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Reconciling Science and Nature by means of the Aesthetical Contemplation of Natural Diversity

Jorge Marques da Silva
p. 93-113


In questo articolo sostengo che, per mezzo del ruolo svolto dalle scienze ecologiche nella valutazione estetica ed etica della diversità naturale, sia possibile una riconciliazione tra scienza e natura. In primo luogo mostro che l’obiettivo della scienza – più precisamente, delle scienze naturali – è dominare la natura; e affermo che l’etica ambientale sia stata fondata al fine di supportare la protezione della natura dai pericoli derivanti dalla scienza. Mostro quindi che quando l’etica ambientale sia supportata dall’estetica ambientale, è possibile assegnare alla scienza un ruolo differente. Basandomi soprattutto sull’estetica filosofica di Allen Carlson, argomento che l’apprezzamento estetico della natura richiede una comprensione scientifica dei processi ecologici e, infine, faccio riferimento all’etica ambientale di Holmes Rolston per mostrare come il valore etico della natura possa derivare dalla peculiare valutazione estetica di Carlson.

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1. Modern science and morality

  • 1 For instance Marcuse 1964.
  • 2 Merchant 2008.
  • 3 Ibidem: 148.

1There is no doubt that Francis Bacon was a key figure in the rise of a noticeably modern scientific method. However, consensus is lacking in what regards his motivations to embrace the foundation of modern science. While most science historians1 argue that Bacon was explicit in framing scientific knowledge as power– underlining his characterization of knowledge through experimentation as entrapment, even the torture of nature to reveal her secrets, for the benefit of humanity – others deny that those were Bacon’s intentions2. Instead, they take the view that even though modern science is implicated in humankind’s domination of nature, this is fundamentally an avoidable misfortune of history. As Merchant puts it “The deeper roots of this divide lie in perceptions of the Scientific Revolution as a grand narrative of progress and hope versus one of decline and disaster”3. This divide proved to be lasting.

  • 4 Marcuse 1964: 23.
  • 5 Wolpert 2002: 969.

2Marcuse4 is among the first authors who thought about modern science inevitably leading to the domination of nature: “The industrial society which makes technology and science its own is organized for the ever-more-effective domination of man and nature, for the ever-more-effective utilization of its resources”. For Marcuse, therefore, the technological project of the domination of nature gave rise to a political project of the domination of man. He and other scholars read Bacon’s rhetoric and associated meanings harshly. Expressions like “Great Instauration of Man’s Dominion Over the Universe”, part of the title of Bacon’s work The Masculine Birth of Time (1862), fuel the thesis that Bacon aimed to enslave nature with his project of modern science. The impression that scientific knowledge is immensely powerful – and, therefore, potentially dangerous, is profoundly entrenched in our culture: “Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and in Milton’s Paradise Lost the serpent addresses the Tree as the ‘Mother of Science’”5.

  • 6 See, for instance Gammon 2010.
  • 7 Merchant 2008.
  • 8 Cf. Ferry 1995.
  • 9 Gammon 2010.
  • 10 Ibidem: 222.

3As mentioned, however, some authors do not consider Bacon’s project to be focused on the domination of nature6. According to these authors, the main objective of Bacon’s scientific enterprise was to recover the status lost when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Eden. The pathway to such recovery would stand in the questioning and cross-examination of nature. For Merchant7 this new narrative was made possible by the new mechanical devices of early capitalist society, the discoveries of the Americas, and most importantly for Bacon, a new experimental method based on the disclosing of the secrets of nature. The ideas associated with a magic nature and an organic worldview were gradually substituted by those that led to mechanical explanations for phenomena and the mechanistic worldview8. Nevertheless, albeit Bacon’s worldview was based on nature’s dominion by man with the aid of the new organ of science, when it comes to the relief of man’s condition he was at least as preoccupied with restoring the moral order as he was with increasing material comfort9. Even though Bacon’s natural philosophy was originally situated at odds with mainstream protestant theology, it acquired extensive influence over England’s different theological camps, forming the basis of a common intellectual milieu. Bacon’s intellectual descendants, most prominently the Irish chemist Robert Boyle and the English naturalist John Ray, “began advancing notions of design in nature, which spurred empirical investigation as a means of establishing unequivocal evidence of the divine efficient cause”10.

  • 11 This belief, in fact, was not entirely new: it is the core of the moral theory of natural law, whic (...)
  • 12 Gammon 2010.
  • 13 Boyle 1725: 133.
  • 14 Gould 2005.

4From the writings of these two authors emerged a providentialist interpretation of nature that fostered the belief that morality itself could be devised through the investigation of nature11. In particular, Boyle considered that a general providence (instead of an extraordinary providence, as is the case of miracles) worked towards the improvement of the human condition, in spite of apparent irregularities such as famine and illness12. Boyle wrote: “[…] it seems more allowable, to argue a providence from the exquisite structure and symmetry of the mundane bodies, and the apt subordination and train of causes, than to infer from some physical irregularities, that things are not framed and administered by a wise author and governor”13. The conception of a beneficent and moral nature gave additional incentive to natural theology and shaped scientific enquiry during the Enlightenment. For instance, Carl Linnaeus established the belief that nature is a form of moral acquaintance. While projected as a scientific discourse, Linnaeus’ work underlined the essential orderliness of the natural world and used this order to argue for the intelligence and perfection of God14.

