowledge" is present in our minds at birth. Every parent knows that babies are born with innate characteristics. Anecdotally, it may seem like a kid's "Big 5" personality traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness) were predetermined before birth.

What is the "Big 5" personality traits

The Big 5 personality traits is a theory that describes the five basic dimensions of personality. It was developed in 1949 by D. W. Fiske and later expanded upon by other researchers and is used as a framework to study people's behavior.

From a "nature" perspective, the fact that every child has innate traits at birth supports Plato's philosophical ideas about innatism. However, personality isn't set in stone. Environmental "nurture" factors can change someone's predominant personality traits over time. For example, exposure to the chemical lead during childhood may alter personality.

In 2014, a meta-analysis of genetic and environmental influences on personality development across the human lifespan found that people change with age. Personality traits are relatively stable during early childhood but often change dramatically during adolescence and young adulthood.

It's impossible to know exactly how much "nurture" changes personality as people get older. In 2019, a study of how stable personality traits are from age 16 to 66 found that people's Big 5 traits are both stable and malleable (able to be molded). During the 50-year span from high school to retirement, some traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to increase, while others appear to be set in stone.

Nurture refers to all of the external or environmental factors that affect human development such as how someone is raised, socioeconomic status, early childhood experiences, education, and daily habits.

Although the word "nurture" may conjure up images of babies and young children being cared for by loving parents, environmental factors and life experiences have an impact on our psychological and physical well-being across the human life span. In adulthood, "nurturing" oneself by making healthy lifestyle choices can offset certain genetic predispositions.

For example, a May 2022 study found that people with a high genetic risk of developing the brain disorder Alzheimer's disease can lower their odds of developing dementia (a group of symptoms that affect memory, thinking, and social abilities enough to affect daily life) by adopting these seven healthy habits in midlife:

  • Staying active
  • Healthy eating
  • Losing weight
  • Not smoking
  • Reducing blood sugar
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure

The nature vs. nurture debate centers around whether individual differences in behavioral traits and personality are caused primarily by nature or nurture. Early philosophers believed the genetic traits passed from parents to their children influence individual differences and traits. Other well-known philosophers believed the mind begins as a blank slate and that everything we are is determined by our experiences.

While early theories favored one factor over the other, experts today recognize there is a complex interaction between genetics and the environment and that both nature and nurture play a critical role in shaping who we are.

Eye color and skin pigmentation are examples of "nature" because they are present at birth and determined by inherited genes. Developmental delays due to toxins (such as exposure to lead as a child or exposure to drugs in utero) are examples of "nurture" because the environment can negatively impact learning and intelligence.

In Child Development

The nature vs. nurture debate in child development is apparent when studying language development. Nature theorists believe genetics plays a significant role in language development and that children are born with an instinctive ability that allows them to both learn and produce language.

Nurture theorists would argue that language develops by listening and imitating adults and other children.

In addition, nurture theorists believe people learn by observing the behavior of others. For example, contemporary psychologist Albert Bandura's social learning theory suggests that aggression is learned through observation and imitation.

In Psychology

In psychology, the nature vs. nurture beliefs vary depending on the branch of psychology.

  • Biopsychology:  Researchers analyze how the brain, neurotransmitters, and other aspects of our biology influence our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. emphasizing the role of nature.
  • Social psychology: Researchers study how external factors such as peer pressure and social media influence behaviors, emphasizing the importance of nurture.
  • Behaviorism: This theory of learning is based on the idea that our actions are shaped by our interactions with our environment.

In Personality Development

Whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in personality development depends on different personality development theories.

  • Behavioral theories: Our personality is a result of the interactions we have with our environment, such as parenting styles, cultural influences, and life experiences.
  • Biological theories: Personality is mostly inherited which is demonstrated by a study in the 1990s that concluded identical twins reared apart tend to have more similar personalities than fraternal twins.
  • Psychodynamic theories: Personality development involves both genetic predispositions and environmental factors and their interaction is complex.

In Mental Illness

Both nature and nurture can contribute to mental illness development.

For example, at least five mental health disorders are associated with some type of genetic component ( autism ,  attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) ,  bipolar disorder , major depression, and  schizophrenia ).

Other explanations for mental illness are environmental, such as:

  • Being exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero 
  • Witnessing a traumatic event, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Adverse life events and chronic stress during childhood

In Mental Health Therapy

Mental health treatment can involve both nature and nurture. For example, a therapist may explore life experiences that may have contributed to mental illness development (nurture) as well as family history of mental illness (nature).

At the same time, research indicates that a person's genetic makeup may impact how their body responds to antidepressants. Taking this into consideration is important for finding the right treatment for each individual.

 What Is Nativism (Extreme Nature Position)?

Innatism emphasizes nature's role in shaping our minds and personality traits before birth. Nativism takes this one step further and proposes that all of people's mental and physical characteristics are inherited and predetermined at birth.

In its extreme form, concepts of nativism gave way to the early 20th century's racially-biased eugenics movement. Thankfully, "selective breeding," which is the idea that only certain people should reproduce in order to create chosen characteristics in offspring, and eugenics, arranged breeding, lost momentum during World War II. At that time, the Nazis' ethnic cleansing (killing people based on their ethnic or religious associations) atrocities were exposed.

Philosopher John Locke's tabula rasa theory from 1689 directly opposes the idea that we are born with innate knowledge. "Tabula rasa" means "blank slate" and implies that our minds do not have innate knowledge at birth.

Locke was an empiricist who believed that all the knowledge we gain in life comes from sensory experiences (using their senses to understand the world), education, and day-to-day encounters after being born.

Today, looking at nature vs. nature in black-and-white terms is considered a misguided dichotomy (two-part system). There are so many shades of gray where nature and nurture overlap. It's impossible to tease out how inherited traits and learned behaviors shape someone's unique characteristics or influence how their mind works.

The influences of nature and nurture in psychology are impossible to unravel. For example, imagine someone growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent who has frequent rage attacks. If that child goes on to develop a substance use disorder and has trouble with emotion regulation in adulthood, it's impossible to know precisely how much genetics (nature) or adverse childhood experiences (nurture) affected that individual's personality traits or issues with alcoholism.

Epigenetics Blurs the Line Between Nature and Nurture

"Epigenetics " means "on top of" genetics. It refers to external factors and experiences that turn genes "on" or "off." Epigenetic mechanisms alter DNA's physical structure in utero (in the womb) and across the human lifespan.

Epigenetics blurs the line between nature and nurture because it says that even after birth, our genetic material isn't set in stone; environmental factors can modify genes during one's lifetime. For example, cannabis exposure during critical windows of development can increase someone's risk of neuropsychiatric disease via epigenetic mechanisms.

Nature vs. nurture is a framework used to examine how genetics (nature) and environmental factors (nurture) influence human development and personality traits.

However, nature vs. nurture isn't a black-and-white issue; there are many shades of gray where the influence of nature and nurture overlap. It's impossible to disentangle how nature and nurture overlap; they are inextricably intertwined. In most cases, nature and nurture combine to make us who we are. 

Waller JC. Commentary: the birth of the twin study--a commentary on francis galton’s “the history of twins.”   International Journal of Epidemiology . 2012;41(4):913-917. doi:10.1093/ije/dys100

The New York Times. " Major Personality Study Finds That Traits Are Mostly Inherited ."

Medline Plus. Is temperament determined by genetics?

Feldman MW, Ramachandran S. Missing compared to what? Revisiting heritability, genes and culture .  Phil Trans R Soc B . 2018;373(1743):20170064. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0064

Winch C. Innatism, concept formation, concept mastery and formal education: innatism, concept formation and formal education .  Journal of Philosophy of Education . 2015;49(4):539-556. doi:10.1111/1467-9752.12121

Briley DA, Tucker-Drob EM. Genetic and environmental continuity in personality development: A meta-analysis .  Psychological Bulletin . 2014;140(5):1303-1331. doi:10.1037/a0037091

Damian RI, Spengler M, Sutu A, Roberts BW. Sixteen going on sixty-six: A longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years .  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology . 2019;117(3):674-695. doi:10.1037/pspp0000210

Tin A, Bressler J, Simino J, et al. Genetic risk, midlife life’s simple 7, and incident dementia in the atherosclerosis risk in communities study .  Neurology . Published online May 25, 2022. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000200520 

Levitt M. Perceptions of nature, nurture and behaviour .  Life Sci Soc Policy . 2013;9(1):13. doi:10.1186/2195-7819-9-13

Ross EJ, Graham DL, Money KM, Stanwood GD. Developmental consequences of fetal exposure to drugs: what we know and what we still must learn . Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015 Jan;40(1):61-87. doi: 10.1038/npp.2014.14

World Health Organization. Lead poisoning .

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models .  The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1961; 63 (3), 575–582 doi:10.1037/h0045925

Krapfl JE.  Behaviorism and society .  Behav Anal.  2016;39(1):123-9. doi:10.1007/s40614-016-0063-8

Bouchard TJ Jr, Lykken DT, McGue M, Segal NL, Tellegen A. Sources of human psychological differences: the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart . Science. 1990 Oct 12;250(4978):223-8. doi: 10.1126/science.2218526

National Institutes of Health.  Common genetic factors found in 5 mental disorders .

Franke HA. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment . Children (Basel). 2014 Nov 3;1(3):390-402. doi: 10.3390/children1030390

Pain O, Hodgson K, Trubetskoy V, et al.  Identifying the common genetic basis of antidepressant response .  Biol Psychiatry Global Open Sci . 2022;2(2):115-126. doi:10.1016/j.bpsgos.2021.07.008

National Human Genome Research Institute. Eugenics and Scientific Racism .

OLL. The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes .

Toraño EG, García MG, Fernández-Morera JL, Niño-García P, Fernández AF. The impact of external factors on the epigenome:  in utero  and over lifetime .  BioMed Research International . 2016;2016:1-17. doi:10.1155/2016/2568635

Smith A, Kaufman F, Sandy MS, Cardenas A. Cannabis exposure during critical windows of development: epigenetic and molecular pathways implicated in neuropsychiatric disease .  Curr Envir Health Rpt . 2020;7(3):325-342. doi:10.1007/s40572-020-00275-4

By Christopher Bergland Bergland is a retired ultra-endurance athlete turned medical writer and science reporter. He is based in Massachusetts.

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Human Nature

Talk of human nature is a common feature of moral and political discourse among people on the street and among philosophers, political scientists and sociologists. This is largely due to the widespread assumption that true descriptive or explanatory claims making use of the concept of human nature have, or would have, considerable normative significance. Some think that human nature excludes the possibility of certain forms of social organisation—for example, that it excludes any broadly egalitarian society. Others make the stronger claim that a true normative ethical theory has to be built on prior knowledge of human nature. Still others believe that there are specific moral prohibitions concerning the alteration of, or interference in, the set of properties that make up human nature. Finally, there are those who argue that the normative significance derives from the fact that merely deploying the concept is typically, or even necessarily, pernicious.

Alongside such varying and frequently conflicting normative uses of the expression “human nature”, there are serious disagreements concerning the concept’s content and explanatory significance—the starkest being whether the expression “human nature” refers to anything at all. Some reasons given for saying there is no human nature are anthropological, grounded in views concerning the relationship between natural and cultural features of human life. Other reasons given are biological, deriving from the character of the human species as, like other species, an essentially historical product of evolution. Whether these reasons justify the claim that there is no human nature depends, at least in part, on what it is exactly that the expression is supposed to be picking out. Many contemporary proposals differ significantly in their answers to this question.

Understanding the debates around the philosophical use of the expression “human nature” requires clarity on the reasons both for (1) adopting specific adequacy conditions for the term’s use and for (2) accepting particular substantial claims made within the framework thus adopted. One obstacle to such clarity is historical: we have inherited from the beginnings of Western philosophy, via its Medieval reception, the idea that talk of human nature brings into play a number of different, but related claims. One such set of claims derives from different meanings of the Greek equivalents of the term “nature”. This bundle of claims, which can be labelled the traditional package , is a set of adequacy conditions for any substantial claim that uses the expression “human nature”. The beginnings of Western philosophy have also handed down to us a number of such substantial claims . Examples are that humans are “rational animals” or “political animals”. We can call these claims the traditional slogans . The traditional package is a set of specifications of how claims along the lines of the traditional slogans are to be understood, i.e., what it means to claim that it is “human nature” to be, for example, a rational animal.

Various developments in Western thought have cast doubt both on the coherence of the traditional package and on the possibility that the adequacy conditions for the individual claims can be fulfilled. Foremost among these developments are the Enlightenment rejection of teleological metaphysics, the Historicist emphasis on the significance of culture for understanding human action and the Darwinian introduction of history into biological kinds. This entry aims to help clarify the adequacy conditions for claims about human nature, the satisfiability of such conditions and the reasons why the truth of claims with the relevant conditions might seem important. It proceeds in five steps. Section 1 unpacks the traditional package, paying particular attention to the importance of Aristotelian themes and to the distinction between the scientific and participant perspectives from which human nature claims can be raised. Section 2 explains why evolutionary biology raises serious problems both for the coherence of this package and for the truth of its individual component claims. Sections 3 and 4 then focus on attempts to secure scientific conceptions of human nature in the face of the challenge from evolutionary biology. The entry concludes with a discussion of accounts of human nature developed from a participant perspective, in particular accounts that, in spite of the evolutionary challenge, are taken to have normative consequences.

1.1 “Humans”

1.2 unpacking the traditional package, 1.3 essentialisms, 1.4 on the status of the traditional slogan, 2.1 the nature of the species taxon, 2.2 the nature of species specimens as species specimens, 2.3 responding to the evolutionary verdict on classificatory essences, 3.1 privileging properties, 3.2 statistical normality or robust causality, 4.1 genetically based psychological adaptations, 4.2 abandoning intrinsicality, 4.3 secondary altriciality as a game-changer, 5.1. human nature from a participant perspective, 5.2.1. sidestepping the darwinian challenge, 5.2.2. human flourishing, 5.3. reason as the unique structural property, other internet resources, related entries, 1. “humans”, slogans and the traditional package.

Before we begin unpacking, it should be noted that the adjective “human” is polysemous, a fact that often goes unnoticed in discussions of human nature, but makes a big difference to both the methodological tractability and truth of claims that employ the expression. The natural assumption may appear to be that we are talking about specimens of the biological species Homo sapiens , that is, organisms belonging to the taxon that split from the rest of the hominin lineage an estimated 150,000 years ago. However, certain claims seem to be best understood as at least potentially referring to organisms belonging to various older species within the subtribe Homo , with whom specimens of Homo sapiens share properties that have often been deemed significant (Sterelny 2018: 114).

On the other hand, the “nature” that is of interest often appears to be that of organisms belonging to a more restricted group. There may have been a significant time lag between the speciation of anatomically modern humans ( Homo sapiens ) and the evolution of behaviourally modern humans, i.e., human populations whose life forms involved symbol use, complex tool making, coordinated hunting and increased geographic range. Behavioural modernity’s development is often believed only to have been completed by 50,000 years ago. If, as is sometimes claimed, behavioural modernity requires psychological capacities for planning, abstract thought, innovativeness and symbolism (McBrearty & Brooks 2000: 492) and if these were not yet widely or sufficiently present for several tens of thousands of years after speciation, then it may well be behaviourally, rather than anatomically modern humans whose “nature” is of interest to many theories. Perhaps the restriction might be drawn even tighter to include only contemporary humans, that is, those specimens of the species who, since the introduction of agriculture around 12,000 years ago, evolved the skills and capacities necessary for life in large sedentary, impersonal and hierarchical groups (Kappeler, Fichtel, & van Schaik 2019: 68).

It was, after all, a Greek living less than two and a half millennia ago within such a sedentary, hierarchically organised population structure, who could have had no conception of the prehistory of the beings he called anthrôpoi , whose thoughts on their “nature” have been decisive for the history of philosophical reflection on the subject. It seems highly likely that, without the influence of Aristotle, discussions of “human nature” would not be structured as they are until today.

We can usefully distinguish four types of claim that have been traditionally made using the expression “human nature”. As a result of a particular feature of Aristotle’s philosophy, to which we will come in a moment, these four claims are associated with five different uses of the expression. Uses of the first type seem to have their origin in Plato; uses of the second, third and fourth type are Aristotelian; and, although uses of the fifth type have historically been associated with Aristotle, this association seems to derive from a misreading in the context of the religiously motivated Mediaeval reception of his philosophy.

A first , thin, contrastive use of the expression “human nature” is provided by the application of a thin, generic concept of nature to humans. In this minimal variant, nature is understood in purely contrastive or negative terms. Phusis is contrasted in Plato and Aristotle with technē , where the latter is the product of intention and a corresponding intervention of agency. If the entire cosmos is taken to be the product of divine agency, then, as Plato argued (Nadaf 2005: 1ff.), conceptualisations of the cosmos as natural in this sense are mistaken. Absent divine agency, the types of agents whose intentions are relevant for the status of anything as natural are human agents. Applied to humans, then, this concept of nature picks out human features that are not the results of human intentional action. Thus understood, human nature is the set of human features or processes that remain after subtraction of those picked out by concepts of the non-natural, concepts such as “culture”, “nurture”, or “socialisation”.

A second component in the package supplies the thin concept with substantial content that confers on it explanatory power. According to Aristotle, natural entities are those that contain in themselves the principle of their own production or development, in the way that acorns contain a blueprint for their own realisation as oak trees ( Physics 192b; Metaphysics 1014b). The “nature” of natural entities thus conceptualised is a subset of the features that make up their nature in the first sense. The human specification of this explanatory concept of nature aims to pick out human features that similarly function as blueprints for something like a fully realised form. According to Aristotle, for all animals that blueprint is “the soul”, that is, the integrated functional capacities that characterise the fully developed entity. The blueprint is realised when matter, i.e., the body, has attained the level of organisation required to instantiate the animal’s living functions (Charles 2000: 320ff.; Lennox 2009: 356).

