TSElosophers meeting 7.10.2021. Andrea Mariani, Elina Järvinen, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Milla Unkila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl, Toni Ahlqvist.

Thiele, L. P. (2020). Nature 4.0: Assisted evolution, de-extinction, and ecological restoration technologies. Global Environmental Politics, 20(3), 9-27.


The Earth is 4,5 billion years old, and life on it around 3,7 billion years. Mammals get to spend their 200-million-year birthday, whereas hominids have been around mere 200 000 years. We Homo Sapiens managed to conquer the competition around 30 000 years ago, tamed the dog to help us 20 000 years ago and figured out farming 12 000 years ago (Dasgupta review 2021).

Everything preceding the use of tools and farming Thiele dubs Nature 1.0. It’s the state of the nature without the touch of humans. Nature 2.0 emerged as humans started to tinker with their environment, to plow fields, set up irrigation, to domesticate kettle – to build cities, roads, energy infrastructure, to extract minerals, to dig oil. While still a shorter period than the previous, Nature 2.0 has existed notably longer than Nature 3.0 that started mere decades ago: “It is chiefly characterized by the capacity for the accelerated, nonincremental, and precisely controlled modification or creation of life-forms and their environments. The primary Nature 3.0 technologies are nanotechnology, geoengineering, and biotechnology.”

In the article, Thiele discusses the implications of Nature 4.0, the potential next step in this trajectory. While utilizing the technologies designed during Nature 3.0, the distinction emerges from the motivation underpinning their use. Nature 3.0 is all about pleasing humans, whereas Nature 4.0 is about attempting to turn the tide of biodiversity loss of our making. We now have the technology to modify the habitats we once destroyed to recreate bounded ecosystems, to tinker with genes to bring back the passenger pigeon we hunted to extinction, to artificially engineer species that tolerate the changes we made to the biosphere in Nature 2.0 and 3.0.

In sum, we might be able to bring back the woolly mammoth and many other species. But the focal question Thiele asks is, should we, given that the potential risks of Nature 4.0 may be huge and the unpredictable consequences irreversible?

Our discussion

In discussing the article, the TSElosopher camps of using either the big or the detailed brush re-emerged. For some of us, the accuracy of the examples given in the article was of lesser value than the overall message the article carried, whereas for others, the lack of accuracy in detail made the overarching message less convincing. We all agreed that the article indeed gives food for thought.

Have we humans really come so far in our destruction of the biosphere that the only means to conserve and restore its livability (first to other species and then to ourselves) is to start artificially modifying species, habitats and natural processes? How should we evaluate the risks of releasing artificial DNA to natural processes? With the fallibility of technologies that seldom work exactly as envisioned in the designing phase, what kinds of Pandora’s boxes will we be unleashing when creating species or habitats that natural evolution did not account for?

If this is not yet the case, what could be done? We discussed the proposition by Dasgupta to re-envision nature as an asset, to be included in the accounting of the types of capital we possess. However, despite some support for this solution in TSElosophers, there were two criticisms. First and foremost, fixing the problem of valuing money over everything else through endowing also nature with price tags is a bit like fighting fire with oil. In other words, trying to solve the serious problems caused by Modernism, inserting more Modernism. Instead of assessing nature in monetary terms, we should instead do more to make people take its intrinsic value seriously – not all that counts can, or should be (ac)counted. The second criticism was born out of the first one: fighting the problems with the same mechanisms that caused them can only succeed in postponing the inevitable. We could all agree that the more responsible avenue is to try to work towards a paradigm shift in terms of the fundamental values and our anthropocentrically selfish and myopic life-style we adhere to already today – although ‘the Modernists’ in us would couple this approach with letting the economy treat nature as an asset.

While the description of both the past deeds of humans and the possibilities we now have at our perusal evoked sentiments of doom and gloom, not thinking about the choices we are currently making is not an option. We perceive human nature as such that the curiosity of driving natural scientists to uncover all that is humanly possible is seldom balanced with the patience of thinking through the implications of using all technologies we potentially could wield. We discussed that it falls for us social scientists to stay updated about the developing technologies and to take an active role in thinking through what of the things we could, should we actually be (not) doing.

As we humans are not exogenous to the nature, but a part of it, it can be viewed that all the tools and technologies we have designed and all actions we’ve taken, are due to the evolutionary processes that made us what we are. As humans we are predestined to be the representatives of our species and to act as the types of animals we are – to seek shelter, sustenance and comfort with all the means we have at our disposal, just as do any other animals. Hence, isn’t it just a fluke of evolution that made us capable of changing our environment more than the beavers or ants can, is it?

As the type of animal we are, we are capable of both destruction and creation beyond the possibilities of other species. The very interesting question therefore is, which of these sides of humanity, the destructive or the creative prevails when we are faced with the scale of changes we have wrought to the biosphere maintaining also our lives? Is our collective survival instinct strong enough to turn the tide of destruction? Because ultimately, though we are a tougher breed to kill than even rats or cockroaches, the kind of biodiversity that existed when humans evolved is still necessary for our survival.

We need the type of air to breathe that the Amazonia produces us, and the type of water to drink as gets filtered by untarnished soil, and dependence on technology to produce these comes with unimaginable uncertainties. The attempt to apply Nature 3.0 technologies to support assisted evolution and de-extinction leads to ethical and practical questions of considerable importance both in positive and negative terms. And yet at the end, we can ask ourselves, if the so called ‘unnatural’ human made artifacts are actually very natural and very normal part of evolution on this planet?