Nanotechnology and Nature
On Two Criteria for Understanding Their Relationship
Abstract: Two criteria are proposed
for characterizing the diverse and not yet perspicuous relations
between nanotechnology and nature. They assume a concept of nature as
that which is not made by human action. One of the criteria endorses a
distinction between natural and artificial objects in nanotechnology;
the other allows for a discussion of the potential nanotechnological
modification of nature. Insofar as current trends may be taken as
indicative of future development, nanotechnology might increasingly use
the model of nature as a point of orientation, while many of its
products will continue to be clearly distinguished from nature.
Keywords: nanotechnology, concept
of nature, laws of nature, life, artificial life.
The relationship between nanotechnology and
nature does not presently admit of uniform description. By way of an
introductory presentation of the problem, I would like to sketch a
provisional characterization based upon central aspects of
nanotechnological and natural objects respectively. Nanotechnological
objects rank among those technically produced objects that emerge from
processes "that exhibit fundamental control of the physical and
chemical attributes of molecular-scale structures" (Stix 2001, p. 9).
Nanotechnology brings with it the possibility of a precisely
projectable alteration of nature on the scale of molecules.
Nanotechnology comprises not only the manipulation of natural
molecules, but also the creation of molecules not found in nature. In
this sense, molecules or other objects are natural if they are not
produced through human action.
The multifariousness of the relationship
between nanotechnology and nature is expressed in the fact that some
nanotechnological objects are clearly distinct from comparable natural
objects, while others are identical to natural objects. I shall begin
with some examples of non-natural nanotechnological products,
recognizable – as is the case with other products of human action – by
their obviously artificial origin.
- For medical purposes, certain molecules are synthesized
that are designed to direct medicine to particular parts of the body,
and which – as far as is known – do not exist in nature.
- The production of materials by means of nanotechnology is
of interest to the materials sciences because these materials possess
characteristics (e.g. firmness) that make them more suitable for
the fabrication of macroscopic products than those made from natural
- Miniscule electrical and mechanical systems are to be
constructed analogously to larger systems utilized today, which are not
modeled upon natural patterns.
Nano-products that do not exist in nature form
an artificial world whose relationship to nature is problematic. On the
one hand, uncontrolled releases from such nano-objects could constitute
a new dimension of life-threatening pollutants. On the other hand, it
cannot be ruled out that even the controlled insertion of non-natural
nanoproducts into nature – particularly into the human body – may
entail substantial risks. In both cases these dangers would be linked
to the extreme minuteness and to the reactivity of these products. They
may enter biotic systems deeply and irreversibly, affecting life
functions not positively but deranging or destroying them with lethal
effects. Compared to previous conventional macroscopic technologies,
nanotechnology relates differently to nature inasmuch as it can affect
the functionality of natural systems on the smallest scale.
Nanotechnology, however, does not only create
an artificial world that is distinct from nature. It also relates to
natural processes and materials in a new way. In
this respect it is difficult to separate it from nature. Here, too, I
would like to give some examples.
- There is hope that the development of nanotechnology may
not only permit the production of artificial made-to-measure materials,
but also improve conditions for the perfect artificial reproduction of
substances that can only be derived from nature through difficult
- In the bottom-up-production of materials, nanotechnology
already uses techniques of self-organization – which are similar to
processes that appear in nature (e.g. the spontaneous creation
of GaAs-quantum points).
- On the product level, there are nanotechnological systems
in which objects of biotic origin are used. Since the functions of such
objects are partly independent of their origins, the characterization
with which we began is a problematic basis for distinguishing between
nature and nanotechnology. DNA-molecules, for example, are utilized in
electronic components. Other nano-products are to have new kinds of
biocompatible (e.g. coatings of artificial joints) or
bioanalogue (e.g. hydrophobe) features.
Nanotechnological products and techniques that
are closely related or even identical to natural materials and
processes may cause just as much harm to nature as those that are
clearly distinct from nature. For instance, the degree to which an
artificially produced substance is life threatening is not clearly
related to the degree of its structural similarity to natural
substances. To mention another example, the introduction of
artificially produced nature-identical substances into natural cycles
can lead to considerable interferences of these cycles. But despite
justified objections to the use of the model of nature as a point of
orientation, there is still hope that the dangers of nanotechnology
could be reduced by an increasing proximity to nature.