A terminological complication is introduced here by the fact that the fully developed form of an entity is itself also frequently designated as its “nature” (Aristotle, Physics 193b; Politics 1252b). In Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics, this is the entity’s end, “that for the sake of which a thing is” ( Metaphysics 1050a; Charles 2000: 259). Thus, a human’s “nature”, like that of any other being, may be either the features in virtue of which it is disposed to develop to a certain mature form or, thirdly , the form to which it is disposed to develop.

Importantly, the particularly prominent focus on the idea of a fully developed form in Aristotle’s discussions of humans derives from its dual role. It is not only the form to the realisation of which human neonates are disposed; it is also the form that mature members of the species ought to realise ( Politics 1253a). This normative specification is the fourth component of the traditional package. The second, third and fourth uses of “nature” are all in the original package firmly anchored in a teleological metaphysics. One question for systematic claims about human nature is whether any of these components remain plausible if we reject a teleology firmly anchored in theology (Sedley 2010: 5ff.).

A fifth and last component of the package that has traditionally been taken to have been handed down from antiquity is classificatory. Here, the property or set of properties named by the expression “human nature” is that property or property set in virtue of the possession of which particular organisms belong to a particular biological taxon: what we now identify as the species taxon Homo sapiens . This is human nature typologically understood.

This, then, is the traditional package:

The sort of properties that have traditionally been taken to support the classificatory practices relevant to TP5 are intrinsic to the individual organisms in question. Moreover, they have been taken to be able to fulfil this role in virtue of being necessary and sufficient for the organism’s membership of the species, i.e., “essential” in one meaning of the term. This view of species membership, and the associated view of species themselves, has been influentially dubbed “typological thinking” (Mayr 1959 [1976: 27f.]; cf. Mayr 1982: 260) and “essentialism” (Hull 1965: 314ff.; cf. Mayr 1968 [1976: 428f.]). The former characterisation involves an epistemological focus on the classificatory procedure, the latter a metaphysical focus on the properties thus singled out. Ernst Mayr claimed that the classificatory approach originates in Plato’s theory of forms, and, as a result, involves the further assumption that the properties are unchanging. According to David Hull, its root cause is the attempt to fit the ontology of species taxa to an Aristotelian theory of definition.

The theory of definition developed in Aristotle’s logical works assigns entities to a genus and distinguishes them from other members of the genus, i.e., from other “species”, by their differentiae ( Topics 103b). The procedure is descended from the “method of division” of Plato, who provides a crude example as applied to humans, when he has the Eleatic Stranger in the Statesman characterise them as featherless bipeds (266e). Hull and many scholars in his wake (Dupré 2001: 102f.) have claimed that this simple schema for picking out essential conditions for species membership had a seriously deleterious effect on biological taxonomy until Darwin (cf. Winsor 2006).

However, there is now widespread agreement that Aristotle was no taxonomic essentialist (Balme 1980: 5ff.; Mayr 1982: 150ff.; Balme 1987: 72ff.; Ereshefsky 2001: 20f; Richards 2010: 21ff.; Wilkins 2018: 9ff.). First, the distinction between genus and differentiae was for Aristotle relative to the task at hand, so that a “species” picked out in this manner could then count as the genus for further differentiation. Second, the Latin term “species”, a translation of the Greek eidos , was a logical category with no privileged relationship to biological entities; a prime example in the Topics is the species justice, distinguished within the genus virtue (143a). Third, in a key methodological passage, Parts of Animals , I.2–3 (642b–644b), Aristotle explicitly rejects the method of “dichotomous division”, which assigns entities to a genus and then seeks a single differentia, as inappropriate to the individuation of animal kinds. Instead, he claims, a multiplicity of differentiae should be brought to bear. He emphasises this point in relation to humans (644a).

According to Pierre Pellegrin and David Balme, Aristotle did not seek to establish a taxonomic system in his biological works (Pellegrin 1982 [1986: 113ff.]; Balme 1987, 72). Rather, he simply accepted the everyday common sense partitioning of the animal world (Pellegrin 1982 [1986: 120]; Richards 2010: 24; but cf. Charles 2000: 343ff.). If this is correct, Aristotle didn’t even ask after the conditions for belonging to the species Homo sapiens . So he wasn’t proposing any particular answer, and specifically not the “essentialist” answer advanced by TP5. In as far as such an answer has been employed in biological taxonomy (cf. Winsor 2003), its roots appear to lie in Neoplatonic, Catholic misinterpretations of Aristotle (Richards 2010: 34ff.; Wilkins 2018: 22ff.). Be that as it may, the fifth use of “human nature” transported by tradition—to pick out essential conditions for an organism’s belonging to the species—is of eminent interest. The systematic concern behind Mayr and Hull’s historical claims is that accounts of the form of TP5 are incompatible with evolutionary theory. We shall look at this concern in section 2 of this entry.

Because the term “essentialism” recurs with different meanings in discussions of human nature and because some of the theoretical claims thus summarised are assumed to be Aristotelian in origin, it is worth spending a moment here to register what claims can be singled out by the expression. The first , purely classificatory conception just discussed should be distinguished from a second view that is also frequently labelled “essentialist” and which goes back to Locke’s concept of “real essence” (1689: III, iii, 15). According to essentialism thus understood, an essence is the intrinsic feature or features of an entity that fulfils or fulfil a dual role: firstly, of being that in virtue of which something belongs to a kind and, secondly, of explaining why things of that kind typically have a particular set of observable features. Thus conceived, “essence” has both a classificatory and an explanatory function and is the core of a highly influential, “essentialist” theory of natural kinds, developed in the wake of Kripke’s and Putnam’s theories of reference.

An account of human nature that is essentialist in this sense would take the nature of the human natural kind to be a set of microstructural properties that have two roles: first, they constitute an organism’s membership of the species Homo sapiens . Second, they are causally responsible for the organism manifesting morphological and behavioural properties typical of species members. Paradigms of entities with such natures or essences are chemical elements. An example is the element with the atomic number 79, the microstructural feature that accounts for surface properties of gold such as yellowness. Applied to organisms, it seems that the relevant explanatory relationship will be developmental, the microstructures providing something like a blueprint for the properties of the mature individual. Kripke assumed that some such blueprint is the “internal structure” responsible for the typical development of tigers as striped, carnivorous quadrupeds (Kripke 1972 [1980: 120f.]).

As the first, pseudo-Aristotelian version of essentialism illustrates, the classificatory and explanatory components of what we might call “Kripkean essentialism” can be taken apart. Thus, “human nature” can also be understood in exclusively explanatory terms, viz. as the set of microstructural properties responsible for typical human morphological and behavioural features. In such an account, the ability to pick out the relevant organisms is simply presupposed. As we shall see in section 4 of this entry, accounts of this kind have been popular in the contemporary debate. The subtraction of the classificatory function of the properties in these conceptions has generally seemed to warrant withholding from them the label “essentialist”. However, because some authors have still seen the term as applicable (Dupré 2001: 162), we might think of such accounts as constituting a third , weak or deflationary variant of essentialism.

Such purely explanatory accounts are descendants of the second use of “human nature” in the traditional package, the difference being that they don’t usually presuppose some notion of the fully developed human form. However, where some such presupposition is made, there are stronger grounds for talking of an “essentialist” account. Elliott Sober has argued that the key to essentialism is not classification in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but the postulation of some “privileged state”, to the realisation of which specimens of a species tend, as long as no extrinsic factors “interfere” (Sober 1980: 358ff.). Such a dispositional-teleological conception, dissociated from classificatory ambitions, would be a fourth form of essentialism. Sober rightly associates such an account with Aristotle, citing Aristotle’s claims in his zoological writings that interfering forces are responsible for deviations, i.e., morphological differences, both within and between species. A contemporary account of human nature with this structure will be discussed in section 4 .

A fifth and final form of essentialism is even more clearly Aristotelian. Here, an explicitly normative status is conferred on the set of properties to the development of which human organisms tend. For normative essentialism, “the human essence” or “human nature” is a normative standard for the evaluation of organisms belonging to the species. Where the first, third and fourth uses of the expression have tended to be made with critical intent (for defensive exceptions, see Charles 2000: 348ff.; Walsh 2006; Devitt 2008; Boulter 2012), this fifth use is more often a self-ascription (e.g., Nussbaum 1992). It is intended to emphasise metaethical claims of a specific type. According to such claims, an organism’s belonging to the human species entails or in some way involves the applicability to the organism of moral norms that ground in the value of the fully developed human form. According to one version of this thought, humans ought be, or ought to be enabled to be, rational because rationality is a key feature of the fully developed human form. Such normative-teleological accounts of human nature will be the focus of section 5.2 .

We can summarise the variants of essentialism and their relationship to the components of the traditional package as follows:

Section 2 and section 5 of this entry deal with the purely classificatory and the normative teleological conceptions of human nature respectively, and with the associated types of essentialism. Section 3 discusses attempts to downgrade TP5, moving from essential to merely characteristic properties. Section 4 focuses on accounts of an explanatory human nature, both on attempts to provide a modernized version of the teleological blueprint model ( §4.1 ) and on explanatory conceptions with deflationary intent relative to the claims of TP2 and TP3 ( §4.2 and §4.3 ).

The traditional package specifies a set of conditions some or all of which substantial claims about “human nature” are supposed to meet. Before we turn to the systematic arguments central to contemporary debates on whether such conditions can be met, it will be helpful to spend a moment considering one highly influential substantial claim. Aristotle’s writings prominently contain two such claims that have been handed down in slogan form. The first is that the human being (more accurately: “man”) is an animal that is in some important sense social (“zoon politikon”, History of Animals 487b; Politics 1253a; Nicomachean Ethics 1169b). According to the second, “he” is a rational animal ( Politics 1253a, where Aristotle doesn’t actually use the traditionally ascribed slogan, “zoon logon echon”).

Aristotle makes both claims in very different theoretical contexts, on the one hand, in his zoological writings and, on the other, in his ethical and political works. This fact, together with the fact that Aristotle’s philosophy of nature and his practical philosophy are united by a teleological metaphysics, may make it appear obvious that the slogans are biological claims that provide a foundation for normative claims in ethics and politics. The slogans do indeed function as foundations in the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics respectively (on the latter, see section 5 of this entry). It is, however, unclear whether they are to be understood as biological claims. Let us focus on the slogan that has traditionally dominated discussions of human nature in Western philosophy, that humans are “rational animals”.

First, if Pellegrin and Balme are right that Aristotelian zoology is uninterested in classifying species, then ascribing the capacity for “rationality” cannot have the function of naming a biological trait that distinguishes humans from other animals. This is supported by two further sets of considerations. To begin with, Aristotle’s explicit assertion that a series of differentiae would be needed to “define” humans ( Parts of Animals 644a) is cashed out in the long list of features he takes to be their distinguishing marks, such as speech, having hair on both eyelids, blinking, having hands, upright posture, breasts in front, the largest and moistest brain, fleshy legs and buttocks (Lloyd 1983: 29ff.). Furthermore, there is in Aristotle no capacity for reason that is both exclusive to, and universal among anthropoi . One part or kind of reason, “practical intelligence” ( phronesis ), is, Aristotle claims, found in both humans and other animals, being merely superior in the former ( Parts of Animals , 687a). Now, there are other forms of reasoning of which this is not true, forms whose presence are sufficient for being human: humans are the only animals capable of deliberation ( History of Animals 488b) and reasoning ( to noein ), in as far as this extends to mathematics and first philosophy. Nevertheless, these forms of reasoning are unnecessary: slaves, who Aristotle includes among humans ( Politics 1255a), are said to have no deliberative faculty ( to bouleutikon ) at all ( Politics 1260a; cf. Richter 2011: 42ff.). Presumably, they will also be without the capacities necessary for first philosophy.

Second, these Aristotelian claims raise the question as to whether the ascription of rationality is even intended as an ascription to an individual in as far as she or he belongs to a biological kind. The answer might appear to be obviously affirmative. Aristotle uses the claim that a higher level of reason is characteristic of humans to teleologically explain other morphological features, in particular upright gait and the morphology of the hands ( Parts of Animals 686a, 687a). However, the kind of reason at issue here is practical intelligence, the kind humans and animals share, not the capacity for mathematics and metaphysics, which among animals is exercised exclusively by humans. In as far as humans are able to exercise this latter capacity in contemplation, Aristotle claims that they “partake of the divine” ( Parts of Animals 656a), a claim of which he makes extensive use when grounding his ethics in human rationality ( Nicomachean Ethics 1177b–1178b). When, in a passage to which James Lennox has drawn attention (Lennox 1999), Aristotle declares that the rational part of the soul cannot be the object of natural science ( Parts of Animals 645a), it seems to be the contemplative part of the soul that is thus excluded from biological investigation, precisely the feature that is named in the influential slogan. If it is the “something divine … present in” humans that is decisively distinctive of their kind, it seems unclear whether the relevant kind is biological.

It is not the aim of this entry to decide questions of Aristotle interpretation. What is important is that the relationship of the question of “human nature” to biology is, from the beginning of the concept’s career, not as unequivocal as is often assumed (e.g., Hull 1986: 7; Richards 2010: 217f.). This is particularly true of the slogan according to which humans are rational animals. In the history of philosophy, this slogan has frequently been detached from any attempt to provide criteria for biological classification or characterisation. When Aquinas picks up the slogan, he is concerned to emphasise that human nature involves a material, corporeal aspect. This aspect is, however, not thought of in biological terms. Humans are decisively “rational substances”, i.e., persons. As such they also belong to a kind whose members also number angels and God (three times) (Eberl 2004). Similarly, Kant is primarily, indeed almost exclusively, interested in human beings as examples of “rational nature”, “human nature” being only one way in which rational nature can be instantiated (Kant 1785, 64, 76, 85). For this reason, Kant generally talks of “rational beings”, rather than of “rational animals” (1785, 45, 95).

There is, then, a perspective on humans that is plausibly present in Aristotle, stronger in Aquinas and dominant in Kant and that involves seeing them as instances of a kind other than the “human kind”, i.e., seeing the human animal “as a rational being” (Kant 1785 [1996: 45]). According to this view, the “nature” of humans that is most worthy of philosophical interest is the one they possess not insofar as they are human, but insofar as they are rational. Where this is the relevant use of the concept of human nature, being a specimen of the biological species is unnecessary for possessing the corresponding property. Specimens of other species, as well as non-biological entities may also belong to the relevant kind. It is also insufficient, as not all humans will have the properties necessary for membership in that kind.

As both a biologist and ethicist, Aristotle is at once a detached scientist and a participant in forms of interpersonal and political interaction only available to contemporary humans living in large, sedentary subpopulations. It seems plausible that a participant perspective may have suggested a different take on what it is to be human, perhaps even a different take on the sense in which humans might be rational animals, to that of biological science. We will return to this difference in section 5 of the entry.

2. The Nature of the Evolutionary Unit Homo sapiens and its Specimens

Detailing the features in virtue of which an organism is a specimen of the species Homo sapiens is a purely biological task. Whether such specification is achievable and, if so how, is controversial. It is controversial for the same reasons for which it is controversial what conditions need to be met for an organism to be a specimen of any species. These reasons derive from the theory of evolution.

A first step to understanding these reasons involves noting a further ambiguity in the use of the expression “human nature”, this time an ambiguity specific to taxonomy. The term can be used to pick out a set of properties as an answer to two different questions. The first concerns the properties of some organism which make it the case that it belongs to the species Homo sapiens . The second concerns the properties in virtue of which a population or metapopulation is the species Homo sapiens . Correspondingly, “human nature” can pick out either the properties of organisms that constitute their partaking in the species Homo sapiens or the properties of some higher-level entity that constitute it as that species. Human nature might then either be the nature of the species or the nature of species specimens as specimens of the species.

It is evolution that confers on this distinction its particular form and importance. The variation among organismic traits, without which there would be no evolution, has its decisive effects at the level of populations. These are groups of organisms that in some way cohere at a time in spite of the variation of traits among the component organisms. It is population-level groupings, taxa, not organisms, that evolve and it is taxa, such as species, that provide the organisms that belong to them with genetic resources (Ghiselin 1987: 141). The species Homo sapiens appears to be a metapopulation that coheres at least in part because of the gene flow between its component organisms brought about by interbreeding (cf. Ereshefsky 1991: 96ff.). Hence, according to evolutionary theory, Homo sapiens is plausibly a higher-level entity—a unit of evolution—consisting of the lower-level entities that are individual human beings. The two questions phrased in terms of “human nature” thus concern the conditions for individuation of the population-level entity and the conditions under which organisms are components of that entity.

The theory of evolution transforms the way we should understand the relationship between human organisms and the species to which they belong. The taxonomic assumption of TP5 was that species are individuated by means of intrinsic properties that are individually instantiated by certain organisms. Instantiating those properties is taken to be necessary and sufficient for those organisms to belong to the species. Evolutionary theory makes it clear that species, as population-level entities, cannot be individuated by means of the properties of lower-level constituents, in our case, of individual human organisms (Sober 1980: 355).

The exclusion of this possibility grounds a decisive difference from the way natural kinds are standardly construed in the wake of Locke and Kripke. Recall that, in this Kripkean construal, lumps of matter are instances of chemical kinds because of their satisfaction of intrinsic necessary and sufficient conditions, viz. their atoms possessing a certain number of protons. The same conditions also individuate the chemical kinds themselves. Chemical kinds are thus spatiotemporally unrestricted sets. This means that there are no metaphysical barriers to the chance generation of members of the kind, independently of whether the kind is instantiated at any contiguous time or place. Nitrogen could come to exist by metaphysical happenstance, should an element with the atomic number 14 somehow come into being, even in a world in which up to that point no nitrogen has existed (Hull 1978: 349; 1984: 22).

