CRISPR as Niche Construction: an Aristotelian View

CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) is part of a system, noticed in certain bacteria, by which a cell can make changes in strands of DNA. This mechanism appears to be a proto-immune system: it enables a bacterium to recognize the DNA of an invading virus, and then to disable that DNA by cutting it. Scientists have harnessed the system to manipulate the genome of other cells. They can, in effect, turn a particular gene off to test its function, or, if that gene is known to produce an undesirable trait, to eliminate it. Further, they can employ the system to insert new genetic material, causing the expression of desirable traits. (For good explanations see the videos below: on the left is a brief overview, on the right is a longer presentation by Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of the technique.)

(For other descriptions see this episode of Radiolab; this story from The New Yorker; this story from National Geographic; and this story from PNAS.)

CRISPR has generated excitement—and concern—over the prospect of human intervention into fundamental biological processes; it has been likened to a “word processor” for genomes. Though there are many other applications, e.g. in medicine, the deployment of CRISPR in agriculture is well underway, for example in the development of crops that are drought or disease resistant (see this story by Maywa Montenegro on ENSIA). This is perhaps the most obvious way to make the connection between CRISPR and this blog’s ongoing exploration of niche construction.

Niche construction is the set of activities by which a species interacts with its environment to fashion conditions it needs to survive, thereby influencing the pathway of its own evolution. Agriculture is one of humanity’s central modes of niche construction, and a central agricultural strategy is domestication: the modification of plant or animal species to make them contribute more readily to human survival. CRISPR seems like the final stage of domestication: it seems to promise the relatively fast and inexpensive modification of species to meet human specifications.

The application of CRISPR is likely to strike some readers as creepy at best, if not indeed dangerously hubristic—the latest step in the human domination of nature. It seems to express the anthropocentric attitude that nature is there “for us” as human beings—not only at the macro-level of landscapes we modify and meso-level of individual organisms we consume, but even at the micro-level of the workings of the genome itself.

Historian Lynn White famously associated anthropocentrism with Judeo-Christian doctrine (see this post by Stephen Weldon). But there is another ancient text that also seems to justify human domination—Aristotle’s argument that nature specifically provides plants and animals to human beings:

we may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man. (Politics I, sec. 8)

Aristotle seems, that is, to invoke a kind of natural teleology, or explanation in terms of innate purposes, that might be seen as justifying human use of other species—which are there precisely “for” that purpose. That is the kind of justification that seems to be presupposed in the application of CRISPR.

Philosopher Mariska Leunissen offers a reading of Aristotle, however, which suggests that we are mistaken if we take him to imply, for example, that the physiological processes by which a plant produces its fruit are “aimed at” human nutrition. The purpose those processes serve is intrinsic to the plant—it is the plant’s own reproduction. This is a matter of what Leunissen calls “primary teleology.” However, in practicing agriculture, human beings make use of the plant’s physiological processes for their own purpose of feeding themselves. Thus, they impose a “secondary teleology,” in virtue of which we can say that the plants also serve the (secondary) purpose of feeding human beings.

Leunissen characterizes secondary teleology as “external” to the entity being put to use. There is indeed a goal-directed material process that explains the presence of a field of crops—but that “cause is represented by external agents, that is, by human performers of the art of agriculture” (Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle’s Science of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 38). The goal that is causally explanatory here is the good of those external agents. But this is to say that Aristotle denies that the goal of benefiting humans is somehow present in the crops themselves. “The structures and uses we impose upon natural things through the application of art are always . . . secondary to their own proper natural ends. Nature is not itself anthropocentric; we just use natural things to our own benefit” (op. cit., p. 39).

This distinction between primary and secondary teleology is the basis for Leunissen’s reinterpretation of the passage from Aristotle quoted above. Rather than revealing Aristotle’s belief that nature in some fundamental sense is “made for” human consumption, she holds, the passage reveals Aristotle’s articulation of a specifically human outlook. “The teleology that accounts for the use human beings make of other living beings is therefore secondary: it reveals the perspective of the user, who makes use of what is provided by nature for his or her own good” (op. cit., p. 41, emphasis added). Nature is not “made for” human beings—it only looks like that from the human point of view.

I will return in a moment to this idea that secondary teleology is perspectival. First, though, let me note two ways Leunissen’s reading of Aristotle connects with niche construction.

On the one hand, human niche construction activities can readily be construed as the human imposition of secondary teleology on natural processes. In Leunissen’s words, “human beings are often beneficiaries of natural processes . . . [in virtue of] human art that appropriates those natural processes to serve human ends” (43). But “human art” relies on humans’ cognitive capacity to discern the workings of primary teleology. CRISPR is a paradigm case; its application in agriculture, for example, rests on the ability to understand the biological processes through which organisms attain their purposes, so that those “primary” processes can be made to serve humans’ “secondary” purposes. This example shows how cognition is essential to humans’ capacity to construct their niche. But, as I discussed in an earlier post, Steven Pinker argues forcefully that cognition indeed defines the very character of the niche humans construct.

On the other hand, however, CRISPR also demonstrates that human niche construction can, so to speak, go “deeper into nature” than the primary/secondary teleology distinction initially suggests. For, it can involve more than the diversion of the products of primary teleology from their “natural” ends to human ends—e.g. harvesting the fruit from a tree. Beyond that, CRISPR makes more feasible than ever before the reengineering of primary teleological processes themselves, to make their products conform to human ends. It is not just that humans harvest the fruit—they “program” the tree to produce fruit according to their specifications. In a sense, then, human beings are able to do more than simply use the products of independent nature for their own benefit; they can, in a sense, make nature anthropocentric. Or at least some of it—the part incorporated into the niche they construct. For that is what niche construction involves: a niche is engineered by a given species to yield what that species requires.

