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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Denaturing nature : philosophical and historical reflections on the artificial-natural distinction in the life sciences Inkpen, S. Andrew


The philosopher Georges Canguilhem observed that the “physician’s thought and activity are incomprehensible without the concepts of the normal and the pathological.” I argue similarly regarding the biologist, only it is “the artificial” and “the natural” that are indispensable. Whether it is their objects of study, the methods used to investigate those objects, or even fellow researchers, biologists have habitually classified aspects of their discipline in a way that reflects the artificial-natural distinction. Why this way of classifying? What purpose does it serve? What principles guide its application? With what repercussions? Tracing the transformation of these concepts through a series of historical episodes, I explore the reasons why biologists use this distinction and how it has influenced the practices and directions of certain biological fields—specifically evolutionary biology and ecology. The argument of this dissertation is that in biology decisions concerning the choice and evaluation of experimental and evidential practices, objects of study, and even assessments of scientific personas betray the artificial-natural distinction. Invocations of this distinction, like the normal-pathological, code normative contentions about proper biological practice. “The natural,” I argue, often functions as an epistemic authority. The methodology I employ in this dissertation is conceptual and historical. The arguments marshalled are supported by conceptual-philosophical analysis, close readings of primary texts, and archival work. In the end I aim to problematize a set of widely invoked, but heterogeneously used, biological concepts. My arguments undermine a commonplace view according to which the collapse of the artificial-natural distinction is a prerequisite for contemporary science. This distinction is not, I argue, an outdated, pernicious relic; it has continued to exert a significant influence on scientific practice, and should not be ignored.

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