In contrast, a species can only exist at time \(t_n\) if either it or a parent species existed at \(t_{n-1}\) and there was some relationship of spatial contiguity between component individuals of the species at \(t_n\) and the individuals belonging to either the same species or the parent species at \(t_{n-1}\). This is because of the essential role of the causal relationship of heredity. Heredity generates both the coherence across a population requisite for the existence of a species and the variability of predominant traits within the population, without which a species would not evolve.

For this reason, the species Homo sapiens , like every other species taxon, must meet a historical or genealogical condition. (For pluralistic objections to even this condition, see Kitcher 1984: 320ff.; Dupré 1993: 49f.) This condition is best expressed as a segment of a population-level phylogenetic tree, where such trees represent ancestor-descendent series (Hull 1978: 349; de Queiroz 1999: 50ff.; 2005). Species, as the point is often put, are historical entities, rather than kinds or classes (Hull 1978: 338ff.; 1984: 19). The fact that species are not only temporally, but also spatially restricted has also led to the stronger claim that they are individuals (Ghiselin 1974; 1997: 14ff.; Hull 1978: 338). If this is correct, then organisms are not members, but parts of species taxa. Independently of whether this claim is true for all biological species, Homo sapiens is a good candidate for a species that belongs to the category individual . This is because the species is characterised not only by spatiotemporal continuity, but also by causal processes that account for the coherence between its component parts. These processes plausibly include not only interbreeding, but also conspecific recognition and particular forms of communication (Richards 2010: 158ff., 218).

Importantly, the genealogical condition is only a necessary condition, as genealogy unites all the segments of one lineage. The segment of the phylogenetic tree that represents some species taxon begins with a node that represents a lineage-splitting or speciation event. Determining that node requires attention to general speciation theory, which has proposed various competing criteria (Dupré 1993: 48f.; Okasha 2002: 201; Coyne & Orr 2004). In the case of Homo sapiens , it requires attention to the specifics of the human case, which are also controversial (see Crow 2003; Cela-Conde & Ayala 2017: 11ff.). The end point of the segment is marked either by some further speciation event or, as may seem likely in the case of Homo sapiens , by the destruction of the metapopulation. Only when the temporal boundaries of the segment have become determinate would it be possible to adduce sufficient conditions for the existence of such a historical entity. Hence, if “human nature” is understood to pick out the necessary and sufficient conditions that individuate the species taxon Homo sapiens , its content is not only controversial, but epistemically unavailable to us.

If we take such a view of the individuating conditions for the species Homo sapiens , what are the consequences for the question of which organisms belong to the species? It might appear that it leaves open the possibility that speciation has resulted in some intrinsic property or set of properties establishing the cohesion specific to the taxon and that such properties count as necessary and sufficient for belonging to it (cf. Devitt 2008: 17ff.). This appearance would be deceptive. To begin with, no intrinsic property can be necessary because of the sheer empirical improbability that all species specimens grouped together by the relevant lineage segment instantiate any such candidate property. For example, there are individuals who are missing legs, inner organs or the capacity for language, but who remain biologically human (Hull 1986: 5). Evolutionary theory clarifies why this is so: variability, secured by mechanisms such as mutation and recombination, is the key to evolution, so that, should some qualitative property happen to be universal among all extant species specimens immediately after the completion of speciation, that is no guarantee that it will continue to be so throughout the lifespan of the taxon (Hull 1984: 35; Ereshefsky 2008: 101). The common thought that there must be at least some genetic property common to all human organisms is also false (R. Wilson 1999a: 190; Sterelny & Griffiths 1999: 7; Okasha 2002: 196f.): phenotypical properties that are shared in a population are frequently co-instantiated as a result of the complex interaction of differing gene-regulatory networks. Conversely, the same network can under different circumstances lead to differing phenotypical consequences (Walsh 2006: 437ff.). Even if it should turn out that every human organism instantiated some property, this would be a contingent, rather than a necessary fact (Sober 1980: 354; Hull 1986: 3).

Moreover, the chances of any such universal property also being sufficient are vanishingly small, as the sharing of properties by specimens of other species can result from various mechanisms, in particular from the inheritance of common genes in related species and from parallel evolution. This doesn’t entail that there may be no intrinsic properties that are sufficient belonging to the species. There are fairly good candidates for such properties, if we compare humans with other terrestrial organisms. Language use and a self-understanding as moral agents come to mind. However, whether non-terrestrial entities might possess such properties is an open question. And decisively, they are obviously hopeless as necessary conditions (cf. Samuels 2012: 9).

This leaves only the possibility that the conditions for belonging to the species are, like the individuating conditions for the species taxon, relational. Lineage-based individuation of a taxon depends on its component organisms being spatially and temporally situated in such a way that the causal processes necessary for the inheritance of traits can take place. In the human case, the key processes are those of sexual reproduction. Therefore, being an organism that belongs to the species Homo sapiens is a matter of being connected reproductively to organisms situated unequivocally on the relevant lineage segment. In other words, the key necessary condition is having been sexually reproduced by specimens of the species (Kronfeldner 2018: 100). Hull suggests that the causal condition may be disjunctive, as it could also be fulfilled by a synthetic entity created by scientists that produces offspring with humans who have been generated in the standard manner (Hull 1978: 349). Provided that the species is not in the throes of speciation, such direct descent or integration into the reproductive community, i.e., participation in the “complex network […] of mating and reproduction” (Hull 1986: 4), will also be sufficient.

The lack of a “human essence” in the sense of intrinsic necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to the species taxon Homo sapiens , has led a number of philosophers to deny that there is any such thing as human nature (Hull 1984: 19; 1986; Ghiselin 1997: 1; de Sousa 2000). As this negative claim concerns properties intrinsic both to relevant organisms and to the taxon, it is equally directed at the “nature” of the organisms as species specimens and at that of the species taxon itself. An alternative consists in retracting the condition that a classificatory essence must be intrinsic, a move which allows talk of a historical or relational essence and a corresponding relational conception of taxonomic human nature (Okasha 2002: 202).

Which of these ways of responding to the challenge from evolutionary theory appears best is likely to depend on how one takes it that the classificatory issues relate to the other matters at stake in the original human nature package. These concern the explanatory and normative questions raised by TP1–TP4. We turn to these in the following three sections of this article.

An exclusively genealogical conception of human nature is clearly not well placed to fulfil an explanatory role comparable to that envisaged in the traditional package. What might have an explanatory function are the properties of the entities from which the taxon or its specimens are descended. Human nature, genealogically understood, might serve as the conduit for explanations in terms of such properties, but will not itself explain anything. After all, integration in a network of sexual reproduction will be partly definitive of the specimens of all sexual species, whilst what is to be explained will vary enormously across taxa.

This lack of fit between classificatory and explanatory roles confronts us with a number of further theoretical possibilities. For example, one might see this incompatibility as strengthening the worries of eliminativists such as Ghiselin and Hull: even if the subtraction of intrinsicality were not on its own sufficient to justify abandoning talk of human nature, its conjunction with a lack of explanatory power, one might think, certainly is (Dupré 2003: 109f.; Lewens 2012: 473). Or one might argue that it is the classificatory ambitions associated with talk of human nature that should be abandoned. Once this is done, one might hope that certain sets of intrinsic properties can be distinguished that figure decisively in explanations and that can still justifiably be labelled “human nature” (Roughley 2011: 15; Godfrey-Smith 2014: 140).

Taking this second line in turn raises two questions: first, in what sense are the properties thus picked out specifically “human”, if they are neither universal among, nor unique to species specimens? Second, in what sense are the properties “natural”? Naturalness as independence from the effects of human intentional action is a key feature of the original package (TP1). Whether some such conception can be coherently applied to humans is a challenge for any non-classificatory account.

3. Characteristic Human Properties

The answer given by TP2 to the first question was in terms of the fully developed human form, where “form” does not refer solely to observable physical or behavioural characteristics, but also includes psychological features. This answer entails two claims: first, that there is one single such “form”, i.e., property or set of properties, that figures in explanations that range across individual human organisms. It also entails that there is a point in human development that counts as “full”, that is, as development’s goal or “telos”. These claims go hand in hand with the assumption that there is a distinction to be drawn between normal and abnormal adult specimens of the species. There is, common sense tells us, a sense in which normal adult humans have two legs, two eyes, one heart and two kidneys at specific locations in the body; they also have various dispositions, for instance, to feel pain and to feel emotions, and a set of capacities, such as for perception and for reasoning. And these, so it seems, may be missing, or under- or overdeveloped in abnormal specimens.

Sober has influentially described accounts that work with such teleological assumptions as adhering to an Aristotelian “Natural State Model” (Sober 1980: 353ff.). Such accounts work with a distinction that has no place in evolutionary biology, according to which variation of properties across populations is the key to evolution. Hence, no particular end states of organisms are privileged as “natural” or “normal” (Hull 1986: 7ff.). So any account that privileges particular morphological, behavioural or psychological human features has to provide good reasons that are both non-evolutionary and yet compatible with the evolutionary account of species. Because of the way that the notion of the normal is frequently employed to exclude and oppress, those reasons should be particularly good (Silvers 1998; Dupré 2003: 119ff.; Richter 2011: 43ff.; Kronfeldner 2018: 15ff.).

The kinds of reasons that may be advanced could either be internal to, or independent of the biological sciences. If the former, then various theoretical options may seem viable. The first grounds in the claim that, although species are not natural kinds and are thus unsuited to figuring in laws of nature (Hull 1987: 171), they do support descriptions with a significant degree of generality, some of which may be important (Hull 1984: 19). A theory of human nature developed on this basis should explain the kind of importance on the basis of which particular properties are emphasised. The second theoretical option is pluralism about the metaphysics of species: in spite of the fairly broad consensus that species are defined as units of evolution, the pluralist can deny the primacy of evolutionary dynamics, arguing that other epistemic aims allow the ecologist, the systematist or the ethologist to work with an equally legitimate concept of species that is not, or not exclusively genealogical (cf. Hull 1984: 36; Kitcher 1986: 320ff.; Hull 1987: 178–81; Dupré 1993: 43f.). The third option involves a relaxation of the concept of natural kinds, such that it no longer entails the instantiation of intrinsic, necessary, sufficient and spatiotemporally unrestricted properties, but is nevertheless able to support causal explanations. Such accounts aim to reunite taxonomic and explanatory criteria, thus allowing species taxa to count as natural kinds after all (Boyd 1999a; R. Wilson, Barker, & Brigandt 2007: 196ff.). Where, finally , the reasons advanced for privileging certain properties are independent of biology, these tend to concern features of humans’—“our”—self-understanding as participants in, rather than observers of, a particular form of life. These are likely to be connected to normative considerations. Here again, it seems that a special explanation will be required for why these privileged properties should be grouped under the rubric “human nature”.

The accounts to be described in the next subsection (3.2) of this entry are examples of the first strategy. Section 4 includes discussion of the relaxed natural kinds strategy. Section 5 focuses on accounts of human nature developed from a participant perspective and also notes the support that the pluralist metaphysical strategy might be taken to provide.

Begin, then, with the idea that to provide an account of “human nature” is to circumscribe a set of generalisations concerning humans. An approach of this sort sees the properties thus itemised as specifically “human” in as far as they are common among species specimens. So the privilege accorded to these properties is purely statistical and “normal” means statistically normal. Note that taking the set of statistically normal properties of humans as a non-teleological replacement for the fully developed human form retains from the original package the possibility of labelling as “human nature” either those properties themselves (TP3) or their developmental cause (TP2). Either approach avoids the classificatory worries dealt with in section 2 : it presupposes that those organisms whose properties are relevant are already distinguished as such specimens. What is to be explained is, then, the ways humans generally, though not universally, are. And among these ways are ways they may share with most specimens of some other species, in particular those that belong to the same order (primates) and the same class (mammals).

One should be clear what follows from this interpretation of “human”. The organisms among whom statistical frequency is sought range over those generated after speciation around 150,000 years ago to those that will exist immediately prior to the species’ extinction. On the one hand, because of the variability intrinsic to species, we are in the dark as to the properties that may or may not characterise those organisms that will turn out to be the last of the taxon. On the other hand, the time lag of around 100,000 years between the first anatomically modern humans and the general onset of behavioural modernity around the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic means that there are likely to be many widespread psychological properties of contemporary humans that were not possessed by the majority of the species’ specimens during two thirds of the species’ history. This is true even if the practices seen as the signatures of behavioural modernity (see §1.1 ) developed sporadically, disappeared and reappeared at far removed points of time and space over tens of thousands of years before 50,000 ka (McBrearty & Brooks 2000; Sterelny 2011).

According to several authors (Machery 2008; 2018; Samuels 2012; Ramsey 2013), the expression “human nature” should be used to group properties that are the focus of much current behavioural, psychological and social science. However, as the cognitive and psychological sciences are generally interested in present-day humans, there is a mismatch between scientific focus and a grouping criterion that takes in all the properties generally or typically instantiated by specimens of the entire taxon. For this reason, the expression “human nature” is likely to refer to properties of an even more temporally restricted set of organisms belonging to the species. That restriction can be thought of in indexical terms, i.e., as a restriction to contemporary humans. However, some authors claim explicitly that their accounts entail that human nature can change (Ramsey 2013: 992; Machery 2018: 20). Human nature would then be the object of temporally indexed investigations, as is, for example, the weight of individual humans in everyday contexts. (Without temporal specification, there is no determinate answer to a question such as “How much did David Hume weigh?”) An example of Machery’s is dark skin colour. This characteristic, he claims, ceased to be a feature of human nature thus understood 7,000 years ago, if that was when skin pigmentation became polymorphic. The example indicates that the temporal range may be extremely narrow from an evolutionary point of view.

Such accounts are both compatible with evolutionary theory and coherent. However, in as far as they are mere summary or list conceptions, it is unclear what their epistemic value might be. They will tend to accord with everyday common sense, for which “human nature” may in a fairly low-key sense simply be the properties that (contemporary) humans generally tend to manifest (Roughley 2011: 16). They will also conform to one level of the expression’s use in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), which, in an attempt to provide a human “mental geography” (1748 [1970: 13]), lists a whole series of features, such as prejudice (1739–40, I,iii,13), selfishness (III,ii,5), a tendency to temporal discounting (III,ii,7) and an addiction to general rules (III,ii,9).

Accounts of this kind have been seen as similar in content to field guides for other animals (Machery 2008: 323; Godfrey-Smith 2014: 139). As Hull points out, within a restricted ecological context and a short period of evolutionary time, the ascription of readily observable morphological or behavioural characteristics to species specimens is a straightforward and unproblematic enterprise (Hull 1987: 175). However, the analogy is fairly unhelpful, as the primary function of assertions in field guides is to provide a heuristics for amateur classification. In contrast, a list conception of the statistically normal properties of contemporary humans presupposes identification of the organisms in question as humans. Moreover, such accounts certainly do not entail easy epistemic access to the properties in question, which may only be experimentally discovered. Nevertheless, there remains something correct about the analogy, as such accounts are a collection of assertions linked only by the fact that they are about the same group of organisms (Sterelny 2018: 123).

More sophisticated nature documentaries may summarise causal features of the lives of animals belonging to specific species. An analogous conception of human nature has also been proposed, according to which human nature is a set of pervasive and robust causal nexuses amongst humans. The list that picks out this set would specify causal connections between antecedent properties, such as having been exposed to benzene or subject to abuse as a child, and consequent properties, such as developing cancer or being aggressive towards one’s own children (Ramsey 2013: 988ff.). Human nature thus understood would have an explanatory component, a component internal to each item on the list. Human nature itself would, however, not be explanatory, but rather the label for a list of highly diverse causal connections.

An alternative way to integrate an explanatory component in a statistical normality account involves picking out that set of statistically common properties that have a purely evolutionary explanation (Machery 2008; 2018). This reinterpretation of the concept of naturalness that featured in the original package (TP1) involves a contrast with social learning. Processes grouped together under this latter description are taken to be alternative explanations to those provided by evolution. However, learning plays a central role, not only in the development of individual humans, but also in the iterated interaction of entire populations with environments structured and restructured through such interaction (Stotz 2010: 488ff.; Sterelny 2012: 23ff.). Hence, the proposal raises serious epistemic questions as to how the distinction is precisely to be drawn and operationalised. (For discussion, see Prinz 2012; Lewens 2012: 464ff.; Ramsey 2013: 985; Machery 2018: 15ff.; Sterelny 2018: 116; Kronfeldner 2018: 147ff.).

4. Explanatory Human Properties

The replacement of the concept of a fully developed form with a statistical notion yields a deflationary account of human nature with, at most, restricted explanatory import. The correlative, explanatory notion in the original package, that of the fully developed form’s blueprint (TP2), has to some authors seemed worth reframing in terms made possible by advances in modern biology, particularly in genetics.

Clearly, there must be explanations of why humans generally walk on two legs, speak and plan many of their actions in advance. Genealogical, or what have been called “ultimate” (Mayr) or “historical” (Kitcher) explanations can advert to the accumulation of coherence among entrenched, stable properties along a lineage. These may well have resulted from selection pressures shared by the relevant organisms (cf. Wimsatt 2003; Lewens 2009). The fact that there are exceptions to any generalisations concerning contemporary humans does not entail that there is no need for explanations of such exception-allowing generalisations. Plausibly, these general, though not universal truths will have “structural explanations”, that is, explanations in terms of underlying structures or mechanisms (Kitcher 1986: 320; Devitt 2008: 353). These structures, so seems, might to a significant degree be inscribed in humans’ DNA.