  • 15 Gammon 2010.
  • 16 For instance Marcuse 1964.
  • 17 For instance Gammon 2010.

5The union of religious sects in Britain under a common intellectual context was not to endure. In the first quarter of the 19th century, natural theology would reach its zenith, with deep expectations of a new age of nature hampered by discoveries from geology. In the 20 years between 1820 and 1840, a succession of geological controversies led science to depart from natural theology, discarding the concept of nature as a moral guide in favour of a conception of nature as a corrupting power that must be dominated15. What essentially divides scholars is the historical moment where science became a project to dominate nature. Whereas some defend domination was the original intention of Bacon at the end of the 17th century16, others concede that such domination project only emerged with the fall of natural theology, in the first half of the 19th century17. Although there is agreement regarding modern society’s project of subjugating nature, a subsidiary question may be posed: was it science or was it technology that embarked on nature’s domination project? I will address this issue in the next section, clarifying the relations between science, technology, and technoscience, with an emphasis on biological sciences.

2. Science, technology and technoscience

  • 18 Wolpert 2002.
  • 19 Ibidem: 969.

6Science produces ideas about how the world works, whereas technology produces usable objects. While science is engaged in knowledge and understanding, technology’s goal is the application of knowledge to make something, to produce some good or service, in some practical way. In human history, technology far preceded science: the crafts of early humans, like agriculture and metalworking, were technological processes unaided by any science. Science made no real contribution to technology until the 19th century18, but since then virtually all technology has been scientifically based. Some scholars blame technology for nature’s dilapidation, while releasing science from any culpability: “It is technology that carries with it ethical issues, from motor cars to cloning a human. By contrast reliable scientific knowledge is value-free and has no moral or ethical value”19. This means that ethical issues only arise when scientific knowledge is transferred to technology.

  • 20 Bensaude-Vincent et al. 2011.
  • 21 Hottois 1990.
  • 22 Gelfert 2013.

7However, this vision of a morally praiseworthy science versus a morally wicked technology has been challenged since the middle of the 20th century. The argument was built around a new concept originally envisaged by Gaston Bachelard in 1953 and later developed by the Belgian philosopher Gilbert Hottois in the 70s and 80s: technoscience. Hottois’ central thesis is that it is no longer possible to distinguish between science and technology: scientific activity is strictly dependent on massive technological inputs and, more importantly, the scientific object has increasingly become the manipulated nature20. From the beginning, the paradigm of technoscience has mostly rested on the life sciences21 and this has been recently confirmed by the emergence of synthetic biology22.

  • 23 Costa et al. 2008.
  • 24 Coale et al. 1996.
  • 25 Casetta and Marques da Silva 2015.

8It may be argued, however, that not all life sciences are equal and that ecology – a scientific discipline that is central for my argument and which will be extensively referred to in the following sections – is at odds with synthetic biology, remaining essentially a non-technological science, based exclusively on a non-intrusive observation of nature. I will argue that this is an incorrect characterization of modern ecology. On one hand, even in the most traditional ecological science, understanding the functioning of the ecosystems implies very intrusive observations. For instance, understanding trophic relations in an estuary implies capturing a statistically significant number of fish and killing them to analyse their stomatal content23. Moreover, modern ecological science is increasingly experimental. Large scale ecological experiments, such the ocean iron fertilization project, may have a significant impact on ecosystems24. Therefore, ecology has acquired many of the characteristic of a technoscience. Likewise, genetics plays an increasing role in the understanding of ecological and evolutionary processes25 – and genetics is at the very heart of technoscience. In the next section, I show that the emergence of technoscience played a central role in the foundation of contemporary environmental ethics.

3. The origins of environmental ethics

  • 26 Hargrove 1996; Grusin 1998; Grove 1992 and 1995.
  • 27 I am using the term “landscape” thorough the text in a non-technical sense, referring to natural sc (...)

9Admittedly, the origins of western environmentalism and associated environmental ethics are complex. Some environmental historians, however, posit that European colonial expansion played a significant role along with later Westward migration during the colonization of North America26. In both events, it was the fascination of the unknown and pristine natural landscapes27, in contrast with the strongly anthropomorphised landscapes that were left behind, that woke up in the explorers the awareness of how deeply humankind is capable of negatively impacting the environment.

  • 28 See, respectively, Emmerson 2001; Thoreau 1962.

10It is worth noting that the role played by the appreciation of landscapes in the shaping of environmentalism and environmental awareness was two-fold: on the one hand, there was the difference between the new and the old landscapes, a difference that immediately highlighted mankind’s power to change natural environments. On the other hand, there was the beauty of the pristine landscapes – mainly of the tropical islands and, later, of the untouched landscapes of inner North America. Although describing the difference between landscapes requires a visual assessment without any need of an aesthetical appraisal, appreciating the beauty of pristine landscapes requires some kind of aesthetical appraisal of nature. In what relates to the colonization of the American West, transcendentalist poets and writers (Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Henry David Thoreau, among others28) provided accounts of this aesthetic appreciation of nature.

