Charles M. Haynes
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


  1. To familiarize students with some of the challenges with which modern biotechnology confronts wild nature.

  2. To encourage students to examine nature in terms of ethical duty.

Intended Audience:

Grades 9-12 and above; Biology, Sociology, Bioethics


Recent biotechnology advances suggest that it will be quite possible in the not too distant future for science to transcend many, if not all, natural processes. Consider the following:

Companies like Monsanto and Calgene, Inc. are on the verge of marketing genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant plants that can grow in the presence of amounts of herbicides that world harm or kill non-tolerant plants.

The production of larger than normal sport and food fishes (carp and trout, for instance) through transgenic techniques promises an end to animal protein shortages.

Growth hormones synthesized by biotechnological means will improve farm animal productivity.

Advances in tissue culture techniques promise the mass production of entomopathogens (microorganisms that infect harmful insects.)

Genetically engineered microorganisms can attack and break down lignocellulose for the benefit of pulp and paper industries, thus obviating the need for their natural counterparts.

Plants may be engineered to produce perfumes, flavors, and non-nutritive sweeteners.

It may be possible in a few years to engineer the aggressiveness out of grizzly bears.

In fact, if British biotechnologist John E. Smith is correct, the bioengineering potentials in agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, and aquaculture seem virtually unlimited.

Which brings us to question the relevancy of wild nature. (By "wild " is meant that unruly characteristic of plants, animals and other organisms to develop and interact according to natural Darwinian principles, too often it would seem, without human wants and needs in mind.) Given the near exponential growth of biotechnology research, development and application, might humans in a few years begin to view wild nature as irrelevant and unnecessary or�given the rather nasty proclivity of untamed nature to misbehave�even undesirable? The question is not as rhetorical as it might seem at first glance, given the many of our present individual and societal views of nature depend upon the assumption that wild nature has some forms of utilitarian value to us individually and collectively, and some level of intrinsic worth as well.

And what would such a paradigm shift in our natural view mean to wild nature itself? Might it not come to be seen as a competitor much as weeds, parasites and many predators and so-called "rough" fish are seen now? Of what value would be vexatious wild trout if the hatchery truck can provide us with ready-made, suicidal genetic giants? Will we care very much about stream habitat improvement or the protection of wilderness areas? Would the putative value of cancer fighting alkaloids from tropical rainforests (and thus the rainforests themselves as repositories of these agents) be diminished if the drugs can be produced in bulk by transgenic enteric bacteria? Might not our concern for endangered species and endangered ecosystems�indeed our very view of Leopoldean stewardship and nonmaleficance�ultimately give way?

Modern biotechnology, therefore, challenges our very view of nature - thus our assumptions of ethical duty toward it.


A copy of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac containing the essays "Wilderness" and "The Land Ethic" (or photocopies) for each student.

One copy of this case study per student


  1. Have students collect newspaper and magazine clippings that relate biotechnology to the environment. This activity can persist for 5 days with each student collecting 2 news clipping per day. Remind students that they are to search out factual articles only, not editorials, letters to the editor, or syndicated columns expressing the opinion of the writer. For each 2 articles, students should complete a NEWS CLIPPING SUMMARY FORM and submit it daily to be checked off.

  2. Have students work in SMALL GROUPS of 4 or 5. Each group should prepare a summary of the articles submitted by individual members for presentation to the class.

  3. Prepare a class list of the ways in which biotechnology and nature confront each other.

  4. Returning to small groups, have students read Leopold's essays. Students should read in rotation and each take notes as the reading progresses. Have them then prepare a collaborative summary of the major points of the essay containing a list of the values the Leopold ascribes to nature. A group reporter should present their summary to the class.

  5. Returning to small groups, have students prepare a collaborative answer to the question � "Do we really need wild nature?" The group reporter should present the group's answer to the class.

  6. In a CLASS DISCUSSION format have students prepare a class policy on the relationship of humanity to wild nature. Alternatively, this may be done in small groups or individually. If individually, students should not be required to declare their policies.

References and Resources:

Altieri, D. 1992. Biological Current Events. Paper presented at The Woodrow Wilson Institute on High School Biology (Bioethics), July 5-31. Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. 5 pp.

Ehrenfeld, D. 1972. Conserving Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 360pp.

Goldburg, R., J. Rissler, H. Shand, and C. Hassebrook. No Date. " Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest: Herbicide-Tolerant Crops and the Threat to Sustainable Agriculture." 4 pp.

Jennings, B., K. Nolan, C.S. Campbell, and S. Donnelly. 1990. New Choices, New Responsibilities: Ethical Issues in the Life Sciences. A Program for High School Biology Courses. The Hastings Center, Briarcliff Manor, NY. 132 pp.

Leopold, A. 1968. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There . Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 226 pp.

McKibben, B. 1989. The End of Nature. Anchor Books, New York, NY. 226 pp.

Smith, J. E. 1990. Biotechnology (2nd Edition). Edward Arnold Publishing, London, UK. 130 pp.

NAME ___________________________
DATE ___________________________


"Do We Really Need Wild Nature?"


Write a succinct summary of your first article below.

List 3 reasons why you think this article relates to biotechnology and wild nature.


Write a succinct summary of your second article below

List 3 reasons why you think this article relates to biotechnology and wild nature.



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