The precise details of rapidly developing empirical science will improve our understanding of the extent to which there is a determinate relationship between contemporary humans’ genome and their physical, psychological and behavioural properties. There is, however, little plausibility that the blueprint metaphor might be applicable to the way DNA is transcribed, translated and interacts with its cellular environment. Such interaction is itself subject to influence by the organism’s external environment, including its social environment (Dupré 2001: 29ff.; 2003: 111ff.; Griffiths 2011: 326; Prinz 2012: 17ff.; Griffiths & Tabery 2013: 71ff.; Griffiths & Stotz 2013: 98ff., 143ff.). For example, the feature of contemporary human life for which there must according to Aristotle be some kind of blueprint, viz. rational agency, is, as Sterelny has argued, so strongly dependent on social scaffolding that any claim to the effect that human rationality is somehow genetically programmed ignores the causal contributions of manifestly indispensable environmental factors (Sterelny 2018: 120).

Nevertheless, humans do generally develop a specific set of physiological features, such as two lungs, one stomach, one pancreas and two eyes. Moreover, having such a bodily architecture is, according to the evidence from genetics, to a significant extent the result of developmental programmes that ground in gene regulatory networks (GRNs). These are stretches of non-coding DNA that regulate gene transcription. GRNs are modular, more or less strongly entrenched structures. The most highly conserved of these tend to be the phylogenetically most archaic (Carroll 2000; Walsh 2006: 436ff.; Willmore 2012: 227ff.). The GRNs responsible for basic physiological features may be taken, in a fairly innocuous sense, to belong to an evolved human nature.

Importantly, purely morphological features have generally not been the explananda of accounts that have gone under the rubric “human nature”. What has frequently motivated explanatory accounts thus labelled is the search for underlying structures responsible for generally shared psychological features. “Evolutionary Psychologists” have built a research programme around the claim that humans share a psychological architecture that parallels that of their physiology. This, they believe, consists of a structured set of psychological “organs” or modules (Tooby & Cosmides 1990: 29f.; 1992: 38, 113). This architecture is, they claim, in turn the product of developmental programmes inscribed in humans’ DNA (1992: 45). Such generally distributed developmental programmes they label “human nature” (1990: 23).

This conception raises the question of how analogous the characteristic physical and psychological “architectures” are. For one thing, the physical properties that tend to appear in such lists are far more coarse-grained than the candidates for shared psychological properties (D. Wilson 1994: 224ff.): the claim is not just that humans tend to have perceptual, desiderative, doxastic and emotional capacities, but that the mental states that realise these capacities tend to have contents of specific types. Perhaps an architecture of the former kind—of a formal psychology—is a plausible, if relatively unexciting candidate for the mental side of what an evolved human nature should explain. Either way, any such conception needs to adduce criteria for the individuation of such “mental organs” (D. Wilson 1994: 233). Relatedly, if the most strongly entrenched developmental programmes are the most archaic, it follows that, although these will be species-typical, they will not be species-specific. Programmes for the development of body parts have been identified for higher taxa, rather than for species.

A further issue that dogs any such attempts to explicate the “human” dimension of human nature in terms of developmental programmes inscribed in human DNA concerns Evolutionary Psychologists’ assertion that the programmes are the same in every specimen of the species. This assertion goes hand in hand with the claim that what is explained by such programmes is a deep psychological structure that is common to almost all humans and underlies the surface diversity of behavioural and psychological phenomena (Tooby & Cosmides 1990: 23f.). For Evolutionary Psychologists, the (near-)universality of both developmental programmes and deep psychological structure has an ultimate explanation in evolutionary processes that mark their products as natural in the sense of TP1. Both, they claim, are adaptations. These are features that were selected for because their possession in the past conferred a fitness advantage on their possessors. Evolutionary Psychologists conceive that advantage as conferred by the fulfilment of some specific function. They summarise selection for that function as “design”, which they take to have operated equally on all species specimens since the Pleistocene. This move reintroduces the teleological idea of a fully developed form beyond mere statistical normality (TP3).

This move has been extensively criticised. First, selection pressures operate at the level of groups and hence need not lead to the same structures in all a group’s members (D. Wilson 1994: 227ff.; Griffiths 2011: 325; Sterelny 2018: 120). Second, other evolutionary mechanisms than natural selection might be explanatorily decisive. Genetic drift or mutation and recombination might, for example, also confer “naturalness” in the sense of evolutionary genesis (Buller 2000: 436). Third, as we have every reason to assume that the evolution of human psychology is ongoing, evolutionary biology provides little support for the claim that particular programmes and associated traits evolved to fixity in the Pleistocene (Buller 2000: 477ff.; Downes 2010).

Perhaps, however, there might turn out to be gene control networks that do generally structure certain features of the psychological development of contemporary humans (Walsh 2006: 440ff.). The quest for such GNRs can, then, count as the search for an explanatory nature of contemporary humans, where the explanatory function thus sought is divorced from any classificatory role.

There has, however, been a move in general philosophy of science that, if acceptable, would transform the relationship between the taxonomic and explanatory features of species. This move was influentially initiated by Richard Boyd (1999a). It begins with the claim that the attempt to define natural kinds in terms of spatiotemporally unrestricted, intrinsic, necessary and sufficient conditions is a hangover from empiricism that should be abandoned by realist metaphysics. Instead, natural kinds should be understood as kinds that support induction and explanation, where generalisations at work in such processes need not be exceptionless. Thus understood, essences of natural kinds, i.e., their “natures”, need be neither intrinsic nor be possessed by all and only members of the kinds. Instead, essences consist of property clusters integrated by stabilising mechanisms (“homeostatic property clusters”, HPCs). These are networks of causal relations such that the presence of certain properties tends to generate or uphold others and the workings of underlying mechanisms contribute to the same effect. Boyd names storms, galaxies and capitalism as plausible examples (Boyd 1999b: 82ff.). However, he takes species to be the paradigmatic HPC kinds. According to this view, the genealogical character of a species’ nature does not undermine its causal role. Rather, it helps to explain the specific way in which the properties cohere that make up the taxon’s essence. Moreover, these can include extrinsic properties, for example, properties of constructed niches (Boyd 1991: 142, 1999a: 164ff.; Griffiths 1999: 219ff.; R. Wilson et al. 2007: 202ff.).

Whether such an account can indeed adequately explain taxonomic practice for species taxa is a question that can be left open here (see Ereshefsky & Matthen 2005: 16ff.). By its own lights the account does not identify conditions for belonging to a species such as Homo sapiens (Samuels 2012: 25f.). Whether it enables the identification of factors that play the explanatory roles that the term “human nature” might be supposed to pick out is perhaps the most interesting question. Two ways in which an account of human nature might be developed from such a starting point have been sketched.

According to Richard Samuels’ proposal, human nature should be understood as the empirically discoverable proximal mechanisms responsible for psychological development and for the manifestation of psychological capacities. These will include physiological mechanisms, such as the development of the neural tube, as well as environmentally scaffolded learning procedures; they will also include the various modular systems distinguished by cognitive science, such as visual processing and memory systems (Samuels 2012: 22ff.). Like mere list conceptions (cf. §3.2 ), such an account has a precedent in Hume, for whom human nature also includes causal “principles” that structure operations of the human mind (1739–40, Intro.), for example, the mechanisms of sympathy (III,iii,1; II,ii,6). Hume, however, thought of the relevant causal principles as intrinsic.

A second proposal, advanced by Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz, explicitly suggests taking explanandum and explanans to be picked out by different uses of the expression "human nature". In both cases, the “nature” in question is that of the taxon, not of individual organisms. The former use simply refers to “what human beings are like”, where “human beings” means all species specimens. Importantly, this characterisation does not aim at shared characteristics, but is open for polymorphisms both across a population and across life stages of individual organisms. The causal conception of human nature, what explains this spectrum of similarity and difference in life histories, is equated by Griffiths and Stotz with the organism-environment system that supports human development. It thus includes all the genetic, epigenetic and environmental resources responsible for varying human life cycles (Griffiths 2011: 319; Stotz & Griffiths 2018, 66f.). It follows that explanatory human nature at one point in time can be radically different from human nature at some other point in time.

Griffiths and Stotz are clear that this account diverges significantly from traditional accounts, as it rejects assumptions that human development has a goal, that human nature is possessed by all and only specimens of the species and that it consists of intrinsic properties. They see these assumptions as features of the folk biology of human nature that is as scientifically relevant as are folk conceptions of heat for its scientific understanding (Stotz 2010: 488; Griffiths 2011: 319ff.; Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 60ff.). This raises the question as to whether such a developmental systems account should not simply advocate abandoning the term, as is suggested by Sterelny (2018) on the basis of closely related considerations. A reason for not doing so might lie in the fact that, as talk of “human nature” is often practised with normative intent or at least with normative consequences (Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 71f.), use of the term to pick out the real, complex explanatory factors at work might help to counter those normative uses that employ false, folk biological assumptions.

Explanatory accounts that emphasise developmental plasticity in the products of human DNA, in the neural architecture of the brain and in the human mind tend to reject the assumption that explanations of what humans are like should focus on intrinsic features. It should, however, be noted that such accounts can be interpreted as assigning the feature of heightened plasticity the key role in such explanations (cf. Montagu 1956: 79). Accounts that make plasticity causally central also raise the question as to whether there are not biological features that in turn explain it and should therefore be assigned a more central status in a theory of explanatory human nature.

A prime candidate for this role is what the zoologist Adolf Portmann labelled human “secondary altriciality”, a unique constellation of features of the human neonate relative to other primates: human neonates are, in their helplessness and possession of a relatively undeveloped brain, neurologically and behaviourally altricial, that is, in need of care. However they are also born with open and fully functioning sense organs, otherwise a mark of precocial species, in which neonates are able to fend for themselves (Portmann 1951: 44ff.). The facts that the human neonate brain is less than 30% of the size of the adult brain and that brain development after birth continues at the fetal rate for the first year (Walker & Ruff 1993, 227) led the anthropologist Ashley Montagu to talk of “exterogestation” (Montagu 1961: 156). With these features in mind, Portmann characterised the care structures required by prolonged infant helplessness as the “social uterus” (Portmann 1967: 330). Finally, the fact that the rapid development of the infant brain takes place during a time in which the infant’s sense organs are open and functioning places an adaptive premium on learning that is unparalleled among organisms (Gould 1977: 401; cf. Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 70).

Of course, these features are themselves contingent products of evolution that could be outlived by the species. Gould sees them as components of a general retardation of development that has characterised human evolution (Gould 1977: 365ff.), where “human” should be seen as referring to the clade—all the descendants of a common ancestor—rather than to the species. Anthropologists estimate that secondary altriciality characterised the lineage as from Homo erectus 1.5 million years ago (Rosenberg & Trevathan 1995: 167). We are, then, dealing with a set of deeply entrenched features, features that were in place long before behavioural modernity.

It is conceivable that the advent of secondary altriciality was a key transformation in generating the radical plasticity of human development beginning with early hominins. However, as Sterelny points out, there are serious difficulties with isolating any particular game changer. Secondary altriciality, or the plasticity that may in part be explained by it, would thus seem to fall victim to the same verdict as the game changers named by the traditional human nature slogans. However, maybe it is more plausible to think in terms of a matrix of traits: perhaps a game-changing constellation of properties present in the population after the split from pan can be shown to have generated forms of niche construction that fed back into and modified the original traits. These modifications may in turn have had further psychological and behavioural consequences in steps that plausibly brought selective advantages (Sterelny 2018: 115).

5. Human Nature, the Participant Perspective and Morality

In such a culture-mind coevolutionary account, there may be a place for the referents of some of the traditional philosophical slogans intended to pin down “the human essence“ or “human nature”—reason, linguistic capacity ( “ the speaking animal”, Herder 1772 [2008: 97]), a more general symbolic capacity ( animal symbolicum , Cassirer 1944: 44), freedom of the will (Pico della Mirandola 1486 [1965: 5]; Sartre 1946 [2007: 29, 47]), a specific, “political” form of sociality, or a unique type of moral motivation (Hutcheson 1730: §15). These are likely, at best, to be the (still evolving) products in contemporary humans of processes set in motion by a trait constellation that includes proto-versions of (some of) these capacities. Such a view may also be compatible with an account of “what contemporary humans are like” that abstracts from the evolutionary time scale of eons and focuses instead on the present (cf. Dupré 1993: 43), whilst neither merely cataloguing widely distributed traits ( §3.2 ) nor attempting explanations in terms of the human genome ( §4.1 ). The traditional slogans appear to be attempts to summarise some such accounts. It seems clear, though, that their aims are significantly different from those of the biologically, or otherwise scientifically orientated positions thus far surveyed.

Two features of such accounts are worth emphasising, both of which we already encountered in Aristotle’s contribution to the original package. The first involves a shift in perspective from that of the scientific observer to that of a participant in a contemporary human life form. Whereas the human—or non-human—biologist may ask what modern humans are like, just as they may ask what bonobos are like, the question that traditional philosophical accounts of human nature are plausibly attempting to answer is what it is like to live one’s life as a contemporary human. This question is likely to provoke the counter-question as to whether there is anything that it is like to live simply as a contemporary human, rather than as a human-in-a-specific-historical-and-cultural context (Habermas 1958: 32; Geertz 1973: 52f.; Dupré 2003: 110f.). For the traditional sloganeers, the answer is clearly affirmative. The second feature of such accounts is that they tend to take it that reference to the capacities named in the traditional slogans is in some sense normatively , in particular, ethically significant .

The first claim of such accounts, then, is that there is some property of contemporary humans that is in some way descriptively or causally central to participating in their form of life. The second is that such participation involves subjection to normative standards rooted in the possession of some such property. Importantly, there is a step from the first to the second form of significance, and justification of the step requires argument. Even from a participant perspective, there is no automatic move from explanatory to normative significance.

According to an “internal”, participant account of human nature, certain capacities of contemporary, perhaps modern humans unavoidably structure the way they (we) live their (our) lives. Talk of “structuring” refers to three kinds of contributions to the matrix of capacities and dispositions that both enable and constrain the ways humans live their lives. These are contributions, first, to the specific shape other features of humans lives have and, second, to the way other such features hang together (Midgley 2000: 56ff.; Roughley 2011: 16ff.). Relatedly, they also make possible a whole new set of practices. All three relations are explanatory, although their explanatory role appears not necessarily to correspond to the role corresponding features, or earlier versions of the features, might have played in the evolutionary genealogy of contemporary human psychology. Having linguistic capacities is a prime candidate for the role of such a structural property: human perception, emotion, action planning and thought are all plausibly transformed in linguistic creatures, as are the connections between perception and belief, and the myriad relationships between thought and behaviour, connections exploited and deepened in a rich set of practices unavailable to non-linguistic animals. Similar things could be claimed for other properties named by the traditional slogans.

In contrast to the ways in which such capacities have frequently been referred to in the slogan mode, particularly to the pathos that has tended to accompany it, it seems highly implausible that any one such property will stand alone as structurally significant. It is more likely that we should be picking out a constellation of properties, a constellation that may well include properties variants of which are possessed by other animals. Other properties, including capacities that may be specific to contemporary humans, such as humour, may be less plausible candidates for a structural role.

Note that the fact that such accounts aim to answer a question asked from the participant perspective does not rule out that the features in question may be illuminated in their role for human self-understanding by data from empirical science. On the contrary, it seems highly likely that disciplines such as developmental and comparative psychology, and neuroscience will contribute significantly to an understanding of the possibilities and constraints inherent in the relevant capacities and in the way they interact.

5.2. Human Nature and the Human ergon

The paradigmatic strategy for deriving ethical consequences from claims about structural features of the human life form is the Platonic and Aristotelian ergon or function argument. The first premise of Aristotle’s version ( Nicomachean Ethics 1097b–1098a) connects function and goodness: if the characteristic function of an entity of a type X is to φ, then a good entity of type X is one that φs well. Aristotle confers plausibility on the claim by using examples such as social roles and bodily organs. If the function of an eye as an exemplar of its kind is to enable seeing, then a good eye is one that enables its bearer to see well. The second premise of the argument is a claim we encountered in section 1.4 of this entry, a claim we can now see as predicating a structural property of human life, the exercise of reason. According to this claim, the function or end of individual humans as humans is, depending on interpretation (Nussbaum 1995: 113ff.), either the exercise of reason or life according to reason. If this is correct, it follows that a good human being is one whose life centrally involves the exercise of, or life in accordance with, reason.

In the light of the discussion so far, it ought to be clear that, as it stands, the second premise of this argument is incompatible with the evolutionary biology of species. It asserts that the exercise of reason is not only the key structural property of human life, but also the realization of the fully developed human form. No sense can be made of this latter notion in evolutionary terms. Nevertheless, a series of prominent contemporary ethicists—Alasdair MacIntyre (1999), Rosalind Hursthouse (1999), Philippa Foot (2001) and Martha Nussbaum (2006)—have all made variants of the ergon argument central to their ethical theories. As each of these authors advance some version of the second premise, it is instructive to examine the ways in which they aim to avoid the challenge from evolutionary biology.

Before doing so, it is first worth noting that any ethical theory or theory of value is engaged in an enterprise that has no clear place in an evolutionary analysis. If we want to know what goodness is or what “good” means, evolutionary theory is not the obvious place to look. This is particularly clear in view of the fact that evolutionary theory operates at the level of populations (Sober 1980: 370; Walsh 2006: 434), whereas ethical theory operates, at least primarily, at the level of individual agents. However, the specific conflict between evolutionary biology and neo-Aristotelian ethics results from the latter’s constructive use of the concept of species and, in particular, of a teleological conception of a fully developed form of individual members of the species “ qua members of [the] species” (MacIntyre 1999: 64, 71; cf. Thompson 2008: 29; Foot 2001: 27). The characterisation of achieving that form as fulfilling a “function”, which helps the analogy with bodily organs and social roles, is frequently replaced in contemporary discussions by talk of “flourishing” (Aristotle’s eudaimonia ). Such talk more naturally suggests comparisons with the lives of other organisms (although Aristotle himself excludes other animals from eudaimonia ; cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1009b). The concept of flourishing in turn picks out biological—etymologically: botanical—processes, but again not of a sort that play a role in evolutionary theory. It also seems primarily predicated of individual organisms. It may play a role in ecology; it is, however, most clearly at home in practical applications of biological knowledge, as in horticulture. In this respect, it is comparable to the concept of health.