The practical relevance of the dangers to life
processes that might emerge from nanotechnology constitute probably the
most important motivation for investigating the relationship between
nanotechnology and nature. But, with respect to a technology that
permits the synthetic production of nature-identical objects and that
is able on demand to execute minute changes in nature on the molecular
scale, the question of its relationship to nature emerges also in
theoretical terms. Is it at all possible to distinguish between nature
and technology if nature has already become technologically malleable
at the level of molecules? Can nature – if it is distinguishable from
technology at all – set limits to technology? Against the background of
Western culture, where nature is conceived through its opposition to
technology, the importance of these problems cannot be overestimated.
While technology as a human creation is regarded as completely
transparent, a separate reality is ascribed to nature. The contrast
between technology and nature is to be considered most obvious in the
case of living nature – organisms are paradigmatic of a nature not
produced by human beings. Up to now, the concept of nature has had a
central function in shaping the Western worldview, which would be
undermined if it became impossible to maintain its difference from
But can these questions be answered if the
relationship between nanotechnology and nature is itself manifold? One
could be tempted to assume that a restriction of the term
nanotechnology would lead to a more unequivocal statement. But this
suggestion is rendered implausible by the fact that nanotechnological
research is still in its early stages. According to the unanimous
judgment of its analysts, most disciplines of nanotechnology have not
yet reached the stage of producing functioning technology, but are
still researching their object fields. There are
endeavors underway in various disciplines to shed light on the scarcely
analyzed structures of the nanoworld. Thus, a specification of this
term would only conditionally restrict the variety of disciplines
belonging to it. Nor is a reduction of the scope of the concept of
nature likely to clarify the different ways in which nano-objects are
related to nature. The concept of nature that I proposed earlier
corresponds – as I aim to show – to the common and justifiably used
conception of nature in nanotechnology. It allows different relations
to nanotechnology in general and in specific areas. Therefore, I would
argue that under the present circumstances the relationship between
nanotechnological and natural objects cannot be described in uniform
But the diversity of the relations between
nanotechnology and nature does not necessarily imply a diversity of the
criteria for describing these relations. Rather, I would assume that
the various relations can be characterized by a single set of criteria
that make it possible to give initial answers to the aforementioned
questions. In so doing, one cannot rely on the philosophical discussion
of nanotechnology, which until now has been poorly developed. The proposed concept of nature forms a proper
starting point, as it makes it possible to develop two basic criteria
for characterizing the relationship between nanotechnology and nature.
- First, the concept of nature as that which is not produced
by human beings suggests a criterion for distinguishing between natural
and artificial nanotechnological objects (Section 3).
- Secondly, this concept of nature makes it possible to
formulate a criterion for delimiting the scope of nanotechnology
The most important point in the discussion of
the relationship between nanotechnology and nature is the contrast
between nanotechnology and living nature. None of the known laws of
nature excludes the possibility that life could in the future be
produced artificially by means of nanotechnology. If the difference
between the objects of nanotechnology and those of living nature were
to be dissolved, it would be the most fundamental conceivable change in
the relationship between nanotechnology and nature (Section 5).
Before I expound these criteria, I would like
to elucidate the concept of nanotechnology with which I began in order
to clarify what aspects of it enter into a relationship with nature.
2. On the definition of nanotechnology
The initial understanding of nanotechnology is
only a part of a definition proposed by Mihail C. Roco, according to
which nanotechnological materials and systems have the following ‘key
properties’: "they have at least one dimension of about one to 100
nanometers, they are designed through processes that exhibit
fundamental control of the physical and chemical attributes of
molecular-scale structures, and they can be combined to form larger
structures" (Stix 2001, p. 9).
Nanotechnology is the application of
scientific knowledge for the purpose of producing such materials and
systems. In the present phase of investigating elementary conditions of
production, technological and basic scientific research are merging.
Wherever I do not explicitly differentiate between nanotechnology and
nanoscience, the term ‘nanotechnology’ includes nanoscience.
I want to adopt Roco’s definition and make two
additions. The first concerns the origin and purpose of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is – as all technology – a human affair. In this
respect, the relation of nanotechnology to nature is reduced to the
relation of human beings and their actions to nature. As a human
affair, nanotechnology is a cultural-historical phenomenon that uses
appropriate and knowledge-based ability in pursuance of objectives. The
concept of nanotechnology can only be used in an analogous or
metaphoric manner to describe non-human nature; strictly speaking,
there are no nanotechnological processes or products in nature. The
next section, however, will give some examples that show why not all
nanotechnologists would agree with this view.