  • 29 Hargrove 1996.
  • 30 Rolston 1998.
  • 31 Cf. Callicott 1995.

11These events – the unravelling of a pristine nature during the exploration of both the tropics and North America – triggered an embryonic environmentalism which remained largely restricted to intellectual circles, namely the emerging scientific community29. Nevertheless, together with Darwin’s ideas and advancements in modern ecological science30, this tradition of thought paved the way to Aldo Leopold’s proposal of a Land Ethic, which persists as influential on contemporary environmental ethics31.

12The advent of environmentalism as a striking modern social movement is generally attributed by environmental historians to the so-called environmental crisis of the 1970s. This period contained a set of different events (warnings from the scientific community pointing to emerging environmental threats, the worldwide occurrence of major environmental disasters, and political and legal measures aiming to cope with these problems) which persisted through to the end of the 20th century. The 1962 edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book on the environmental problems caused by pesticides, particularly the effect of DDT on bird populations, is generally taken as the starting point of the 70s environmental crisis and therefore of the modern environmental movement.

13After having elucidated how the aesthetic appraisal of nature played a central role on the emergence of early environmentalism and associated environmental ethics, let us now see how environmental aesthetics evolved to supply an adequate theoretical framework for nature’s aesthetical appraisal.

4. Environmental aesthetics

14Four alternative models of aesthetic appreciation of nature will be briefly addressed to show that only one – Carlson’s Natural Environmental Model (NEM) – is able to provide the foundations of an aesthetics-based environmental ethics.

  • 32 See Fisher 2003.
  • 33 Carlson 2000.
  • 34 Such as, for instance, Carlson 1979.
  • 35 Carlson 2000: 34.

15The aesthetic appreciation of nature initially developed according to the canons of the theory of art, and was exclusively dedicated to the merely pictorial enjoyment of every kind of environmental object32. This perspective of scenic appraisal gave rise to the Landscape Scenery Model (LSM) of nature’s aesthetical appreciation33. According to LSM, nature is always seen from a specific standpoint and distance. Natural beauty should be appreciated as if it were a landscape painting. To achieve this, the world must be divided into scenes by selecting appropriate subject matter and viewpoint. Thereafter, the scene must be evaluated in terms of formal qualities such as line, colour, and design. Therefore, LSM critics34 argue that it does not appreciate nature on its own terms. It enjoys the way an artist looks at nature, valuing the artist’s sensibility instead of nature itself. Furthermore, by translating natural elements into a picture-like subject suitable for art criticism, it twists the true nature of the environment, constructing it as if it were a static and plain representation. On the contrary, as Carlson puts it, “[…]the natural environment is not a scene, not a representation, not static and not two-dimensional. The point is that the model requires appreciation of the environment not as what it is and with the qualities it has, but as something it is not and with qualities it does not have”35.

16A different approach is the Object of Art Model (OAM). Let’s consider a natural object, for instance, a nautilus shell: according to the OAM, its appraisal needs not to be significantly different from appreciating an artistic object. To begin, the observer must remove the object from its surroundings and transfer it to constructed environment (virtually or physically). Then, the observer must contemplate its formal properties and expressive qualities in the very same way he would contemplate a painting, a sculpture, or a design object. According to OAM, the nautilus shell should be appreciated for its graceful curves, expressiveness of delicacy, soft and subdued colours with swaths of silver and interesting spiralling design. We can call both LSM’s and OAM’s positions in environmental aesthetics as anthropocentric.

17But natural objects are different from art works. They are not artefacts, neither are they literally expressive or representative. Nature’s aesthetical appraisal, therefore, is probably not best accomplished by merely pictorial aspects and sheer visual enjoyment. Allen Carlson objected to the OAM’s treatment of natural objects as artistic ready-mades or found art. This attitude, he says, is better suited to art objects that are self-contained aesthetic units:

  • 36 Ibidem: 41.

In making an object we know what we make and thus its parts and its purpose. Hence in knowing what we make we know what to do with that which we make. In the more general cases the point is clear enough: in creating a painting, we know that what we make is a painting. In knowing this we know that it ends at its frames, that its colours are aesthetically important, but where it hangs is not, and that we are to look at it rather than, say, listen to it36.

18That is to say, the OAM applies to objects when neither their environment of creation nor their environment of display are aesthetically relevant. As such, the OAM unfairly limits the set of aesthetic qualities worth consideration and is inadequate for the aesthetical appreciation of natural objects.

  • 37 Capp and Mehlman 2005.

19Nevertheless, the aesthetical appraisal of nature under the OAM plays an important practical role, as it still is an aesthetical paradigm common to many nature supporters. Bird watching is paradigmatic of this model, as the main drive of the observer is to enjoy the beauty of individual birds. In the United States alone, 75 million people are engaged in bird watching and related activities, supporting local communities by spending over 28 billion dollars each year37. This is a powerful – albeit anthropocentric – contribution to biodiversity preservation.