Neo-Aristotelians claim that to describe an organism, whether a plant or a non-human or human animal, as flourishing is to measure it against a standard that is specific to the species to which it belongs. To do so is to evaluate it as a more or less good “specimen of its species (or sub-species)” (Hursthouse 1999: 198). The key move is then to claim that moral evaluation is, “quite seriously” (Foot 2001: 16), evaluation of the same sort: just as a non-defective animal or plant exemplifies flourishing within the relevant species’ life form, someone who is morally good is someone who exemplifies human flourishing, i.e., the fully developed form of the species. This metaethical claim has provoked the worry as to whether such attributions to other organisms are really anything more than classifications, or at most evaluations of “stretched and deflated” kinds that are missing the key feature of authority that we require for genuine normativity (Lenman 2005: 46ff.).

Independently of questions concerning their theory of value, ethical Neo-Aristotelians need to respond to the question of how reference to a fully developed form of the species can survive the challenge from evolutionary theory. Three kinds of response may appear promising.

The first adverts to the plurality of forms of biological science, claiming that there are life sciences, such as physiology, botany, zoology and ethology in the context of which such evaluations have a place (Hursthouse 1999: 202; 2012: 172; MacIntyre 1999: 65). And if ethology can legitimately attribute not only characteristic features, but also defects or flourishing to species members, in spite of species not being natural kinds, then there is little reason why ethics shouldn’t do so too. This strategy might ground in one of the moves sketched in section 3.1 of this entry. It might be argued, with Kitcher and Dupré, that such attributions are legitimate in other branches of biological science because there is a plurality of species concepts, indeed of kinds of species, where these are relative to epistemic interests. Or the claim might simply rest on a difference in what is taken to be the relevant time frame, where temporal relevance is indexed relative to the present. In ethics we are, it might be claimed, interested in humans as they are “at the moment and for a few millennia back and for maybe not much longer in the future” (Hursthouse 2012: 171).

This move amounts to the concession that talk of “the human species” is not to be understood literally. Whether this concession undermines the ethical theories that use the term is perhaps unclear. It leaves open the possibility that, as human nature may change significantly, there may be significant changes in what it means for humans to flourish and therefore in what is ethically required. This might be seen as a virtue, rather than a vice of the view.

A second response to the challenge from evolutionary biology aims to draw metaphysical consequences from epistemic or semantic claims. Michael Thompson has argued that what he calls alternatively “the human life form” and “the human species” is an a priori category. Thompson substantiates this claim by examining forms of discourse touched on in section 3.2 , forms of discourse that are generally taken to be of mere heuristic importance for amateur practices of identification, viz. field guides or animal documentaries. Statements such as “The domestic cat has four legs, two eyes, two ears and guts in its belly”, are, Thompson claims, instances of an important kind of predication that is neither tensed nor quantifiable. He calls these “natural historical descriptions” or “Aristotelian categoricals” (Thompson 2008: 64ff.). Such generic claims are not, he argues, made false where what is predicated is less than universal, or even statistically rare. Decisively, according to Thompson, our access to the notion of the human life form is non-empirical. It is, he claims, a presupposition of understanding ourselves from the first-person perspective as breathing, eating or feeling pain (Thompson 2004: 66ff.). Thus understood, the concept is independent of biology and therefore, if coherent, immune to problems raised by the Darwinian challenge.

Like Foot and Hursthouse, Thompson thinks that his Aristotelian categoricals allow inferences to specific judgments that members of species are defective (Thompson 2004: 54ff.; 2008: 80). He admits that such judgments in the case of the human life form are likely to be fraught with difficulties, but nevertheless believes that judgments of (non-)defective realization of a life form are the model for ethical evaluation (Thompson 2004: 30, 81f.). It may seem unclear how this might be the case in view of the fact that access to the human life form is supposed to be given as a presupposition of using the concept of “I”. Another worry is that the everyday understanding on which Thompson draws may be nothing other than a branch of folk biology. The folk tendency to ascribe teleological essences to species, as to “races” and genders, is no indication of the reality of such essences (Lewens 2012: 469f.; Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 60ff.; cf. Pellegrin 1982 [1986: 16ff., 120] and Charles 2000: 343ff., 368, on Aristotle’s own orientation to the usage of “the people”).

A final response to evolutionary biologists’ worries aims equally to distinguish the Neo-Aristotelian account of human nature from that of the sciences. However, it does so not by introducing a special metaphysics of “life forms”, but by explicitly constructing an ethical concept of human nature. Martha Nussbaum argues that the notion of human nature in play in what she calls “Aristotelian essentialism” is, as she puts it, “internal and evaluative”. It is a hermeneutic product of “human” self-understanding, constructed from within our best ethical outlook: “an ethical theory of human nature”, she claims,

should force us to answer for ourselves, on the basis of our very own ethical judgment, the question which beings are fully human ones. (Nussbaum 1995: 121f.; cf. Nussbaum 1992: 212ff.; 2006: 181ff.; McDowell 1980 [1998: 18ff.]; Hursthouse 1999: 229; 2012: 174f.)

There can be no question here of moving from a biological “is” to an ethical “ought”; rather, which features are taken to belong to human nature is itself seen as the result of ethical deliberation. Such a conception maintains the claim that the key ethical standard is that of human flourishing. However, it is clear that what counts as flourishing can only be specified on the basis of ethical deliberation, understood as striving for reflective equilibrium (Nussbaum 2006: 352ff.). In view of such a methodological proposal, there is a serious question as to what work is precisely done by the concept of human nature.

Neo-Aristotelians vary in the extent to which they flesh out a conception of species-specific flourishing. Nussbaum draws up a comprehensive, open-ended catalogue of what she calls “the central human capacities”. These are in part picked out because of their vulnerability to undermining or support by political measures. They include both basic bodily needs and more specifically human capacities, such as for humour, play, autonomy and practical reason (Nussbaum 1992: 216ff.; 2006: 76ff.). Such a catalogue allows the setting of three thresholds, below which a human organism would not count as living a human life at all (anencephalic children, for instance), as living a fully human life or as living a good human life (Nussbaum 2006: 181). Nussbaum explicitly argues that being of human parents is insufficient for crossing the first, evaluatively set threshold. Her conception is partly intended to provide guidelines as to how societies should conceive disability and as to when it is appropriate to take political measures in order to enable agents with nonstandard physical or mental conditions to cross the second and third thresholds.

Nussbaum has been careful to insist that enabling independence, rather than providing care, should be the prime aim. Nevertheless, the structure of an account that insists on a “species norm”, below which humans lacking certain capacities count as less than fully flourishing, has prompted accusations of illiberality. According to the complaint, it disrespects the right of members of, for example, deaf communities to set the standards for their own forms of life (Glackin 2016: 320ff.).

Other accounts of species-specific flourishing have been considerably more abstract. According to Hursthouse, plants flourish when their parts and operations are well suited to the ends of individual survival and continuance of the species. In social animals, flourishing also tends to involve characteristic pleasure and freedom from pain, and a contribution to appropriate functioning of relevant social groups (Hursthouse 1999: 197ff.). The good of human character traits conducive to pursuit of these four ends is transformed, Hursthouse claims, by the addition of “rationality”. As a result, humans flourish when they do what they correctly take themselves to have reason to do—under the constraint that they do not thereby cease to foster the four ends set for other social animals (Hursthouse 1999: 222ff.). Impersonal benevolence is, for example, because of this constraint, unlikely to be a virtue. In such an ethical outlook, what particular agents have reason to do is the primary standard; it just seems to be applied under particular constraints. A key question is thus whether the content of this primary standard is really determined by the notion of species-specific flourishing.

Where Hursthouse’s account builds up to, and attempts to provide a “natural” framework for, the traditional Aristotelian ergon of reason, MacIntyre builds his account around the claim that flourishing specific to the human “species” is essentially a matter of becoming an “independent practical reasoner” (MacIntyre 1999: 67ff.). It is because of the central importance of reasoning that, although human flourishing shares certain preconditions with the flourishing, say, of dolphins, it is also vulnerable in specific ways. MacIntyre argues that particular kinds of social practices enable the development of human reasoning capacities and that, because independent practical reasoning is, paradoxically, at core cooperatively developed and structured, the general aim of human flourishing is attained by participation in networks in local communities (MacIntyre 1999: 108). “Independent practical reasoners” are “dependent rational animals”. MacIntyre’s account thus makes room on an explanatory level for the evolutionary insight that humans can only become rational in a socio-cultural context which provides scaffolding for the development and exercise of rationality ( §4 ). Normatively, however, this point is subordinated to the claim that, from the point of view of participation in the contemporary human life form, flourishing corresponds to the traditional slogan.

MacIntyre, Hursthouse and Nussbaum (Nussbaum 2006: 159f.) all aim to locate the human capacity for reasoning within a framework that encompasses other animals. Each argues that, although the capacities to recognise reasons as reasons and for deliberation on their basis transform the needs and abilities humans share with other animals, the reasons in question remain in some way dependent on humans’ embodied and social form of life. This emphasis is intended to distinguish an Aristotelian approach from other approaches for which the capacity to evaluate reasons for action as reasons and to distance oneself from ones desires is also the “central difference” between humans and other animals (Korsgaard 2006: 104; 2018: 38ff.; cf. MacIntyre 1999: 71ff.). According to Korsgaard’s Kantian interpretation of Aristotle’s ergon argument, humans cannot act without taking a normative stand on whether their desires provide them with reasons to act. This she takes to be the key structural feature of their life, which brings with it “a whole new way of functioning well or badly” (Korsgaard 2018: 48; cf. 1996: 93). In such an account, “human nature” is monistically understood as this one structural feature which is so transformative that the concept of life applicable to organisms that instantiate it is no longer that applicable to organisms that don’t. Only “humans” live their lives, because only they possess the type of intentional control over their bodily movements that grounds in evaluation of their actions and self-evaluation as agents (Korsgaard 2006: 118; 2008: 141ff.; cf. Plessner 1928 [1975: 309f.]).

We have arrived at an interpretation of the traditional slogan that cuts it off from a metaphysics with any claims to be “naturalistic”. The claim now is that the structural effect of the capacity for reasoning transforms those features of humans that they share with other animals so thoroughly that those features pale into insignificance. What is “natural” about the capacity for reasoning for humans here is its unavoidability for contemporary members of the species, at least for those without serious mental disabilities. Such assertions also tend to shade into normative claims that discount the normative status of “animal” needs in view of the normative authority of human reasoning (cf. McDowell 1996 [1998: 172f.]).

The most radical version of this thought leads to the claim encountered towards the end of section 1.4 : that talk of “human nature” involves no essential reference at all to the species Homo sapiens or to the hominin lineage. According to this view, the kind to which contemporary humans belong is a kind to which entities could also belong who have no genealogical relationship to humans. That kind is the kind of entities that act and believe in accordance with the reasons they take themselves to have. Aliens, synthetically created agents and angels are further candidates for membership in the kind, which would, unlike biological taxa, be spatiotemporally unrestricted. The traditional term for the kind, as employed by Aquinas and Kant, is “person” (cf. Hull 1986: 9).

Roger Scruton has recently taken this line, arguing that persons can only be adequately understood in terms of a web of concepts inapplicable to other animals, concepts whose applicability grounds in an essential moral dimension of the personal life form. The concepts pick out components of a life form that is permeated by relationships of responsibility, as expressed in reactive attitudes such as indignation, guilt and gratitude. Such emotions he takes to involve a demand for accountability, and as such to be exclusive to the personal life form, not variants of animal emotions (Scruton 2017: 52). As a result, he claims, they situate their bearers in some sense “outside the natural order” (Scruton 2017: 26). According to such an account, we should embrace a methodological dualism with respect to humans: as animals, they are subject to the same kinds of biological explanations as all other organisms, but as persons, they are subject to explanations that are radically different in kind. These are explanations in terms of reasons and meanings, that is, exercises in “Verstehen”, whose applicability Scruton takes to be independent of causal explanation (Scruton 2017: 30ff., 46).

Such an account demonstrates with admirable clarity that there is no necessary connection between a theory of “human nature” and metaphysical naturalism. It also reinforces the fact, emphasised throughout this entry, that discussions of “human nature” require both serious conceptual spadework and explicit justification of the use of any one such concept rather than another.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.

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Aquinas, Thomas | Aristotle, General Topics: biology | Aristotle, General Topics: ethics | ethics: virtue | evolution | Kant, Immanuel | Locke, John: on real essence | naturalism: moral | natural kinds | psychology: evolutionary | species


I would like to thank Michelle Hooge, Maria Kronfeldner, Nick Laskowski and Hichem Naar for their comments on earlier drafts.

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What is nature writing?

What we talk about when we talk about nature writing.

“Nature writing can be defined as non-fiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment.” This is actually its definition on Wikipedia.

For the purposes of this prize, we're accepting only non-fiction prose submissions (see last week's resources on breaking down the brief ), but in general, nature writing can mean many more things and cover lots of different ideas. As such, there’s a whole variety of approaches to writing a book in this genre. Different types of nature writing books can include: factual books such as field guides, natural history told through essays, poetry about the natural world, literary memoir and personal reflections.

Typically, nature writing is writing about the natural environment. Your book might take a look at the natural world and examine what it means to you or what you’ve encountered in the environment. You could frame this idea through a personal lens.

Perhaps you want to take a more focused or factual approach and look at individual flora and fauna in detail. Recent books that we’ve enjoyed have looked at topics such as beekeeping, owls, social and cultural history, trees, swimming, cows and have offered personal observation and reflection on their chosen topics.

You might be writing about the landscape, from farming to remote islands or city life. You may want to write about the fauna and flora of a whole region, or just one animal or a single tree. You don’t need to go out into the wilderness to write about nature and you don’t need to be hiking for three months in a remote area either. Most importantly, we believe the best books on nature writing convey a clear sense of place and mainly focus on the natural world and our human relationship with it.

The Nan Shepherd Prize aims to find the next big voice in nature writing from emerging writers, and we can’t wait to read about what nature means to you.

  • Read an academic paper on New Nature Writing here .
  • ‘Land Lines’ was a two-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is a collaboration between researchers at the Universities of Leeds, Sussex and St Andrews. The project carried out a sustained study on modern British nature writing, beginning in 1789 with Gilbert White’s seminal study, The Natural History of Selborne, and ending in 2014 with Helen Macdonald’s prize-winning memoir, H is for Hawk. You can look at their website here .
  • Read about nature writing throughout history (this is a US perspective) here .
  • Read about which nature books have inspired today’s contemporary nature writers here .
  • Read this guide to nature writing from Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher of Dialogue Books, who teamed up with the Forestry Commission to find undiscovered nature writers here .

Over @NanPrize we’ve been sharing examples of our favourite nature writing books, so if you want to see some specific examples of recent favourites, that might be a good place to start. We’ve also got a collection here which will give you an idea as to what books we like to publish in the nature writing genre.

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and Sciences

The idea of nature in America

nature essay definition

Leo Marx, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1972, is Senior Lecturer and William R. Kenan Professor of American Cultural History Emeritus in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Machine in the Garden  (1964), The Pilot and the Passenger  (1988), and coeditor of Does Technology Drive History?  (with Merritt Roe Smith, 1994).

The idea of nature is – or, rather, was – one of the fundamental American ideas. In its time it served – as the ideas of freedom, democracy, or progress did in theirs – to define the meaning of America. For some three centuries, in fact, from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the closing of the Western frontier in 1890, the encounter of white settlers with what they perceived as wilderness – unaltered nature – was the defining American experience.

By the end of that era, however, the wilderness had come to seem a thing of the past, and the land of farms and villages was rapidly becoming a land of factories and cities. By 1920, half the population lived in cities, and as the natural world became a less immediate presence, images of the pristine landscape – chief icon of American nature – lost their power to express the nation’s vision of itself.

Then, in the 1970s, with the onset of the ecological ‘crisis,’ the refurbished, matter-of-fact word environment took over a large part of the niche in public discourse hitherto occupied by the word nature. Before the end of the century, the marked loss of status and currency suffered by the idea of nature had become a hot subject in academic and intellectual circles. Reputable scholars and journalists published essays and books about the ‘death’ – or the ‘end’ – of nature; the University of California recruited a dozen humanities professors to participate in a semester-long research seminar designed to “reinvent nature”; 1 and the association of European specialists in American studies chose, as the aim of its turn-of-the-century conference, to reassess the changing role played by the idea of nature in America. 2

What are we to make of the purported demise of nature? Can it be that the venerable idea is no longer meaningful? If that seems improbable on its face, it is because nature is our oldest, most nearly universal name for the material world, and despite the alarming extent of the transformation – and devastation – we humans have visited on it, that world is still very much with us. But why, then, is the general idea of nature – nature in all its meanings – falling into disuse? What other reasons might there be for the seeming end of nature? With these questions in mind, I want to reconsider the idea’s changing role in American thought.

But, first, these preliminary caveats. I do not mean to suggest that the imminent disappearance of nature – if that is what we are witnessing – is a peculiarly American development. But in view of the crucial role played by the idea over the course of American history, a reassessment of critical stages of that history may prove to be revealing. I say ‘stages’ because limitations of space – the subject calls for a long treatise rather than an essay – make it necessary to focus on a few significant points along the historical trajectory traced by the idea of nature in American thought.