My second addition concerns the relation of
nanotechnology to other technologies. By ‘fundamental control’ of
attributes, I understand a realization of desired attributes that goes
beyond the manipulation of already existing attributes. Here the
definition distinguishes nanotechnology from gene- and biotechnology
(which frequently deal with objects of a size above nanoscale). The attributes of gene- and biotechnological objects
are not produced but, rather, modified by exerting influence. Without
this distinction between disciplines, it would be impossible to
differentiate between the transfer directions of nanotechnology and
The definition does not rule out that biotic
materials or living beings could be produced in the future by means of
nanotechnology, nor does it deny the already existing transitions and
contacts between nano-, gene- and biotechnology. Its application to
current technological possibilities leads, however, to a division into
the mainly abiotic products of nanotechnology on the one hand, and the
mainly biotic products of gene- and biotechnology on the other. In this
respect, current nanotechnology is clearly distinct from a nature that
includes living beings.
3. Nature as that which is not produced by human action
As in the natural sciences and in most other
technological fields, fundamental categories like the concept of nature
are not a subject of discussion in nanotechnology. When they are
explicitly used, it is normally only in publications that address a
broader audience or the audience of other disciplines – and therefore
somewhat vaguely. The concept of nature takes on various meanings in
these contexts, which I assume are also relevant in scientific
practice. I have chosen three representative and electronically
accessible publications as examples and scanned them for appearances of
the term ‘nature’: the brochure Nanotechnology. Shaping the World
Atom by Atom, published by the National Science and Technology
Council (NSTC) in the US in 1999; the volume Understanding
Nanotechnology, compiled by the journal Scientific American
in 2001; and the Springer Handbook of Nanotechnology, published
by B. Bhushan in 2004.
An adjectival and a substantival usage can be
differentiated as the two primary meanings in these texts. These also
correspond to the two meanings of nature given in The New Oxford
Dictionary of English (without being labeled as such). The
adjectival usage describes "the basic or inherent features of
something, especially when seen as characteristic of it". A typical
example is, for instance, "the wave nature of electrons" (NSTC 1999, p.
1) or "the cyclic nature of this process" (Bhushan 2004, p. 156). Since
this meaning does not refer to specific properties and can only be
understood contextually, I will ignore it here.
The substantival usage is divided into an
extensional and an intensional meaning. Both can also be found in The
New Oxford Dictionary of English, although they are not labeled as
such. In its extensional meaning, nature refers to "the phenomena of
the physical world collectively […] as opposed to humans or human
creations"; in its intensional meaning, it is "the physical force
regarded as causing and regulating these phenomena". The extension
demarcates the scope of the concept negatively – namely, through the
contrast to human action. The intension, on the other hand, cites
properties – such as a physical force – by way of a positive
A typical example of the extensional
understanding is the reference, which appears in all three
publications, to "nature’s own nanotechnology, which emerged billions
of years ago when molecules began organizing into the complex
structures that could support life" (NSTC 1999, p. 1; similarly, Scientific
American 2001, p. 9; Bhushan 2004, p. 2). This understanding gives
rise to a distinction between natural and synthetic objects. Hence, we
learn, for example, "that nature constructs its objects" (Bhushan 2004,
p. 246), or that an artificially established function is "unprecedented
in nature" (Bhushan 2004, p. 283). The intensional usages differ from
the aforementioned encyclopedic notion in that the characteristics
given also include human action and their products. Thus, the NSTC
brochure quotes from Richard Feynman’s famous speech ‘There is Plenty
of Room at the Bottom’ (1959): "But we must always accept some atomic
arrangement that nature gives us" (NSTC 1999, p. 4). In the same vein,
Michael L. Roukes refers to the concept of nature by stating, "Nature
has already set the rules for us" (Scientific American 2001, p. 32).
These examples are the product of an intuitive
technological understanding of nature, according to which nature is a
resource for the realization of human purposes. With respect to
conceptual precision – which, admittedly, is not decisive in the
context of these publications – it leaves much to be desired. Part of
the terminological haziness is also due to the ambiguity of the concept
of technology, which is not consistently opposed to that of nature but,
rather, partly transferred to natural processes. Furthermore, relations
between intensional and extensional meanings of nature are not taken
into account, and there is no criterion for distinguishing between
natural and artificial objects. These desiderata can be attained by
specifying more precisely the concept of nature I proposed earlier.
