On Being ‘Liberated’ from Nature
A speech delivered at the Art Worker's Guild, London, on the 25th September 2023.
Progressive arguments for IVF, surrogacy and other reproductive technologies like artificial wombs are increasingly motivated by the idea that we can, and that women especially should, be “liberated from nature”. This is pertinent to our discussion this evening, because I believe we ought to address not only the political and legal implications of these developments, but also the philosophy behind them. Where does this imperative to be liberated from nature originally come from; how has it evolved over time; and where could it ultimately lead?
The idea of humanity’s liberation from nature - and its logical extreme in the form of transhumanism - seems to be a uniquely Western phenomenon. This might be a historical accident, or just a symptom of a decadent society. But it could also be a consequence of a very specific doctrine which is unique to our civilization: that is the doctrine of Original Sin. Christianity is unique in its idea that nature is fallen. Whereas in many primitive spiritualities, nature is revered as divine, Christianity posits that the natural world, like mankind, bears the burden of Adam’s sin; it has fallen from an original, perfect state, which was not affected by mutations and environmental disasters and pain during childbirth. In this view, nature has been corrupted, and so is now full of these things.
But, another doctrine unique to Christianity is the idea that that fallen nature can be redeemed; that there is a possibility, through our faith in Christ, for us to get back to that perfect, prelapsarian state. Traditionally, it was believed that such a state could only be fully attained in the afterlife. During the European Enlightenment, however, we start to see attempts to replant the garden of Eden in the here and now, and a tendency towards what that the 20th Century philosopher Eric Voegelin called “immanentising the eschaton” – that is, trying to bring that utopia into the immanent world.
One of the most important figures in this respect is the 17th Century philosopher Francis Bacon. Bacon believed that prelapsarian man’s relationship with nature in the garden of Eden was characterised by his control over it. Following the fall, however, man lost this control, and nature fell into a state of chaos, accounting for the world of discomfort and disease in which we now live. Bacon thought it was possible for man to return to this prelapsarian state, within this life, precisely by reclaiming it. This, he believed, could be advanced through technology. Bacon’s theory of scientific experimentation entailed developing devices and methods that allow us to, in his words, “harass” and “torture” nature so that we may uncover its secrets and then reconquer it. He pleads, in the New Organon: “just let man recover the right over nature which belongs to him by God’s gift, and give it scope; right reason and sound religion will govern its use.”
We can see, then, how out of this dual doctrine of both the fallenness and potential redeemability of nature through the works of man, we arrive at this notion of our domination through technology. Technology that makes life ever more convenient for us by effectively “hacking” nature and human biology is really a legacy of this Baconian attempt to immanentise the eschaton - to accelerate mankind’s return to a painless, perfect state, where we are not burdened by our physical condition, but in complete control of it.
Yet there are obviously major divergences between this idea as it emerges within a Christian context and how it has transformed in a post-Christian one. In the theistic framework, the project of reclaiming nature is really about redeeming it to its original, God-given state; even though it recognises that the world is fallen, it still ultimately upholds the idea of divine design, and so it does not seek to use technology towards an end that violates that design. It is not transhumanist, but humanist, because it actually affirms our embodied condition as men and women who have been made is His image, and seeks to optimise our inbuilt capacities, including conception through the union of man and woman. Even someone as radical as Bacon is not gnostic, and indeed he makes it clear that his project of reclaiming nature must be governed by “sound religion”.
With the secularisation of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the original idea of redeeming nature has mutated into something quite different. We now have advanced technology, but no longer are we guided by a divine ideal of how men and women were originally created in God’s image; and this is because our culture now rejects, if not actively despises, such an ideal altogether. Michel Foucault claimed that the very notion of a divine order of nature with which human beings are supposed to align is a social construct. Claims of the “normative”, the “natural” and the “healthy”, he said, are really attempts to impose a singular standard onto our bodies in the interests of, of course, power. And so the limitations of nature are now not just an inconvenience but a hegemonic structure that has been erected by those in control. Once God is removed from the picture, and the very idea of Capital-C Creation has been “deconstructed”, the originally Christian notion of dominating nature transforms into the political imperative of being liberated from nature.