But it also should be said that the word nature is a notorious semantic and metaphysical trap. As used in ordinary discourse nowadays, it is an inherently ambiguous word. We cannot always tell whether references to nature are meant to include or exclude people. Besides, the word also carries the sense of essence: of the ultimate, irreducible character or quality of something, as for example, ‘the nature of femininity’ or, for that matter, ‘the nature of nature.’ When this meaning is in play, the word tacitly imputes an idealist or essentialist – hence ahistorical – character to the particular subject at hand, whether it be femaleness or nature itself. The word’s multiple meanings testify to its age: its roots go back (by way of Latin and Old French) to the concept of origination – of being born. As Raymond Williams famously noted, nature is probably the most complex word in the English language. 3 And when, moreover, the idea of nature is yoked with the ideologically freighted concept of American nationhood, as in the historian Perry Miller’s sly allusion to America as Nature’s Nation, the ambiguity is compounded by chauvinism. 4

Contemplating the nature of nature in America has led many scholars, of whom the historian Frederick Jackson Turner is the exemplar, to adopt the contested idiom of ‘American exceptionalism.’ 5 And not without good reason. However wary of chauvinism one might be, it would be foolish to deny that when Europeans first encountered American nature, it truly was, and to some extent still is, exceptional – perhaps not unique but, like Australia, a continent even less developed at the time of contact, surely exceptional. It was exceptional in its immensity, its spectacular beauty, its variety of habitats, its promise of wealth, its accessibility to settlers from overseas, and, above all, in the scarcity of its indigenous population. Hence the remarkable extent of its underdevelopment – its wildness – as depicted in myriad representations of the initial landfall of European explorers on the Atlantic seaboard of North America. In that stock image, the newly discovered terrain appears to be untouched by civilization, a cultural void populated by godless savages, and not easy to distinguish from a state of nature.

In the beginning, then, Europeans formed their impressions of American nature in a geographical context: it was a place, a terrain, a landscape. But they invariably accommodated their immediate impressions of American places to their imported – typically religious – preconceptions about the nature of nature and the character of indigenous peoples. Thus all of the significant American ideas of nature are hybrids, conceived in Europe and inflected by New World experience. And each ideology that served as a rationale for one or another colonial system of power contained such a hybrid Euro-American conception of nature and of the colonists’ relations with it.

A revealing example is the Pilgrim leader William Bradford’s well-known description of the forbidding Cape Cod shoreline as seen from the deck of the Mayflower in 1620. He depicts it as “a hidious and desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts and wild men.” Here the bias inherent in the Christian idea of nature as fallen – as Satan’s domain – effectively erases the humanity of the indigenous Americans. To Bradford they are more like wild beasts than white men.

The concept of satanic nature provided a useful foil for the sacred mission of the Puritan colonists. 6 In 1645, for example, John Winthrop, lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, used it as an ideological weapon to defend his theocratic authority. His enemies had charged him with infringing on their liberty, and in his uncompromising response in the General Court he develops the distinction between two kinds of liberty: natural and civil. Natural liberty, “common to man with beasts and other creatures,” is the liberty, he argues, we enjoy in a state of nature, namely, to do evil as well as good; civil liberty, on the other hand, is moral, hence available only to the truly regenerate, only to Christians redeemed from sin by the reception of divine grace. 7 According to Calvinist doctrine, only those rescued from the state of nature may enjoy the God-given liberty to do what is good, just, and honest. Here, on the coast of a vast, unexplored continent, the idea of an ostensibly separate realm of wild nature – a separateness underscored by the contrast with the tamed state of nature in Europe – was a valuable rhetorical asset for the colony’s leaders. Allusions to wild nature served to reinforce the doctrinal barrier between themselves, the elect, and the unregenerate, whom they consigned to the realm of natural lawlessness.

In the lexicon of Protestant Christianity in America, the essential character of primal nature was conveyed by epithets like ‘howling desert’ and ‘hideous wilderness,’ and by the malign names – savage, cannibal, slave – assigned to indigenous peoples. In Winthrop’s argument, accordingly, the unarguable existence of a separate (unredeemed) state of nature helps to justify his a priori condemnation of the unregenerate, who constitute a potential threat of lawlessness, anarchy, and misrule. Their geographical location underscored the theological argument: the only escape from natural unregeneracy open to them was the reception of divine grace.

By the time Thomas Jefferson wrote his draft of the Declaration of Independence, the theological notion of a dual nature – part profane, part sacred – was being supplanted by the unitary character of Newtonian science and Deism. Here, the initial identification of American nature with the landscape expanded to embrace the natural processes, or laws, operating behind its visible surface. Because the newly discovered celestial machinery obeys physical laws accessible to human reason, Newtonian physics had the effect of bringing humanity and nature closer together. Besides, the mathematical clarity and precision of the new physics made the old images of a dark, disorderly nature repugnant. Alexander Pope summed up the change in the prevailing worldview in the couplet engraved on Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night. God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

By 1776 it made sense for a rhetorician as gifted as Jefferson to extend the hypothetical reach of nature’s laws – or, to be more precise, of principles analogous to them – to the unruly sphere of politics. To justify the colonists’ acts of treason and armed rebellion, he had merely to describe them as the means – indeed, the only possible means - of claiming the independent status to which they were entitled by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Nature, as our free-thinking president conceived of it, was not so much the work of God as God was a constituent feature of Nature. By invoking a secularized idea of nature on behalf of a quintessentially political cause, Jefferson helped to narrow the gulf separating humanity and nature. But for that purpose, the idiom of the natural sublime was even more effective. Nine years later, in Notes on Virginia, Jefferson invoked the sublime to account for the unsurpassed beauty of one of American nature’s most cherished creations – Virginia’s Natural Bridge. An ardent practitioner of the neoclassical aesthetic, Jefferson credits the beauty of the Bridge to its symmetrical form, or, as it were, to the strikingly close approximation of its form to ostensibly natural principles of order and proportion. He begins his description of the bridge with a detailed analysis of its exact dimensions, as if reported by a detached observer writing in the third person. But then, partway through, he abruptly puts himself into the scene, climbs the parapet, and, shifting to the second person, describes how “you” inescapably would react if you too found yourself standing on the narrow ledge looking “over into the abyss”:

You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it . . . . If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from below is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven! The rapture of the spectator is really indescribable! 8

As this passionate Wordsworthian apostrophe suggests – it was written about fifteen years before the preface to the Lyrical Ballads – Jefferson already was prepared to enlist in the Romantic movement. But even after the triumph of Romanticism, the separateness of nature remained a largely unchallenged if unstated premise of public discourse. Since no authoritative biological counterpart to the Newtonian laws of nature had yet been formulated, supernatural explanations of the origin of life were not yet vulnerable to the challenge of scientific materialism. By the same token, pantheism retained its status as a Christian heresy, and dutiful communicants were advised to be wary of the feeling of oneness with nature.

In 1836, four years after resigning his pastorate in the Second (Unitarian) Church of Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson anonymously published the essay Nature, which came to be known as the manifesto of Transcendentalism, a New England variant of European Romanticism. The essay begins as a lament for the loss of humanity’s direct relations with nature. “Why,” Emerson asks, “should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Like his title, the question rests on the assumption that nature was – and should once again become–a primary locus of meaning and value for Americans. What followed was Emerson’s first and only attempt to formulate a systematic theory of nature, and in it he probably came as close as he ever would to repudiating the orthodox theological assumption that humanity and nature belong to separate realms of being. To illustrate the potential effect of being in “the presence of nature,” Emerson describes an epiphany that is patently irreconcilable with the idea of nature’s separateness. One gloomy afternoon, while crossing the town common, he was suddenly – unaccountably – overwhelmed by a sense of immanence, or, as he puts it, of “being part or parcel of God.” It was a largely secularized variant of the Protestant conversion experience, and it suggests the possibility, as Emerson puts it, of an “occult relation” – or state of oneness – with nonhuman nature. The balance of Nature may be read as an effort to devise a reasoned explanation, or justification, for this transformative experience.

Emerson’s account of the epiphany reveals his ambivalence about the relative validity of religious and scientific conceptions of nature. On the one hand it expresses his growing skepticism, on both theological and scientific grounds, about the received idea of a separate nature. As a Unitarian, to be sure, he already had repudiated most supernatural aspects of Christian doctrine, including the divinity of Jesus. A few years before writing Nature, he had resigned his pastorate on the grounds that he no longer could in good conscience perform the – to him, excessively literal – sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. At that time, moreover, he was studiously keeping abreast of the latest advances in geology and zoology, which provided empirical evidence in support of various emerging theories of evolution. When Nature was reissued in 1849, in fact, he appended a new verse epigraph depicting humanity’s origin:

A subtle chain of countless rings The next unto the farthest brings; The eye reads omens where it goes, And speaks all languages the rose; And, striving to be man, the worm Mounts through all the spires of form. 9

But though Emerson, like many of his contemporaries, was receptive to evolutionary thinking long before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, he was not prepared – for reasons he never quite made explicit – to abandon the idea of nature’s separateness. That traditional assumption is built into the conceptual structure of Nature. In defining his key terms, he postulates a universe made up of all that exists except for one thing: the human soul. All being, he asserts, “is composed of Nature and the Soul,” and he goes on to specify that “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, nature.” 10 Though he tacitly repudiated the major tenets of the Christian faith, and though he was prepared to embrace the theory of evolution, he continued to define NATURE as a discrete entity, eternally separated from human beings and their immortal souls.

But the theory of evolution, as definitively set forth by Darwin in 1859, made the age-old belief in nature’s separateness scientifically untenable once and for all. 11 On that score the logical import of evolutionary biology is clear and conclusive. If Homo sapiens evolved through a process of natural selection, if our species is inextricably embedded in a global web of biophysical processes, then there can be no such thing – on the planet Earth at least – as a separate domain of nature.

But the logic of science is one thing, and ancient habits of mind are another. Despite the passage of some 145 years since Darwin’s theory first caught the world’s attention, and despite the confirmation it has received, first and last, from an international consensus of scientists, its import has yet to be incorporated in prevailing assumptions about the nature of nature. To this day, the ‘nature’ commonly invoked in our public and private discourse – even by those of us who claim to ‘believe in’ evolution seems to be a discrete, almost wholly independent entity ‘out there’ somewhere. In ordinary usage the word rarely conveys a sense of humanity’s ties with other living things. As the historian of science, Lynn White, Jr., noted in his influential 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” “Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process.” 12

But that is putting it mildly. As everyone knows, the publication of the Origin of Species aroused intense public hostility, especially among churchmen and religious believers. There was no way, after all, to disguise the simple truth: Darwin’s theory flatly contradicts the Biblical account of the creation. Besides, people of all persuasions, many nonbelievers among them, were – still are – revolted by the notion that we are kin to the higher primates. It makes them feel, as the saying goes, ‘tainted by bestiality.’ So does the idea that humanity reached the pinnacle of the food chain by winning a long, murderous struggle, “red” – in the poet Tennyson’s phrase – “in tooth and claw.” 13 But the repugnance aroused by evolutionary theory did not surprise its wisest proponents. Years before he published the Origin, for example, Darwin had begun to fear that it would raise the specter of atheism. He clearly understood – and empathized with – the widespread impulse to deny, or gloss over, the disturbing implications of his theory. But he urged readers of the Origin to resist the impulse. “Nothing is easier,” he warned,

than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult atleast I have found it so – than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature . . . will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. 14

But the perceived antireligious import of Darwinism was not the only reason for its failure to win acceptance in America. Equally if not more important was the largely unremarked yet fundamental conflict between the evolutionary view of humanity’s embeddedness in natural processes and the nation’s chief geopolitical project: the settlement and economic development of the continental landmass. As Tocqueville observed, most European settlers were “insensible” to the beauty and wonder of the wilderness. “Their eyes,” he wrote, “are fixed on another sight: [their] . . . own march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature.” 15 That westward march, aimed at transforming the continent’s natural resources into marketable wealth as rapidly as possible, was executed under the aegis of such slogans as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ the ‘Conquest of Nature,’ and, above all, ‘Progress.’

The belief in ‘progress,’ a shorthand label for a grand narrative of history, was post–Civil War America’s most popular secular creed. It held that our history is, or is rapidly becoming, a record of the steady, cumulative, continuous expansion of knowledge of – and power over – nature, a power destined to effect an overall improvement in the conditions of life. On this view, nature has a critical role in the unfolding of material progress – but a role largely defined by human purposes. Because it is an indispensable source of our knowledge and our raw materials, nature is most productively conceived as wholly Other – an unequivocally independent, separate, hence exploitable entity. The combined authority of the progressive ethos and the Christian faith accounts for much of nineteenth-century America’s aversion to the Darwinian view of nature and, by the same token, the popularity of Social Darwinism. Though seemingly an offshoot of evolutionary biology, Social Darwinism was in fact a perversion of the new science. It turned on the idea of “the survival of the fittest,” a catchphrase given worldwide currency by Herbert Spencer, the most influential popularizer of evolutionary theory. It was Spencer who did most to transform the idea of biological evolution into a full-fledged rationale – Social Darwinism – for the ruthless practices of ‘free market’ capitalism, as exemplified by the robber baron generation of American businessmen. 16

The massive incursion of white settlers into the Western wilderness enacted the American belief in nation-building progress. In the popular culture, the successive stages of that great migration were represented by an imaginary boundary – a moving boundary–separating the built environment of the East from the expanse of undeveloped, ostensibly unowned – or, as it was called, ‘free’–land of the West. Never mind that the land already was inhabited; the westward movement of the boundary represented the serial imposition of a beneficent Civilization on an unruly Nature, including its ‘savage’ inhabitants. The boundary’s westward movement was a gauge of national progress, and in tacit recognition of its ideological significance, it was given a proper name – the frontier – and accorded iconic status as an actual line – usually a broken or dotted line – imprinted on maps and documented by demographic data regularly collected, revised, and published in official reports of the United States Census. Eventually the word and the icon were compressed into a single term, ‘the frontier line,’ visual marker of the ‘conquest of nature.’ Conquest was an accurate name for it. After comparing America’s treatment of nature with that of other nations over the ages, one historian concluded that “the story of . . . [the United States] as regards the use of forests, grasslands, wildlife and water sources is the most violent and most destructive in the long history of civilization.” 17

It is not surprising that a people busily plundering that Western cornucopia had little use for Darwinism. The ravaging of the West was not easily reconciled with the view that human life is inextricably enmeshed in natural processes. What made the conventional idea of a separate nature especially popular, under the circumstances, was its hospitality to either of the reigning – and contradictory – conceptions of the national terrain. Most Americans, it would seem, regarded that terrain as a hostile wilderness, a state of nature tolerable only insofar as it could be subjected to human domination. At the same time, however, a vocal minority took the opposite view. A cohort of gifted artists and intellectuals, many of them adherents of European Romanticism, regarded Nature as the embodiment of ultimate meaning and value. Landscapes embodying that Romantic conviction were represented in the paintings of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and the other members of the Hudson River School; in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and a host of other poets, essayists, novelists, and philosophers; and in the work of conservation activists like John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Teddy Roosevelt. In the press and the popular arts of mid-century America, a sentimental, quasi-religious cult of Nature helped to vent the pathos aroused by the spectacle of ravaged forests, slaughtered bison, and ‘vanishing Americans.’

The ambiguity inherent in the idea of nature is central to the apocalyptic outcome of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s epical account of America’s violent assault on the natural world. Melville was so impressed by the irrational ferocity of the assault, in fact, that he instructs his narrator, Ishmael, to seek out its origin and its consequences. The inquiry rests on two assumptions: first, that the relations between American society and nonhuman nature are typified by whaling, a technologically sophisticated, for-profit industry devoted to killing whales; and, second, that the psychic roots of the enterprise are exemplified by Captain Ahab’s obsession with wreaking revenge on a particular sperm whale whose distinguishing feature is his preternatural whiteness. (The sperm whale, not coincidentally, is the largest living embodiment of nature on the face of the earth.) What is it about the whiteness of this whale, Ishmael asks, that provokes Ahab’s ungovernable hatred? Melville devotes an entire chapter to the inquiry – a chapter without which, Ishmael insists, the whole story would be pointless.

After an exhaustive analysis of every meaning of whiteness he can think of, it occurs to Ishmael that the uncanny effect of the color – or is it the absence of color? – is not attributable to any one of its meanings, but rather to its affinity, like that of material nature itself, with myriad, often antithetical meanings – or, in a word, to its ambiguity. At times, he observes, whiteness evokes disease, terror, death; and at others, “the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls.” But then, Ishmael recalls, the beauty of natural objects is no more inherent in their physical properties than their color is; actually, he realizes that their seeming beauty is the product of “subtle deceits” of light and color, and that in fact “all deified nature paints like a harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.” All of which leads him to conclude that Ahab’s obsession is in large measure attributable to the maddening blankness – the essential illusoriness – of nature, its capacity to provoke yet endlessly resist his rage for meaning. In the end, the mad captain’s anger overwhelms his reason, and the tragic outcome, as Ishmael interprets it, reveals the incalculable cost – and futility – of the human effort to grasp the ultimate meaning of nature.

The year 1970 is when the ecological ‘crisis’ caught up with the idea of nature. Public anxiety about the devastation of the natural world had grown steadily in the aftermath of Hiroshima and the onset of the nuclear arms race. But it was not until 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, that the threat to the human habitat attracted nationwide attention. And it was in 1970 that the emerging environmental movement first displayed its political power. In was then that President Nixon proposed, and Congress enacted, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the act establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. A large cohort of scientists and engineers was recruited to work on the problems involved in the accelerating rate of air and water pollution, climate change, and species extinction. At about that time, it became evident that the word environment was supplanting the word nature in American public discourse.