The concept of nature that I am going to
elaborate follows the intuitive understanding of nature by assuming a
positive characterization not of nature, but of human purposes: nature
is that which is not made by human action. This concept is distinct
from traditional definitions, which attribute positive attributes to
nature – such as self-movement in Aristotle, or expansion in Descartes. I use the expression ‘not made by human action’ in a
narrow and in a broad sense. While the narrow sense refers to objects
whose existence does not originate in human action, the broad sense
describes the empirical content of laws of nature – which is not at
humans’ disposal – and thus comprehends
predetermined conditions to which human action is subjected. In this
section I focus on the narrow, in the next section on the broad sense.
In view of the sophistication of today’s
technology, scientific methods are required to determine whether an
object owes its existence to human action. Thus, I would like to
introduce an epistemic criterion according to which an object is
natural if it is impossible with all scientific methods available at a
given time to detect that it was produced by human action;
alternatively, an object is to be defined as artificial if it can be
scientifically demonstrated that it was produced by human action. This
criterion makes the distinction between natural and artificial objects
an empirical matter, subject to experimental methods of assessing the
naturalness of technological products – similar to the Turing-test of
artificial intelligence. An artificially produced
object would therefore belong to nature if all scientific methods
available at a given time could not succeed in distinguishing it from
an identical natural object. This application of the criterion presumes
of course all knowledge about existing natural objects.
I want to elucidate this criterion by
appealing to some examples: according to this criterion, the atoms
dealt with in nanotechnology are natural if they stem from natural
substances or if it becomes impossible scientifically to ascertain
their artificial origin. Insofar as natural substances are designed
differently in nanotechnology than in nature, nanotechnological
products are always hybrids of nature and art. The criterion does not
challenge the naturalness of an object merely if it is influenced by
human action. Thus, atoms do not lose their naturalness because they
must first be isolated in order to be assembled in a different pattern.
As for this assemblage, it is possible to distinguish several ways in
which an influence can artificially be exerted. A weak form of
influence would be to create the appropriate conditions under which a
process of synthesis would run independently. Processes of
self-organization in the production of quantum points are a good
example of this form of influence. Production
that requires a special operation at each step represents a stronger
form of influence. This applies, for example, to the movement of atoms,
which M. Eigler used in 1989 to produce the IBM-logo in nanoscale.
The criterion can be applied to all of the
examples that I mentioned earlier in order to illustrate the difficulty
of distinguishing between natural and artificial objects. According to
the criterion, if nanotechnology succeeds in constructing perfect
replicas of naturally existing molecules, they should be considered
natural the moment when their artificial origin ceases to be
demonstrable (e.g. when mingled with the corresponding natural
molecules). Each component of self-organizational processes that are
used in the production of nano products and each property of completed
nano products can be assessed to determine whether it is natural or
artificial. Nonetheless, the application of the criterion is not
unproblematic. Artificial properties may, for instance, unknowingly be
added to a substance when it is extracted from its natural environment.
It may appear odd that nanotechnological
objects, e.g. synthetic molecules, should lose their artificial
character the moment they cease to be (scientifically) distinguishable
from natural objects. However, this not only corresponds to traditional
concepts of nature and to current linguistic
conventions in nanotechnology (as discussed above), but also reveals
the point where the distinction between human-made products and nature
I suspect, though, that most nanotechnological
objects are still distinguishable from natural objects and will
continue to be in the near future. I see three reasons why the
artificial character of nanotechnological objects should remain
apparent for the time being. First of all, the focal point of
nanotechnology is to produce artificial objects that are more useful
for human purposes than natural ones. Since these objects are intended
to differ in their effects from natural objects, they can be expected
to remain distinguishable from them. Secondly, the scientific methods
of revealing an object’s artificial origin are so sophisticated that
they would probably still be able to identify an artificial object even
if it were very similar (not identical) to equivalent natural objects.
Thirdly, there is still a clear difference between nanotechnological
and natural processes, as I shall illustrate in Section 5, where I
discuss the example of living nature
This epistemic criterion builds upon the
narrow understanding of nature as that which is not produced by human
action. It inquires into the genesis of any produced object, but
unfolds its efficacy only when it becomes problematic to ascertain an
object’s artificial origin. Nanotechnological objects provide
characteristic examples. By having the greatest possible influence on
the properties of its materials, nanotechnology can blur the traces of
its interventions to the most comprehensive extent.
