The Natural World: What is it?

What is the natural world?  That's not as simple a question as it may seem, but it's an important one.


The 'natural world', for most people, probably refers to life on earth - animals and plants, and the environment they live in. Wildlife and wild places, in other words, or perhaps just about anywhere that remains unexploited or unspoilt by human behaviour; such places, in an increasingly crowded world, are rightly regarded as ever more precious.

But it starts to get a bit more complex if  you include a number of things that, while not living at all, are nevertheless still very much part of the natural world: the land itself, the oceans, lakes and rivers, the atmosphere. All may or may not support life, but the fact that the earth had no life at all for the first few billion years of its existence made it no less natural than now.

It would be simple to qualify our definition of the natural world to mean land or water that is not exploited in ways that significantly alter its character, such as by being farmed, built upon or used as a dumping ground. That paints an appealing picture, but leads to an immediate conclusion: that both urban development and modern agriculture are not natural. But if that's the case it means that we humans - in many ways the most successful life form that ever existed - are not natural either. That surely cannot be right!

So how to square the circle here - natural world v. unnatural? I'd like to clarify what I mean, since it's the key element around which this website will evolve.

The fact is that you and me, dear reader, are equally a part of the natural world, whether we live in a remote log cabin in the middle of a vast forest, or an apartment in the centre of a great city. It doesn't matter if you're interested in animals and plants or not, whether you know what many of them they look like, or where they live, the key point is that all life is interconnected, including us.

Whoever you are, whether you live in town or country, whatever you eat - it doesn't matter. You are a part of the natural world. Like all life on earth, you evolved. You share many of your genes with plants, and a majority of them with our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. As Professor Richard Dawkins puts it: we are all African apes - amusing, but true.

The importance of this is that many people live, and our leaders too often behave, as if material progress and economic growth are all that really matter. It's as though 'the natural world is somehow separate, a place removed from everyday life, a kind of playground to be visited in our leisure hours for rest and recreation, or watched with wonderment on TV - and then forgotten about until the next time.

But the natural world isn't remote at all, even if it seems that way to the majority now living in urban environments. We depend on it utterly, and its health is essential to our survival as a species. It follows that we need to do whatever we can  - much more than we are now, and I hold my hand up to that too - to make our leaders realise that we are all a part of it, and to think and plan longer-term for its protection, sustainability and survival.

So to return to the opening question, 'what is the natural world?', the answer is that this website will treat it as being about wildlife and the environment, about conservation and ecosystems, and all the rest - yes, of course.

But also, crucially, about its most powerful and dangerous inhabitant, us: Homo sapiens, the only surviving human species.