This was no coincidence. Natural scientists had long recognized the ambiguity and instability inherent in ordinary language, especially in words, like nature, used to describe the biophysical world. For centuries, after all, ‘Nature’ conceived as a separate entity had served as an all-purpose metaphysical Other. It had been depicted as the creation of God and the habitation of Satan, as harmonious and chaotic, beneficent and hostile, as something to be revered and something to be conquered. Over its history, indeed, the word nature had been encrusted with a rich deposit of meaning and metaphor, and practicing scientists often found themselves looking for ways to avoid, or circumvent, the imprecision and ambiguity.

In a revealing passage of the Origin, for example, Darwin feels compelled to defend himself for having alluded to natural selection as “a ruling power or Deity.” It is difficult, he explains,” to avoid personifying the word Nature,” and besides, “everyone knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphoric expressions.” But Darwin is not apologizing. An accomplished writer of English prose, he appreciates the beauty and power of figurative language, and he is not about to dispense with it. Nonetheless, as if to prove that he knows what the word nature actually means in scientific practice, he grudgingly offers this stripped-down, or positivist, definition: “I mean by Nature,” he writes, “only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us.” 18

Darwin’s recourse to this bloodless, ungraspable, if scientifically unobjectionable definition of nature was prophetic. It prefigured the partial eclipse of nature by environment in our time. The signal merits of environment , as compared with nature, are its unequivocal materiality, and what might be called its ideological neutrality or objectivity. It refers to the entire biophysical surround – or environ – we inhabit; it implies no distinction between human and other forms of life; it encompasses all that is built and (so to speak) unbuilt, the artificial and the natural, within the terrain we inhabit. Besides, as the related verb, to environ, indicates, most environments palpably are products of human effort. It is not difficult to understand, then, why this matter-of-fact word proved to be more acceptable than nature to people coping with the practical problems created by the degradation of ‘nature.’ But there is a troubling irony here. What recently has proven to be a serious shortcoming of the idea of a separate nature – its hospitality to a virtually limitless range of moral, religious, and metaphysical meaning – had for centuries been the reason for its immense appeal as a subject of art and literature, theology and philosophy, or, indeed, virtually all modes of thought and expression.

But to return to the final decades of the twentieth century when, as I noted at the outset, the loss of status and currency suffered by the idea of nature became obvious. In those years the work of avant-garde artists and intellectuals was filled with predictions of nature’s imminent demise. In an influential 1984 essay, Fredric Jameson, a prominent theorist of postmodernism, argued that the disappearance of nature was a necessary precondition for the emergence of the postmodern mentality. “Postmodernism is what you have,” he asserted, “when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” 19 With characteristic postmodern tendentiousness, Jameson assumes that nature is a cultural construction – a mere product of ‘discourse’ – and emphatically not an actual topographical or biophysical entity. From his idealist perspective, the dominant American idea of nature – nature primarily conceived as a terrain or other biophysical actuality – is meaningless. In Jameson’s view, that usage, with its implicit claim to unmediated knowledge of the material world, is epistemologically naive. Nature in that sense, he is saying, is gone for good because it epitomizes the age-old illusion that it is possible to arrive at a direct, wholly reliable relation with material reality.

In The Death of Nature (1989), Carolyn Merchant laments the demise of a widely accepted idea of nature, but in her view it died some four centuries ago. The authentic, biologically grounded concept of an organic nature actually was supplanted – though perhaps only temporarily – by the mechanistic, male-oriented Newtonian-Cartesian philosophy that accompanied the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution. The basic model for that philosophy was the machine, and it has

permeated and reconstructed human consciousness so totally that today we scarcely question its validity. Nature, society, and the human body are composed of interchangeable atomized parts that can be repaired or replaced from outside. The ‘technological fix’ mends an ecological malfunction . . . . The mechanical view of nature now taught in most Western schools is accepted without question as our everyday, commonsense reality . . . . The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature. 20

But Merchant, a committed environmentalist, leaves open the possibility of resurrecting and refining the premodern, organic idea of nature. Perhaps, she implies, the desperation induced by the accelerating ecological crisis will lead mankind to repudiate the mechanical view of nature and reaffirm a humane organicism. 21

Among the prominent obituaries for the idea of nature, however, the most pertinent to my argument is Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989). He contends that nature came to an end, both as a discrete biophysical entity and as a meaningful concept, when the Earth’s atmospheric envelope was penetrated – and its filtering capacities damaged – by greenhouse gases and other manufactured chemicals. 22 By encompassing all of Earth’s space, the expanding technological power of modern industrial societies has rid the planet of unaltered nature. The last remaining patches of pristine wilderness are now wrapped in a layer of man-made atmosphere.

In McKibben’s view, however, the most serious consequences of the degradation of material nature are conceptual. They are at once psychological, moral, and spiritual. What chiefly concerns him is the impoverishment of human thought. “We have killed off nature,” he writes, “that world entirely independent of us which was here before we arrived and which encircles and supported our human society.” It is as if the real meaning and value of the ancient concept of nature only became apparent after technological ‘progress’ had made it obsolete. We “have ended the thing that has defined . . . nature for us,” he writes, “–its separation from human society.” 23

The importance McKibben assigns to the erasure of nature’s separateness distinguishes The End of Nature from other laments about the disappearance of nature. 24 To my knowledge, he is the only writer who attaches vital significance to this seldom noted, seemingly banal attribute of the received idea of nature. But exactly why is the independence of nature so important? Although McKibben does not adequately answer this hovering question, he provides a telling clue to its profound significance for him. “We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning,” he writes. And why is that? Because, he asserts, “nature’s independence is its meaning, without it there is nothing but us.” 25 It is an astute observation and a poignant confession: without nature there is nothing but us. For McKibben, like many ardent environmentalists, nature is at bottom a theological or metaphysical concept. In his vocabulary, nature refers to the foundational character – the ultimate meaning – of the cosmos. But if the idea of nature is to continue serving as an effective repository of that belief, he is saying, it must not be deprived of its traditional status as a separate, discrete entity. To compromise its independence, as Darwinism inescapably does, and as McKibben movingly testifies, is to expose its devotees to the skeptical influence of cosmic loneliness or – in a word – atheism.

The tenability of the idea of wilderness, the oldest and most popular American variant of the idea of nature, also was called into question at the end of the century. In a provocative 1995 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” William Cronon, a prominent environmental historian, precipitated a heated controversy by asserting that the popular notion of a pristine American wilderness, or ‘virgin land,’ embodies a racist or colonialist falsification of the historical record. 26 Cronon had established the empirical basis for this judgment in Changes in the Land, his seminal 1983 study of the transformation of the New England terrain, long before the arrival of Europeans, by the indigenous peoples of North America. But now, with his 1995 essay, he shocked many environmentalists, for whom the idea of the unsullied American wilderness is sacrosanct, with plain talk about its covert meaning. By the time of the alleged European “discovery” of the “new world,” he argues, there no longer was anything “natural” about it. Far from “being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity,” he writes, the American wilderness is “entirely the creation of the culture that holds it dear.” Actually, the mythic image of a “virgin, uninhabited land” was an ideological weapon in the service of the white European conquest of the Americas, and it was “especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who had once called that land home.”

And yet Cronon, an ardent environmentalist and outdoorsman, cannot bring himself to repudiate the idea of wilderness. To be sure, he clearly explains what makes it objectionable. “Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe that we are separate from nature – as wilderness tends to do – is likely,” he concedes, “to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior.” But he also acknowledges that respect for wilderness entails respect for nonhuman forms of life. Like many environmentalists, in fact, he had responded to the prevalence of arrogant anthropocentrism – especially the unfeeling disregard for the well-being of animals – by embracing an ecocentric version of species egalitarianism. Now, seemingly contradicting himself, he concedes that the idea of the “autonomy of nonhuman nature . . . [may be] an indispensable corrective to human arrogance.” He admits that he is torn between his viewpoint as a disinterested scholar and as an environmental activist, or, put differently, between historically informed skepticism about – and reverence for – the contested idea of wilderness. In the end, Cronon fails to resolve his ambivalence. But his failure strongly suggests that the idea of wilderness, like the pre-Darwinian idea of nature as a separate, largely independent entity, is incoherent and irremediably unstable.

In the event, however, Cronon proposes a way to rescue the notion of pristine, unaltered nature. He urges American environmentalists to follow the lead of their patron saints, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and replace the idea of wilderness with the simpler, less problematic idea of wildness. (After founding the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir had chosen Thoreau’s famous epigram “In Wildness is the preservation of the World” as its official motto.) The chief merit of wildness as a locus of value and meaning, he notes, is that, unlike wilderness, it “can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own body.” Whereas wilderness is a particular kind of place (one that exhibits no signs of human intervention), wildness is an attribute of living organisms that may turn up anywhere; a blue jay or a daisy in a Manhattan park, he contends, is no less wild than its counterpart in the Rocky Mountains. As might be expected, Cronon’s critics were quick to note that there is something tenuous, even quixotic, about his notion that a change of vocabulary could resolve the debate about the value of wilderness. Still, his proposal does call attention to the critical shortcomings that the idea of wilderness shares with the idea of a separate nature. As he warns, and as the devastation of the American wilderness attests, the belief that we humans occupy a realm of being separate from the rest of nature encourages what he all-too politely refers to as “environmentally irresponsible behavior.”

In recent years several ecologically oriented writers, including Cronon, have endorsed a promising way to salvage the venerable idea of nature. 27 They propose to rehabilitate the compelling distinction, favored by Hegel and Marx, between two fundamentally distinct, historically grounded states of nature, to be called first nature and second nature. In this usage, first nature is the biophysical world as it existed before the evolution of Homo sapiens, and second nature is the artificial – material and cultural – environment that humanity has superimposed upon first nature. On this view, manifestly, nature is all. Unlike the traditional idea of a separate nature, the first nature/second nature distinction is consonant with the received history of nature, and especially with the primacy, in that history, of the process of biological evolution by natural selection and the emergence of life on Earth. During all but the final minutes, as it were, of this historical narrative, first nature was all that existed.

But then, beginning with the emergence of life and – eventually – Homo sapiens, second nature took over, and gradually transformed, an increasingly large area of the planet’s surface. Biologists have taught us that every organism modifies its habitat in some degree, but the extent of humanity’s modification of Earth exceeds that of other species by orders of magnitude. Second nature is in large measure a human artifact, and in recent centuries the rapidly accelerating expansion of humanity’s power – and its territorial reach – has had a devastating impact on global ecosystems. The result is a grave crisis in the relations, or putative ‘balance,’ between first and second nature. One of the singular merits of the first nature/second nature distinction is the clarity it affords us in characterizing the uniqueness – for good and ill – of humanity and its role in the overall history of nature. By dividing the concept of nature along an historical, or evolutionary, fault line, the first nature/second nature concept enables us to do full justice to humanity’s unmatched power to create a unique material and cultural environment. At the same time, however, it has the inestimable merit of validating the idea of a single, subdivided yet fundamentally unified realm of nature.

1 The essays they produced are reprinted in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (W. W. Norton: New York, 1995).

2 This essay derives from a paper presented at the conference of the European Association for American Studies, in Graz, Austria, April 14–17, 2000. See Hans Bak and Walter W. Holbling, eds., “Nature’s Nation” Revisited: American Concepts of Nature from Wonder to Ecological Crisis (Amsterdam: VU Press, 2003).

3 Raymond Williams, Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 219.

4 Miller first used the phrase in his 1953 essay, “Nature and the National Ego,” in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), 209. Elizabeth W. Miller and Kenneth Murdock later used it as the title of a posthumous collection of Miller’s essays, Nature’s Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

5 In his seminal 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner argued that American nature, in the form of free land, in effect determined the “peculiarity of American institutions. ”

6 William Bradford, History of Plimoth Plantation, in Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson, eds., The Puritans (New York: American Book Company, 1938), 100–101 .

7 John Winthrop, “Speech to the General Court, July 3, 1625,” in Miller and Johnson, eds., The Puritans, 206.

8 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 55.

9 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), I, 8.

10 Ibid., 10–11. Emphasis added.

11 In Origin of Species, though Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection remained incomplete until the publication of the Descent of Man in 1871.

12 Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” in Paul Shepherd, ed., The Subversive Science; Essays Toward an Ecology of Man (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 369. See also Leo Marx, “American Institutions and Ecological Ideals,” Science 170 (November 27, 1970): 945–952.

13 “In Memoriam” (1850), which he had begun writing in 1833.

14 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (New York: Mentor, 1958), 74.,

15 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), II, 74.

16 Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1800–1915 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944); Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998); Leo Marx, “The Domination of Nature and the Redefinition of Progress,” in Leo Marx and Bruce Mazlish, eds., Progress: Fact or Illusion? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 201–218.

17 Fairfield Osborn, Our Plundered Planet (Boston: Little Brown, 1948), 175.

18 Darwin, Origin of Species, 88.

19 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), ix.

20 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), 193.

21 Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World (New York: Routledge, 1992).

22 Subsequent observations of ‘global warming’ are widely accepted in the scientific community as evidence of the man-made transformation of Earth’s atmospheric envelope.

23 Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989), 96, 64.

24 Raymond Williams calls attention to the idea of nature’s separateness in “The Idea of Nature,” Problems of Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), 67–85.

25 McKibben, The End of Nature, 58.

26 Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground, 69–90. For a comprehensive collection of the arguments, pro and con, including Cronon’s essay, see J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson, eds., The Great New Wilderness Debate (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).

27 William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), xviiff; Janet Biehl, Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1991), 117–118.

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What is nature?

nature essay definition

Nature is a common notion, which everyone is familiar with as long as we are not asked to define it. This is normal: there is no consensus definition of it, and the term is rejected by most academic disciplines in both the sciences and the humanities. Yet it stays, and even better: it is eminently political – and even more so at a time when the idea of “protecting nature” is pressing. In this article, we attempt to unravel its mysteries, tracing its origin, its evolution and the succession of issues in which it has found itself in a central position. The aim is to identify the different realities it embraces, and the particular ways in which we relate to them in the era of global crises.

1. How do we define “nature”?

2. story of a mysterious word, 3. diversity of uses of the word, 4.1. protecting nature as a set of resources, 4.2. protecting nature as a living environment, 4.3. protecting nature as a set of monuments and landscapes, 4.4. protecting nature as a set of ecosystems, 4.5. protecting nature as a set of conditions favourable to life as we know it, 5. messages to remember.

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Even today, specialized encyclopaedias still seem to carefully avoid the concept of “nature”: this is for example the notable case of the Oxford Dictionary of Science (2005), but also of the Encyclopedia of environmental ethics and philosophy (2008). The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ecology and Environmental Sciences gives it three lines that do not say much, and the Dictionary of Ecological Thought (2015), for its part, takes the precaution of specifying its articles (“nature in philosophy”, “ordinary nature”), thus carefully circumventing the idea of nature itself – although this does not prevent its use in many articles. The same observation can be made on philosophers : nature does not stand among the “major notions of philosophy” in the main university textbooks, has never been on the syllabus of any French examination or competition, and one of the few textbooks to deal with it, André Lalande’s Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (regularly updated since 1902) imitates d’Alembert by recommending rigorous thinkers to avoid the use of this word, which can mean everything and its opposite . Moreover, the term is openly circumvented by many scientists, who prefer better defined and above all measurable hyponyms – because in the modern age there is no science without quantification – such as “biosphere”, “biodiversity”, “biocenosis”, “ecosystems” and other “physicalities” among anthropologists.

jean jacques rousseau - david hume

Yet the ecological crisis has brought the idea of nature back to the forefront, and the word is now everywhere: this fact shows that it may not mean “nothing”, and that it is not really substitutable either. At a time when nature is said to be “in crisis”, when everyone would like to “protect” or even “act” on it, it is more imperative than ever to have a clear idea of this concept and its ramifications , which is what this article proposes to do [2] .

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  • generation of that which grows;
  • the first immanent element from which growth proceeds;
  • principle of the first movement for every natural being;
  • and the primeval background from which any artificial object is made or comes from.

These four definitions could be roughly summarized as: growth, principle, power and substance. So here we are in the realm of physics – a term that is occasionally coined – and still far from biology and the environment. Greco-Roman nature does not yet designate a set of objects, but rather the dynamics that animate matter, whether living or not (the term is not often used in the Philosopher’s biology books).

It is in fact the Christianisation of Europe that will change the meaning of the word natura . Indeed, in the Christian cosmology (Figure 3), all dynamics can only come from God: it is him alone who creates the world and animates it, he is beyond nature and nothing is beyond him – whereas among the Greeks, the gods were subject to nature, they were still, in their own way, animals, animated by impulses, passions and needs. In the Abrahamic monotheisms, the whole of reality is now only a creation , a set of passive objects conceived and arranged by the demiurge, and from which only Mankind emerges, which is at once part of this creation but is called to transcend it . This hierarchy is an extremely original idea, which does not seem to be present in any other great civilizational basin: Mankind is then no longer completely a part of nature, and all the value of their existence lies in fact beyond nature, in the Kingdom of God. There is therefore no longer natura naturans , the creative principle which is a simple synonym of God, and natura naturata , which is his creation – knowing that the good Christian must despise earthly things [4] , since it is through asceticism that one rises to God. The very word nature will thus become scarcely used in the Middle Ages, essentially returning to its etymological use.

nature trois graces tableau rubens bruegel

Despite this dislike of the academic world, “nature” remains the 419 th most used word in the French language out of the 60,000 words listed in the usual dictionaries. It has undergone a number of one-off fashion effects, both during the Romantic period and with the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, in particular because of its fundamentally subversive nature, since the opposition between “nature” and “culture” makes it the perfect recourse when it comes to challenging the established order (“return to nature”) – even though “established order” is also precisely one of the meanings of “nature” [6] …

A study published in 2020 [7] attempted to review the meanings and uses of the word “nature”, based on a review of dictionaries, some of which have as many as 20 different and often contradictory definitions. All these ramifications seem to be summarized in four main ideas :

  • The totality of material reality that does not result from human will (as opposed to artifice, intention and culture);
  • The whole universe as a place, source and result of material phenomena, including man or at least his body (as opposed to the supernatural, the metaphysical or the unreal);
  • The force at the principle of life and change (opposing inertia, fixity and entropy [8] );
  • The essence , the set of specific physical properties and qualities of an object, living or inert (opposing denaturation).