4. The lawfulness of nature in the nano world
In this section, I will return to the broad
sense of the term ‘nature’. It does not necessarily refer to the
genesis of objects, but generally to those regular properties that are
beyond human influence, and which sciences express as laws. Natural
laws represent the universally valid expression of the conjunction of
conditions under which an event or a state regularly obtains.
As revisable, mostly mathematical
constructions, natural laws are human-made. True observational
statements, however, which are predicted by these laws and constitute
their empirical content, refer to the natural prerequisites of human
action. Hence, their truth does not depend on the specific experimental
conditions under which the corresponding phenomena are produced or
discovered. The empirical content of the laws of nature delimits the
scope within which nanotechnology can unfold its potential.
Between nature in this sense and
nanotechnology, there is a certain tension, which has recently been the
subject of discussions about the potential of human constructions on
the nanoscale. Particularly at issue are physical and chemical laws,
which must be taken into account in planning nanotechnological
constructs. In the following, I will focus on physical laws, which present
plans have to take into consideration. In the next section I will move
to discussions of technological constructs (e.g. Eric Drexler’s
assemblers) whose future conditions of realization are
A large portion of the current projects in
nanotechnology are designed to advance the miniaturization of
technology. This tendency is especially strong in electronics (Fahrner
2003, p. 1-3). Nanotechnological constructions are to reproduce
traditional electronic components (switches, diodes, transistors, etc.)
on a nanoscale. One main goal of this effort is to open up new
dimensions of data processing, namely through the storage of large
amounts of data in the smallest possible space (e.g. the British
Library in a sugar cube). These plans are countered by the assertion
that new laws have to be expected at the nano level, which emerge from
the fact that this field lies between the atomic and subatomic quantum
phenomena on the one hand, and the continuous phenomena of systems with
large numbers of atoms on the other. Because of the intermediary
position of the nanoscale, it is also called ‘mesoworld’. In this
world, not only known quantum phenomena appear (e.g. the
uncertainty principle or the tunnel effect), but also the known
phenomena of continuum physics (e.g. heat flow). There are even
some new regularities that emerge, like the quantization of electrical
and thermal conductance. The quantization of electrical conductance has
already turned out to be a fundamental feature of the smallest
structures of conductors. The quantum nature of heat flow was first
observed in 2000 in narrow silicon nitride bridges, constituting a
fundamental lower limit of this flow in minute objects that can conduct
heat (Roukes 2001a, 2001b).
These phenomena restrict technology’s ability
to maneuver on the nanoscale (Fogelberg & Glimell 2003, p. 18. The
question whether a quantized current flow is technologically utilizable
remains problematic; the quantum nature of heat flow could hinder the
necessary cooling of electronic and mechanical nano building
components. Roukes comments on the novel regularities discovered in the
mesoworld as follows: "The nanoworld is often portrayed by novelists,
futurists and the popular press as a place of infinite possibilities.
But this domain is not some ultra miniature version of the Wild West. Not
everything goes there; there are laws" (Roukes 2001a, p. 26).
Corresponding to the tension between nature as
the lawful constitution of reality and nanotechnology, there is a
conflict between scientists’ interest in knowledge and engineers’
interest in applications. Roukes represents the scientific position,
stating that understanding laws is a precondition for technological
applications: "Much exotic territory awaits exploration. As we delve
into it, we will uncover a panoply of phenomena that we must understand
before practical nanotechnology will become possible" (Roukes 2001a, p.
21). Engineering technology, in contrast, is less interested in the
clarification of lawful coherence than in its utilization for
technological purposes. P. Chaudhari of IBM Watson Research expresses
this position by stating the following: "The engineers were not so much
concerned with understanding the laws of nature but rather in using
them to build something useful for mankind" (Chaudhari 2001, p. 78).
5. The relationship between living nature and nanotechnology
Up to the present, living nature has been
considered the epitome of that which is not human-made. As much as the
organic structures of living beings have been changed through human
intervention, human beings have not yet succeeded in producing life
itself. Life processes occur in dimensions that are so complex and
minute as to be only conditionally accessible. At this level,
nanotechnology promises to open up new opportunities. It is among the
disciplines that develop means to create life artificially – be it as a
reconstruction of existing forms of life or as a construction of a
differently designed artificial form of life.
Against this background, it is striking that
not only current nanotechnological research but also the most boldly
futuristic visions of nanotechnology are confined to non-living
constructions. Correspondingly, artificial life is mentioned neither in
Eric Drexler’s futurist books (Drexler 1986, Drexler et al.
