THE purpose of this website is no less than to promote a new discipline, a new way to study the relationship between us and nature “out there”, or perhaps more accurately stated, the relations between us concerning nature “out there”. I say “out there” since nature is commonly assumed to be external to us. The human-nature relationship is characterised by knowledge, innovation, manipulation, control, enclosure, wisdom, risk, unpredictability, ignorance, and sometimes violence. This is just as true now as it ever was despite our understanding in this present age being greater than it has ever been. The situation is complicated by the fact that while huge fortunes can now be made from the new "life technologies", the immensity of the gulf between what we know and what we realise is left to know concerning the workings of life at the cellular level has widened in the last few years.
Given this rather confused picture, and in the face of scientists' rapidly growing ambitions to modify, harness and synthesise living systems in unprecedentedly far-reaching ways, and growing financial investments and intellectual property claims in such work, it is high time that we had some serious reflection. Academically speaking this is a fascinating subject and merits serious investigation for no other reason than that it is interesting and fun to think, learn and write about. But it also gives rise to some very big questions. How should society respond? How far should such work be encouraged? What should good law and policy look like? Is the current scenario unprecedented, or have we been here before? And if the latter is the case, what lessons did we learn that could be applied to the present?
My starting point is the controversy surrounding biotechnology and the patenting of life forms. Rather than examine this subject in isolation through a mental microscope, perhaps we should try to stand back, a very long way back, and treat this as another episode in the long and continuing story of human striving to comprehend, control, cooperate and compete over the natural world. As the view expands before us so will our understanding and our ability to respond appropriately and effectively. We will learn about biotechnology and good patent and other regulatory policies. But we will learn so much more than this.
Graham Dutfield, 2009