Correspondence | Published:

What is nature, if it's more than just a place without people?

Nature volume 456, page 29 (06 November 2008) | Download Citation



Your Editorial 'Handle with care' (Nature 455, 263–264 2008) notes that many people define 'nature' as a place without people, and that this would suggest that nature is best protected by keeping humans far away. You question the value of this negative definition, arguing that “if nature is defined as a landscape uninfluenced by humankind, then there is no nature on the planet at all”.

This may be true. However, if we define nature as including humankind, the concept becomes so all-encompassing as to be practically useless.

As an ecologist, I consider humans to be embedded in nature rather than separate from it. This relationship does not disappear in an urban environment. For example, the food you eat, the paper you read and the energy you consume are all products of multiple interacting organisms and ecosystem services. But if we adopt this inclusive definition, it becomes impossible to identify anything on the planet that is not a part of 'nature'. In this case, an atom bomb becomes as 'natural' as an anthill.

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

Your Editorial comments that “Nature doesn't have to end if we stop defining it by humankind's absence”. The problem is that once we no longer define nature by our absence, the concept has no end.

Is there a better definition of nature?

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  1. Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen, PO Box 7805, 5020 Bergen, Norway

    • Fern Wickson


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