1991) nor in connection with nanotechnology in the optimistic report Converging
Technologies for Improving Human Performance (Roco & Bainbridge
In my view, the restriction of nanotechnology
– both in current practice and in futuristic visions – to the
construction of non-living systems reflects a gap between technological
and biological objects, which also exists at the nano level. Following
Stuemper-Jansen 1994, I have compiled some of the characteristic
differences between technological and biological systems in Table 1. I
want to underscore the abilities of organisms to self-replicate and to
self-repair, which have not even begun to be realized in abiotic
technological systems. Moreover, whereas metabolic processes in living
organisms produce energy by degrading endogenous substances,
technological systems depend upon energy usually supplied from outside.
The comparatively low efficiency of technological systems makes it
necessary that they be cooled.
Eric Drexler believes that the difference
between living nature and non-living nanotechnology originates from the
fact that living nature must submit to the struggle for survival even
at the lowest level of the generation of its products. He quotes Ralph
Merkle approvingly: "It’s both uneconomical and more difficult to
design a self-replicating system that manufactures every part it needs
from naturally occurring compounds. Bacteria do this, but in the
process they have to synthesize all twenty amino acids and many other
compounds, using elaborate enzyme systems tailored specifically for the
purpose. For bacteria facing a hostile world, the ability to adapt and
respond to a changing environment is worth almost any cost, for lacking
this ability they would be wiped out" (Drexler et al. 1991).
Under the conditions of the struggle for survival, organisms have
developed an adaptability, which is normally not inherent in
technologically produced systems designed to serve human purposes. As
Merkle – referring to the example of machines – puts it: "The machines
made by human beings bear little resemblance with living systems, and
this is most likely to be true for molecular production systems. […]
Machines do not have this marvelous adaptability of living systems"
(Merkle 2001, p. 184).
Table 1: Characteristic differences
between technological and biological systems
Typical realization in technological systems
Typical realization in biological systems
- top-down (bottom-up, self-organization only in nano-
- technological methods for large amounts
- bottom-up, self-organization processes (incl.
self-replication and self-repair)
- slow growth of functional units on the molecular level, connection to
- possible only in small parts at atomic or molecular
levels or as statistical ensembles
- by means of numerous specialized systems combining in
a network on the molecular level
- generalized building set (wide range of elements and
compounds with various properties)
- flexible basic building set (few classes of
bio-materials, optimized for various functions)
- high (often in high temperature range), comparatively
low efficiency, loss through cooling
- low (highly efficient transformation chain with
chemical substrates, but therefore also with molecular by-products)
- frequently problematic
- bio-degradable products, usually unproblematic under
durability, stability, changeability
- technological solutions over a broad scale of
environmental conditions (T, p, pH, etc.)
- usually stable long-term; but, no self-repair, inflexible
- comparatively susceptible
- but: renewable, flexible, able to regenerate, natural degradation
As a property that distinguishes organic
beings from nanotechnological products, adaptability is one example of
the application of the epistemic criterion for distinguishing between
natural and artificial objects. For the time being, the lack of
adaptability of the latter attests to a human origin. Nanotechnological
development of adaptable products, e.g. the context-dependant
adaptation of a substance’s surface properties, constitutes a step
toward dissolving the difference between nature and technology.
The difference between living nature and
non-living nanotechnology has also provided the backdrop for a
controversy in the past few years, mainly between Richard E. Smalley
and Eric Drexler, regarding the future possibilities of technology on a
nanoscale. The subject of the argument has been, above all, the
question to what extent nanotechnological production will be possible
without reference to already existing biological processes. Drexler
follows Richard Feynman’s program, according to which nanotechnology is
"fundamentally mechanical, not biological" (Drexler 2003). Drexler’s
plans envision computer-programmed robots on a nanoscale, so-called
assemblers, that assemble single molecules with atomic precision in
order to produce themselves or other objects. Smalley, on the other
hand, considers such nano-scale mechanical self-replication and
production of objects to be physically impossible. According to
Smalley, moving single molecules does not suffice to produce stable
chemical compounds. In his opinion, the entire reaction scale has to be
controlled. For this purpose even the smallest robot would be too big
(Smalley 2001, Whitesides 2001, Jones 1995). Moreover, the molecules to
be moved would adhere to the arms of the robots (Smalley 2001, 2003).
Smalley concludes that "such a nanobot will never become more than a
futurist’s daydream" (Smalley 2001).
