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Topic section: Life as special and natural
Life as special and natural
The idea of ‘life’ has been important in all religions, which have invested it with an importance far beyond the realms of mere chemistry.

For Lewis, a scientific approach to life could empty it of all meaning and morality.

 The most popular writer to defend the ‘specialness’ of life is C S Lewis, the profoundly Christian author of the Narnia stories. In the 1940s and 1950s he wrote books which have
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Carved memorial to the Dutch Prince of Orange (1550) looks to heaven with realistic decomposing corpse is standing with strips of flesh hanging off it.
Credit: NMPFT/Science & Society Picture Library
 to date sold more than a hundred million copies. For Lewis, a scientific approach to life could empty it of all meaning and morality.

Lewis’s stories about Narnia and alternative science-fiction worlds were explicit attacks on the purely scientific view of life.
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This male mouse was created by genetically alterating a chromosomally female mouse embryo at the National Institute of Medical Research, London.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 He wrote stories of other planets in books such as That Hideous Strength, where the magician Merlin (familiar from the stories of King Arthur) is reborn and, with the aid of animals and good people, defeats bad scientists and wicked people. One of the evil characters in That Hideous Strength was based on the communist scientist J D Bernal.

Lewis was a close friend of J R R Tolkien, who was also a religious Oxford don. Even today, Tolkien’s evocation of the wickedness of industrialised and soulless Mordor and the wonder of the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings makes his book one of the best selling ever – around fifty million copies to date.

Belief in the specialness of nature was to be found not just in the work of novelists.
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Biologists exploring the nature of life in the years were aware they were entering areas as threatening to general culture as atomic research had been.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 Britain’s Soil Association was founded in 1946, the same year as That Hideous Strength was published. This leading organisation is now seen as one branch of the Green movement, but was originally aligned with conservative groups. It grew out of a vision of natural agriculture in which the use of artificial chemicals to enrich the soil was shunned in favour of compost.

In the European Union, strict control of biotechnology has been promoted by an alliance of conservative Catholic groups – concerned mostly with abortion rights – and liberal Green groups concerned with industry’s exploitation of nature. In the US, radicals such as Jeremy Rifkin opposed the introduction of biotechnology.

Despite the changing political landscape, the language of ‘life’, of the ‘natural’ and of diversity has changed little.

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Topic section: Cloning and Genetic Modification
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Differences over the nature of life were particularly vigorous at the time of the decoding of DNA in 1953. The arguments of that time have had their legacy in contemporary standoffs over genetic modification and cloning.  > more

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Topic section: Biotechnology
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Biotechnology to make money out of life has caused heated argument since the 1970s. Cloning for money has given us the greatest ethical quandaries, as it is seen to challenge the specialness of the individual.  > more
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