Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Human nature

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 09 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7280
  1. Julian Sheather, senior ethics adviser, BMA
  1. jsheather{at}

How useful are considerations of “nature” and what is “natural”? Julian Sheather reflects on two recent books

“Human nature,” declares a deliciously regal Katharine Hepburn in the film The African Queen, “is what we are put on this earth to overcome.” Hepburn clearly had in mind our “fallen” nature—our tendency to sin—and its moral disciplining. In these secular times, though, the question of what we mean by “nature,” human and non-human, and how far it can and should be overcome, is one of the urgent questions of our time. Looming environmental catastrophe; the degradation of the world’s natural resources; the decimation of species; in one understanding of the word, “nature” is everywhere in flight before us: “the end of nature” as the environmentalist Bill McKibben warned in his book of that name as long ago as 1989.

Running counter in some respects to the prophets of loss are the evangelists of technology. Technology may have bought us to the lip of disaster, but technology will just as soon redeem us. Hasn’t scientific agriculture forestalled Reverend Malthus’s gloomy predictions of mass starvation brought on by a ballooning human …

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