Smalley’s arguments illustrate the application
of the second criterion, which refers to natural laws. This criterion
is not conducive to distinguishing among objects, but it defines the
scope that natural laws set for potential nanotechnological object
design. In Smalley’s view, the production of nanobots contradicts
physical laws and is therefore impossible.
Smalley believes that the fabrication of
products on a nanoscale would require "something very much like an
enzyme". "Any such system will need a liquid medium. For the enzymes we
know about, that liquid will have to be water, and the types of things
that can be synthesized with water around cannot be much broader than
the meat and bone of biology" (Smalley 2003). According to Smalley, the
limits posed by natural laws compel nanotechnology to orient itself
toward the model of existing biological systems. George M. Whitesides
sees a larger scope for nanotechnology. He, too, assumes that there is
presently a difference between biological and nanotechnological
systems, and considers the realization of Drexler’s assembler vision
impossible. In his view, only two possibilities remain for the
production of nanomachines. "The first is to take existing nanomachines
– those present in the cell – and learn from them. […] The second is to
start from scratch and independently to develop fundamental new types
of nanosystems. […] It will be a marvelous challenge to see if we can
outdesign evolution. It would be a staggering accomplishment to mimic
the simplest living cell" (Whitesides 2001). However, since this
approach is much more difficult than the first one, he considers it
unlikely to be implemented. Therefore, it also seems reasonable to him
for nanotechnology to assume the model of existing biotic nature.
The controversy among Drexler, Smalley, and
Whiteside illustrates two positions with respect to the divergent
directions in which nanotechnology may be developed in the future:
Nanotechnology could develop independently or follow the model of
nature. The first way would mean the creation of an increasingly
artificial world apart from nature; the second a new dimension of
connection between technology and nature. Both scenarios would clearly
be distinct from the traditional relationship between macroscopic
technology and nature. The latter is characterized by the fact that
while it admits of a distinction between technology and nature, it also
interrelates the two. In the future, either the element of
interrelation, with increasing artificiality, or that of
distinguishability, with the establishment of a new dimension of
connection between nanotechnology and nature, may become less relevant.
I have defined nanotechnology as a human
affair. The human origin of nanotechnological methods clearly
distinguishes them from nature insofar as nature is not produced by
human action. But this distinction does not necessarily apply to the
relationship between nanotechnological and natural objects.
Nanotechnological objects are designed to serve human purposes.
Nanotechnologically produced substances, which are appropriate as
industrial materials, are just as unlikely to be found in nature as
nanoelectrical switches and nanomechanical gears. On the other hand,
nanotechnology offers unique ways of using natural processes and
re-building natural objects, or of substituting equivalent
alternatives. Large molecules can be assembled from naturally occurring
atoms in such a way that they become indistinguishable from molecules
of natural origin. Since both of these aspects presently play a role in
the relationship between nanotechnology and nature, this relationship
cannot be characterized uniformly.
The multifariousness of the relationship
between nanotechnology and nature, however, does not prevent the
application of uniform criteria for characterizing it. In order to show
this, I considered a conception of nature that is common among
nanotechnologists. This notion conceives of nature as that which is not
made by human action. I distinguished two senses of this concept. While
the narrow sense refers to objects that do not originate in human
action, the broad sense describes the empirical content of laws of
nature, which is not at humans’ disposal.
Building upon the narrow sense, I proposed an
epistemic criterion according to which an object is natural if it is
impossible – using all available scientific methods at a given time –
to ascertain that it was produced by human action. This criterion makes
it possible to distinguish – analogously to the Turing-test of
artificial intelligence – between natural and artificial components of
most nanotechnological processes and products. Given the
multifariousness of the relationship between nanotechnology and nature,
there are cases where it becomes problematic to distinguish between the
two. I assume, however, that these cases are exceptions.
Nanotechnological objects are mostly hybrids of nature and art; only in
a few cases would they be said to be wholly natural because their
artificial origin could no longer be confirmed.
The broad sense of the concept of nature led
to a criterion for the scope of current and future nanotechnology.
Whatever the future development of the relationship between
nanotechnology and nature might be, nanotechnology will be subject to a
reality that is structured by the laws of nature. The empirical content
of laws refers to that which precedes human action. Nature in this
sense is already relevant for nanotechnology, because present
developmental prospects depend on the still poorly researched laws of
the mesoscale between quantized and continuous phenomena. It is
possible that a more precise determination of these laws may
considerably restrict technology on a mesoscale. Just as there are
areas in the macroscopic world that are rather unsuitable for human
life (such as mountains, icy or sandy deserts, deep seas etc.),
the mesoscale could turn out to be an area whose structures are only
conditionally useful for technological purposes.