  • 38 Casetta and Marques da Silva 2015.
  • 39 Ward 2002.
  • 40 Mann and Vanormelingen 2013.

20Science and technology may greatly increase the OAM dependent aesthetical appraisal of nature. Take, for example, a tree leaf (Figure 1A). There is beauty in the leaf: the midrib divides the leaf in two perfectly symmetric halves, the secondary veins are impeccably parallel and make an elegant angle with the midrib, and the oblong shape of the entire leaf is graceful. The vision of the leaf is enjoyable. But science and technology – in particular microscopy - may also improve our aesthetic experience of nature, unravelling its hidden pictorial beauty. In Figure 1B we can see a transversal cut of a leaf observed under light microscopy. There is beauty in the internal structure of the leaf: the upper and lower epidermis enclose the entire structure thereby transmitting a sense of shelter, the sponge mesophyll (round cells) transmit a sense of robustness which contrasts with the sense of fragility emanated from the palisade mesophyll (long cells), and the veins constitute focal points on the homogeneity of the internal structure of the leaf, looking as if they were microscopic sculptures. This beauty would never be revealed to human eyes if science and technology wouldn’t come together in the science and art of microscopy. This is particularly significant in what concerns the aesthetics of biodiversity. Although great uncertainty persists regarding the number of species on Earth38, a significant part comprises microorganisms39. Diatoms alone (a group of eukaryotic microalgae) possibly comprise at least 20 000 different species40. However, this overwhelming variety is totally inaccessible to our senses.

Figure 1

Figure 1

A) A leaf of laurel tree.

By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez. Picture distributed under a CC-BY-SA license
URL =​wiki/​File%3AFolla_Loureiro_015eue.jpg

B) A micrograph of a transverse section of a leaf of Ipomea (40x).

By John Alan Elson. Picture distributed under a CC-BY-SA license
URL =​wiki/​File:IpomoeaLeafcs40x1.jpg

  • 41 Vieira et al. 2013.
  • 42 See, respectively, MacIntyre et al. 1996 and Gordon et al. 2008.
  • 43 Ball 2013.
  • 44 Lydon 2003.

21If we look to a droplet of water (Figure 2A), all we can see is a small spherical object. We may perhaps find some beauty in it. For example, there is harmony in the roundness of its shape and we may find its translucent tone appealing. But most of its beauty can only be assessed at the microscopic level. In estuarine water dozens of species of diatoms may be found41. These organisms synthesize a silica-based cell wall (the frustula) – resembling microscopic glass structures – with very complex shapes and patterns, extremely diverse between species (Figure 2B-2C-2D). Biologists are well aware of the beauty of these organisms, as shown by the use of expressions such as the secret garden or glass menagerie42 in the title of scientific papers on diatoms. Therefore, science and technology have the gift to unravel microscopic beauty, allowing the aesthetical appraisal of hidden biodiversity. Still a distinct example of the unravelling of nature’s aesthetical value is the case of the DNA molecule. Besides the extraordinary technoscientific impact of the discovery of DNA structure43, the beauty of its delicate helicoid structure was also surprising44. However, we can only access the pictorial beauty of DNA indirectly, by observing the intricate molecular models that reproduce at the macroscopic scale the nanoscale reality – the DNA molecules themselves are too small to be seen by any optical microscope. Their structure was inferred by X-ray crystallography, a technique that at the very best provides “shadows” of the molecules. So, in this case, technology provided information on the molecular structure, upon which macroscopic molecular models were made, whose beauty – revealing the unseen beauty of the molecules – is appraised by the observers. These two processes – optical magnification and the indirect modelling of nanostructures - constitute significant ways in which science and technology may improve the aesthetical appraisal of nature.

Figure 2

Figure 2

A) Photograph of water droplets.

Picture distributed under a CC-BY-SA license
URL =​wiki/​File:Veetilgad.jpg

B) Micrograph of the diatom Tabellaria flocculosa.

From Proyecto Agua. Picture distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license
URL =​photos/​microagua/​3390830938

C) Micrograph of the diatom Diatoma hyemale.

From Proyecto Agua. Picture distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license
URL =​photos/​microagua/​3571287548

D) Micrograph of the diatom Fragilaria crotonensis.

From Proyecto Agua. Picture distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license
URL =​photos/​microagua/​9988562063

  • 45 Deep ecology is also refereed as transpersonal ecology (Fox 1990).

22Both LSM and OAM create an objectionable dichotomy between subjects (humans) and object (nature). To obviate this, Arnold Berleant (1994) proposes an Aesthetics of Engagement (AOE). For him, human beings should not try to isolate, detach, and objectify nature (e.g. by analysing it according to theory of art concepts) because humans are a part of nature, not a separate subject. Therefore, true aesthetic appreciation is achieved by total sensory immersion (visual, auditory, and tactile) in the natural environment until the subject/object distinction vanishes. The vanishing of the subject/object distinction immediately recalls Arne Naess’s deep ecology45, more precisely his ecological philosophy (Ecosophy-T). As Naess puts it:

  • 46 Naess 1973: 95.

Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favour of the relational, total-field image. Organisms as knots in the biospherical net or field of intrinsic relations. An intrinsic relation between two things A and B is such that the relation belongs to the definitions or basic constitutions of A and B, so that without the relation, A and B are no longer the same things. The total-field model dissolves not only the man-in-environment concept, but every compact thing-in-milieu concept – except when talking at a superficial or preliminary level of communication46.

  • 47 Rolston 1995.
  • 48 “Radical holism […] is the assumption that the embeddedness of organisms in their ecological matrix (...)

23Criticisms of the AOE such as Rolston47 claim that the AOE seems to suggest that our commitment to the natural environment cannot (or should not) rise above the level of simple sensuous experience - and this demeans nature’s importance. Furthermore, they believe that aesthetic theory is critical in moving people to care for the environment, mere sensory experience being too feeble a basis for any real environmental ethic; and the subject/object distinction being valid and required: the individual is not separate from nature (not a strict dichotomy), but the individual is not identical to nature either. This position seems to bring the critics of the AOE close to the position of the environmental ethicists that envisage a well-being holism, as opposed to those who portray a radical holism48 such as deep ecologists.

24Carlson’s proposal for the aesthetic appraisal of nature is the Natural Environmental Model (NEM). He claims that it uses the general structure of aesthetic appreciation from the OAM and LSM to account for appreciation of the natural world, but does not assimilate natural objects into art objects or natural environments into scenery. In art, knowledge of the artist’s intention, art history, materials, and methods form the background for aesthetic appreciation. But nature has no intention. In the NEM, scientific knowledge (especially ecology, but also other biological disciplines, such as plant physiology) forms the background for what is relevant to aesthetic appreciation. Let’s return to the leaf in Figure 1. I have argued that we can aesthetically enjoy the external morphology of the leaf, as well as its internal structure, accessed through optical microscopy. But our aesthetical experience of the leaf may be greatly enhanced if we are aware of the fantastic processes occurring in the leaf: chlorophylls capturing photons emitted by the sun, electrons running to produce energy, enzymes using that energy to bound atmospheric carbon dioxide and water to produce sugar – photosynthesis in action to feed (almost) the entire biosphere. The awareness of these processes can be provided only by scientific knowledge, which, therefore, is essential to aesthetic awareness of our environment.

25In the first section I argued that science was born as an enterprise to dominate nature, an aim that was resettled with the emergence of technoscience. Then, I argued that environmentalism and environmental ethics were a response against the threatening of nature posed by technoscience and that the aesthetic appraisal of pristine nature played a significant role in the emergence of environmentalism and correlated environmental ethics. Throughout this section, I came to demonstrate the importance of a specific theoretical model – distinct from the art theory – for the aesthetical appraisal of nature. Moreover, I showed that science has a pivotal role on the aesthetic appreciation of nature. In the next section, I will follow Rolston in bringing together aesthetics and ethics, showing how, from a scientifically based aesthetics, ethical values may emerge.

5. From aesthetics to ethics: the role of biodiversity and ecological science

  • 49 Leopold 1989: 224.
  • 50 Varandas 2015.

26There is no doubt that the appreciation of pristine landscapes was a motivator for environmental stewardship. Aldo Leopold’s foundational work on environmental ethics A Sand county almanac, explicitly addresses beauty as a key element of nature valuation: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community”49. Leopold, however, did not formally suggest the aesthetical model that should be applied to nature in order to properly capture its beauty. Neither did he address the main problems of nature’s aesthetical appreciation discussed in the previous section, his mention to beauty remaining elusive. He just set a general picture which was detailed and formalized in Allen Carlson’s NEM and developed by Holmes Rolston50. What is to be analysed in the remaining text, is how environmental aesthetics may set up the theoretical foundation of environmental ethics, instead of remaining only as an additional motivation for environmental preservation. Furthermore, it is worth highlighting the role played by ecological sciences, on one hand, and by biodiversity, on the other hand, in such theoretical foundations of nature’s value on the basis of aesthetical appreciation. But, before entering into the core of the issue, let us first spend some time addressing the meaning of biodiversity.

  • 51 See Haila and Kouki 1994; Van Dyke 2008.
  • 52 See Takacs 1996.
  • 53 Wilson 1988.
  • 54 Yankelevich 2007.
  • 55 DeLong 1996.

27The origin of the neologism biodiversity is not consensual51, but most scholars credit biologist Walter G. Rosen for blending the expression biological diversity to tag the National Forum on BioDiversity organized in 1986 by the National Research Council of the United States52. The term was envisioned as a watchword to draw attention and monetary support to fight the rapid decrease in the number of species. In the beginning, the term biodiversity was, implicitly or explicitly intended to refer to the variety of species. The biologist E.O. Wilson, in his contribution to the proceedings of the National Forum53, explicitly paralleled the amount of biological diversity with the number of species and the loss of diversity with their extinction. The use of the word has increased dramatically from the end of the 20th century in the popular press, governmental and intergovernmental reports, scientific papers and meetings54, and with it, difficulties in defining biodiversity arose55. Here we make reference to a very broad definition of biodiversity as the diversity of life – standardly considered at three different levels, namely genes, species, and ecosystems – on Earth.

