What is natural and what is artificial in the era of the Anthropocene? This is the core question addressed by Kent Redford and William Adams’ book, Strange Natures. The book builds on the two authors’ long-standing work in conservation, in both research and practice, and reads like a well-wrought combination of an assessment report of the status of synthetic biology in conservation practice today and a powerful deep dive into the changing nature of nature in the Anthropocene. While the figures and facts about this new geologic era are not easy to summarize in one sentence (as testified by the numerous and long-standing debates around the concept), humans have altered the nature of this planet. With virtually no area untouched by human impact, the distinction between nature and culture is increasingly hard to uphold. After decades of debates and discussions, this position has now become commonplace in the more theoretically oriented humanities and social sciences, backed up by mounting hard evidence from Earth systems science. For readers less oriented to the internal debates of conservation research and practice, this book offers an intriguing hands-on example of what it can mean that distinctions between human culture and nature are blurred.

Genetic modification for agricultural purposes has been much debated by environmentalists, who have raised concerns about its impacts on both human health and ecosystems. The notion of gene editing as a conservation tool faces a steep uphill road in convincing both the public and conservationists of its usefulness. Redford and Adams patiently guide the reader through the many perspectives that have permeated the discussions on synthetic biology in the last decade. During that same time, the technology for gene editing and advances in synthetic biology have exploded and offer hitherto unimaginable possibilities, such as the prospect of bringing extinct species back to life. While the ethical, moral, and philosophical problem of genetic alteration is now old, the situation today is new. The speed of technological development is also matched by the speed of biodiversity loss in our age of mass extinction. Conservationists need to consider the complex situation in which humans are driving accelerating global environmental change that threatens to deteriorate the life conditions of many species, while also possessing the technical capabilities to change the genomes of these species to help them survive this rapid change that evolution can’t keep up with. If conservation is about saving biodiversity from negative human impacts, it would be strange if the technology that could do that more efficiently than any other technique would be discarded without serious consideration.

While the balance of the many perspectives on the risks and possibilities of synthetic biology is generally a strength of the book, it can at times lead to an almost catalog-like account of potential positions on this complex issue. The authors’ views are most clearly expressed in the last chapter, which convincingly makes the case for gene editing. While this delay in making the argument could be considered a weakness in terms of reader friendliness (particularly for those looking for quick answers), it also rewards the slow and thoughtful reading from beginning to end that the subject demands.

In scrutinizing the underlying assumptions of those who oppose the use of synthetic biology for conservation purposes, Redford and Adams show that, in many cases, an outdated and impossible notion of a pure nature safeguarded from humans has been the guiding principle. The authors are clear that the risks of using synthetic biology should not be downplayed but that cautious development of this technology may be necessary for conservation practice to work well in the Anthropocene. Uncertainty about technology lies behind the emergence of environmentalism as a global movement in the twentieth century, and notions of a pure nature have followed human culture ever since the notion of the garden of Eden. But as scholars of historical ecology have made clear, the large-scale human alteration of ecosystems like the Amazon go back several millennia. As Redford and Adams contend, “wilderness is a cultural concept. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence documenting the depth and extent of human impact on nature, the notion of a pure and untouched nature waiting to be protected retains a powerful draw” (199–200).

This book convincingly shows that, instead of the notion of a nature separate from culture with static environments in need of conservation of an original pure state, a dynamic concept of a long human–nature relationship may be both more accurate and also the best way to safeguard a nature with a tremendously rich biodiversity that is essential to evolution and life on this planet. It is impressive how the book manages to be so rich in perspectives on such a complex and controversial phenomenon, yet so cautiously and open-mindedly written that it invites contemplation and reflection rather than hasty conclusions. Against this background, the book ends by proposing that, instead of seeing gene editing as another way of subjecting nature to human needs, it could be better understood in conservationist terms as a way to support and assist evolution to sustain genetic diversity and enable nonhuman life to evolve as independently of human influence as possible.