These four definitions appear extremely heterogeneous in many aspects: some include humans while others explicitly exclude them, and some refer to objects and others to abstract phenomena or characters. They can therefore form the basis for radically different or even contradictory “ conservations of nature ” , and even, for some, make such an idea absurd: we have grouped these definitions and what they could represent in terms of conservation in Table 1.

different definitions nature - table definitions nature

4. What to protect?

As we have seen, nature is multiple: it follows that its protection is also crossed by several currents , which have added up rather than succeeded each other over time, at the rate of the emergence of new issues.

gifford pinchot - pinchot national forest

It was not until the emergence of the ecosystem concept in 1935 that the vision of “nature” as a scientific object was renewed, first as a scientific object and then as an object of conservation. While the conservationist tradition was resolutely fixist and attached itself to inert or little changing objects (or at least treated as such), a more dynamic vision of nature was to develop under the impetus of Darwin, and restore the prestige of the third definition we have given. One of the guardian figures of this transition is the famous American forester Aldo Leopold, author of a posthumous work (A Sand County Almanac , 1949) considered as the “bible” of American ecology (Figure 10). Although Leopold was still unfamiliar with the term ecosystem, he nonetheless called for the active conservation of “biotic communities”, later (1992) renamed “ biodiversity “. Leopold contributed to the creation of undeveloped forest reserves, protected not for aesthetic or touristic reasons but clearly for their biological and ecological importance, in contrast to the national parks, which until then had been almost all located in arid or mountainous areas.

This new protection of nature seen as a set of ecosystems is therefore based this time on essentially scientific criteria, such as biodiversity, endemism and ecological functionalities – leading to the christening of “ordinary nature” in conservation, since the major functions rely for a large part on the most abundant species [12] . Abstract notions of biological functions, material flows of matter (water, carbon, nitrogen) and energy will also come into play, and their importance for human societies will be embodied in 2005 by the concept of  “ ecosystem services “, popularized by the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment report commissioned by the UN in 2000 . Nature is thus no longer inert and passive, and is becoming a platform for exchanges between biotic communities, of which humanity is one actor among others, powerful but also fragile and dependent.

mont toby farm

The scale changed radically at the end of the twentieth century: it was no longer a question of protecting objects, but rather phenomena, on an ever-increasing scale, and finally on a global scale. The very idea of reserve finds its limits here, since these flows and phenomena overflow them largely, and it is therefore the whole organization of human societies that needs to be reviewed , because this protection can no longer be satisfied with a handful of desert or mountainous areas that are sanctuarized because they were unproductive anyway. The climate, the circulation of water and the balance of biodiversity depend less on Yellowstone Park or the Monument Valley than on the use of the fertile soils of the great river plains where all human activities are concentrated, and the artificial separation of nature and humans seems quite illusory [14] (Figure 11).

The new challenge of nature conservation in the 21st century will therefore be to protect nature at the very heart of anthropized spaces, which now largely dominate the planet and, above all, the flows of matter that pass through it – this is what some call the “ anthropocene ”  [15] . In addition to the careful protection of the last remaining unexploited ecosystems, this new nature conservation must also focus on socio-ecosystems, inhabited by a great diversity of human, non-human, living and non-living agents, all of which maintain complex relationships (read: Biodiversity is not a luxury, but a necessity ). One of the approaches dealing with this new nature is called “ ecology of reconciliation ” [16] , which aims to make anthropized spaces favourable to biodiversity, through a whole series of techniques and developments. Agriculture must also be rethought so that it no longer forms monospecific deserts saturated with toxic agents, but rather harbors biodiversity that maintains the quality of the soil, the health of the plantations and that of the people who live there [17] .

In addition to the technical and administrative challenge, we are therefore witnessing a real philosophical revolution : nature is no longer “outside” Man, and the boundaries between the attention paid to nature and to human populations, hitherto strictly separated in the West between material sciences and human sciences, are fading. This epistemological upheaval is therefore logically accompanied by a new philosophical production, marked in the US by academics such as J. Baird Callicott or in France by authors such as the anthropologist Philippe Descola, the sociologist Bruno Latour, the philosopher Catherine Larrère, grouped together under the label of “ environmental humanities “.

  • The totality of material reality that does not result from human will (as opposed to artifice, intention and culture)
  • The whole universe as a place, source and result of material phenomena, including man or at least his body (as opposed to the supernatural, metaphysical or unreal)
  • The force at the core of life and change (opposing inertia, fixity and entropy)
  • The idea of “ protecting nature ” varies enormously depending on the reference frameworks used, and various traditions of nature protection have developed over time, with distinct, and here too, readily contradictory objects, techniques, concepts and objectives.
  • The very vagueness that surrounds the idea of nature prevents its recuperation by a particular disciplinary field (philosophy, biology, politics…) and thus forces the sciences and institutions to confront a popular word rich in varied connotations, conveying many social affects.
  • This diversity prevents the idea of technocratization by preserving a diversity of choices and opportunities open to democratic dialogue .
  • In this article, only the “Western” concept of nature has been discussed, but its equivalents (or lack of equivalents) in other languages have been the subject of a study published in 2020 [18] .

Notes and References

Cover image. [Source: Photo © Frédéric Ducarme]

[1] We will not discuss this usage here, and refer to the work of Jean Ehrard, notably L’Idée de nature en France dans la première moitié du XVIII e siècle , Paris: Albin Michel, 1963, or to Franck Burbage’s Nature opuscule in the “corpus” collection by Garner Flammarion (2013).

[2] This article is largely inspired by the author’s doctoral thesis, defended at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 2016, and by two publications that have come out of it: Ducarme F, Couvet D. (2020) What does “nature” mean? Nature Humanities and Social Sciences Communications , 6(14):1-8. DOI:10.1057/s41599-020-0390-y ; Ducarme F, Flipo, F., Couvet D. (2020) How the diversity of human concepts of nature affects conservation of biodiversity, Conservation Biology , 34(5), DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13639.

[3] Aristotle, Metaphysics , Delta 4, 1014b.

[4] Matthew 6:19.

[5] Hadot P. Le Voile d’ Isis . Paris: Gallimard, Folio essais; 2004. 515 p.

[6] On the (mis)uses of the idea of nature in a moral context, the work of reference is undoubtedly John Stuart Mill, “On Nature”, in Three Essays on Religion . London: Longman Green; 1874.

[7] Ducarme F, Couvet D. (2020) What does “nature” mean? Nature Humanities and Social Sciences Communications , 6(14):1-8. DOI:10.1057/s41599-020-0390-y

[8] Beware, here the notion of entropy is taken not in the sense that it has in astrophysics but in its popular sense and on an extremely small scale, that of the energy that tends to dissipate or of the ecosystem that tends to be impoverished.

[9] Ducarme F. (2020), “Evolution et transmutations de l’objet ‘nature’ dans l’histoire de sa conservation”, colloquium De la réserve intégrale à la nature ordinaire, les figures changeantes de la protection de la nature , AHPNE/Archives Nationales, Paris, 29-30 September 2020.

[10] On the concept of “ wilderness “, theorized by Roderick Nash (Nash R., Wilderness and the American Mind . New Haven: Yale University Press; 1967), see in particular the numerous works of J. Baird Callicott (such as Callicott JB, Nelson MP, eds., The Great New Wilderness Debate . University of Georgia Press; 1998. 697 p.).

[11] Luigi Piccioni (2014), “Les instruments conceptuels de la patrimonialisation du paysage et de la nature dans l’Europe de la Belle Époque”, “Projets de paysage”, dossier thématique “Paysage(s) et Patrimoine(s): connaissance, protection, gestion et valorisation” ,

[12] On this expression, see the works of Catherine Larrère or Rémi Beau, such as Beau R., “Nature ordinaire” in Bourg D, Papaux A, Dictionnaire de la pensée écologique . Paris: PUF; 2015.

[13] Millennium Ecosystems Assessment. Ecosystems and human well-being . Washington DC: World Resources Institute; 2005.

[14] Phalan B, Onial M, Balmford A, Green RE. Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation: land sharing and land sparing compared. Science . 2011; 333(September):1289-91.

[15] Lewis SL, Maslin MA. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 2015; 519(7542):171-80.

[16] Rosenzweig ML. Win-Win Ecology. How the Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise . Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2003. For a summary in French, see Couvet D, Ducarme F. L’écologie de la réconciliation, du défi biologique au défi social. Journal of Ethnoecology . 2014;6:13.

[17] Butler SJSJ, Vickery JAJA, Norris K. Farmland biodiversity and the footprint of agriculture. Science , 2007; 315:381-4.

[18] Ducarme, F., Flipo, F. and Couvet, D. (2020), “How the diversity of human concepts of nature affects conservation of biodiversity” Conservation Biology 34:6, doi:10.1111/cobi.13639

The Encyclopedia of the Environment by the Association des Encyclopédies de l'Environnement et de l'Énergie ( ), contractually linked to the University of Grenoble Alpes and Grenoble INP, and sponsored by the French Academy of Sciences.

To cite this article: DUCARME Frédéric (March 1, 2021), What is nature?, Encyclopedia of the Environment, Accessed May 17, 2024 [online ISSN 2555-0950] url : .

The articles in the Encyclopedia of the Environment are made available under the terms of the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license, which authorizes reproduction subject to: citing the source, not making commercial use of them, sharing identical initial conditions, reproducing at each reuse or distribution the mention of this Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.

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Home — Essay Samples — Environment — Biodiversity — The Beauty of Nature


The Beauty of Nature

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Published: Mar 16, 2024

Words: 727 | Pages: 2 | 4 min read

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The aesthetic appeal of nature, the healing power of nature, the importance of biodiversity, the role of nature in human creativity.

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nature essay definition

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A new campaign wants to redefine the word ‘nature’ to include humans – here’s why this linguistic argument matters

nature essay definition

Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading

Disclosure statement

Tom Oliver has received research funding from BBSRC, NERC and Natural England for quantifying climate change impacts on biodiversity and developing climate adaptation plans for humans and other species. He was affiliated with Defra as a senior scientific fellow on their Systems Research Programme, with the Government Office for Science working on long-term risks to the UK, and spent four years with the European Environment Agency on their scientific committee. He sits on the Food Standards Agency science council and Office for Environmental Protection expert college. He is author of The Self Delusion: The Surprising Science of Our Connection To Each Other and the Natural World, published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

University of Reading provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.

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What does the word nature mean to you? Does it conjure visions of wild places away from the hustle and bustle of people, or does it include humans too? The meaning of nature has changed since the word was first used back as early as the 15th century .

Now a new campaign, We Are Nature , aims to persuade dictionaries to include humans in their definitions of nature. This campaign, a collaboration between a group of lawyers and a design company, involves a petition and open letter , as well as a collection of alternative definitions supplied by various thinkers and authors (including me). Here’s my definition of nature:

The living world comprised as the total set of organisms and relationships between them. These organisms include bacteria, fungi, plants and animals (including humans). Some definitions may also include non-living entities as part of nature – such as mountains, waterfalls and cloud formations – in recognition of their important role underpinning the web of life.

Derived from the Latin natura , literally meaning “birth”, nature used to only refer to the innate qualities or essential disposition of something. But over time, it also began to describe something “other” or separate to humans. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines nature as :

The phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the Earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations.

But how did we arrive at such a definition, which hinges on us being apart from, rather than a part of, the natural world? Since the 17th century, a rationalist world view prompted by philosophers such as René Descartes increasingly saw things from a mechanical perspective, comparing the workings of the universe to a great machine. Rather than any kind of divine spirit inhabiting the natural world, this perspective emphasised the split between the human mind and physical matter.

Anything non-human fell into the latter category and was likened to clockwork machinery. But that view has since been found to lead to animal cruelty , and many environmental bodies including the European Environment Agency suggest this disconnect is accelerating the decline of nature.

Is it OK to change words in a dictionary through lobbying? There are two lines of thought here. One might argue yes, if the scientific evidence suggests the distinction between nature and humans is illusory – something I have argued based on findings in biology, ecology and neuroscience.

A dictionary definition represents society’s framing of the natural world. This in turn influences our perception of our place within it – and the actions we take to protect nature. So, the words we use have real-world impacts: they frame how we think and determine how we feel and act. Linguist George Lakoff has argued that they ultimately structure our society.

My children are growing up in a world where humans feel disconnected with nature – indeed, the UK ranks among the most disconnected countries. Research shows this leads people to make fewer positive environmental changes to their behaviour , such as reducing their carbon footprint, recycling, or doing voluntary conservation work.

Conversely, when people feel they are enmeshed with nature, they are not only greener in their behaviour but they tend to be happier . So I absolutely want my kids to grow up feeling they are part of nature.

There are some words that I certainly recommend we use less. I dislike the term “natural capital”, referring to nature as an asset that can be commodified and sold . These words have a place with professional environmentalists and policy, but they can also create psychological distancing and make us care less for natural world.

One sustainability-focused communications agency found the best way to motivate people about protecting nature is through messages based on awe and wonder , rather than the economic value of nature. Scientific studies back this up.

Dangers of controlling language

But I’m torn. Another line of thought suggests it’s not OK to change the meaning of words through lobbying, and that dictionaries should reflect how words are being used – the OED takes this position .

Dystopian fiction, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four , highlights the dangers of a world where controlling the language allows control of the population. Dictionaries bowing to pressure from lobbying seems to set a dangerous precedent.

With regards to the meaning of nature, if a word is too broad, it may lose its usefulness in communication, just like a blunt knife is a poor tool for carving food. People wanting to articulate the natural world may simply use other words, such as “environment”. This word is derived from the French environs , explicitly describing something surrounding us.

Environment has already been replacing nature in our modern lexicon. This may reflect a subtle cognitive shift towards increasingly seeing human beings as distinct entities, separate from the natural world.

Nature v environment: tracking the use of these words

Graph with blue line declining, red line rising slightly

But the We Are Nature campaign is not just lobbying the OED based on a preferred use of language. The organisers have collated many historical uses of the word nature from 1850 to the present day, some of which include humans in the meaning, and presented the dictionary with this evidence. In April 2024, as a result, the OED removed the label “obsolete” from a secondary, wider definition of nature comprising “the whole natural world, including human beings”.

But to change the primary definition of nature from “as opposed to humans” to “including humans” will require more people to use the word in a way that reflects how humans are intertwined with the whole web of life.

The great thing is, by doing this, we rekindle the bonds of care towards the living world around us. And by dispelling the illusion of our separation from nature, we can also expect to live happier lives . Words matter – there is restoration and joy from talking about how we are nature.

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  15. Introduction

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  16. Nature vs. Nurture: Meaning, Examples, and Debate

    Summary. Nature vs. nurture is a framework used to examine how genetics (nature) and environmental factors (nurture) influence human development and personality traits. However, nature vs. nurture isn't a black-and-white issue; there are many shades of gray where the influence of nature and nurture overlap. It's impossible to disentangle how ...

  17. Nature Essay for Students and Children in 500 Words

    Essay On Nature - Sample 1 (250 Words) Nature, in its broadest sense, is a term that refers to the physical world and life in general. It encompasses all life on earth, including humans. However, it does not include human activities. The term nature is derived from the Latin word, "Natura", which translates to "essential qualities" or ...

  18. Human Nature

    Human Nature. First published Mon Mar 15, 2021. Talk of human nature is a common feature of moral and political discourse among people on the street and among philosophers, political scientists and sociologists. This is largely due to the widespread assumption that true descriptive or explanatory claims making use of the concept of human nature ...

  19. What is nature writing?

    As such, there's a whole variety of approaches to writing a book in this genre. Different types of nature writing books can include: factual books such as field guides, natural history told through essays, poetry about the natural world, literary memoir and personal reflections. Typically, nature writing is writing about the natural environment.

  20. The idea of nature in America

    The idea of nature is - or, rather, was - one of the fundamental American ideas. In its time it served - as the ideas of freedom, democracy, or progress did in theirs - to define the meaning of America. For some three centuries, in fact, from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the closing of the Western frontier in 1890, the encounter ...

  21. Nature Writing and the New Environmentalism

    This essay describes the tradition of American nature writing from the late nineteenth century to the present, beginning with the definition and origin of this non-fiction prose genre. It goes on to ...

  22. What is nature?

    Nature is a common concept that everyone is familiar with until you ask for a definition. ... As this is an ideal, we can link it to the 4 th definition of nature, that of a normative archetypal state. Figure 7. The first pollution of great importance emerged with the industrial revolution. ... "On Nature", in Three Essays on Religion ...

  23. The Beauty of Nature: [Essay Example], 727 words GradesFixer

    The beauty of nature is a priceless gift that enriches our lives in countless ways. Its aesthetic appeal, healing power, role in biodiversity, and influence on human creativity all contribute to its profound impact on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As we continue to navigate the challenges of the modern world, it is essential ...

  24. A new campaign wants to redefine the word 'nature' to include humans

    Here's my definition of nature: The living world comprised as the total set of organisms and relationships between them. These organisms include bacteria, fungi, plants and animals (including ...