28Biodiversity plays a key role in Carlson’s and, mainly, Rolston’s environmental aesthetics. To highlight the limitations of the OAM, Carlson at first uses as an example of a natural object, a rock, although he as well mentions driftwood. And he also refers to geologic dynamic processes:

  • 56 Carlson 2000: 44.

Consider again our rock: on the mantel it may seem wonderfully smooth and gracefully curved and expressive of solidity, but in its environment of creation it will gave more and different aesthetic qualities - qualities that are the product of the relationship between it and its environment. It is here expressive of the particular forces that shaped and continue to shape it and displays for aesthetic appreciation its place in and its relation to its environment56.

29But then he moves to more biodiverse examples:

  • 57 Ibidem: 50.

Consider different natural environments. It seems that we must survey a prairie environment, looking at the subtle contours of the land, feeling the wind blowing across the open space, smelling the mix of prairie grasses and flowers. But such an act of appraisal as little place in a dense forest environment. Here we must examine and scrutinize, inspecting the detail of the forest floor, listening carefully for the songs of birds, and smelling carefully for the scent of spruce and pine57.

  • 58 Take the example of charismatic species such as giant pandas, tigers, and elephants: they are almos (...)
  • 59 Cf. Rantalla 1994.

30Carlson is essentially concerned with the aesthetical appreciation of nature – not directly with its ethical valuation. Bridging aesthetics with ethics was the commitment mainly of Holmes Rolston. Nature conservation is, of course, dependent on the given interest in nature: people will fight only for what they care for. The appreciation of natural beauty seems to be a prima facie appropriate basis for the conservation of nature58. Nonetheless, an immediate problem arises: we do not all enjoy all nature as equally beautiful, or as beautiful at all. We may be impressed by the magnificence of a mountain, but be bored by the monotony of a steppe-like plain. Aesthetic appreciation, therefore, may provide the motivation to protect some natural elements, but not others. A second problem arises from the subjectivity of aesthetical appreciation: if some of us enjoy the magnificence of a mountain, others might be overwhelmed by its power. We do not all evaluate the aesthetic characteristics of natural objects in the same way, which means that not only do we attribute an aesthetical value to different things, but we can also evaluate the same things differently. This brings us back to a classic and fundamental question in aesthetics: is aesthetical value inherent to the object, or is it a faculty of the observer? If the aesthetical value is not in the object, and the aesthetical value is the sine qua non condition for our caring about nature, then the motivation for nature preservation is lost. As seen above, this perspective was challenged by Arnold Berleant’s Aesthetics of Engagement. For Berleant, the environment is a complex network of relationships, connections, and continuities of the physical, social, and cultural conditions that affect the observer’s actions, responses and awareness. Thus, immersion in the natural environment merges the observer with the object observed59. The mode of engagement Berleant advocates, however, is also distinctly non-cognitive in that he does not use a guiding narrative the way Carlson uses science, as also seen above.

31Holmes Rolston, whose argumentation we will now analyse, is a reputed environmental ethicist committed to using environmental aesthetics as a foundation for environmental ethics. Rolston, as Berleant, also vehemently denies the nature-observer dichotomy but does so using cognitive arguments. He starts by expanding the arguments of Carlson for stating the differences between art and nature:

  • 60 Rolston 2002: 129.

Nature is a living system: animals, plants, species, ecosystems, and any analogy to art radically misunderstands wild nature. An art object is inert, it has no metabolism, no vitality, no regeneration, no trophic pyramids, no succession, no evolutionary history. One is not in community in a museum. In a landscape, one is in biotic community. Treating nature as though it were found art will misuse such nature60.

32Here Rolston focuses on the concept of system and recalls biodiversity elements such as species and ecosystems. Biodiversity is also present in concepts such us trophic pyramids, succession and evolutionary history.

  • 61 Ibidem: 130. Or, reframing the question at the light of the Aristotelian potentiality principle: na (...)

33Getting back to the problem of the allocation of beauty, it is worth asking if it is in the object or in the observer. Rolston defends a relational perspective – the beauty is in the object in a latent state that manifests only with the observation of the observer: “There is aesthetic ignition when humans arrive, the aesthetics emerges relationally with the appearance of the subject-generator”61.

  • 62 Rolston 2002: 132.