The relationship between the two criteria can
be formulated in the following way: While the narrow sense of the
concept of nature permits the determination of variable demarcations
between natural and artificial properties in nanotechnology, the broad
sense denotes invariable properties of nature, which are preconditions
for nanotechnology. The first criterion deals with the dynamic
boundaries of the natural world, the second with the static limits
imposed by nature. The one describes what is possible within the scope
of the other.
An important example to which both criteria
can be applied is the relationship between nanotechnology and living
nature, which I discussed in the last section. Currently, life is the
part of nature most distinct from technology in general. The
possibility that nanotechnology may in the future produce artificial
life, similar to or distinct from existing living nature, cannot in
principle be ruled out. The present discussion of future possibilities
indicates that technology on a nanoscale will probably be modeled after
living nature in order to have the best possible conditions for
producing artificial products to serve human purposes.
My thanks to the two anonymous referees for
their useful comments, as well as to Katja Plaisant and John Michael
for their translation.
[…] can be oriented either to reproduce natural things or processes,
exhibiting different features, or to produce new objects or materials"
(Negrotti 2002, p. 4).
Siegel et al. 1999, p. 11-12, Stix 2001, Jopp 2004, p. 36.
philosophical discussion focuses mainly on issues of ethics, without
making a problem out of the relationship between nanotechnology and
nature. Cf. the Nano-STS Bibliography of University of South
Carolina (www.cla.sc.edu/cpecs/ nirt/bibliography.html), which
"includes scholarly publications in the history, philosophy, and
sociology of nanoscience and technology", as well as Baird et al. 2004.
One exception is Lee 1999, who grounded the distinction between the
natural and the artificial upon an ontological basis and defended it
against the nanotechnological possibility of its nearly complete
effacement. Schiemann 2004 provides a philosophical discussion of the
concept of nature, wherein he makes reference to the public
presentation of nanotechnology.
 The currently
relevant definitions of nanotechnology are discussed at length in
Schmidt et al. 2003.
means in general the technical utilization of advances in the methods
and instruments of the biological sciences. Genetechnology can be
understood as a subarea of biotechnology and molecular biology.
 The term
‘extension’ means the object class that a concept refers to,
‘intension’ means the class of features that appear in a complete
conjunctive definition of a concept. Cf. Schiemann 2005 for a
more specific definition of the extensional and intensional senses of
the concept of nature.
the definition of ‘nature’ as that which is not produded by humans
first became significant in the 19th century. Mill 1874 was
particularly influential. For a more recent formulation, see Passmore
 The extension
of the term ‘nature’ in the narrow sense can be defined either
intensionally by the property of not being produced by human action, or
extensionally by listing the objects to which it refers. In its broad
sense, it can be defined only intensionally by the empirical content of
the laws of nature, which refer to reality in its entirety (the
extension in the broad sense).
Turing-test investigates the ability of computers to imitate human
intelligence: a person interviews two invisible objects, one of which
is a human being, the other a computer. The person is to determine
whether there are specific differences in the respective answers.
criterion must be supplemented to make sure that synthetic molecules
produced on earth would not cease to be considered artificial in the
unlikely event that they were found to exist extra-terrestrially.
 Wevers and
Wechsler 2002, p. 11.
Aristotle, for instance, certain parts of a sick human body take on
natural status the moment they are healed. According to Aristotle,
medical treatment of diseases is actually technological. Physicians are
technicians, who produce artificial states in the body that lead to
health and thus back to nature (cf. Schiemann 2005).
 The relation
of the broad sense of the concept of nature to the narrow sense, which
is only defined negatively by reference to human action (cf.
Section 3) is of tensional character inasmuch as the lawful structure
of nature can be understood as a positive (scientific) characterization
of nature. Laws, however, can always be formulated in negation (cf.
Popper 1935, p. 39), in which case nature emerges as a limit to
possible human actions. One example is the theorem of energy
conservation, taken as a postulate of the impossibility of constructing
perpetual motion machines of the first kind.
 Jones 1995,
provides an additional argument, related to the concept of entropy.
 As long as
nanotechnology does not use atoms made of non-natural elementary
particles, its products will not be completely artificial.
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Philosophisches Seminar, Bergische Universität Wuppertal, D-42119
Wuppertal, Germany; firstname.lastname@example.org
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