It is at this point that an idea which was originally Christian and humanist transforms into something gnostic and transhumanist. We now believe that we have the right to use technology to completely remake ourselves, not in the image of God but in the image of our own desires. The very notion of design, and with it the idea of human teleology - according to which the happiness of men and women resides at least partly in the fulfilment of their biological functions - is now violently rejected. In true postmodern fashion, we have become incredulous towards any grand narrative of the "natural". And so, in 2023, we see articles with headlines like “Preferring Biological Children Is Immoral” - this was one that appeared in Wired just last month, which tries to claim that wanting to conceive naturally is a kind of biological “supremacy”. And we are accused, if we suggest that there is an imperative for a woman to carry the child that has been conceived inside of her, of being a “forced birther”. It’s as if nature itself is now a hegemonic order from which we must be liberated through technology.
An even more extreme example is the Marxist feminist writer Sophie Lewis, who wrote a book provocatively titled “Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family”. In it, she argues that women should be completely liberated from the reproductive process - which she dysphemistically calls “gestational labour” - because this in itself is a form of patriarchal, capitalist oppression. Being a crude materialist, Sophie Lewis can’t see the spiritual dimension of childbirth as part of a woman’s divine purpose or telos. So she proposes that we use technology to bring about “full surrogacy” through the use of artificial wombs in a “queer gestational commune”. She doesn’t seem to care how starkly her idea of utopia resembles Huxley’s Brave New World; the most important thing to her is that we “liberate” women from not just all social but also biological constraints. Like pro-abortion activists, she is of the view that we have a right to use technology to circumvent our natural functions, because the very fact that we are born with them is a kind of oppression in itself.
At a theological level, such a worldview is an assault on Creation; at a practical level, it is downright dangerous. Something just as troubling, though, is the fact that it doesn’t actually promise liberation at all. These people think that using technology to overcome our human nature is a radical move towards our total freedom. But they forget that modern capitalist society - the very society that they claim to oppose - has long benefited from the disembodiment of human beings and the denial of our nature.
In the early 2000s, the Polish Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observed how, whereas in the 20th century those in power would exert control over human bodies from within society - the kind of capitalist control we associate with the Fordist factory owner - those in the new age of technology and globalisation exert control precisely by dissolving the bonds that hold those societies together. This is because atomised individuals, in turns out, are much easier to manipulate. Bauman described this new age as “liquid modernity”; liquid because it “melts” away the organic structures - those of family, community and place - that make us human, and which would act as a vanguard against total managerial control. Once these structures are dissolved, we become a global mass of transactional, interchangeable consumers. In this society, Bauman says, “anonymous forces” can covertly control us under the guise of personal freedom and democracy.
Now, the natural family is an obstacle to liquid modernity’s project of dissolution, because the natural family roots and ties us to particular places and people. Long gone are the days when it was actually in the interests of capitalism to promote it; now, it is in its interests to offer “assisted” fertility and family planning so that employees can remain unmoored and accountable only to them. Whether it's Amazon funding abortions for its female employees or BlackRock offering egg freezing packages, major corporations obviously now benefit from these technologies.
The denial of and supposed “liberation” from our human nature, then, is not an escape from capitalist control, but quite the opposite: it engenders precisely the kind of atomised society that benefits those in power. By disembodying women especially - denying them their natural biological functions - third parties can assume full control over them, and, thanks to third-wave feminism, they can do so under the guise of “equality” and “empowerment”. In other words, we are given the illusion of freedom whilst becoming gradually accustomed to a dependence on technologies which extend managerial control over every aspect of our lives.
But we can go deeper than this still: the danger of denying human nature - our need for roots and families - is not only that it makes us susceptible to these exploitative powers, but that it denies us an aspect of our nature which is essential to human flourishing. Unmooring sex from reproduction devalues both, and further diminishes the sanctity of life; from the sexual market of Tinder to choosing your child’s genes from a catalogue, human beings themselves are rendered fully transactional. Nothing, I think, could be less empowering.
The most empowering thing we can do, I believe, is restore a vision of Creation in which all human beings have been divinely fashioned with distinct and particular purposes. And while it is true that we are more than just our biological functions, we must affirm these because fulfilling those functions, if Aristotelian teleology is anything to go by, is necessary to our eudaemonia or flourishing. We must resist liquid modernity by solidifying the bonds of community and family, and affirming our embodied nature. We will not reach utopia by trying to refashion human beings in a radical new image, for all too often that image will be made at the hands of corporations who do not have our best interests at heart. Attempts to immanentise the eschaton in this life, it seems - contra Francis Bacon - are making us even less in control. And so, instead of trying to liberate us from ourselves, we ought to seek liberation to be ourselves.