34In which way does this relational perspective of aesthetical appreciation of nature affect nature’s valuing? Does it decrease nature’s value, turning it in a mere receptacle which only acquires value when humans interact with it? Isn’t the generalization of this relational perspective to all kinds of values – not only the aesthetical ones – hampering us from recognizing the existence of value effectively residing in nature? To answer these questions, Rolston introduced an important distinction between aesthetical capacities – the capacities that allow the enjoyment of aesthetical experiences, which reside entirely in the observer – and aesthetical properties – which belong, objectively, to natural entities: “The experience of beauty does arise in the beholder, but what is this experience of? It is of form, structure, integrity, order, competence, muscular strength, endurance, dynamic movement, symmetry, diversity, unity, spontaneity, interdependence, lives defended, coded in genomes, regenerative power, speciation, and so on”62. These aspects (structure, integrity, order, etc.) are there and they are the product of evolution and the organization of ecosystems. Aesthetical fruition by the observer is supported by the characteristics of the objects:

  • 63 Ibidem: 133.

To put this provocatively, the world is beautiful in something like the way it is mathematical. Neither aesthetic experience (in the reflective sense) nor mathematical experience exist prior to the coming of humans. Mathematics and aesthetics are human constructs; they come out of the human head and are used to map the world. But these inventions succeed in helping humans to find their way around in the world because they map form, symmetry, harmony, structural patterns, dynamic processes, causal interrelationships, order, unity, diversity, and so on, discovered to be actually there63.

  • 64 Leopold 1989: 96.
  • 65 Rolston 2002: 139.

35Therefore, with this argumentation, Rolston presents a solution to the problem of the ontological status of aesthetical value in nature: the value is there, but it is our role to unravel it. Then, he turns – largely taking Carlson’s point of view – to the important problem of the differing aesthetic appreciation of different natural elements: the contention that there are aspects on nature that we perceive as beautiful (probably, as seen above, because they encompass a set of aesthetical parameters valued by the theory of art), but there are other aspects of nature that we perceive as obnoxious. Rolston presents an example of an impala chased by a lion: there is beauty in the hunting scene – strength, speed, agility, power. Then, the impala is captured and the horror overwhelms – desperate bleating, blood, exposed viscera. Rolston, as Carlson, attributes the different appreciation of these two situations to an inadequate appreciation of environmental aesthetics, exclusively done in the light of the theory of art. Rolston and Carlson both accept, as a point of departure, the aesthetic appraisal of nature as if it was an art object but they follow Leopold’s view regarding the necessity to proceed through different stages of beauty, to reach different values: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language”64. These putative values would be the ones able to foster the true aesthetical appraisal of nature (according to Carlson’s Natural Environmental Model) that, in the previous levels of appreciation (according to the Landscape Scenery Model and the Object of Art Model), we were not able to grasp. This true aesthetic appraisal would result from the comprehension of non-visual properties of nature such as evolutionary forces, adaptation, etc., – a set of properties closely dependent on biodiversity. It is this appreciation of what is not manifest that Beckert (2007) calls the aesthetics of the invisible. But this seems to reinforce the role of the observer: his role is no longer just to ignite the intuitive aesthetic appreciation of nature, the observer must also have knowledge on the biology and ecology of what he observes. In this way, the observer goes from a purely pictorial to an eminently conceptual aesthetical appraisal, in accordance with Carlson’s Natural Environmental Model. Strikingly, this conceptualization of aesthetic appreciation goes side-by-side with a deeper living experience, demanding a physical emersion of all senses in nature. According to Rolston and Carlson, in doing so, we move away from the field of art. Maybe it is so in what concerns more conventional forms of art, but it does not seem to be the case if we also consider some contemporary art movements. For instance, in Dada and in arte povera there seems to be no way of aesthetically appraising art objects without considering the concepts behind their production. Furthermore, while Carlson’s and Rolston’s appeals to scientific knowledge for the enhanced aesthetic appraisal of nature are related to scientific concepts (evolutionary forces, trophic chains, ecosystems’ energy fluxes) I believe that technoscience plays a more direct role in nature’s aesthetical appraisal (under the Object of Art Model), as it has the power to unravel the hidden pictorial beauty of natural elements, as seen in the previous section. Anyway, it is precisely from this specific capacity for an aesthetic appreciation of nature that, according to Rolston, value emanates – nature, considered this way, deserves respect: “So now the paradox deepens: just this being drawn out of ourselves into this autonomous nature, out there independently of ourselves, commands respect and responsibility, and we find ourselves reformed, with deeper identities than we had before”65.


  • 66 I am indebted to the anonymous photographers that allowed the free use of images under creative com (...)

36In the process of deriving ethics from aesthetics, Rolston starts to mention the psychological urge to preserve beauty. Then, asking where beauty is, he shows that beauty is in nature, addressing conceptual beauty and rejecting the merely pictorial aesthetic appreciation of nature, as Carlson suggested, and incorporating biological and ecological knowledge in the process of aesthetic appreciation. This type of beauty resides in the natural world and equates to intrinsic value, imposing duties and stimulating nature conservation. Therefore, science plays a central role in environmental ethics – a role at odds with the domination of nature project ascribed to Bacon66.

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1 For instance Marcuse 1964.