But even if we think of secondary teleology as something like the replacement of natural ends with human ends, the lesson Leunissen draws is still important. Again, she holds that secondary teleology is not a feature of nature itself, but instead reveals a perspective on nature, taken by human beings as users of nature (either of natural products or processes). Nature is not in a fundamental sense “for humans,” except from a peculiarly human point of view.

I think that this idea raises deep moral questions, in particular if our discomfort with human domination prompts us to repudiate anthropocentrism. But is it possible for us to abandon that human point of view? Anthropocentrism as a claim about nature, justifying its domination by human beings, can meaningfully be rejected. But what would it mean to reject anthropocentrism as the way human beings see nature? In particular, what other way do human beings have of seeing it? Can we cast off our perspective, and adopt a kind of non-specific (non-species-based) “view from nowhere?” But could that view be the view of a creature embedded in nature—a creature that survives in virtue of its metabolic interactions with a material environment? If that’s indeed what human beings are, can they sustain a point of view that does not represent nature as useable? And if a way of characterizing human beings as natural is to note the status they share with other organisms as niche constructors, can they do other than to materialize that point of view by re-making nature, to make it more useful?

(My thanks to Sevcan Gugumcu for bringing Mariska Leunissen’s work to my attention.)

Cities as Human Niches: Against the ‘Natural City’

We welcome to the blog Nir Barak, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The city is in some sense our niche; we belong there, and no one can achieve full humanity without it. (Holmes Rolston III[1])

In this post, I want to turn our gaze to cities as the paradigmatic embodiment of niche construction in the Anthropocene. I wish to outline Continue reading

Stewarding the planet? The Anthropocene and nondualist ontologies

We welcome to the blog Luigi Pellizzoni, of the University of Trieste, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The ontological claims embroiled in the notion of the Anthropocene have so far attracted less attention than other issues. However, as I will try to show, it is important to engage in a thorough reflection on them—which I hope to kick start with the following contribution. Continue reading

Interdisciplinarity as conversation

This blog is premised on the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the Anthropocene—indeed, to the general question of human beings’ relationship with their environment. And it aspires to embody a certain conception of interdisciplinarity—one which uses conversation as a model for the interaction among people from diverse intellectual backgrounds. Continue reading

Governance in the Anthropocene: The Role of the Arts

We welcome to the blog Marit Hammond, of Keele University, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The sea around the Brindisi industrial zone is contaminated with toxins and carcinogens, threatening the sea urchin and mussel populations that are farmed in this area. © Environmental Resistance,

The sea around the Brindisi industrial zone is contaminated with toxins and carcinogens, threatening the sea urchin and mussel populations that are farmed in this area. © Cerano Power station outflow, from the No Al Carbone series, Environmental Resistance, 2015.

Continue reading

The Anthropocene Idea: Janus-Faced and Interdisciplinary

We welcome to the blog John Meyer, of Humboldt State University, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

I’m very pleased to contribute to this collection of posts about the challenge of the Anthropocene for environmental political theory (and vice versa). I want to reflect upon two widely espoused Continue reading

Historicizing the Anthropocene: A Peek at Paris

Historians love questions of dating and chronology, and there are two questions about dating the Anthropocene. First, stratigraphy and other sciences have been searching for physical evidence for when Continue reading

Decolonialism and democracy: on the most painful challenges to anthroponomy

In my last post I argued that anthroponomy should be our regulative ideal in our collective responsibility as humankind for our planetary environment.[1] Now I want to ask what major obstacles stand in its way. The ones that are most familiar in environmental political theory are, Continue reading

“Advances in restoration ecology: rising to the challenges of the coming decades”

Perring, M.P. et al. 2015. Ecosphere, 6(8): art. 131.
Simultaneous environmental changes challenge biodiversity persistence and human wellbeing. The science and practice of restoration ecology, in collaboration with other disciplines, can Continue reading

A moral cartography for the Anthropocene

We welcome Manuel Arias Maldonado, of the University of Malága, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This post summarizes an argument in his recent book Environment & Society: Socionatural Relations in the Anthropocene (Springer, 2015).

If the Anthropocene were just a scientific category dealing with natural phenomena, we would not feel so concerned about it. But, as Mike Ellis and Zev Trachtenberg have rightly argued, the Anthropocene is not Continue reading

Surviving the Anthropocene Part 2: Of Omega Points and Oil

My previous post lamented the flawed presentation of climate change at the David Koch-funded Hall of Human Origins and suggested that a spiritual-scientific ideology, traceable in part to Teilhard de Chardin, infuses the Smithsonian’s Human Origins initiative and related events. In this follow-up, I take a closer look at this ideology and its connection to broader currents in contemporary evolutionary thought and the Anthropocene. Continue reading

Surviving the Anthropocene: Big Brains and Big Money at the Smithsonian

We welcome Lisa Sideris, of Indiana University, as a guest on the blog . . . click for her bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This is the first installment of a two-part post; please come back again Friday for the conclusion.

In late May this year, two related attractions drew me to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C.  One was an ambitious-sounding Continue reading

“The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis: A Biography of an Ingenious Species”

R. DeFries. 2014. New York: Basic Books.

The human species has long lived on the edge of starvation. Now we produce enough food so that all 7 billion of us could eat nearly 3,000 calories every day. This is such an astonishing transformation as to Continue reading

The real inconvenient truth?

This will not be a very scientific post, but it is also not a rant. I am trying to understand something: why is there so little large scale planning and discussion about the inevitable and grave consequences of climate change?

There is a surprising amount of Continue reading