2 Merchant 2008.

3 Ibidem: 148.

4 Marcuse 1964: 23.

5 Wolpert 2002: 969.

6 See, for instance Gammon 2010.

7 Merchant 2008.

8 Cf. Ferry 1995.

9 Gammon 2010.

10 Ibidem: 222.

11 This belief, in fact, was not entirely new: it is the core of the moral theory of natural law, which states that the moral standards that govern human behaviour are, in some sense, objectively derived from the nature of human beings and the nature of the world (Rachels 1993)

12 Gammon 2010.

13 Boyle 1725: 133.

14 Gould 2005.

15 Gammon 2010.

16 For instance Marcuse 1964.

17 For instance Gammon 2010.

18 Wolpert 2002.

19 Ibidem: 969.

20 Bensaude-Vincent et al. 2011.

21 Hottois 1990.

22 Gelfert 2013.

23 Costa et al. 2008.

24 Coale et al. 1996.

25 Casetta and Marques da Silva 2015.

26 Hargrove 1996; Grusin 1998; Grove 1992 and 1995.

27 I am using the term “landscape” thorough the text in a non-technical sense, referring to natural scenery; in this sense, landscapes played a major role in environmental aesthetics, where one of the first models of aesthetical appreciation of nature was the picturesque (Batey 1994).

28 See, respectively, Emmerson 2001; Thoreau 1962.

29 Hargrove 1996.

30 Rolston 1998.

31 Cf. Callicott 1995.

32 See Fisher 2003.

33 Carlson 2000.

34 Such as, for instance, Carlson 1979.

35 Carlson 2000: 34.

36 Ibidem: 41.

37 Capp and Mehlman 2005.

38 Casetta and Marques da Silva 2015.

39 Ward 2002.

40 Mann and Vanormelingen 2013.

41 Vieira et al. 2013.

42 See, respectively, MacIntyre et al. 1996 and Gordon et al. 2008.

43 Ball 2013.

44 Lydon 2003.

45 Deep ecology is also refereed as transpersonal ecology (Fox 1990).

46 Naess 1973: 95.

47 Rolston 1995.

48 “Radical holism […] is the assumption that the embeddedness of organisms in their ecological matrix serves to essentially erase the individual […]. Well-being holism […] is the metaphysical/ontological assumption that individual organisms are intricately entwined within a matrix larger than either their individual selves or the biotic community collectively” (Nelson 2010: 44).

49 Leopold 1989: 224.

50 Varandas 2015.

51 See Haila and Kouki 1994; Van Dyke 2008.

52 See Takacs 1996.

53 Wilson 1988.

54 Yankelevich 2007.

55 DeLong 1996.

56 Carlson 2000: 44.

57 Ibidem: 50.

58 Take the example of charismatic species such as giant pandas, tigers, and elephants: they are almost always aesthetically pleasant and they rise by far most conservation concerns among the public, becoming flagship species of the conservationist movement (Morse-Jones et al. 2012).

59 Cf. Rantalla 1994.

60 Rolston 2002: 129.

61 Ibidem: 130. Or, reframing the question at the light of the Aristotelian potentiality principle: nature has the potential of beauty which is made actual by the human observer (Cohen 2012).

62 Rolston 2002: 132.

63 Ibidem: 133.

64 Leopold 1989: 96.

65 Rolston 2002: 139.

66 I am indebted to the anonymous photographers that allowed the free use of images under creative commons licences.

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Indice delle illustrazioni

Titolo Figure 1
Legenda A) A leaf of laurel tree.
Credits By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez. Picture distributed under a CC-BY-SA licenseURL =​wiki/​File%3AFolla_Loureiro_015eue.jpg
File image/png, 496k
Legenda B) A micrograph of a transverse section of a leaf of Ipomea (40x).
Credits By John Alan Elson. Picture distributed under a CC-BY-SA licenseURL =​wiki/​File:IpomoeaLeafcs40x1.jpg
File image/png, 1,8M
Titolo Figure 2
Legenda A) Photograph of water droplets.
Credits Picture distributed under a CC-BY-SA licenseURL =​wiki/​File:Veetilgad.jpg
File image/png, 1,8M
Legenda B) Micrograph of the diatom Tabellaria flocculosa.
Credits From Proyecto Agua. Picture distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licenseURL =​photos/​microagua/​3390830938
File image/png, 796k
Legenda C) Micrograph of the diatom Diatoma hyemale.
Credits From Proyecto Agua. Picture distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licenseURL =​photos/​microagua/​3571287548
File image/png, 841k
Legenda D) Micrograph of the diatom Fragilaria crotonensis.
Credits From Proyecto Agua. Picture distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licenseURL =​photos/​microagua/​9988562063
File image/png, 853k
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Notizia bibliografica

Jorge Marques da Silva, «Reconciling Science and Nature by means of the Aesthetical Contemplation of Natural Diversity »Rivista di estetica, 59 | 2015, 93-113.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Jorge Marques da Silva, «Reconciling Science and Nature by means of the Aesthetical Contemplation of Natural Diversity »Rivista di estetica [Online], 59 | 2015, online dal 01 août 2015, consultato il 18 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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